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Interesting Facts & Statistics of Britain in WWI

World War I began after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on his visit to Sarajevo. He was killed by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. This set off a chain of events, with Austria-Hungary blaming the Serbian government for the attack, and eventually, with the backing of Germany, declaring war on Serbia on the 28th July 1914. And so began “the war to end all wars” also known as “The Great War” involving over 30 nations declaring war and 70 million military personnel being mobilised. By the end of it, over 21 million people will have died.

Here we look at some of the facts of the war, with an obvious focus on Britain and the British troops. I hope you find it interesting and learn things you perhaps didn’t know about Britain and World War One.

Please share the list, and feel free to use the comment sections below if you have anything to add.

#1 Britain’s successful recruitment for WWI

At the start of World War I, Britain had a very small army of around 700,000, with just 250,000 of those being regular soldiers, the rest being made up of reservists and terratorials, and although known as some of the best trained soldiers in Europe, at the time they had mainly been used for policing Britain's expansive empire. However, when War was declared on Germany in 1914, Britain, knowing it needed to raise a much bigger army, and quickly, began one of the most successful recruitment drives in the history of warfare, with Lord Kitchener (Britain's Secretary of State for War) becoming the face of recruitment in Britain's very famous poster campaign containing Lord Kitchener himself, pointing towards the viewer, with the words "BRITON WANTS YOU" or alternate versions such as "YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU"

By the end of the war, over 54 million posters had been issued, and over 8 million letters sent out, and thousands of speeches were given by military spokesmen. 

Another highly successful method of recruitment was the introduction of the PALS Battalions, where family, friends, and work colleagues could all join together, remaining together throughout training and eventually fighting side-by-side on the frontlines. 

With the success of these recruitment methods the British Army grew at an astonishing rate, and by the end of 1914, over 1,000,000 men had been recruited to join the war, with sometimes as many as 33,000 a day signing up. By December 1915 around 2,500,000 men had volunteered to fight for Britain.

By the end of the war in 1918, around 8.7 million troops had served with the British Army. This consisted of around 5 million troops from Britain itself, and the rest from around the British Empire, which included many troops from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

#2 Britain’s Pals Battalions

The "Pals Battalions" were created in Britain as a way of generating mass recruitment of new soldiers to fight at the front over in France. It was thought that if men knew they were going to fight alongside friends and colleagues, they would be more inclined to sign up.

The first Pals Battalion was the "Stockbrokers' Battalion" who were raised from the city of London to set an example, and these were soon followed by the formations of 100's more Pals Battalions all around the UK, often named by location, such as the Leeds Pals, Bradford Pals, the Grimsby Chums (formed by former schoolboys of Wintringham Secondary School) and many others. Some battalions were formed by complete football teams, including their reserve team, staff members and supporters. Another was formed by the North Eastern Railway.

These battalion formations were a great success for recruitment, and families back home were more happy too knowing that their loved ones were in the company of friends, and they would look out for one another, however, many of these Pals battalions suffered devastating loses, and it was soon realised that this had devastating effects back home too, when so many from the same work place or same community were all wiped out together, such as the 1st and 2nd Bradford Pals, who out of a total of 2,000 men, suffered 1,770 casualties in the first hour of the Somme offensive.

The Accrington Pals were almost wiped out too, with 720 men sent into the battle, and 584 of them being killed or injured.

Eventually, because of this, recruiting in this way was phased out, and although the Pals battalions continued, numbers were replaced by drafts from more diverse areas of the UK. 

#3 Lord Kitchener’s Magic poster – Try it yourself!

The famous poster of Lord Kitchener pointing with the words WANTS YOU, or YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU is one of the most famous recruitment posters in history, and remains one of the most iconic images of World War One.

Part of its effectiveness was later credited to its 'differential rotation effect' whereby Kitchener's eyes and pointing hand appear to follow the viewer and point directly at them, so even people not face-on with the poster (so stood to the left or right of it) would still see him looking and pointing directly at them. Try it yourself by moving left and right whilst looking at the Lord Kitchener poster above, and watch how he seems to follow you!      

#4 Order of the White Feather

The Order of the White Feather was another way of making sure every last man did his bit for King and Country. It was a group of women who would give out white feathers to any man they came across that was not in uniform, as a way of shaming them into enlisting, as the white feather was a symbol of cowardice. 

The order was founded by Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald in 1914, and supported by Lord Kitchener who said how the women could play a great part by influencing their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country's defence.

Unfortunately these feathers were sometimes given out to people who had good reason not to be fighting, such as men at home looking after sick wives, boys too young to enlist, people with handicaps such as short-sightedness, many of which were shamed into joining up and fighting, some never to return. Soldiers on leave and in their civilian clothes were sometimes given them too, and in one case a man who had the very same day received his Victoria Cross medal from Buckingham Palace was handed a white feather.

#5 Britain’s young soldiers of World War One

The average age of the British soldier who fought in world war one was around 28 years old, with a conscription age between 18 and 41 (later raised to 51). However, it is believed that as many as 250,000 boys under the age of 18 served in the British Army during World War One, and the youngest of these is believed to have been a boy named Sidney Lewis (pictured) who enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment in August 1915 at the age of 12. By the age of 13 he was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest battles in human history, with one million killed or wounded.

Lewis was eventually sent home after his worried mother sent his birth certificate to the War Office and demanded they return her son, which they did. He was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. By 1918 he had re-enlisted, serving with the army of occupation in Austria. He later also served in World War II as bomb disposal. Lewis spent much of his life, including between both world wars, serving as a police constable, before later running the George Hotel, in Frant, East Sussex.

Sidney Lewis died in 1969, at the age of 66.

#6 Britain invents the tank

To combat trench warfare and the stalemate it often caused, the British knew they needed to design something that could cross the muddy uneven ground of the killing zone between trenches, and break through the enemies lines of defences such as barbed wire and machine gun nests. What they came up with was a weaponised armoured vehicle on tracks, called a tank, and the first ever prototype was named 'Little Willie'.

Little Willie can still be seen today at the Tank Museum in Dorset, and is the worlds oldest surviving individual tank. Although Little Willie never actually saw combat, it was the first tank prototype to be finished, and was the predecessor to the British Mark I Tank - the first ever tank to be used in a theatre of war, when in September 1916,  49 tanks were shipped to the Somme for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Unfortunately reliability was an issue, and out of the 49 tanks, only 32 made the first attack, and out of those only 9 made it across no mans land to the German trenches.

- Little Willie was a name commonly used to mock the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm.

- Winston Churchill championed the development of the tank, after establishing the Landships Committee in early 1915 to develop an armoured vehicle for use at the frontlines.

- The first tanks on the battlefield could only travel at walking speed.

- The British Mark I carried a crew of 8, 4 of which handled the steering and gears.

- To keep the new armoured machine a secret, the word 'tanks' was used, to make the enemy think they were simply water tanks being shipped to the front. That is where they got their name from, although in the early days of WW1 they were also called 'Willies' and also 'Buses'.

#7 British Develop Sonar

During WWI, German submarines (U-boats) were a real menace, sinking thousands of Allied merchant ships and seriously damaging supply lines. In 1917, two Canadian physicists by the names of Robert William Boyle and Albert B. Wood who were working under the British Board of Invention and Research, developed an apparatus for underwater echo ranging using ultrasound, which was known as ASDIC, and was the world's first practical underwater active sound detection apparatus. It was developed for the British Navy's Anti-Submarine Division, under a shroud of secrecy. 

This technology evolved into sonar which proved vital in WW2, and the same technology would also eventually by used in the development of medical ultrasound imaging.

#8 The world’s very first Blood Banks

Born in Woolwich, England, Oswald Hope Robertson was a physician volunteer in the United States Army after moving to the USA as a child. When war broke out, Robertson went over to France to work with the British Army on mastering blood transfusions. It was during this period in 1917 that Robertson experimented with blood preservation techniques and soon developed the world's very first blood bank. Robertson and his team were then able to collect blood from donors, and store it for short periods for use on the wounded soldiers from the frontline.

#9 Modern Plastic Surgery was born in Britain during WW1

Due to the incredible volume of shells fired during WWI (over 1.5 billion shells on the Western Front) the amount of horrific and disfiguring injuries was also seen on an unprecedented scale, as soldiers lost limbs and suffered terrible injuries to their faces, some having large parts of their face blown off as the shells exploded around them. Another cause for facial injuries was men having to peer over parapets from inside the trenches, exposing their faces to rifle fire and the explosions. Burning shrapnel from an exploding shell, if it didn't kill, would all too often cause horrific and life-changing injuries that were difficult to treat, with surgeons sometimes simply sewing the torn flesh together, without taking into account the missing flesh that had been ripped off by the flying shrapnel, leaving soldiers severely disfigured. 

However, in 1915, Harold Gillies, a surgeon who was born in New Zealand and had trained in England, was posted to France where he witnessed these horrifying injuries for himself, and so when he returned to England, he set up a special ward for facial wounds at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. By 1916 he had a whole new hospital dedicated to facial injuries with over 1,000 beds, The Queen's Hospital in Sidcup, the world's first hospital dedicated to facial injuries. It was here that Gillies and his colleagues developed new techniques in plastic surgery and more than 11,000 operations were performed, helping thousands of men live a better more normal life.

#10 The Trench Coat

The invention of the Trench Coat is claimed by two British clothing companies - Burberry, the fashion house in London who invented gabardine fabric in 1879, and a company called Aquascutum, who claimed to have invented their own waterproof and breathable fabric back in the 1850's. 

In 1901 Burberry submitted a design for an Army officer's coat to the UK War Office, which was accepted, however it wasn't until the First World War that a modified version of the coat came out, designed to have shoulder straps for insignia, and D-rings which were used for attaching equipment such as map cases and swords. This coat then became known as the Trench Coat and over 100 years on is still almost identical in design to the Trench Coat worn by Officers in the trenches of World War One.  

#11 The Battle of the Somme – The worst day in British military history

The Battle of the Somme was an Allied offensive against the German forces on the Western Front, and took place between 1st July and 18th November 2016, on both sides of the river Somme in Northern France.

On the first day of the battle, the British Army suffered terrible loses, with 57,470 casualties, and 19,240 killed, making it the worst day in British military history.

By the end of it in November 1916, more than 3 million men had fought in the Battle of the Somme, with 1 million men wounded or killed, making it one of the deadliest battles in human history. Three times as many British forces died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme than have been killed in every combat operation since the end of WWII.

#12 Britain’s Lost Generation

During the first world war, Officers were usually men chosen from the top public schools around England, being well educated and having a higher social status than those men below them in the ranks. However, although coming from a somewhat more privileged background, they were as brave as any of the men under them, and often led from the front, on many occassions being the first man "over the top" as they led by example, climbing out of the trenches and facing the enemy across no mans land, leading the lines on an advance. This put officers at a much greater risk than the average soldier, and casualties amongst them was extremely high, leading to what is often referred to as "The Lost Generation" as these men were seen as the country's future elite, such as the next generation of politicians and philosophers, writers and poets, yet thousands of them never came home.

#13 WWI British Deaths & Casualty Statistics

The number of British soldiers that died in the first world war is 885,000. Over double that of the second world war where a total of 384,000 British soldiers perished.

The first world war British deaths accounted for 6% of the adult male population, and 12.5% of the serving population. 

British Military wounded in WWI was over 1.6 million

Other countries suffered even more, with Russia having the most casualties with 9,150,000. Germany had the most deaths of the first world war with over 1.7 million killed.  

#14 Thankful Villages

Thankful Villages are the villages around England and Wales that had all their men return home to them from the First World War. It is thought there are 53 of these thankful parishes in England and Wales where all the men returned. This is out of the tens of thousands of villages and towns up and down the UK. No Thankful Villages have been identified in Scotland or Ireland.

Included in the 53 are 14 places known as doubly thankful villages, where all the men returned, not just from the First World War, but also from the Second World War as well.


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