World War 1 Memorial Trail – Warwickshire at War

A short historical piece describing what Warwickshire was like to live in just before and during World War 1, written by Professor Pierre Purseigle of Warwick University.

Warwickshire in 1914

The experience of the twentieth century in Warwickshire was one of transformations, marked not only by the experience of two world wars, but by a series of profound socio-economic transformations. Those changes culminated in the redrawing of the county’s boundaries in 1974, when Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull and a few rural areas joined the Black Country to form the West Midlands. By the outbreak of the First World War, urbanization and industrialization had of course already altered the social structures and even the landscape of the county.

The people of Warwickshire experienced the war very differently depending on their gender, age, class, occupation, or family situation. It is therefore important to consider the structure of the local society to apprehend the impact of the war on the county.

The dynamism of the local economy, driven in no small part by Coventry and Birmingham, explains the growth of the county’s population in the first decade of the century. Indeed, these ten years say a notable acceleration of the population’s growth, as the country gained over 20,000 new inhabitants. Interestingly, for those of us interested in the Great War, the county also aged relatively, as the proportion of children under 14 diminished while the number of adolescents and adults grew. This of course meant that the number of men liable for military service between 1914 and 1918 grew as well, while a greater number of local men and women could also contribute to the mobilization of the home front.

In keeping with national trends, the share of agriculture in the local economy continued to decline steadily up until and after the war. By contrast, mining and manufacturing stood out as the two most dynamic sectors of the economy.

While men from all classes and sectors of the economy enlisted in 1914, historians of the Great War have demonstrated that the propensity to enlist varied per occupation. Twice as many professionals and service employees as manual workers joined the army. Yet the success of recruitment campaign within mining communities and more generally among skilled workers is significant. It indicates that, while men often had diverse reasons to enlist, professional insecurity or the threat of unemployment, was not necessarily a critical factor. Understood as a defensive conflict, forced upon Britain by German aggression, the war prompted the mobilization of patriots of all hues.

War Enthusiasm in Britain

When war broke out in August 1914, large crowds took to the streets of London, Paris, Berlin and many other towns and cities across Europe. For long, these demonstrations were considered evidence of the ‘war enthusiasm’, which apparently gripped Britain and other belligerent nations in the first weeks of the First World War.

However, away from the boulevards and avenues of capital cities where boisterous male students heartily sang patriotic songs, the atmosphere was very different: sombre, anxious, and resigned. If small minorities openly welcomed the outbreak of the war, fewer still were those willing and prepared to oppose it.

To many though, this was “no ordinary war, but a struggle between nations for life and death (Winston Churchill).” Understood in Britain and elsewhere as a defensive conflict, the war had to be fought and won; not on account of some abstract ideal of the Nation, but to protect one’s home, family, and community. This patriotic resignation was the foundation of Britain’s commitment to the war.

Impressive enough, the response to Kitchener’s call for volunteers demonstrated that British men were hardly enthusiastic about the conflict. Indeed, voluntary enrolment peaked in the first week of September 1914, when the country was contemplating its first defeats on the Western Front, not in the allegedly heady days of August.

As Britain mobilized her armed forces and volunteers joined up, the country adapted to the new conditions created by the conflict. While the initial economic shock created by the declaration of war did not degenerate in a fully-blown crisis, businesses and public services soon had to adjust to the mobilization of volunteers and to the disruption of local, national and global trade.

By 1915, the demands that industrial warfare placed on the British economy were obvious. Each sector of the economy, each social group was expected to downgrade its priorities in favour of the successful prosecution of the war. Winning the war became the overriding objective for a society mobilized to an unprecedented degree. Warwickshire, like every other British county and region, took its place on a ‘home front’, where women as well as men, the young as well as the elderly, were all expected and sometimes compelled to support the Empire and its armed forces.

In 1914, across Warwickshire and the country as a whole, local communities mobilized in defence of the nation under threat. While there is precious little evidence of the so-called ‘war enthusiasm’, there is no doubting the strength of the patriotic commitment of most British people. For sure, the war did not solve any of the serious social or political questions that animated the country in the early twentieth century. The wartime mobilization was often contested, as social groups insisted on the fair distribution of sacrifice. But for almost five long years, the British home front held up to see the conflict through its successful conclusion.

The British Army in WWI, including Regimental System

In 1914, Britain owed its enviable strategic position to its Empire and to the Navy that secured both the coasts of the British Isles and access to its colonial possession. With about 600 warships, Britain was the unchallenged master of the seas. By European standards however, Britain’s land forces were comparatively puny. 250,000 men formed an army that was effectively a colonial police force, whose main task was to maintain order across the Empire. Once fully mobilized, the British army was not expected to muster more than 750,000. By contrast, the French army would call up 3.5 million men and 1.8 million would join combat units immediately.

A volunteer army of 150,000 highly-trained men led by a small officer corps, the British Expeditionary Force was forced to grow rapidly to meet the demands of industrial warfare and underwent a dramatic transformation as a result. The first few months of the war exacted a terrible toll, as the BEF suffered about 90,000 casualties. Beyond the number, the British army lost many experienced and highly-trained soldiers whose skills could not be easily replaced.

Expanding tenfold to form sixty infantry divisions by 1917, the British army was first reinforced by volunteers who answered Lord Kitchener’s call to arms in August 1914. Many of these volunteers joined the so-called ‘Pals’ battalions’, units raised locally and reflecting the diversity of British civil society. In keeping with the regimental system that underpinned the armed forces, these battalions allowed soldiers to join and fight alongside other local men and soldiers with whom they shared professional or class affiliations. Although military recruitment was also organized on a regional basis in France and Germany, the specificities of the British regimental system stood out throughout the war. In part, it contributed to and reinforced the mobilization of local communities anxious to support their men at the front.

By December 1915, 2.5 million men had volunteered to fight for King and Country. In addition, British men were joined in the defence of the Empire by the Indian army, as well as by Canadians and Newfoundlanders, Australian, South African, and New Zealand troops.

Yet the demands of the war on the European continent seem insatiable. The respective demands of the armed forces and of the mobilized economy placed the defence of the country under severe strains.

Soon, volunteering proved unable to deliver the unprecedented number of men need at the front; it was also a poor way to allocate manpower effectively across the nation at arms, both on the front line and at home. Conscription, for long an object of fierce controversy in Britain, was eventually introduced in January 1916.

‘National service’ allowed for the enlistment of all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 45. In addition to providing most needed manpower, conscription enabled the state to control its allocation to meet the respective needs of the armies and of the war industry. This remained a challenge throughout the conflict. Indeed, very soon after his elevation to Prime Minister, Lloyd George created a Department of National Service (January 2017) to deal with this very issue. The net of conscription was subsequently cast wider to include all men between 18 and 51 in April 1918. By the end of the war, however, the British Army remained dependent on Dominion and colonial troops.

While it remains impossible to account precisely for the number of British dead in the Great War, the official figure stands just over 700,000 with almost 680,000 dead or missing on the Western Front of France and Flanders.

The Somme

The Battle of Somme, launched in the summer of 1916, is now considered to be the quintessential British battle of the First World War. Its outsized significance in British cultural history and the popular memory of the war has long obscured its defining features. Far from an exclusively British fight and unmitigated disaster, this was a coalition battle, an Anglo-French operation, whose bloody and costly experience played a critical role in the tactical and operational evolution of the British army.

For long, the first day of the battle on 1 July 1916, its 19,000 dead and 38,000 wounded soldiers encapsulated the folly of a war where negligible territorial gains could only be obtained at terrible human costs.

The battle was part of a coordinated allied offensive on the positions of the central powers, elaborated at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915. The Somme was the first major battle in which the new armies of the King, recently entrained and therefore poorly prepared, faced the full force of their opponents. As a result of an unprecedented mass mobilization, it was also the first major battle in which most British counties, including Warwickshire, had a direct connection through the presence of local soldiers.

In some cases, the local impact of the battle was concentrated with devastating effect. The Pals Battalion raised in Accrington suffered almost 600 casualties out of 720 men.

While British memory emphasizes the terrible cost of the battle’s first day, it generally overlooks the fact that it was fought within a larger allied coalition. To the south of the British sector, the French armies had some success, deploying the type of tactics and inter-arm cooperation that will soon spread throughout the allied forces. Indeed, the Somme exemplified what British military historians called the ‘learning curve’, this contested and difficult process whereby the British armies learnt from their costly mistakes and gradually found solutions to the tactical challenges raised by combat on the Western Front.

By September 1916, the BEF and the French armies on the Somme combined concentrated artillery fire, new tactics and new weapons (including the tank famously and inconclusively at first) to achieve some of its original objectives including Thiepval Ridge.

Far from being the much-hoped for decisive victory, the Battle of Somme should nonetheless be seen as an important strategic success that helped convince allied commanders they had finally found an answer to the tactical challenges of the Western Front. The cost borne by the German armies was such that the battle reinforced the growing conviction that the Central Powers would not be able to defeat the Entente.

Today, the understandable focus on the tragic first day of the battle still obscures its real significance not only for Britain, but for her allies, and the eventual outcome of the war.


The men of Harbury fought a truly global war that took many of them to far-flung corners of Europe and the world. In the trenches of the Western Front, on a warship off the coast of Chile, or on camel-back in Mesopotamia, they experienced the war in a multitude of ways and contexts. They did so of course as imperial soldiers, sent out to protect British interests.

The First World War was indeed a clash of empires: France, Britain, Russia, Belgium (and to a lesser extent Italy and Portugal) faced the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. Colonial possessions soon emerged as both resources and potential prizes in this fight. The position of the British empire was critical, as Britain’s held sway over major trade routes and vast territories around the globe. When the Ottoman Empire entered the fray at the end of October 1914, it did so to counter Russia in the north. Yet, its middle-eastern possessions also made it vulnerable to allied attacks in the south-west.

Thus the war came to Mesopotamia where a few Harbury men saw combat. Britain mobilized hundreds of thousands of men from India, the Dominions, and Britain to protect the Suez Canal and its trade routes to India. 300,000 labourers also worked in support of the British effort. Overall, three million imperial soldiers fought against the Ottoman Empire.

Then as now, Mesopotamia was an oil-rich region who promised access to most-needed energy. The modernized Royal Navy was indeed a large consumer of oil to power its battleships engaged across the oceans. Initial military successes, like the victory at Basra in November 1914, thus secured access to oil fields. Later victory, and particularly the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, had a great positive impact back on the home front. Yet, the British campaign in the Middle-East also brought dramatic defeats and humiliation as the battle of Kut-el-Amara in 1916. Like on the European battlefields, war in Mesopotamia required careful planning and systematic logistical preparation.

Paradoxically perhaps, this clash of empires also offered opportunities to challenge the existing imperial order. The Arab populations resented Ottoman domination, so cooperation with Britain seemed to promise emancipation from foreign rule. With the help of T. E. Lawrence, Arab leaders like Hussein bin Ali and his son Faisal set out to exploit British support to undermine and end Ottoman presence. Despite the eventual defeat of the Ottoman Empire in October 1918, the peace negotiations proved disappointing for them as Great Britain reasserted its imperial interests. Along with France, it carved out an expanded sphere of influence in the region. The volatile geopolitical compound that is today’s Middle-East is, in no small part, a direct consequence of the Great War.

Warwickshire in the Inter-War Period

100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, it remains impossible to give a precise number of war dead. Warwickshire lost over 2,000 men and their loss was felt and mourned widely across the county. Few communities had been spared and the difficult process of demobilization started soon after the Armistice of 1918. The impact of war was of course deeply personal, but it was also reflected in the county’s social structure.

Limited, the demographic impact of the conflict is difficult to assess with precision. The war clearly slowed demographic growth, but the conflict had a paradoxical effect on the living standards and the health of the county’s population.

Despite wartime inflation, the all-out mobilization of the British economy had a positive impact on the income of skilled and industrial workers and so did women’s move from the domestic economy to paid employment. For all the hardship brought about by the conflict, economic inequalities were reduced. Nutrition improved and life expectancy increased among both urban and rural communities.

The challenges of war also prompted the state and local authorities to address longstanding issues of public health. Campaigns aimed at improving childcare in particular had a dramatic impact on the local and national demography. Indeed, the 1921 census showed a dramatic fall in the number infant deaths in Warwickshire.