Seven million men marched off to war in August 1914

You're listening to Imperial War Museum's First World War Podcast presented by James Taylor, head of the First World War Galleries team.

James Taylor: “Seven million men marched off to war in August 1914. But massed modern weapons, particularly the new quick firing guns, took a shocking toll of human life. By the end of the year, a million soldiers lay dead. Paul Cornish is a member of the First World War Galleries team.”

Paul Cornish: “The object we've chosen to represent this shock of battle in 1914 is the French 75 millimetre field gun. This was the very first example of what is known as quick firing artillery and the French developed it in secret and launched it on the world in 1897 at which point it made all other artillery pieces completely obsolete and the reason being was it had a mechanism which returned the barrel to firing position after the gun had been fired and recoiled, and this meant that instead of having to be reaimed after every shot, as most artillery of the time did, it could fire more than 15 rounds a minute, which made it potentially devastating, especially when it was firing shrapnel shells which is the primary munition used at the time. And these were like giant shotgun cartridges, effectively, which were timed to burst over the heads of the advancing enemy and shower them with hundreds of lead balls which they contained. So, they could really fill the air with lead, and far more devastating than we usually think of machine guns as being the big killer of the First World War but no, this sort of artillery fire was far more devastating. When men, as they were in 1914, were trying to fight out in the open and not dug into trenches. We, we quote in the gallery, a German officer who wrote, “The merry, fresh war that we had all looked forward to for so many years, doesn't exist, that this is just murder of men by machines.” And that's the impact it had. All the armies had these guns France, in particular invented them and they were an absolute patriotic icon, and they were utterly convinced of the power and war-winning potential of this weapon and yet all these armies who had these guns still believed that their own men could overcome the firepower of the enemy if they showed sufficiently high morale, if they moved quickly enough, if they got decisive enough orders on the battlefield. This turned out to be a terrible mistake, and it was also made far worse in 1914 by the fact that all the armies had really ambitious plans, all the continental armies anyway, and that involved using their reservists because they didn't have enough men already serving, so they called up men who'd been in the army previously, their reservists. Now these men lacked recent training, so their officers thought they had to keep them together in bunches really, clumped together where they could hear the commands and where they could keep control of them, else they didn't expect them to fight very well. But of course, clumping men together in groups on a battlefield where the shrapnel flying about turned out make matters even worse.”

James Taylor: “Britain fielded a relatively small professional army, the British Expeditionary Force. In October and November 1914, it took part in particularly bitter fighting around the Belgian town of Ypres. We have eyewitness accounts which tell us just how terrible this experience was.”

Paul Cornish: “We’ve got a diary and a letter written by people at the time who were there in the battle and this letter in particular is written on a small scrap of card in a big hurry. In the heat of battle written on the 3rd of November 1914 by an officer called Neville Woodruff, who was in the Irish Guards. And he makes very plain to people he's writing to at home what the situation has been like saying, “The last two days have been ghastly. Germans broke through the line, all the officers in my company were lost except for myself. All in number three company and all bar one in number four. We've had no rest at all, everybody is very shaken.”

James Taylor: “The number of casualties on the battlefield was appalling enough, but the fact that civilians also became victims of war added to the shock.”

Paul Cornish: “As the Germans marched through Belgium, which they needed to do quickly in order to attack the French, they were determined that they wouldn't be stopped or hampered by any civilian resistance, because this had happened to them in their previous major war against France in 1870, where people had taken potshots at them and fought a sort of guerrilla war. So, the Germans were primed up to deal with any such sign of anything like this very harshly, however, there's no evidence that anything of that sort took place. Nevertheless, the Germans shot or otherwise killed over 5000 Belgian civilians. We've got some very striking and really disturbing images of dead Belgian civilians who were killed in a town called Andenne, which is in the Meuse valley, which is the main German invasion route in August 1914, and they were only published in Belgium after the war and they appeared to have been taken by a local photographer. So, we are showing those images because we want people to know that because we look later at the propaganda which was made out of these atrocities, some of it hugely exaggerated but I think it's important to know that it did have a basis in actual murders.”

James Taylor: “Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, Britain began to raise a huge volunteer citizens army. In one of the most amazing episodes of the war, hundreds of thousands of men rushed to the recruiting offices. Laura Clouting is a member of the First World War Galleries team.”

Laura Clouting: “The recruitment campaign kicks off literally as soon as the war begins. We don't wait to find out how the first battles begin and end, we are recruiting from the very first week of the war. And in towns and cities across Britain you have recruitment offices that appear, which are set up and they are utterly besieged by men who want to come and do their bit. Within eight weeks, you have three quarters of a million volunteers. It's a phenomenal moment in time in Britain, as men are determined that they too want to join up in this kind of war fever.”

James Taylor: “Men volunteered to join the army for many reasons. For some, the war was a chance to leave dull lives for adventure or to get a steady wage. Others enlisted out of a sense of duty or patriotism to defend their family, their homes, their country. And then there were those who joined up because they were horrified at German attacks upon civilians. The shelling of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool by German warships sparked particular outrage.”

Laura Clouting: “The German Navy shells these coastal towns in Britain in December 1914 and this is an enormous shock to people in this country. It kills 137 men, women and children in this country, and as a result that it's outrage, you know, this is used in itself as a recruiting motivator. This happens again later on with air raids when the German Army and Navy launched air raids upon this country, but the shock of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby is immense. Now as reports of atrocities come back from Belgium as the terrible casualty tolls start mounting, people look at the Germans as a kind of an enemy race. And so, you have public figures like Horatio Bottomley, he's a newspaper proprietor and a big character. He's making declarations like the Kaiser and his hellish hordes are possessed by the soul of Satan. It's that kind of commentary that you have in public life from some quarters.”

James Taylor: “It was not just men in Britain who were desperate to do their bit. Women and even children wanted to help their country in its time of need.”

Laura Clouting: “This desire for people to do their bit for their country, it's widespread and it goes beyond just men of a military age. It also extends to civilians, people that can't join the army, either people who are rejected from the army or men who have tried to join up and maybe aren't medically fit to women. So, there's a doctor, a Scottish doctor called Doctor Elsie Ingles. She offers her services to the War Office and is basically told my good lady, go home and sit still. Now she doesn't listen to that and goes off to Europe to set up her own hospitals, run by female nurses and doctors in various fighting fronts. You have a lot of plucky little youngsters coming out of the woodwork who try to join up and one of those was by a little chap called Alfie Knight and now he wrote a very kind of boring letter to the War Office directly to Lord Kitchener to ask if he could do his duty. And he says to Lord Kitchener, “I ride jolly quick on my bicycle and would go as a dispatch rider. I wouldn't let the Germans get it. I am a good shot with their revolver and would kill a good few of the Germans. I am very strong, and I often win a fight with lads twice as big as myself. I want a uniform and a revolver and will give a good account of myself. Please send an answer.” (chuckles) So, it's this real desire on the part of children to do their bit even in the Front line as what Alfie wants.”

The First World War galleries at IWM London are open now. Find out more at www.iwm.org.uk/WW1.

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, mainland Europe became a battleground. Both sides wanted to crush their enemies and end the war quickly. The horrific number of casualties caused by modern weapons came as a terrible shock. Hundreds of thousands of men across Britain and the Empire volunteered to fight.

Download this episode

A 75mm field gun taking up its firing position at the camp of instruction at Bougainville, 1 December 1916.
© IWM (Q 98157)

Listen next

British First World War period trench sign
First World War

First World War Galleries Podcast: Part III - Deadlock

By late 1914 the war on the Western Front had become deadlocked