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War and the transformation of British society c1903–28

Key Topic 1: The Liberals, votes for women and social reform

The activities of the women’s societies and the reaction of the authorities.
Children’s welfare measures, old age pensions.
Labour Exchanges 1909, the National Insurance Act 1911.

Key Topic 2: The part played by the British on the Western Front

The BEF and 1914.
Britain’s contribution to the Western Front 1915–17.
The end of the war.

Key Topic 3: The home front and social change

DORA, censorship and propaganda.
Recruitment and rationing.
The part played by women.

Key Topic 4: Economic and social change 1918–28

The changing role of women 1918–28.
Industrial unrest 1918–27.
The General Strike of 1926.

The British Expeditionary Force

The British Expeditionary Force was established by Minister for War, Richard Haldane, following the Second Boer War. The purpose of the BEF was to ensure that Britain had an army that was able to respond quickly to conflicts and that was fully trained and prepared. By August, 1914, the BEF had approximately 120,000 full time soldiers. This was supplemented by a Special Reserve consisting of members of the territorial army. In 1914 the BEF was deployed very quickly, with the first British Troops arriving on the Western Front just 3 days after the declaration of war. The remainder of the force followed quickly and were, along with the French army, able to slow and then stop the German advance into France and Belgium. The cost of halting the German advance was great though and by the end of 1914 the British Expeditionary Force was having to be supplemented by volunteers and recruits.

The BEF was commanded by Sir John French at the outbreak of war. He was replaced by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig in December 1916. Following this move the majority of soldiers deployed in the Western Front were 'Kitcheners Army' of recruits and conscripts, along with many soldiers who came from the Empire.


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  1. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had 120,000 highly trained professional soldiers at it's disposal.
  2. The BEF had deployed it's first troops in France and Belgium just 3 days after the declaration of war.
  3. From 1908, the Territorial Army had been developed to provide a strong reserve of trained soldiers. Each command also held a separate, 'Special Reserve'.
  4. By the end of the First battle of Ypres, the BEF had deployed 125,000 men in Northern France and Belgium, including members of the Territorial Army who had waived their right to only serve on the Home Front.

The BEF in action.

The BEF was sent to halt the German advance through Beligum and Northern France. The action in these early days of the war is illustrated in the flash animation, below.

Note: This animation has been sent to me by e-mail. If it is subject to copyright, and you are the copyright owner, please contact me to have it correctly attributed or removed from the site.

Source material

Source A

On 2nd August 1914, the Schlieffen Plan was put into operation when the German Army invaded Luxembourg and Belgium. However, the Germans were held up by the Belgian Army and were shocked by the Russian Army's advance into East Prussia. The Germans were also surprised by how quickly the British Expeditionary Force reached France and Belgium. John Simkin. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWschlieffenP.htm

Source B

Plan XVII called for an advance by four French Armies into Alsace-Lorraine on either side of the Metz-Thionville fortresses, occupied by the Germans since 1871. The southern wing of the invasion forces would first capture Alsace and Lorraine (in that order), whilst the northern wing would - depending upon German movements - advance into Germany via the southern Ardennes forests, or else move north-east into Luxembourg and Belgium.

The architects of Plan XVII, which included Joseph Joffre, took little account of a possible German invasion of France through Belgium until just before war was declared; and in modifying the plan to deploy troops to meet such an eventuality, actual French activity to meet an invasion via Belgium was lacklustre at best in August 1914. http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/plans.htm

Source C

The King and Queen, accompanied by the Prince of Wales and Princess Mary, were hailed with wild, enthusiastic cheers when they appeared at about eight o'clock last night on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, before which a record crowd had assembled.

Seeing the orderliness of the crowd, the police did not attempt to force the people back and went away.

A little later the police passed the word around that silence was necessary as the King was holding a meeting in the Palace, and except for a few spasmodic outbursts there was silence for a time.

Afterwards the cheering was renewed with increased vigour and soon after 11.00pm the King and Queen and Prince of Wales made a further appearance on the balcony and the crown once more sang the National Anthem, following this with hearty clapping and cheering.

The Daily Mirror's report on the outbreak of war. 4th August, 1914.

Source D

It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present, upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army.

Army Order Issued by Emperor William II, 19 August 1914

Source E

The line taken up extended along the line of the canal from Conde on the west, through Mons and Binche on the east. This line was taken up as follows:

From Conde to Mons inclusive was assigned to the Second Corps, and to the right of the Second Corps from Mons the First Corps was posted. The Fifth Cavalry Brigade was placed at Binche.

In the absence of my Third Army Corps I desired to keep the cavalry division as much as possible as a reserve to act on my outer flank, or move in support of any threatened part of the line. The forward reconnaissance was entrusted to Brig. Gen. Sir Philip Chetwode with the Fifth Cavalry Brigade, but I directed Gen. Allenby to send forward a few squadrons to assist in this work.

During the 22nd and 23rd these advanced squadrons did some excellent work, some of them penetrating as far as Soignies, and several encounters took place in which our troops showed to great advantage.

2. At 6 a.m. on August 23rd, I assembled the commanders of the First and Second Corps and cavalry division at a point close to the position and explained the general situation of the Allies, and what I understood to be Gen. Joffre's plan. I discussed with them at some length the immediate situation in front of us.

From information I received from French Headquarters I understood that little more than one, or at most two, of the enemy's army corps, with perhaps one cavalry division, were in front of my position; and I was aware of no attempted outflanking movement by the enemy. I was confirmed in this opinion by the fact that my patrols encountered no undue opposition in their reconnoitring operations. The observations of my aeroplanes seemed also to bear out this estimate.

About 3 p.m. on Sunday, the 23rd, reports began coming in to the effect that the enemy was commencing an attack on the Mons line, apparently in some strength, but that the right of the position from Mons and Bray was being particularly threatened. The commander of the First Corps had pushed his flank back to some high ground south of Bray, and the Fifth Cavalry Brigade evacuated Binche, moving slightly south; the enemy thereupon occupied Binche.

The right of the Third Division, under Gen. Hamilton, was at Mons, which formed a somewhat dangerous salient; and I directed the commander of the Second Corps to be careful not to keep the troops on this salient too long, but, if threatened seriously, to draw back the centre behind Mons. This was done before dark.

In the meantime, about 5 p.m., I received a most unexpected message from Gen. Joffre by telegraph, telling me that at least three German corps, viz., a reserve corps, the Fourth Corps and the Ninth Corps, were moving on my position in front, and that the Second Corps was engaged in a turning movement from the direction of Tournay.

Sir John French's 1st Despatch, 7-14 September 1914

Source F

The French armies on our right and left are making good progress, and I feel sure that we have only to hold on with tenacity to the ground we have won for a very short time longer when the Allies will be again in full pursuit of a beaten enemy.

The self-sacrificing devotion and splendid spirit of the British army in France will carry all before it.

J. D. P. FRENCH, Field Marshal, Commander in Chief of the British Army in the Field

Source G

The situation is not favourable. The Fifth Army is held up in front of Verdun and the Sixth and Seventh in front of Nancy-Epinal. The retreat of the Second Army behind the Marne is unalterable: its right wing, the VII Corps, is being forced back and not voluntarily retiring.

In consequence of these facts, all the Armies are to be moved back: the Third Army to north-east of Chalons, and the Fourth and Fifth Army, in conjunction, through the neighbourhood of Clermont-en-Argonne towards Verdun.

The First Army must therefore also retire in the direction Soissons-Fere-en-Tardenois, and in extreme circumstances perhaps farther, even to Laon-La Fere.

Alexander von Kluck, The March on paris and the Battle of the Marne. (von Kluck was a German General)





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