War history: January 1914 was the lull before the storm

The rights of women were one of the political issues in the years before, during and after the Firs

The rights of women were one of the political issues in the years before, during and after the First World War. - Credit: Archant

In his regular column on the First World War centenary and the practicalities of visiting the battlefields of the Western Front, Mike Peters, resident military historian at Galloway Travel, reveals how little worried we were in January 1914

The month of January tends to be the time of year when most of us put Christmas and the old year behind us. We look forward to a new year and speculate as to what it might bring. In January, 1914, things were unsurprisingly no different.

With the benefit of hindsight it is perhaps too easy to think that, with the outbreak of the First World War just a few months away, international affairs and the rising threat posed by a well-armed imperial Germany would feature prominently in the minds of every Briton. This was not the case. In fact, for the majority of Britons, the possibility of war with Germany still seemed remote.

In spite of his initiation of the ongoing naval arms race with Britain, the German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm, had been described by British political commentators as a peacemaker. The Kaiser was related to the British royal family, and a well-known Anglophile. He had occupied the German throne for 25 years. During that time there had been no realistic prospect of conflict with Germany.

August 1913 saw the Second Balkan War draw to a close and, although Europe was at peace, there were still potential flashpoints and tense undercurrents. However, to the man and woman on the streets of Suffolk, there was no overwhelming sense of foreboding. Many felt and hoped that Europe was entering a period of stability and prosperity.

During the first few weeks of 1914, British newspapers carried an array of domestic stories that would have been of more interest to ordinary British citizens than lofty foreign affairs, or talk of war in Europe. After all, to be British in 1914 was to be a citizen of the most powerful nation on Earth: a naval superpower, a nation that had not had to commit troops to battle in Europe since Waterloo 99 years earlier. Domestic politics, court gossip and home news were far more interesting.

Many of the subjects discussed will resonate with EADT readers today. As ever, the January weather loomed large; there were vivid reports of thick blizzards and heavy rainstorms. The hardy perennial subject of Scottish Independence featured in the headlines, as did the thorny issue of home rule for Ireland. The latter was a real cause for concern, recognised by all as a proverbial powder keg.

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There were rising concerns about potential strife in the workplace. The labour movement was emerging, gaining strength and political traction through the trade unions.

Even closer to home, and in many cases a burning issue within the confines of the reader’s own homes, was the women’s suffragette movement, and its controversial campaign to secure women’s right to vote. Only six months earlier, at the Derby race meeting in June, 1913, Emily Davison had died for the suffragette cause, crushed under the hooves of the king’s horse, Anmer.

In summary, the majority of people in East Anglia and the rest of Britain had plenty to occupy their minds other than European politics. That is not to say that the political and military leaders of Britain and her empire were oblivious to the possibility of war. They were certainly not asleep on watch; although war was not thought to be inevitable, it was certainly not impossible.

Next week I will be taking a look at the Suffolk Regiment at the beginning of 1914 and the lengthy, extensive programme of reforms that the British Army was emerging from at that time.

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