A black and white photograph of a man in a hospital bed with a prosthetic leg.
A brief introduction to

10 Things You Should Know About the First World War

Discover some surprising and little-known stories of the war's impact on England.

In the popular imagination, the First World War is associated with France and Belgium’s trenches, the Gallipoli’s beaches, and Arabia’s deserts.

The following images, mostly from the Historic England Archive, highlight some surprising and little-known stories of the war’s impact on England.

1. Troops were prepared for battle

It is commonly believed that ill-trained troops were sacrificed in the trench war against the Germans on the Western Front.

An aerial photograph of training trenches in a field.
First World War training trenches at Beacon Hill, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. © Historic England Archive. 24863/047.

But archaeological evidence in England, in the form of elaborate training trenches, instructional models and full-size mock-ups of the German lines, increasingly reveals the military’s attempts to provide soldiers with realistic training.

Despite these preparations, the murderous firepower of artillery and machine guns meant that millions died on the battlefields.

2. People feared the German invasion

Most people think pillboxes were constructed in the Second World War, but they were originally built to counter fears of invasion in vulnerable areas during the First World War.

A photograph of an infantry blockhouse on a beach.
An infantry blockhouse (pillbox) at Spurn Point, East Riding of Yorkshire. © Roger J.C. Thomas.

3. 700,000 women entered the workforce

During the war, women increasingly entered previously male-dominated industries.

A black and white photograph of 2 women workers.
Female workers at Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. BB94/08006.

By the war’s end, around 700,000 were employed in metals and chemical works, the majority producing munitions. One very visible effect of this change was the growing acceptability of trousers as an item of women’s clothing.

4. The warring nations used millions of horses

Horses served traditionally in the cavalry but were also required in vast numbers by the transport services.

A photograph of dilapidated horse stables.
Remount Depot, Aborfield, Berkshire, where horses destined for the Western Front were temporarily housed. © Wayne D. Cocroft.

Britain sent agents all over the globe to buy tens of thousands of horses and mules, especially from the United States and Australia.

The animals arrived in converted ships and were housed in vast stable complexes known as Remount Depots, often near railway lines, before being shipped to the front.

5. Tanks were first used at the Battle of the Somme

In 1915 David Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, declared, ‘this is an engineer’s war.’

A black and white photograph of a tank shop.
The Fosters Tank Erecting Shop in Lincoln. © Imperial War Museum. IWM Q48212.

And in the same year, Fosters of Lincoln, a firm of agricultural equipment manufacturers and engineers, was awarded the contract to manufacture a new weapon, the tank, for which there were great hopes.

On 15 September 1916, just 49 were deployed on the Somme, the weapon’s first use on the battlefield, but in November 1917, over 400 went forward at the Battle of Cambrai, the first significant use of tanks in battle.

Over 3,000 tanks were manufactured in Britain during the First World War.

6. Britain manufactured and used poison gas

The Germans first used poison gas on the Western Front in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.

A green tinted aerial aerial photograph of a motorway surrounded by fields.
The National Filling Factory in Northamptonshire. Drivers on the M40 today pass over a former poison gas factory. Its earthwork remains in bushes to the right of the image are a scheduled monument.

Britain responded by manufacturing several ‘war gases’ at several locations across England, and in Banbury, a local engineering firm perfected a machine for filling mustard gas shells.

The earthwork remains of National Filling Factory in Banbury are protected as a scheduled monument, as is the circular gas-testing trench at Idmiston Down, Wiltshire.

7. Roll-on/roll-off ferries were developed

The Port of Richborough in Kent was a 2,200-acre, state-of-the-art port built by Royal Engineers from scratch in just two years.

A black and white aerial photograph of a port.
The lost port of Richborough in Kent. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms EPW000660.

From 1916, it handled nearly all the hardware of war shipped to France and salvaged in the form of spent shells and damaged vehicles brought back to Britain from France. It employed 20,000 men housed in three large army camps.

At Richborough, Roll On/Roll Off ferries were developed to speed up loading and unloading. Very little remains today. However, one of its innovative loading ramps was relocated post-war to Harwich and later protected with a Grade II listing.

8. Many Indians, Africans, African-Caribbeans and Chinese served alongside the British

Many people from all over the British Empire volunteered to serve Britain in the First World War.

A black and white photograph of a man standing outside a brick walled burial ground.
The Grade II listed Muslim burial ground at Horsell Common in Surrey, established in 1917 to inter soldiers of the Indian Army who died in war hospitals on the south coast. © Historic England Archive. BL23738/006.

Not only on the front line but also in the Labour Corps on construction projects, such as the Chinese Wall sea defences at Orford Ness, Suffolk, and the Western Front handling supplies and building camps.

9. Buildings in London were damaged during the war

During the First World War, Britain was the first country to suffer an attack from a sustained, strategic, aerial bombing offensive.

A black and white photograph of a damaged church window.
Zeppelin raid damage to a window in the chapel at Lincoln’s Inn in London, photographed in 1915. © Historic England Archive. DD55/00003.

Bombing by German airships alone killed 557 people, and in London, many historic buildings were damaged, including this medieval window in Lincoln’s Inn, London.

In the City, plaques and scarred buildings still bear witness to these attacks.

10. Major advances were made in prosthetics

Many servicemen lost limbs or were severely disfigured during the war.

A black and white photograph of a man in a hospital bed with a prosthetic leg.
A man sits beside his prosthetic leg at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, the main English limb-fitting hospital. © Historic England Archive. BL24278.

This led to great advances in developing and producing prosthetic limbs and pioneering plastic surgery.

Further reading

3 comments on “10 Things You Should Know About the First World War

  1. Reblogged this on Karl Quinney.

  2. Erik Von Norden

    I came across your blog over at First Night History. Sobering, yet very informative. Thanks for helping to dispel these myths.

  3. Reblogged this on History, Archaeology, Folklore and so on and commented:
    10 Things You Should Know About WWI

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