‘…everyone has a purpose to help to the utmost of their powers.’
Lady Annette Matthews, 11 August 1914
In 1914 the war acted as a unifying force. Millions of British men, women and children who could not fight looked for other ways to support their nation’s cause.
People donated money to the thousands of war charities set up across Britain and the Empire. They also provided comforts such as clothing, chocolate and cigarettes for the troops.
What made people believe in this war?
People felt it was their duty to defend their family, their homes, their country, even civilisation itself.
Reports of enemy atrocities led to a widespread hatred of Germany and Germans. People lived in fear. What had happened in France and Belgium might also happen in Britain if Germany won.
Hate propaganda against the ‘wicked Hun’ began as soon as Britain went to war.
The press was full of tales of German atrocities, both real and imagined. In this poisonous atmosphere, angry crowds smashed windows of shops owned by Germans, and British authorities interned German men in camps.
It was, according to a poem by Rudyard Kipling, the most popular British writer of the time, ‘When the English began to hate’.
Report of German atrocities
Reports of German atrocities were often lurid and false.
They included stories of mutilated nuns and butchered babies. But people were all too ready to believe them.
In Britain there was a ‘cleansing’ of all things German or German-sounding. London’s Coburg Hotel was renamed the Connaught. German Shepherd dogs became ‘Alsatians’. German measles became ‘Belgian flush’. Orchestras stopped playing Beethoven and Wagner.
Mock treaty and toilet roll
In August 1914 German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg dismissed the longstanding treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality as a ‘scrap of paper’.
The phrase was thrown back at the Germans in British propaganda, as shown in this mock treaty. The novelty toilet roll shows Kaiser Wilhelm II, for most Britons the war’s arch villain and the object of contempt and derision.
Postcards, mock Iron Cross and shell fragments
These postcards and mock ‘Iron Cross’, Germany’s most famous medal, commemorate the shelling of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool by German warships in December 1914.
The attack killed 137 men, women and children. It seemed to confirm people's fears of what the Germans might do if they reached Britain. The shell fragments were picked up in Scarborough while still hot after being fired.
Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George gave his ‘Road Hogs of Europe’ speech, justifying Britain’s entry into the war, on 19 September 1914. Germany had left Belgium, ‘flung to the roadside, bleeding and broken; women and children thrust under the wheel of his cruel car… It will be a terrible war. But in the end we shall march through terror to triumph’. Within two months 2.5 million copies of this pamphlet had been distributed.
Cup and badges
Hatred of the British – usually identified as the ‘English’ - found its way into everyday German life and language.
The cup and the badges shown here, from Germany and Austria-Hungary, bear the slogan ‘Gott strafe England’, meaning ‘May God punish England’. This became a common greeting which people exchanged in the street, replacing the usual ‘Guten Tag’ or good day.
Manuscript of ‘Hymn of Hate’
Hatred of Britain was rife in Germany.
This is the original draft manuscript of the ‘Hymn of Hate’, the most notorious anti-British piece of German propaganda. Written by Ernst Lissauer, a German poet and dramatist, the verse contains the lines ‘we love as one, we hate as one. We have one foe and one alone – England!’ A printed copy was sent to every serving German soldier.
Tankard and cartoons
This tankard commemorates German atrocities in Belgium and France.
Rudyard Kipling popularised the word ‘Hun’ as an abusive term for Germans. It evoked Attila the Hun’s 5th-century destroyers of civilisation. Kipling, like many Britons, believed the Germans were ‘barbarians’, people from ‘the Middle Ages with modern guns’. Prussian Germans were considered the most militaristic, as shown in these cartoons.
Some British civilians performed widely reported acts of self-sacrifice in the service of their country.
The executions of Edith Cavell and Charles Fryatt caused anger and turned opinion in neutral countries further against Germany, especially in the United States.
As London diarist Georgina Lee wrote, ‘The public feeling is that we will never make terms of peace with Germany’s rulers who break every law of civilisation’.
This stethoscope was used by Dr Elsie Inglis, a pioneering doctor.
In 1914 the War Office rejected her proposal to set up all-women medical teams with the words, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still’. So she set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals on the fighting fronts, which were funded by the suffrage movement. Inglis herself went to Serbia to treat the sick and wounded.
Elsie Knocker’s diary
Elsie Knocker’s diary records how she and fellow motorbike enthusiast Mairi Chisholm set up a first aid post in a cellar near the front line Belgian village of Pervyse.
The two women worked there for over three years, treating hundreds of injured men, sometimes while under fire. The ‘Women of Pervyse’ became celebrities and this helped secure donations for their work, including a protective steel door for the cellar from Harrods.
Merchant ship captain Charles Fryatt was given gold watches by his grateful employer and the Admiralty for successfully evading German submarine attacks. Later captured by the German navy, he was held responsible for illegally trying to ram one of their submarines on 28 March 1915. Fryatt was shot by a firing squad on 27 July 1916. His execution provoked public outrage in Britain.
Red Cross nurse’s cap
This Red Cross nurse’s cap belonged to Edith Cavell, matron of a hospital in German-occupied Brussels. On 12 October 1915 she was executed by a German firing squad for helping stranded Allied soldiers escape back to their lines. Her final words were, ‘I am glad to die for my country’. Though legal under international law, her execution caused widespread revulsion in both Britain and the neutral United States.
May Aitken, wife of a wealthy Lancashire cotton merchant, sent 10,000 packets of morale-boosting cigarettes to the Front. They were given out at the port of Le Havre to wounded British and French soldiers after the Battle of the Marne. Cigarettes, known as 'fags', 'gaspers' or 'Woodbines', were not then considered a grave risk to health, but were an essential for many soldiers.
Gifts for Servicemen
A wave of goodwill towards the troops swept through Britain and the Empire. The Christmas pudding, chocolate and tin of sweets here were sent to the men at the Front by organisations in Britain, India and the West Indies. The men in Britain’s army were more literate than ever before and people at home wanted to nourish minds as well as bodies, as shown by this book collection notice.
Princess Mary’s gift boxes
In October 1914 King George V’s 17-year-old daughter, Princess Mary, made a public appeal for money so that a Christmas 'gift from the nation' could be sent to every British and Empire soldier and sailor. Half a million brass Princess Mary’s gift boxes had been delivered by Christmas Day. Smokers received cigarettes, tobacco, a lighter and pipe, and non-smokers a ‘bullet’ pencil and writing paper. Indian troops’ boxes included sweets and spices while nurses received chocolate.
During the bitterly cold winter of 1914-1915, thousands of women across Britain knitted balaclavas, scarves, gloves and socks to send to the troops. Guides such as this knitting pattern and sock measure did not prevent inexperienced knitters from producing what one writer to ‘The Times’ described as ‘miserably cut, uncomfortable and irritating garments.’
Collecting boxes, charity pins and stamps
Despite rising prices and increases in taxation to help pay for the war, British people poured money into collecting boxes and bought war charity pins and stamps. These covered all kinds of causes, with care for wounded soldiers being the most popular. Fraudsters tried to exploit this generosity by posing as charity collectors and stealing donations for themselves.
Patriotic ceramics and glassware
War spawned an industry of patriotic ceramics and glassware bearing the flags of Britain, the Empire and its allies. In 1900 few Britons would have believed that they would be proudly showing in their homes the flags of France, the old enemy, or even of Russia.
Patriotic pamphlets carried the stirring words of public figures as diverse as Boer War hero Lord Roberts VC, leader of the Mothers Union Beatrix Lyall and Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst. Pankhurst became an active supporter of the fight against ‘the German Peril’. In September 1914 she and other Suffragettes suspended their campaign of violent protest aimed at securing votes for women and diverted their energies into supporting the war effort.
This framed scroll, ‘Gifts to the Imperial Government from the Empire in 1914’ records official and private donations towards the war effort. These include a million bags of flour and 1,000 gallons of wine for hospitals.
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and other organisations sought volunteers for work overseas. This poster appeals for men to staff its huts behind the front line. The huts provided food, non-alcoholic drinks and entertainments for soldiers, as well as free writing paper and envelopes so that they could write home.
This dummy rifle was used for drill by the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC), a home guard formed in November 1914 to help repel any German invasion of Britain. VTC recruits included men over the age for enlistment or the medically unfit. They were mocked by some soldiers and branded the 'Gorgeous Wrecks' after the royal cipher GR (Georgius Rex, Latin for King George) on their arm-bands.