Looking back, the summer of 1914 in England before war was declared with Germany must have seemed idyllic, the end of a golden era – down to the romantic fashion in women's clothes for flowing gowns and sweeping, flower-trimmed hats. Abroad, however, trouble had been brewing for some time in the Balkan countries of south-east Europe:  Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia, bordered by Austria-Hungary and Russia, who both wanted to extend control over the area. In 1908, Austria-Hungary had taken control of Bosnia, and there had been two wars in 1912 and 1913 between the various Balkan states.

On 28 June 1914 came an assassination that was to have the most devastating consequences across the world. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife were visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, when they were shot by a Serbian named Gavrilo Princip. In response to this, Austria invaded Serbia, even though the assassin was not linked in any way to the Serbian government. Germany (Austria's ally) declared war first on Russia, and then on France. German troops needed to reach France as quickly as possible to outflank the French, so they took the most direct route – marching through neutral Belgium. Britain was an ally of France and, besides, had signed a treaty by which she promised to protect Belgian neutrality. The British government sent Germany an ultimatum, asking them to withdraw their troops, but Kaiser Wilhelm ignored this demand, believing that Britain would not go to war 'just for a scrap of paper'. Yet when the ultimatum ran out, Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. From his office in Whitehall, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, watched the lamps being dimmed in the street below and said, 'The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.'


In the first three months of the war, there was a huge rush of men volunteering to fight all over Britain. The British Expeditionary Force, a small but well-trained army of regular soldiers, had been sent out to France straight away, but Lord Kitchener, the Secretary for War, realized that many more volunteers were needed. He was not one of those who believed the war would be over by Christmas. Town halls were turned into recruiting offices, posters went up on lampposts, and the press urged young men to do their patriotic duty, 'For King and Country'. The cigarette cards above (reproduced by kind permission of Philip Kirk, from his grandfather's collection) show one of the ways in which pressure was put on men to do their duty. (No nice women smoked.) If people had any idea of the wholesale slaughter that was to take place and the four long years that the war would last, they would surely not have been so eager to fight. On one day alone, for example, the British army suffered nearly 58,000 casualties (of which 19,240 were men killed) – the first dreadful day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The photograph below shows my grandmother, Marguerite Wood, with her brother Norman, who was killed in 1914. Unffortunately we don't know much about him, but the breeches and spurs he's wearing and the whip he's carrying show he must have belonged to one of the mounted regiments.His breeches are bound below the knee with puttees, and there's an ammunition belt over his shoulder. 

After the first battles of Mons in Belgium (where the BEF initially held off the Germans but was eventually forced to retreat), the Marne (which stopped the German advance), and Ypres, near the French coast and the vital Channel ports, a stalemate was reached. Both sides, the Germans on the one hand and the Allied troops (French, British, Russian and Belgian) on the other, began digging a series of trenches to establish their position and provide cover from shells and  bullets. From then on, much of the war was waged from these muddy, rat-infested ditches. The men who lived in them suffered terribly from hardships like lice, fleas, trench foot (a kind of foot rot), dysentery and frostbite.

The Great War, as it came to be known, changed history all over the world. It is almost impossible to gather accurate casualty figures, but by the time the fighting ended in 1918, an estimated 10 million men had been killed in battle and a further 21 million had been wounded. Nearly 9 million civilians also lost their lives, either through disease, starvation, massacres or other enemy action. Many British villages have memorials listing the names of those who fell, like the one at the top of the page which I photographed in the idyllic village of Lacock; the inscription on the monument is shown below. There were thousands more unnamed victims, however: the children and widows of those who died, the women left with no one to marry and no chance to have families of their own, the men whose lives were ruined forever by what they had gone through. That long Edwardian summer was over.

If you would like to find out more about the First World War, these websites have lots of fascinating information: