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Commemorating 100 years since Britain entered the First World War


By dxw

Monday 4 August 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the day Britain entered one of the bloodiest conflicts in history – the First World War – which ended on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day. As a war unmatched to any seen before, World War One, also known as ‘the Great War’, marks one of the most defining moments in modern history; its origins were complex, its diplomacy was decisive, its scale was vast, its military operations were revolutionary, its human sacrifice was unprecedented and its impact on the world was profound.

World War One (WW1) was a global conflict involving thirty two nations across its four year span. Empires fell whilst new states were born and more than 1.1 million lives were sacrificed by men and women in the service of the British Empire.

Argued as the trigger to WW1, on 28 June 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne, was assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. For the next 37 days, known as the July Crisis, a diplomatic frenzy arose and events across Europe escalated rapidly leading to the outbreak of WW1 on 28 July 1914 and Britain’s entry into war on 4 August.

Britain’s entry into war

On 3 August 1914 Germany declared war on France using the mobilisation strategy of the Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen Plan required the German army to invade France via Belgium, consequently violating the Treaty of London that had guaranteed Belgium’s independence and neutrality in Europe since 1839. Referred to by Germany as ‘a scrap of paper’, the Treaty of London recognised Belgium as an independent, neutral state whose existence and sovereignty was guaranteed by the treaty’s signatories; Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria, the Netherlands and Prussia. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, Britain presented an ultimatum to Germany to retreat from Belgium by midnight 3 August 1914 or Britain will be called upon to declare war on Germany in honour of defending the neutrality of Belgium. Germany failed to respond to Britain’s ultimatum and at 23:00, 4 August 1914, Britain declared war with Germany and officially entered WW1 on the side of the Allies.

WW1 diplomacy podcasts

Last month Wilton Park and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched a series of podcasts that focuses on the diplomacy leading up to the outbreak of the First World War beginning with an introduction and detailed analysis on Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary in 1914, by former Foreign Secretary William Hague.
In the interviews, William Hague and former British Ambassadors to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia and Serbia set the scene for what was rapidly unfolding in Europe between 28 June – 4 August 1914 and describe the events, circumstances, pressures and challenges that faced them during the same period. The podcasts have been aired since 28 June with the final interview to be posted on 4 August.

100 years of chemical warfare

2014 also marks 100 years since chemical warfare was first widely used. The French army were the first in history to use chemical weapons; tear gas, against the enemy in WW1, August 1914. Although not designed to kill, tear gases were used to incapacitate the enemy and render them unable to defence positions. This initial use of chemical weapons sparked further and more deadly weapons to be used such as chlorine, first used on a large scale by German forces at Ypres, 22 April 1915.

100 years later such weapons are still being used. Wilton Park has chaired many forums based around the issue of chemical weapons such as ‘Dual-use biology: how to balance open science with security’ which included a podcast on ‘Chemical warfare in Syria’ with Amy Smithson, Senior Fellow, James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies and Tim Trevan, Executive Director, International Council for the Life Sciences (ICLS). In 2012 Wilton Park also held a session on ‘The future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the 2013 Review Conference’ which assessed the challenges to the chemical weapons prohibition regime and promoted frank dialogue on issues prior to the 2013 CWC review conference.

Most recently, Wilton Park chaired ‘WMD verification: global capacity challenges’ in June this year which featured a podcast with Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, Chief Operating Officer, SecureBio, Porton Down. The podcast explains and interprets what we mean by chemical weapons, how to remove and avoid chemical weapons, and the threat and use of such weapons today with a detailed feature on Syria. The discussion also touches on the use of chemical weapons in history, WW1 specifically.


The historic centenary of WW1 is to be commemorated in the UK by a four year programme of national acts of remembrance, UK wide cultural initiatives and educational opportunities, starting with a service of commemoration for Commonwealth leaders in Glasgow Cathedral on Monday 4 August.

Everyone in the UK is invited to take part in #LightsOut, Monday 4 August 2014, by turning off their lights from 22:00 to 23:00, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection on the 100 year anniversary of the First World War.

The #LightsOut’s inspiration stems from Foreign Secretary of the time, Sir Edward Grey’s famous quote on the eve of the outbreak of the war; “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. Britain declared war on Germany at 23:00 on 4 August 1914.

Westminster Abbey is holding a Million Candles Candlelit Vigil from 22:00-23:00 Monday evening with events televised live on BBC.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
First verse of ‘In Flanders Fields’, by John McCrae, May 1915

Further information

Outbreak of World War 1 brought to life online (

FCO First World War podcasts (Audioboo)

Westminster Abbey – first world war vigil-liturgy

Great War poems -John-McCrae In Flanders Fields

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