Britain in World War I

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13289

It was a time when "boy soldiers" fought in a confusing war, "suffragettes" fought for the right to vote, and Ireland fought for independence. Who won the battles of the early 20th century in Britain?



learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter, Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • Wondering how Britain got involved in World War I?

Horrible Histories explains it all (sort of!).

The Start of WW1 | Frightful First World War | Horrible Histories from Horrible Histories:

World War I was the first war that involved countries all over the world. It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and started the decline of the British Empire.

This time period also brought great changes for women and schoolchildren at home!

World War I

Take a look at a map showing all of the nations that participated in the war (green = Allies, orange = Central Powers):

WWI map

Image by Thomashwang, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

  • That's a lot of people, isn't it?
  • How did so many countries get involved?


  • Were you able to understand the causes of World War I from the video?

Let's go over it again because it can be very confusing!

Before the war, many countries had made alliances with each other. This means that they had agreements to fight on each other's behalf if one got involved in a conflict with another country.

This graphic shows the alliances before the war:

WWI alliances chart

Image by It Is Me Here, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

As you can see, there were two groups of alliances:

  • the Triple Entente: Russia, France, and Britain, which were joined later by other allies
  • the Triple Alliance: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (which changed sides later on)

Remember that all of the countries above also had empires, which means they were in control of other territories around the world, and they were rather touchy about any other power becoming involved in their territories!

So, when Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, visited Bosnia, he was shot by a Serbian, who thought that Serbia should control Bosnia instead of Austria. This triggered the gathering of each of these empires into different sides and started the war.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, 1919

Image by Carl Pietzner, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Another interesting fact is that many of the heads of these European countries were related because they were descended from Queen Victoria.

Our lesson on the Victorian Age, found under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar, explains how Queen Victoria is considered the Grandmother of Europe because so many heads of state were her children and grandchildren.

Horrible Histories shows us some of those relationships in Horrible Histories Song - World War 1 Cousins - CBBC from CBBC:

Now, let's delve into the history of the war!

  • What was it like?

You'll do some research on specific aspects later on, but let's look at a few topics.

Boy Soldiers

Many young men wanted to fight in the war, even though they were not old enough. Some were as young as 12!

Find out what happened when they turned up at enlistment centers, and what happened when their parents complained that their sons were missing!

Boy Soldiers (World War I) from Simple History:

Western Front

A front is basically a field of battle. In World War I, there were two fronts: the Western Front and the Eastern Front.

Germany invaded Belgium and the tiny country of Luxembourg, and they tried to invade France. Soldiers from the British Empire and France tried to fight off the Germans.

Both sides dug long channels in the dirt, called trenches, from Belgium in the north to Switzerland in the south. The armies gradually moved north in what is called The Race to the Sea, each trying to go around the opposing army.

Map of the Western Front, World War I

Image by The History Department of the United States Military Acadmy, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Soldiers ate, worked, fought, lived, and died in those trenches.

preserved Western Front trenches

  • What do you think that was like? (Hint: not fun.)

Life in a Trench | World War I | History from HISTORY:

End of the War

The war officially came to an end on November 11, 1918. Germany surrendered, and both sides signed the Treaty of Versailles.

Watch How did World War I end? - Behind the News to learn more:


  • How did Britain's territories around the world help in the war effort?

All of the following countries sent troops to fight in the war:

  • India
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • South Africa
  • New Zealand

However, although the empire helped to win the war for Britain; the war quickened the loss of the empire. Paying for the war was so costly that it made it very hard to maintain the empire.

Watch The British Empire in 2 Minutes, from Johnny Revolver, to see how the whole British Empire grew and was lost over time.


One country in particular that wanted to find a way out of the British Empire was Ireland.

In 1800, the Act of Union had united the kingdoms of Ireland and England, but many Irish people were resentful of British rule and wanted to establish an independent state. Watch the following video to learn what happened in Ireland from the late 18th century until after WWI.

The History of Ireland in 11 Minutes (Remastered) - Manny Man does History from John D Ruddy:

  • What was happening at home in the UK--that is, on the home-front--before, after, and during the war?


  • What was a suffragette?

You may have seen one in the movie Mary Poppins.

Sister Suffragette Mary Poppins 1964 edit from Daniel Hieb:

Women in the UK had been campaigning to be allowed to vote for some years, starting with a petition to the government in 1865. They stopped during the war effort but resumed the struggle after the war. Some went to prison and even went on hunger strikes!

Finally, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act allowed women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications to vote (which applied to about 8.4 million women)! Later on, the age was lowered to 21.

WSPU leaders Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst, 1908

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.


Public schools were started, and poor children were able to get an education rather than having to work all day as they had before! The literacy rate (the percentage of people who were able to read) went up to 97%!

Now that you've gotten an education on Britain during World War I, move on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge!

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