The consequences of the Great War were primarily an intensification of ongoing events, events which involved the decline in importance of empires which had been apparent before 1914. Not only would this involve the loss of empires but also would have consequences for Britain and her Empire.
The Russian collapse in 1917 brought about two revolutions, the Kerensky revolution in February and the Bolshevik revolution in October. As Russia was still using the Julian Calendar, these should be recorded as taking place in March and November using the Gregorian calendar. The February revolution was brought on by political and economic instability and its main events took place in and near Petrograd. It had no real leadership at the beginning but eventually Kerensky and like-minded liberals attempted to assert some control. The Czar, Nicholas II, abdicated and a provisional government (dominated by industrialists and members of the aristocracy) attempted to assert control. Unfortunately, it did not have sufficient support amongst the population and was seen as another bourgeois attempt to control the masses. At this time there was still no attempt to stop the war with Germany. Lenin arrived in Petrograd (April) from Zurich via Finland with help from the German Government. Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters undermined Kerensky’s government and eventually he led an armed insurrection, using popular support and disaffected soldiers, in October. The new Bolshevik government ended Russian involvement in the war and signed a peace treaty with Germany (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) in March 1918.
Civil war broke out in Russia in November 1917 between the Bolshevik government and a loose assembly of allies, which included monarchists, known as the White Army. Although the White forces were supported by eight foreign nations (including former Allied forces), the White forces were defeated by 1920 with minor struggles continuing until 1923.
General Ludendorff was able to transfer the bulk of the German forces from the Eastern Front for the Spring Offensive in 1918 but the German Army experienced mass desertion amongst these troops.
The collapse of the Habsburg Empire (also known as the Austria – Hungary Dual Monarchy in the 19th century) was brought about by unsolved ethnic problems. Problems which came to a head with its defeat in November 1918. The empire had become a military satellite of Imperial Germany after the beginning of WW1 but military incompetence led to Czechs, Slavs and Hungarians breaking their ties to the emperor in Austria after the collapse of the Eastern Front. The House of Habsburg had ruled over Austria (and Austro-Hungary) since the 16th century. Francis-Joseph, who had been declared emperor in 1848, died in 1916 at the age of 86 and had been succeeded by great-nephew Charles. In October 1918, Charles had agreed to President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and had issued the first proclamation which changed the Austrian state. Unfortunately, the division of the empire into new states required new boundaries which did not always follow national groups. It is difficult to impose parliamentary government and democracy onto territories which had been governed by a dictatorship. Amongst other problems, the conservative nature of rural areas would always be at odds with liberal urban ones and would eventually become a recipe for instability.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire had become apparent during the latter part of the 19th century (the wars with Russia) and the beginning of the 20th century (the Balkan wars). These resulted in increasing influence of the British and French governments in the Middle East (France was to gain mandate status with Syria after 1920) and the Italian action in Libya (Italo-Turkish war of 1911). The League of Nations, established in 1920, was unable to counteract the influence of the Allied victors in the solving of disputes usually about territorial demands. The Versailles treaty had given very little guidance to settle disputes involving ethnic issues.
The collapse of Imperial Germany (unified in 1871) came as an unexpected unpleasant shock to a strong nation which had industrialised pre 1914. By the early 20th century Germany was a leading power in engineering and chemical manufacture due to its advances in science. Under Bismarck, war had been used to create an empire which was supposed to dominate Europe and render wars unnecessary. Under the Kaiser Wilhelm II, this policy was side-lined. The new leader created a fleet to challenge that of Great Britain and he acquired an ambition to rival the British Empire with sea power and trade aimed at establishing a German Empire overseas. One could look back on the blockading of the German fleet during the Franco-Prussia war of 1861 as an embarrassing blemish on a military nation. The Kaiser was an autocrat, he decided policy and made appointments not the Reichstag. This policy kept he Social Democrats out of power until 1918. The war aims of the Allies – expulsion of German troops from France and Belgium, and the restoration of political balance in Germany - were seen as the protection of British power in the world and the long-time success of the British Empire.
The river Rhine was to become the natural boundary between France and Germany. The hereditary kings of the separate German states were to abdicate so that a true republic could be established in Germany. The Versailles treaty of 1919, when it was finalised, was completely different to the Vienna Treaty which ended the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Germany was to be forced to pay for its actions and payments were to be enforced with military might. New countries were to be created and peace was dictated by the victors. It is no surprise that the myth of ‘the stab in the back’ took hold among certain German politicians in the 1920s. The League of Nations (established without the membership of the USA which had withdrawn into isolation once more) mishandled so many problems within Europe, and in Asia in the 1930s when China & Japan clashed over Manchuria, that its power withered away.
The impact of the Great War on Britain and the British Empire is more difficult to measure. One could look at the effect on national pride and the identity of the British with their colonies and dominions. When John Jellicoe was sent on a fact-finding mission concerned with a new Imperial Navy, which would embrace all the colonies & dominions, he found no interest from Australia, Canada and New Zealand and the idea was shelved. In the Pacific Ocean region, the rise of Japan as a naval and imperial power during the 1920s as a military clique led to problems. These apparently went unnoticed until Japan and China clashed over Manchuria. During this time anti-Japanese feeling in the USA remained quite high. A bankrupt British government looked for cuts in military spending had failed to see these effects on Hong Kong and Singapore. These cuts led to underinvestment in security with knock on effects in the next war.
There was an increase in National Identity in British colonies. India is an example. Mahatma Gandhi changed his stance on identity and independence when India was refused the change to Dominion status enjoyed by Australia, Canada and New Zealand. This would lead to a long struggle for control of the Indian sub-continent in the inter-war years.
Finally, the future of Ireland. The British government’s relations with the Nationalists never recovered from the Easter Uprising of 1916. Although division of Ireland gave independence to the south, civil war between the IRA and the Provisional Irish government left long lasting resentment.
Report by Peter Palmer