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The 20th Century

The First World War

The early 20th century was a time of optimism in Britain, with a powerful Empire, a strong navy, thriving industry, and social progress. However, this period was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918). The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria triggered the war, but underlying factors such as nationalism, militarism, imperialism, and the division of European powers into opposing alliances contributed to the conflict.
The war involved nations from around the world, with Britain being part of the Allied Powers. The conflict was global, and soldiers from various parts of the British Empire, including India, the West Indies, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, fought alongside British forces. The Allies faced the Central Powers, which consisted of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and later Bulgaria. The war resulted in millions of casualties, with over 2 million British casualties alone. Notable battles, such as the British attack on the Somme, led to significant losses. The war ended on November 11, 1918, with victory for Britain and its allies.

The partition of Ireland

In 1913, the British government proposed "Home Rule" for Ireland, which aimed to establish a self-governing Ireland within the United Kingdom. However, the proposal faced opposition from Protestant communities in the north of Ireland, who threatened resistance by force.
The outbreak of the First World War postponed any changes in Ireland, but Irish Nationalists were not willing to wait. In 1916, the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, with Irish rebels fighting against British rule. The leaders of the uprising were executed, and a guerrilla war against the British army and police followed. In 1921, a peace treaty was signed, leading to the partition of Ireland. Northern Ireland, predominantly Protestant, remained part of the UK, while the rest of Ireland became the Irish Free State, which later became a republic in 1949.
Despite the division, there were still people in both parts of Ireland who wished for a united, independent country. Disagreements over the partition and the status of Northern Ireland led to a period of conflict known as "the Troubles," marked by a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland and other areas. The Troubles reflected the ongoing conflict between those seeking full Irish independence and those who wished to remain loyal to the British government.

The inter-war period

The 1920s brought improvements to living conditions for many people in the UK. Public housing saw advancements, and new homes were constructed in towns and cities. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 brought about a period of economic hardship and mass unemployment in certain regions of the country. The impact of the depression varied across different industries and areas, with traditional heavy industries like shipbuilding suffering greatly, while emerging sectors such as automobile and aviation experienced growth. Despite the economic challenges, falling prices provided those with employment with increased purchasing power. Car ownership doubled between 1930 and 1939, reaching 2 million. The inter-war period also witnessed cultural flourishing, with notable writers like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh making their mark. Economist John Maynard Keynes published influential theories of economics, and the BBC initiated radio broadcasts in 1922 and launched the world's first regular television service in 1936.

The Second World War

Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, driven by his belief in rectifying what he saw as the unfair conditions imposed on Germany after the First World War and his desire for territorial expansion. Through treaty renegotiations, military build-up, and territorial conquests, Hitler sought to achieve his goals. The British government, initially aiming to avoid another war, eventually declared war on Germany and its allies when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
The war was primarily fought between the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allies. The main allied countries included the UK, France, Poland, Austria, New Zealand, Canada, and the Union of South Africa.
After occupying Austria and Czechoslovakia, Hitler proceeded to invade Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1940, German forces defeated the allied troops and swiftly advanced through France. In this time of crisis, Winston Churchill assumed the role of Prime Minister and became Britain's war leader.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Winston Churchill, the son of a politician, had a diverse career as a soldier, journalist, and eventually a Conservative Member of Parliament in 1900. In May 1940, he assumed the role of Prime Minister. During World War II, Churchill refused to surrender to the Nazis and served as an inspirational leader to the British people during a time of hardship. Although he lost the General Election in 1945, he returned as Prime Minister in 1951.
Churchill remained an active Member of Parliament until he retired at the 1964 General Election. Following his death in 1965, he was honored with a state funeral. He continues to be highly regarded, and in 2002, the public voted him as the greatest Briton of all time. Churchill's famous speeches during the war, including memorable lines that are still referenced today, solidified his legacy as a remarkable statesman.

  • ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ Churchill’s first speech to the House of Commons after he became Prime Minister, 1940
  • ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’ Speech to the House of Commons after Dunkirk, 1940
  • ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’ Speech to the House of Commons during the Battle of Britain, 1940
Winston Churchill, best known for his leadership of the UK during the Second World War, played a crucial role in rallying the nation against Nazi Germany. As France fell to the Germans, the British conducted a massive naval operation to evacuate troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, with civilian volunteers joining the rescue efforts. Although the evacuation resulted in losses, it was a success and symbolized the indomitable "Dunkirk spirit."
Following the fall of France, Britain and its Empire stood alone against Nazi Germany until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Hitler aimed to invade Britain but needed to gain control of the air campaign first. The Battle of Britain ensued, with the British RAF successfully resisting German air attacks and emerging victorious. Despite ongoing German bombing raids, known as the Blitz, British resilience and unity prevailed, earning the moniker "the Blitz spirit."
While defending Britain, the British military was engaged in battles on other fronts. The Japanese defeated the British in Singapore and occupied Burma, posing a threat to India. The United States entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Hitler's attempt to invade the Soviet Union also encountered fierce resistance, resulting in significant losses for both sides.
As the tide turned in favor of the Allies, significant victories were achieved in North Africa and Italy. With the support of the Americans and the damage inflicted on German forces in the Soviet Union, the Allies gained the strength to launch an offensive in Western Europe. The invasion of Normandy on D-Day marked a turning point, leading to the eventual defeat of Germany in May 1945.
The war against Japan came to an end in August 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. British scientists, including Ernest Rutherford, played a role in the development of atomic technology. The war finally concluded, marking the end of a devastating global conflict.

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)

Alexander Fleming, born in Scotland and later based in London, made a significant contribution to medicine through his discovery of penicillin in 1928. While researching influenza, Fleming stumbled upon the mold Penicillium notatum and observed its ability to inhibit bacterial growth. The development of penicillin as a usable drug was later accomplished by scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. By the 1940s, penicillin was being produced on a large scale and became a vital tool in treating bacterial infections. Fleming's remarkable discovery earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945, and penicillin remains an essential antibiotic in modern medicine.

Make Sure You Understand

  • The First World War was a global conflict that took place from 1914 to 1918 and involved major powers from around the world.
  • The partition of Ireland occurred in 1921, dividing the country into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland).
  • The Second World War, which took place from 1939 to 1945, involved major global powers and was characterized by significant military operations and devastation.