Research by the British Council in the UK and six other countries reveals a widespread lack of understanding of the global scale and impact of the First World War.

John Worne, the British Council’s Director of Strategy, said: “Our research shows that the things we in the UK know and remember the most from the First World War are the harrowing images and iconic stories from the Western Front – and rightly so. But we shouldn’t forget that the war touched many other parts of the world. Far more countries fought and were affected than we generally think. Even a hundred years later a person from the UK travelling for business or pleasure will find the war still influences the way people overseas view the UK. So knowing a little about the global reach of the conflict and its lasting effects will help anyone better understand and navigate the many different reasons people from other countries see us as they do.”

The report, Remember The World As Well As The War, shows that knowledge of the conflict - which began 100 years ago this year - is largely limited to the fighting on the Western Front. In the UK, less than half of the 1081 people questioned are aware that North America (38%) and the Middle East (34%) played a part in the war, and less than a quarter are aware that Africa (21%) and Asia (22%) were involved.

Almost three quarters of people (72%) across the seven countries surveyed believe their country is still affected by the consequences of the war.

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Why is the British Council marking the First World War Centenary?

The First World War was a truly global conflict; the world came together for destruction. 9.5 million combatants died, 20 million were wounded. There were at least 6.5 million civilian deaths. 

As the UK’s leading cultural relations organisation, supporting understanding of the global nature of the conflict and its legacy is central to the relationship between the UK and other countries.

The First World War is often overshadowed by the Second.  But it was the First World War which ended three empires, triggered the Russian revolution, and created the complex dynamics of power in the Middle East. World War One led to the first efforts to establish global governance.  It is the crucible of international politics today.

What is the British Council doing for the Centenary?

We are putting together a wide and varied programme of activities for audiences in the UK and around the world.

One thing we have already done is published our report, Remember the World as well as the War.  In our research, we surveyed thousands of people in seven countries to explore their understanding of the First World War.

I was interested to discover that perceptions of the UK around the world today are still influenced by Britain’s role in the First World War.  For instance, about one in three of respondents to our survey in Turkey stated that the UK’s role in the conflict had a broadly negative effect on their views of it today.

Understanding the reasons for perceptions of the UK is at the heart of our work here at the British Council.

 

World War1 facts

  1. 9.5 million combatants were killed and a further 20 million wounded. There were at least 6.5 million civilian deaths.
  2. While the First World War officially ended in 1919 (some people take the armistice of 1918 to be the official end), in many parts of the world fighting continued in follow-on conflicts. The international legacy of its peace treaties led to lasting conflict and tension in many parts of the world, which in some cases persist to this day.
  3. However, the war also led to the idea that global governance could be provided through international institutions, and ultimately paved the way for the formation of the UN after the Second World War.
  4. The British Council’s report, Remember The World As Well As The War, shows that knowledge of the conflict - which began 100 years ago this year - is largely limited to the fighting on the Western Front. In the UK, less than half of the 1,081 people questioned were aware that North America (38%) and the Middle East (34%) played a part in the war; and less than a quarter were aware that Africa (21%) and Asia (22%) were involved.
  5. In terms of impact and legacy, while 62% of people in the UK are aware of the war’s connection to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, well under half are aware of its link with the rise of Communism in Russia (37%). Less than a third associates the war with the fall of the Ottoman Empire (32%) or the creation of the United Nations (27%). Only 11% are aware of the war’s connection with the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  6. 45% of people questioned in India and 28% in France and Russia say the UK’s role in the war has a positive effect on how they view the UK today. However, 34% in Turkey and 22% in Egypt say it has a negative effect.
  7. Almost three quarters of people (72%) across the seven countries surveyed believe their country is still affected by the consequences of the war.
  8. Two products of the First World War are common reasons for distrust of the UK in the Middle East: The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which paved the way for British and French control of large parts of the region; and the Balfour Declaration (1917), which led to the creation of the state of Israel and the resulting ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
  9. Gandhi’s first civil disobedience campaign against British authority in 1919 stemmed from the unrealised hope that India’s contribution to the First World War of around 1.5 million men would be honoured with a transition to self-government.
  10. More than one million African auxiliary personnel were – sometimes forcibly – deployed in the war. About 100,000 died.

World War1 around the world

  • The most common image of the First World War across many countries is quite rightly the trenches on the Western Front
  • But the war did not take place only in Europe. Suffering and sacrifice was made by many countries around the world
  • Commonwealth countries made a huge contribution of money, resources, and military and auxiliary personnel (many of whom died) to Britain’s war effort
  • It profoundly reshaped the Middle East and had a lasting impact on international relations
  • In many countries, the First World War and its aftermath led to profound developments of national transformation and the development of strong independence movements
  • New research by the British Council has shown that knowledge about the global nature and legacy of the conflict is limited in many countries

World War1 perceptions about the UK

  • In some countries, Britain’s role in the First World War and its aftermath still affects people’s opinion of the UK today.
  • Frequently, views are positive, but there are also significant numbers in many countries whose views of the UK today are affected negatively
  • Understanding the views of people from other countries can be helpful and important for those visiting other countries for business or leisure. This will help them build relationships and trust with others around the world

World War1 Christmas truce (1914)

  •  The Christmas truce of 1914 is a remarkable episode from the First World War and is well-remembered in the UK in particular
  • It involved a spontaneous ceasefire, singing, fraternisation, and a football match between German and British soldiers
  • It did not change the course of the war, but has since been taken to demonstrate the power – even in the most difficult circumstances – of people-to-people contact: an example that can inspire young people today

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