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British soldiers with bayonets fixed climbing out of the trenches. WW1, 6 Sep 1915, France.

In this photograph we can see a small group of soldiers coming out of a trench, over the protective sandbag wall. They have their bayonets fixed, ready for an attack. It is not clear whether this is a staged photo or not. While Girdwood’s photographs form an important record, their documentary value must be assessed with caution. Girdwood’s was an explicitly propagandist role on behalf of the war effort in general and the India Office in particular. Some of the scenes at the front appear to be unposed, but a number of images, purportedly showing troops in action, have clearly been staged for the photographer: this could possibly be the case with this photograph. The images are perhaps more significant as an illustration of the use of photography as propaganda, rather than a straight documentary record. 

How did Britain become involved in the war?

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Britain was often described as being in 'Splendid Isolation' from the rest of Europe. Britain had a huge empire and ruling this empire was its priority. The key to Britain's power was India with its vast resources of manpower. Britain relied heavily on Indian troops to control the empire. The highest priority for Britain was protecting the trade routes between Britain and India. Britain's large navy protected trade links with India and with the rest of the world. Despite this focus on the empire, Britain was interested in events in Europe. To start with, other European countries had rival empires. Belgium and France both had large empires in Africa. There was strong rivalry between Britain and France over possessions in North Africa. By the early 1900s, Germany also had colonies in Africa and was beginning to show an interest in North Africa. Another concern was Russia. For much of the 19th century, Russia wanted to take control of the Dardanelles, the area where the Black Sea opened out into the Mediterranean Sea. This would allow Russian warships and trading ships to sail easily around Europe. Russia had other ports in the north, but these tended to freeze over in winter. The problem was that the Dardanelles were owned by Turkey. Turkey and Russia had long been enemies. Britain supported Turkey against Russia. This was because Britain did not want Russian ships in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was part of Britain's most important trade route to India. Until the early 1900s, Britain was more concerned about Russia and France than Germany. Relations between Britain and Germany were very good. This began to change, however. When Kaiser Wilhelm II took control of Germany, he was anxious for Germany to be a great power. He felt that Russia to the east and France to the west were encircling Germany. As a result, he built up his armed forces. France and Russia feared Germany and did the same. During the 1900s, all of the great powers in Europe began to build up their armies and navies. British policy in Europe intended that no country in Europe should become completely dominant. If Russia, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary worried about each other, then they would be less of a threat to Britain. By about 1907 it was becoming clear to Britain that the greatest potential threat to Britain was going to be Germany. The strong economy, large population and powerful armed forces of Germany seemed to be capable of dominating Europe. As a result, Britain began to support Russia and France. Britain joined the Triple Entente. Despite being part of the Triple Entente, Britain was not committed to going to war in 1914. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, spent much of the summer of 1914 furiously trying to reassure Russia and Germany and prevent a war happening. Even when German troops invaded France and Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan, Britain did not have to go to war.

Germany hoped Britain would stay out of the war altogether. However, the Germans knew that Britain had promised to defend Belgium under the Treaty of London of 1839. The Germans wanted the British government to ignore the Treaty of London and let the German army pass through Belgium. The British government made much of their duty to protect Belgium. Belgium's ports were close to the British coast and German control of Belgium would have been seen as a serious threat to Britain. In the end, Britain refused to ignore the events of 4 August 1914, when Germany attacked France through Belgium. Within hours, Britain declared war on Germany. The Kaiser said how foolish he thought the British were. He said that Britain had gone to war for the sake of a "scrap of paper".

Within a few more days, Britain, France and Russia (the Allies) were all officially at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers). What had started as a small, local problem in the Balkans was turning into the biggest and most brutal war the world had ever seen.