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Brief History of Sunderland in the First World War


arch duke ferdinand

Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination triggered the First World War

The immediate cause of the War was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austrian Imperial Family by Serbian nationalists on the 28th June 1914.

The Germans supported the Austro-Hungarian Government whilst the Serbs were allied with Russia who, in turn, was allied with France. Britain supported the French and Russians but only went to War when Germany invaded Belgium. Behind all of this there were many years of ill feeling.

The resulting War was fought not only in Europe. Campaigns played out in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East where Britain needed to protect the Suez Canal in Egypt and oil fields in Iraq. Small campaigns were fought in Africa and the Far East where both Britain and Germany were determined to protect their interests as well as their transport routes. Meanwhile Japan, by assisting Britain, strengthened its political position in South East Asia.

The Allies consisted of the following countries:


France  Great Britain Dominion of Canada
Commonwealth of Australia  Union of South Africa Russia
British India   Serbia New Zealand  
Montenegro  Belgium Italy
Siam  United States   Japan
Romania  Greece Brazil


Central Powers:

Germany   Bulgaria  Sultanate of Darfur
Austria-Hungary Ottoman Empire (Turkey) Jabal Shammar
Dervish State Azerbaijan  


When the War started Germany tried to beat France quickly by rushing through Belgium. However, because Britain had a treaty with Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany and by quickly deploying their small but skilful professional army delayed the Germans allowing Russia time to attack Germany’s eastern front. Germany faced with a war on two fronts had to go on the defensive. The stage was set for a long war that neither side was equipped or trained to overcome.

The Royal Navy was easily the strongest navy in the World and scored early victories. However, daring raids on British ports along the North Sea coast by the German Imperial Navy badly damaged Britain’s reputation as ruler of the seas.

1915 was the year that the harsh realities of trench warfare on the Western Front really became apparent. Barbed wire, machine guns, gas and the worst killer of them all, artillery, were lethal obstacles for soldiers to overcome. The War was also fought in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Turkey and Africa but the British Army’s greatest efforts were on the Western front and in Turkey where large scale amphibious landings at Gallipoli that failed.


Related Pages



BBC's Dan Snow - Why trenches?


The British, eager to regain face after the German attacks of December 1914, started the year with a victory at the Battle of Dogger Bank and continued to blockade Germany. The Germans used their submarines to place a strangle hold on Britain and her allies but their campaign was restricted to appease the United States after a submarine sank the SS Lusitania off Ireland with the loss of 1,198 lives.

The long hoped for battle between the powerful battleships of the time was fought over 31 May and 1 June off the coast off Jutland. Arguments continue as to who won the battle as the British lost more ships but in reality the Germans were chased from the battle back into port where they were once more blockaded. By the end of the year it was only the German submarines that were a threat to Britain.

With the German Fleet stuck in port it had been left to the submarines to take the War to Britain. To make the campaign more effective the Germans decided to attack any ship they thought a target without making sure they were an Allied ship. This change was a major factor in bringing the United States into the War on the side of the Allies.

The Allies had high hopes of a smashing victory on the Western Front but the attack along the Somme river on 1 July resulted in 20,000 British killed and 40,000 wounded, the British Army’s worst ever day. The battle lasted for months. At the same time the French were dealing with a ferocious attack on the fortress town of Verdun. During the year neither the Allies nor the Germans made progress on the Western Front and both sides suffered heavy casualties. Russia had more success on the Eastern Front in June defeating the Austro-Hungarian Army making Germany reinforce the Eastern Front. For more information on the Battle of the Somme click on the link to the following fact sheet:

1918 started badly for the Allies as the Germans and attacked the British in force. Despite suffering heavy losses the British fell back in good order and the German attacks fell short of a break through. In the summer the Allies, reinforced by troops from the United States, attacked and achieved the long sought after break through using aircraft and ground troops in co-ordinated attacks. By November the Germans were in retreat and asked for a cease-fire to start at 11am on 11 November.

By this time the British blockade was causing real hardship for the German people. In October, when the German Navy was ordered to go to sea again for the first time since 1916, the sailors mutinied. This resulted in a revolution in Germany that over-threw the German government.

The German submarine campaign was also by now biting hard and rationing of certain foods was introduced in this year starting with sugar and then meat, butter, cheese and margarine. Victory and peace were welcomed by the people who had given so much over the years.  However, the misery was not yet over as a new and unforeseen threat came in the form of the Spanish Flu that in Britain killed about 300,000 people and worldwide an estimated 50 to 100 million.


BBC documentary on the Treaty of Versailles


The Peace

In 1919 people were happy to see the end of the war with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June. A Peace Parade marched through Sunderland on July 1919 with elaborately decorated floats representing the countries of the Allies as well as local organisations and military units taking part.

Memorials remembering those who went to war and those who did not return were erected in local towns and villages whilst businesses and institutions produced their own memorials. Sunderland Borough’s memorial, a Winged Victory, was erected in Mowbray Park on Burdon Road in 1922.


Related and useful links for this page

Sunderland History - Sunderland School find First World War medal -



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