France and Britain in 1920s

Strife Within: Britain in the 1920s


More than any other nation in the world, Britain emerged as the leader of democracy and protector of humanity after World War I. It had suffered less physical damage to the countryside than France, although the country writhed with the pain of more than 1 million dead and wounded men. As France rebuilt itself, and the United States retreated into isolationism, Britain became the face of Western democracy. But Britain also faced numerous challenges domestically and internationally. In the 1920s, the British economy was far from stable, and British politicians were consumed with the question of “What should Britain do about the Irish?”


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how events of the 1920s affected British and French societies.
  • Analyze how Ireland developed during the 1920s.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Irish Republican Army (IRA): nationalist and militaristic group that supported Irish independence from England

Irish Civil War: 1922 – 1923 war that pitted supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with those who opposed the treaty

Irish Free State: predecessor to the Republic of Ireland (1922 – 1949)

Irish War for Independence: 1919 – 1921 conflict fought between Irish nationalists and the British

Michael Collins: hero of the Easter Uprising and Irish War for Independence who was assassinated during the Irish Civil War for signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty


The British Economy after World War I


During World War I, the Atlantic Ocean had transformed into a theater of combat between British ships and German submarines. Millions of tons of British exported goods had been sunk. For an industrialized economy such as Britain’s, this loss was difficult to bear. In particular, the loss of exported, manufactured goods proved difficult for the British because of interwar competition from Japan and the United States. As a result, unemployment soared in Great Britain following World War I. By 1921, roughly four million people were receiving government aid. For the thousands of British soldiers returning home from the war, there were often too few jobs.

Throughout the 1920s, the British economy fluctuated and proved unstable. In 1925, Winston Churchill reintroduced the gold standard to generate income from British exports. But the result was that Americans and other nations undersold the British abroad. British manufactured goods were overpriced and undersold, contributing widely to the wavering economy. Moreover, when the Great Depression struck the United States in 1929, it would amplify economic problems for the British. For no longer did foreign countries want to purchase what were, already overpriced, manufactured goods. As a result, Britain lost many of the export markets it relied on, the economy remained poor, and unemployment remained high.


The "Roaring 20s" in Britain


The only country to emerge prosperous immediately after World War I was the United States. In fact, by 1920, Britain experienced deep economic crises. Despite heavy American influence on both France and Britain in the 1920s, neither country “roared” with the financial success of the United States. For the British, the 1920s were a very difficult decade politically and economically.

But just as the French and Americans experienced cultural revolutions in the 1920s, so too did the British. During World War I, women had filled the labor void caused by men leaving for war. After the war, British women called later for the right to vote, believing that they had demonstrated their equality with men. In 1918, Britain gave women the right to vote. On the heels of this achievement came the idea of the “new woman”: the flapper. Internationally renowned for her short hair, beaded necklaces, short dresses, and “morally loose” lifestyle, flapper women became pronounced throughout British society.

Like the Americans and French, British men and women experienced more leisure time in the 1920s. Radio programs became widely popular. In the evenings, men and women also flocked to theaters, cafés, movie houses, and sporting events. But the love of life that permeated America and France in the 1920s never reached the same zenith in Britain.


The Irish Question


In Great Britain’s modern history, no question has proved so bitter and ill-fated as the question of Irish statehood. Part of the difficulty resided in Ireland itself. On the eve of World War I, six counties in the north of Ireland remained strongly pro-British and protestant. The remaining four-fifths of the country were strongly Catholic and supported Irish independence, and a breakaway from England—a country that had treated them as second-class citizens or even indentured servants.


The Irish War for Independence


In 1916, England was in the middle of fighting World War I against the Central Powers. But that did not dissuade the explosion of Irish discontent. The same year, a group of roughly 3,000 Irish patriots launched a rebellion against English rule. Known as the Easter Uprising, the nationalists captured key buildings in Dublin in April 1916. The British responded swiftly. Despite the fact they needed men to fight on the Western Front, the British sent 8,000 troops to Ireland to crush the Irish insurrectionists. At the end of the rebellion, fifteen Irish leaders were executed. The end-result was not what the British anticipated, however. Except for northeast Ireland, the Irish independence movement swept throughout the country. It would culminate in numerous bloody wars between the English and Irish during the 1920s.

In 1919, Irish representatives were elected to the British parliament. With Irish nationalism growing, they refused to take their seats. Instead, the representatives formed their own Irish governing assembly in Dublin. Nationwide strikes and boycotts against British businesses, shops, and industries took place. The Irish War for Independence had begun. Within weeks, the Irish Republican Army was formed to fight the British, who were preparing to use force to suppress the Irish.


A group of the “Black and Tans.” The Black and Tans were British soldiers and Irish soldiers loyal to Britain who fought against the Irish Republican Army during the Irish Civil War. They were infamously known for the atrocities they committed during the two-year conflict.


For two years, war raged in Ireland. The Irish Republican Army fought for the independence of Ireland. The British forces, nicknamed the “Black and Tans” because of their mismatched uniforms, were largely a group of war veterans deployed to crush the Irish. Frustrated and war weary, the Black and Tans quickly became known for their poor discipline and willingness to carry-out war crimes against the Irish. These crimes included murder and torture of soldiers and civilians, as well as the burning of civilian homes. By the end of the war, both sides had adopted guerilla warfare, and the war had escalated dramatically, particularly in Dublin.

After two years of brutal warfare, the Irish were running out of ammunition, while British resources appeared to be endless. In December 1921, the two sides signed a peace treaty. The following year, British forces withdrew from southern Ireland. In 1922, the Irish achieved their principal goal, and the Irish Free State was created. Originally a dominion of Great Britain, the Free State included 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland. (Northern Ireland—the remaining six counties—did not join the Free State and remained loyal to Great Britain.)


The Irish Civil War


Although the Irish Free State was created in 1922, many Irish people felt the conflict was far from over. The British has stopped short of recognizing the Irish Free State as entirely independent. It was a country independent from the United Kingdom, but still considered part of the British Empire. A fact which many Irish nationalists resented deeply. Moreover, the Anglo-Irish peace treaty had divided Ireland into two separate and distinct Irelands: the Irish Free State and Ulster (Northern Ireland)—the six counties in northeast Ireland that remained loyal to England and part of Great Britain.

Across Ireland, people became divided over the treaty. Many sought an independent, united, and single Ireland with no attachments to Great Britain. Many others felt that they had achieved the best possible peace terms with the British. In 1922, the Irish Civil War erupted between those who supported the treaty, and those who did not. For eleven months, brutal warfare spread throughout Ireland, claiming between 1,500 and 2,000 lives. The most famous casualty of the civil war was none other than the hero in both the Easter Uprising, and the Irish War for Independence, Michael Collins.

Anti-treaty forces assassinated Collins in County Cork, Ireland because of his role in approving the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 The side that supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 ultimately won the Irish Civil War. In 1931, the passage of the Statute of Westminster ensured that the Parliament of the United Kingdom relinquished nearly all of its remaining authority over the Free State of Ireland; this had the effect of granting the Free State internationally recognized sovereignty. In 1949, the Irish Free State achieved complete independence and was renamed the Republic of Ireland. As well as “the Republic of Ireland,” the state is also referred to as “Ireland,” “Éire,” “the Republic,” “Southern Ireland,” or “the South,” depending on who is making the reference and to whom. To this date, deep tension still exists between Northern Ireland, which remains largely protestant, and a part of the United Kingdom, and the largely Catholic country, the Republic of Ireland. This tension is conveyed through the many names used to reference this one nation.


Irish hero, Michael Collins, lying in state after his assassination in 1922.


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