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WWI Primary Resource Guide: Political responses to the War in Britain

This guide aims to highlight a range of key primary resources relevant to the British experience of WWI.

Political responses to the War in Britain

LSE, Union of Democratic Control

The impetus for the formation of the Union of Democratic Control was the outbreak of WWI, which its founders saw as having resulted from largely secret international understandings which were not subject to democratic overview. Although not a pacifist organisation, the UDC was opposed to military influence in government, producing numerous pamplets pressing for a more responsive foreign policy. A large selection of these pamphlets can be viewed at the LSE Archives, including material from its founders, Charles P. Trevelyan (a Liberal government minister who resigned his post in opposition to the war) and Ramsay Macdonald (who resigned as Chairman of the Labour Party when it supported the government's war budget).

Queen Mary, University of London, Edward Grey correspondence

Visitors to Queen Mary (University of London) can access the Lyttleton family archives, which include correspondence with several eminent politicians active during the war. The archives include material by Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary between 1905-1916. Grey famously remarked at the outbreak of WWI, 'The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.'

British Library Sounds, Asquith speech

Among selected recordings of music and the spoken word, researchers can visit the British Library Sounds website to access a speech made by H.H. Asquith regarding the causes of WWI.

Screenshot from the British Library's Oral history webpage

Conservative Party Archive, Bodleian Libraries

The Conservative Party Archive (CPA) consists of the records of the Conservative Party’s central and national organisations, along with certain regional records, from 1867 to the present.  The Conservatives served with the Liberals in an all-party coalition government during the First World War, the intricacies of which can be investigated via the CPA. The Archive is housed at the Bodleian Library, and is a valuable source for anyone interested in the political climate before, during and after the First World War. The CPA contains papers representing all three areas of Party organisation (elected, voluntary, professional), thereby providing a comprehensive account of responses to war, from grassroots to ministerial level. Aside from the Party’s minutes and working papers researchers can also access a large quantity of non-manuscript material: newsletters, pamphlets, leaflets and advertisements, election posters and handbills, photographs of senior Party figures and events.

Additional resources held locally

Within Modern Political Papers (Modern Political MSS), the Bodleian holds one of the largest concentrations of modern British political manuscripts and archives. The collections are drawn from the private papers of politicians from all three major political parties, as well as from public servants (mainly diplomats), print and broadcast journalists, and others active in public life.  Among this material is the papers of six of Britain’s twentieth-century Prime Ministers, including H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-1916 and leader of the wartime coalition government.

Researchers may consult the Asquith Papers not simply for detailed political and official content about his career, but also for material bringing greater depth to the narrative of his life and times. Personal correspondence sent to two of his confidantes are accessible, including include a letter to Sylvia Stanley following Asquith's resignation in December 1916. Digital.Bodleian provides additional resources, offering a digitised selection of letters, journals and maps.

In addition, materials are available pertaining to members of Asquith's cabinet. These include an unofficial cabinet diary by Lewis 'Loulou' Harcourt (1863-1922), which provides an insightful window on the government previously unavailable to historians. Harcourt sat next to Asquith in Cabinet, often speaking quietly to him rather than joining in the general discussion. He was requested to refrain from keeping notes during meetings by both Asquith and Churchill but resorted to writing them up immediately afterwards.

It is also worth noting that the Bodleian holds microfiches of the archives of the British Labour Party, British Independent Labour Party and British Liberal Party. These include organisational and regional records, pamphlets and leaflets, minutes and annual reports, many of which touch on political responses to WWI.


University of Birmingham, papers of Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain, future leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, was appointed as Director General of National Service by Lloyd George in 1916. Papers held in the Archive and Manuscript Collections at the University of Birmingham include some official correspondence and reports in relation to this role. In addition, the letters he wrote to family members give personal comment and opinion on the war. They also refer to his chairmanship of a tribunal for exemption from military service and his involvement with companies which supplied essential items to the armed forces. Correspondence from family members is of considerable interest, providing a perspective on the Home Front and the effects of food shortages and rationing. The collection also includes letters from his cousin Norman who was serving in the army (and was killed in action) and from his brother Austen concerning his government work during the war.

Further information on Austen Chamberlain's wartime activity can be found within his Papers, which are also held at the University of Birmingham. During the war he served as Secretary of State for India (1915-17) and subsequently as a member of the war Cabinet (1918-1919). Official and political documents accrued by Chamberlain can be viewed alongside a volume of family correspondence covering the period of WWI.

Photo of Neville Chamberlain, National Portrait Gallery

Neville Chamberlain, National Portrait Gallery