Not a word of the fighting: Peace and War – Britain in 1914
British reticence meant the first World War’s full trauma was slow to emerge at home. Only in the 1920s and 1930s did the idea take hold that the ‘war to end all wars’ was a tragic, unnecessary waste
Farewell: soldiers wave goodbye as they leave Victoria Station in London. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty
Peace and War: Britain in 1914
Head of Zeus
‘My diary for August 3rd, 1914, contains a most incongruous mixture of war and tennis,” Vera Brittain recalled in Testament of Youth, her harrowing memoir of the first World War. “I do not know,” the diary recorded, “how we all managed to play tennis so calmly and take quite an interest in the result. I suppose it is because we all know so little of the real meaning of war that we are so indifferent.”
That indifference would not last long. Great Britain declared war on Germany the next day. Within the month, almost 20,000 men in the British Expeditionary Force – the British army – had been killed, wounded or were missing in action. By the end of the war, in 1918, nearly nine million had been mobilised. A third of that number became casualties. About 900,000 died, of whom 49,000 were Irish. On July 1st, 1916, alone – the first day of the Battle of the Somme – there were 57,470 casualties, with 19,240 killed and 35,493 wounded. It remains the worst day in the history of the British army.
The full impact of this national trauma took some time to emerge. In part that was due to the reticence displayed by most at the front, whose letters home often avoided the horrors of war. (“Not a word of the fighting, / But just the sheep on the hill, / And how you should get the crops in”, wrote the poet Ewart Alan Mackintosh, who was himself killed in 1917.)
Only in the 1920s and 1930s, as searing memoirs by authors such as Brittain and Robert Graves were published, did the idea take hold in the UK that the “war to end all wars” had been a tragedy and an unnecessary waste, not only for those who had died but also for those who survived. “We belonged to a doomed generation,” lamented the English writer Osbert Sitwell.
Even 100 years after its outbreak the war continues to provoke not just historiographical debate but also political controversy in Britain. Michael Gove, the British education secretary, recently scolded “left-wing academics” and the legacy of television programmes such as Blackadder for peddling views of the war that “reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.
The professor he named, Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at Cambridge, hit back in kind, saying, “Gove has again shown his ignorance of history and his preference for mythmaking over scholarship.”