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

Farewell: soldiers wave goodbye as they leave Victoria Station in London. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Peace and War: Britain in 1914


Nigel Jones

Head of Zeus

Guideline Price:

‘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.”

Treacherous waters

All of which is to say that, as the anniversary of the outbreak of the war approaches this summer, we can expect not just an avalanche (already under way) of books and documentaries but also some heated political exchanges. Into which scenario Nigel Jones’s elegant and (as far as the subject allows) enjoyable new book on 1914 comes as a voice of calm. His audience is the general reader, not the academic community. Yet subtly and cleverly he navigates the treacherous waters of the historical arguments about the war and its personalities while never being afraid to show his own colours.

For example, Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, who is often portrayed as a callous, incompetent old buffer, emerges here as a more clear-sighted strategist than most. “A shrewd mind lurked behind the moustache,” Jones writes, “and almost uniquely at a moment when men were falling over themselves to join up and see some fighting before the war ended, as they thought, by Christmas – he foresaw that the conflict would last a long time, and that fighting and winning it would require not only vast numbers of men but the mobilisation of the huge resources of the entire British empire”.

Superb snapshot

Jones’s book offers a superb snapshot of Britain immediately before and after the decision for war. His broader question is whether the nation was “an orderly garden party about to be interrupted by a devastating thunderclap and cloudburst” or “a seething mass of unresolved conflicts and contradictions racing towards inevitable destruction”.

There are always plenty of baleful stories to support the former case, many of which are used here to telling effect. The Derby, Ascot, the Glorious Fourth, the Cowes Regatta and the Cavalry Ball continued serenely as Europe careened towards the precipice. At the Wimbledon lawn tennis championships the flamboyant New Zealander Tony Wilding –the first man to ride a motorcycle from Land’s End to John o’Groats – was narrowly defeated in one of the most tightly contested finals in the history of the tournament. Within a year he was dead, blown out of existence by a shell at the Battle of Aubers Ridge.

Yet the thrust of Jones’s book is that Britain by 1914 had already reached a crisis point, war or no war. Challenges abounded everywhere, including Ireland (which has its own fine chapter in this book), the suffragettes and industrial unrest, creating a fevered atmosphere of panic and crisis by 1914.

“Contrary to the sepia images of lazy country house weekends,” Jones writes, “out of a population of just over 46 million, the vast majority of British people belonged to the impoverished working class, living cheek by jowl in huddled poverty in the cities or eking out a bare existence on the sufferance of their landlords in a countryside where most land was privately owned and jealously guarded.”

As it turned out those differences did not count for much in the trenches, where the sons of the establishment, such as the prime minister’s son, Raymond Asquith, fought and died alongside their less privileged contemporaries in what Graves called the “corpse-strewn front line”.

Those “sepia images”, though, are an integral part of this handsomely produced book from Head of Zeus. Photographs have been skillfully integrated into the text, and make 1914 seem eerily close to our own time. Partly this is the quality of the photographs themselves, but oddly it is also a matter of fashion and taste. The tailored fit of the suits and the shorter haircuts are more reminiscent of our time than are, say, the late 1960s or 1970s.

Even the extravagant facial hair would not be out of place on on either side of the Atlantic today: mutton-chopped England in 1914 has its doppelganger in Brooklyn Heights in 2014.

A few minor slips aside (references to “Northern Ireland” in 1914 will raise eyebrows), the magnificent photographs combine with Jones’s thoughtful text to make Peace and War an outstanding introduction to how Britain experienced the first year of the Great War.

For all the sense that Britain in 1914 was already heading for the rocks, it remains difficult to shake off the feeling that the first World War was the defining catastrophe of the modern British experience. Britain would never fully regain its prewar wealth, strength and prestige. That would provide an opportunity for Ireland, although the war and its aftermath would also extract a human cost here. But for the British themselves, something vital seemed forever lost in the mud of Flanders field.

“For the first time I realised,” Brittain wrote of Armistice Day 1918, “with all that full realisation meant how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished. The war was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.”

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