English patriotism was still a force in 1914. On the first day of the war, my mother’s three brothers, and my father and his two brothers, all joined up together, in the Artists’ Rifles. On the first day of the second world war, which I remember well, there were some similarities, but they were superficial. Again, my elder brother joined immediately. But the mood was resignation, not enthusiasm. There was no rejoicing, no talk of a new and better world: just a despairing attempt to preserve what was left of an unsatisfactory old one.
The truth is, the Great War knocked the stuffing out of the British. They have never been the same since, collectively. Of the 722,000 killed, the vast majority were volunteers, overwhelmingly young: the eager elite. Adam Hochschild writes: ‘Of every 20 British men between 18 and 32 when the war broke out, three were dead and six wounded when it ended.’ Over 41,000 had one or more limbs cut off, another 10,000 were blinded, and 65,000 were receiving treatment for shell-shock ten years after the war. My father’s case was typical. Wounded three times, and gassed, he did not actually die until 1943, but it was the result of what happened to him in Flanders. He never spoke about the trenches. None of them did. It was too horrible to recall.
Speaking for the fallen, Kipling wrote:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
That was true. Pre-war ‘secret diplomacy’ got us into the war in the first place. The British people were lied to throughout, not least by Asquith. The generals lied to the troops about their suicidal offensives. On the Western Front the British army was commanded, in succession, by two second-rate cavalry generals, French and Haig. The latter, in particular, was a mass-killer, who grandly lived throughout in a comfortable, safe château, and never went within rifle-shot of the Front if he could help it. It was the only war in which the commanders-in-chief were never in any personal danger.
The wonder is that opposition to the war was not more widespread. Hochschild’s book is devoted to the subject, but he has to look hard to find it. It did not ‘divide Britain’, as he says, largely because it had no top-level political leadership. In the Napoleonic period, the Whigs and the Holland House circle usually opposed Pitt’s war policy. Even in the Boer War, radicals like Lloyd George openly came out against fighting. But in the Great War it took a long time before the moth-eaten old Lansdowne, a former foreign secretary, spoke up for peace, and he was promptly shouted down. Much of the blame lies with the press lords, especially Northcliffe. George V was another guilty man, and it was he who prevented Lloyd George from sacking Haig.
All the same, the passivity and long- suffering acceptance by the public of appalling casualties and endless privations is remarkable. Sir Basil Thomson, the sinister Scotland Yard boss who had charge of hunting down anti-war agitators, employed over 700 agents. But they came up with very little. Indeed the authorities were even driven to inventing plots, as in the Wheeldon case, a supposed conspiracy of Mrs Alice Wheeldon and her two daughters to poison Lloyd George. This was a sensational miscarriage of justice in which a warmongering judge and the reckless F.E. Smith were the villains.
Hochschild describes it in detail, and it makes sickening reading. He also deals with one or two court-martial cases of alleged cowardice at the Front, including the conviction of Sergeant Stones, shot at dawn for, in effect, sitting down bemused while in a state of shock.
These military executions were, perhaps, the worst aspect of the entire sorry story, and here again Haig, who usually insisted on severity, was the chief villain. He must also take responsibility for the most senseless killing of all. The Armistice was signed in Foch’s railway car at 5 am on 11 November 1918, to go into effect six hours later. But Haig refused to countermand Allied attacks which continued relentlessly throughout the six-hour period. So after the peace was signed, 2,738 men on both sides were killed, and over 8,000 wounded. Haig was rewarded with an earldom and £100,000 in tax- payers’ money, plus the purchase of his family’s ancestral estate at Bemersyde.
A number of notable personalities went to prison for anti-war activities. They included Bertrand Russell. It was an age of privilege, even, perhaps especially, in prison, and because of his birth he was given ‘First Division’ status, which meant he was allowed pen and paper, and books. Hence he was among the first readers of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, who had escaped the call-up by his notorious jest. Russell’s cackle-like laugh, as he read Strachey’s mendacious tome, could be heard all along the First Division corridor, and brought a rebuking visit from the warder. ‘Your laughter, sir, is unseemly,’ he was told. ‘You must remember, prison is a place of penitence.’ Hochschild, surprisingly, does not tell this story. Indeed, he is rather short on humour, even of the gallows type.
Nor does he make sufficient comparisons between events in Britain and opposition to the war in France, Germany and other belligerents, where mutinies, mass-deserters and other radical and violent acts were common.
Nevertheless his book is well worth reading, rich in strange stories and terrible facts. He tells of the Kaiser seeking, in the closing days of the war, to persuade munitions workers at the Krupps factory in Essen, to aim at higher productivity. He said: ‘To every single one of us a task is given. You there with your hammer, you there with your lathe, and to me, on my throne.’ The remark was received in silence, broken by titters, and even the thick-skinned Kaiser must have realised that the end was near.
In Britain, the line held, just. But King George V covered himself in historic ignominy by refusing asylum to his cousin the Tsar, in order to save his own throne. What an extraordinary moment in history it was, that agonising Great War, such a blend of heroic sublimity and dark poltroonery.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 25, 2011Tags: Book review, Britain, First World War, War history, Wartime, WWI