2014 & All That


PennySmallNext year sees the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

The chatter over how this should be marked has already started. There’s no point putting any links in here. You can Google the debate easily enuff, with government ministers, historians and assorted pundits all offering various views. These basically split into

a) It was horrible and futile,

b) It was horrible but necessary, or,

c) This fence is hurting my bum.

The problem with the horrible and futile school is that it’s a bit old hat, and that the ‘Oh What a Lovely War!’ or ‘Blackadder Goes Fourth’ viewpoint oversimplifies things. The generals weren’t all idiots, and by 1918 Britain had produced a thoroughly professional sort-of-citizen army which comprehensively defeated the Germans in the field.

The other issue with horrible and futile is that the knee-jerk leftist take on it is that the vile upper classes squandered the lives of the working classes. Not really; the most dangerous thing to be in the trenches was a public school educated junior officer.

The horrible but necessary school has been winning ground recently by pointing out that Germany was run by militaristic semi-autocratic regime which was the aggressor. It therefore had to be stopped by more decent and democratic powers.

Uh-huh. This begs the question of how much better Britain was (let’s leave France and America and Tsarist or Communist Russia out of it for now). Britain at this time was a highly stratified society run by a Conservative/Liberal oligarchy which in 1914 was in dread fear of socialism and trade unions, and which, by the way, didn’t think much to the idea of giving women the vote either. As for German aggression, well they thought (with good reason) that they were threatened by France and Russia and needed to strike first.

It all very well to take the view that we were better than the Germans, but if you actually read up on the rhetoric used by politicians and soldiers at the time, it is couched in terms of King and Empire, two things that very few Britons would be prepared to die for – and more significantly, kill for – nowadays.

So on the whole, me personally, while I can’t imagine a German victory being all that wonderful (though you can create counterfactuals in which it’s not that bad, and perhaps even prevents WW2), I’m mostly with the horrible and futile school. The more so since the war resolved nothing and was re-fought all over again in 1939-45, which really was horrible but necessary.

Mostly horrible and futile, I said … The one thing you can say is that the Great War brought about massive social change in Britain, and all of it for the better.

I’m currently working on a book about Bristol’s home front in WW1, which may not sound all that interesting but which actually turns out to be fascinating. Part of the problem we have with the Great War is that popular memory is almost exclusively bound up in mud, trenches, war poets and the tragedy of a generation of young men dying.

We tend to think very little about what happened at home, beyond perhaps some vague ideas that lots of women went to work in factories. The real story is far richer than that; this is a time of suffering and privation at home, but it is also a time of huge social change and of real advances in the conditions of working people in general and of women, too. On a day to day basis, though, there are also some fascinating stories, some of them awful, some of them rather funny. The middle class moral panics over the behaviour of the lower orders, for instance.

Moral panics because people are being paid better wages (and spending them on pianos, my dear!), because women have slightly more freedom, and with it other career options than just becoming servants. Returning servicemen knowing with utter certainty that newspapers tell lies. And coming back, in quite a lot of cases, actually, to eventually get decent housing. “Homes fit for heroes” was an empty promise for some, but it was fulfilled for many.

The War helped achieve real advances in most people’s lives, though again folk memory deceives us into believing that the 1920s and 30s were times of unalloyed deprivation for the working classes. They were in many places, and the 1926 General Strike was a genuinely revolutionary situation, but most people’s lives in most places most of the time were far better than they had been in a time of greater deference to one’s social betters.

(I’d also love to be able to stand up my completely unproven hypothesis that the cenotaph in Bristol’s city centre was sited there and not on College Green because the old establishment feared it would be a rallying point for trade unionists and socialists who had served in the war…  War memorials don’t have to be conservative/establishment icons, you know,)

The Great War is part of the folklore of every family. Many of us still have diaries, letters, photos and medals from relatives who served. Some of us still have a bronze plaque awarded to the families of those who had lost their lives. Popularly known as the “dead man’s penny”. That’s the one for my great uncle, C/SM Patrick Byrne in the pic.

It’s more of a part of our lives than many of us realise. Perhaps 2014 will see it taking its proper place in popular memory, alongside WW2, of which we take rather more positive view.

Horrible and futile it was, but that should not diminish or demean those who lived and died in it. We should honour their memory, and make a decent account of what they went through, and of what they achieved.

In Bristol, much of the 2014 commemorations are being co-ordinated by Bristol 2014. You might want to look at their Facebook Group, which has lots of links to the debate, and loads of interesting little local stories.

M Shed are also looking for family mementoes for their big 2014 exhibition. See http://mshed.org/about-us/news/what-did-your-relatives-do-during-the-first-world-war/

Plenty more of this in the months to come. BTW, I just this morning put up a wee pic of the YMCA “Dug Out” for servicemen in Bristol in 1917 on the FB group. If anyone out there has any idea of the relationship between this place and the famous local nightclub of later decades, I’d love to know. Cheers.


3 Responses to “2014 & All That”

  1. Bristol Radical History Group will be commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I by looking at other aspects of the conflict, i.e. strikes, mutinies, fraternisation and desertion.

    As regards the latter, I’m reliably informed by an aunt of mine that one of my great uncles (name forgotten until I can find her letter again!) deserted in France during the conflict and was never heard from again.

    If anybody has knowledge of any of those amongst their family members, contact BRH.

  2. Off-topic from this interesting and dead-on analysis, I was just looking over my bookshelves today and noticed your absolutely excellent Things Unborn. I loved that book (and your other fiction). If you were to write another, I’d buy it for several of my friends. I would also read it.

  3. 3 Jonboy

    Conductors did not wind off bus tickets in Bristol in 1955. They still had the old Bell Punch machines and wooden racks of pre-priced tickets.

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