Patriots or conchies? Not all of them.
In all the commemoration of the First World War, and the inevitable political spats, there’s been a great deal of talk from various folks wanting to use it for their own present-day agendas.
So far, so normal. That’s history for you.
At one end of the spectrum are small and big-‘c’ conservatives who claim the war was necessary and just, and that those who fought were honest, stout-hearted patriots and heroes. All of them.
At the other end is a more fragmentary collection of socialists (the war was a great capitalist conspiracy against the working class), anarchists and peace campaigners who claim the war was unnecessary and avoidable.
Personally I’m with neither side. Ideology don’t boil no historical cabbages. FWIW my view is that it was all a ghastly and unnecessary fuck-up which was avoidable, but became unavoidable once the more-or-less mechanical military systems were switched on. AJP Taylor’s War by Timetable.
So if you listen to these arguments from either end, people in 1914 are either all patriots eager to do their duty or they are socialists, trade unionists and pacifists desperate to prevent the tragedy which is about to ensue.
Fine. There are actually plenty of both.
What there also is is large numbers of people with no strong views either way. And plenty of these just don’t want to have anything to do with it.
There hasn’t been a lot of work done on this, but the fact is that large (but unquantifiable) numbers of Britons in 1914 don’t really want the Germans to win, but they don’t really want to fight either.
This only becomes apparent once conscription is introduced in 1916. Again, historians and Guardian-readers alike are fixated on the relatively small numbers of people who appealed against military service on the grounds that they were conscientious objectors. This ignores the far larger numbers who appealed on other grounds – family or work responsibilities, medical unfitness etc.
Many of these were doubtless honest men who believed that they were best serving their families and their country by carrying on as before. But others were simply trying to worm out of being put in uniform, being shouted at by block-headed NCOs and shivering in trenches where Germans were trying – with a high degree of success – to kill or injure them.
You can’t blame them. But at the time if their real motivations were understood and exposed – which they sometimes were – they were called cowards.
In that sense, conscientious objectors, who were also labelled cowards (which they most certainly were not) did the real cowards an immense service. In rural areas, the conchies did farmers a huge favour by deflecting some of the loathing that they attracted for getting some, often all, of their sons out of having to join up.
So anyway, here’s a yarn about lack of martial ardour from Bristol in 1914. I came across it a couple of weeks ago. No idea if it’s true or not, as it could well be the sort of yarn told in any town, but here goes anyway:
So war has just been declared and there’s this very wealthy bloke living in Clifton. He strides down to the recruiting office wanting to do his bit for King & Country, but despite all his protests he is told that he is far too old for the Army.
Disappointed, he goes home pondering how he can help the nation in its hour of need. He then realises that he can make a very great and patriotic sacrifice. He will give up his valet.
He summons his man to the library and tells him what a lucky fellow he is to be single and of military age at this great moment in history. It will be his great good fortune to be able to serve his country.
In view of his marvellous gesture in volunteering, he adds that he will instruct the chauffeur to drive him down to the recruiting office first thing in the morning.
Jeeves, or whatever his name was, says nothing, and is dismissed.
First thing in the morning rolls around, and the master of the house is perplexed to find that his man has not come in to help him dress for one last time.
Because, of course, Jeeves is in no hurry to join the Army and has done a runner.
Plug time: For more on Bristol in WW1, you need ‘Bravo, Bristol!’ by Clive Burlton and me. Available from Amazon and all the usual places.
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