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Britain In The First World War

The 1914-1918 War was, for Britain, a traumatic experience - hence the emotional reactions to it which continue this day. It was, I am certain, far more traumatic for Britain than for Europeans, and far, far more so than it was for America. It was also far more traumatic for Britain than the Second World War, although that War affected many more people in Britain much more directly than the Great War. This lecture tries to explore, to some extent, the nature of that British trauma.

It is fair to say, of course, that for every nation directly involved - and for many that were less so - the Great War was a traumatic experience:

  • it was traumatic for the United States to give up the long-cherished dream of isolation from the wickedness of Europe, and enter the European war;
  • it was traumatic for Imperial Russia to turn into the Soviet Union in 1917;
  • it was traumatic for Imperial Germany to taste defeat after nearly fifty years of expansion, to abandon a regal and aristocratic social structure and attempt the unfamiliar procedures of democracy; and
  • it was traumatic for France to have had her country ravaged and her manhood slaughtered to the unbelievable extent of that war - 1,385,300 dead, 3.5% of the population, 18% of men mobilised.

What, one may then ask, was so special about the British trauma? Indeed, one could go even further; one could ask, 'why any trauma at all?' What, after all, was Britain's posture at the time of the Armistice in November 1918? How did the war leave her? The answer could be summed up as follows:

  • she possessed incomparably the most powerful Navy in the world, and her most serious naval rival had been eliminated;
  • she possessed the largest Merchant Marine in the world;
  • she possessed the largest Air Force in the world;
  • she had an Army of over 3 1/2 million men, including the most effective contingent of the victorious Allied forces on the main front;
  • her industries - some of which had been decidedly backward or flagging in 1914 - had received great stimulus;
  • important new industries had been created (for example, chemicals, dyestuffs, optical glass and instruments, non-ferrous metal refineries, aircraft and aero-engines);
  • there was full employment - indeed, a labour shortage; and
  • over one million square miles were in process of being added to Britain's overseas possessions and dependencies.

It could well be asked; 'what was there to have a trauma about?' The short answer to that question has to be, quite unsurprisingly, delusion. By this I mean: delusion before the event; delusion during the event; and delusion after the event. It was comprehensive.

Let us look at these in reverse order: first, delusion after the event. As Correlli Barnett has said, in his penetrating book, The Collapse of British Power (1972): 'By the early 1930s the Great War had become the great British excuse.' (Incidentally, it is interesting how the name 'The Great War', sticks to World War I, even now, as though what happened between 1939-45 was just some kind of prolonged and mildly dangerous sporting event, instead of being the most ferocious and destructive war in history.)

To return to Correlli Barnett's point: 'Great British excuse' - for what? First, many writers have referred to irreparable economic damage, but this, according to Barnett, is myth - one of the innumerable myths about that war which seem to be immortal. The myth is, says Barnett, that the war 'in no way inflicted crippling economic damage on Britain' - and he gives impressive chapter and verse for that. Indeed he tells us that the war saw 'an industrial revolution carried through at breakneck speed'. But more important than the question of economic loss, he says, was the legend of a crippling human loss - in other words, the legend of the Lost Generation, the death of what is sometimes called 'the flower of British youth', 'the cream of British manhood', 'a whole British generation', the natural leaders of the future.

And this, too, says Barnett, quite correctly, is a myth. He points out that both in actual numbers and in proportion to population, Britain's (that is, the United Kingdom's) losses were less than Germany's. Yet, as he states, 'it could hardly be said that Germany's national will and energy had been severely and permanently injured.' Similarly with Italy; Barnett reminds us that the United Kingdom dead on the Western Front in four years of war amounted to rather more than half a million. Italian dead, on their single front, in three - not four - years amounted to 460,000 - a not very different figure. 'Yet he says, no one seemed to think that Italian life had been drained of its vitality.' Indeed, in both those countries, despite losses in the Great War, the nationalistic thrust of Fascism was a chief contributory factor in bringing about war in 1939.

And then there is France, a country obviously badly hurt by the awful blood-letting of 1914-18. We should never forget that the French dead amounted to 3.5% of the total population. For Britain, the proportion is 1.9%. Correlli Barnett concludes: 'The truth was that the Great War crippled the British psychologically but in no other way.'

This psychological damage was to be a most serious matter in the inter-war years. When the first direct totalitarian threat - the rise of Fascism - manifested itself in the 1930s, it found the British people and successive governments disoriented, bewildered, infatuated with foolish policies. And when the test came, in 1939, it found them materially weak and mentally ill-prepared. Indeed, this psychological dislocation affected their conduct of the Second World War to the very end, and at times was the cause of severe strains upon the Anglo-American alliance.

How did it come about? How did the British people come to delude themselves that they had had a worse war than anyone else between 1914-18? Partly, I would suggest, quite seriously, the answer is very simple indeed: Britain is a group of islands; the British fame of mind, for many centuries, has been proudly insular. It did not attach large importance to what happened to foreigners; if they were having a bad time, it was scarcely to be wondered at, since they not only suffered the grave misfortune of not being British, but compounded it by not even trying to imitate the excellent British example. In a word, the British were very little interested in foreign comparisons, and I think they are much the same today.

Within their own direct experience there were, I suggest, two main reasons why they took the Great War so badly. The first is identified and inspected with some care by Correlli Barnett:

the English governing class was small and intimate, educated in a handful of [public] schools. Assuming in war its customary right and duty to lead the nation, this narrow governing class supplied the bulk or the subalterns (the young junior officers), especially in the early years of the war, and therefore sustained an immensely higher proportionate loss than the nation as a whole; how high the public schools' rolls of honour tragically record.

Barnett gives an impressive list of losses sustained by this (obviously) profoundly important section of the community. They include the son of the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith: Raymond Asquith, a young man of immense promise - (a legend in himself to his generation' says Barnett. The future Conservative Prime Minister, Bonar Law, lost two of his four sons.

Another future Prime Minister speaks for himself: Anthony Eden, infantry officer, later supporter of the League of Nations, opponent of appeasement, wartime Foreign Secretary, supporter of the United Nations, Prime Minister 1955-57:

The First World War saw the destruction of the world as I knew it. My eldest brother was killed in the first autumn and my father died a few months later. My other elder brother was interned in Germany, while my uncle, the commander of a squadron in the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and captured. News reached me when I was in the trenches ...... that my youngest brother, to whom I was closest in age and affection, had been killed at Jutland at the age of sixteen. When a few weeks later I heard, during the battle of the Somme, that my sister's husband had been seriously wounded nearby, it seemed to me that the worst that could happen had happened. Every single male member of the family, with whom I had spent my life before the war, was dead, wounded or captured.

Let me only add three more names, all to become Prime Ministers too, and all with direct personal experience of the war: Churchill, who commanded an infantry battalion on the Western Front between 1915-16; Clement Attlee, who succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1945, and in 1915 had been a regimental officer at Gallipoli; Harold Macmillan, Guards officer, badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, Prime Minister 1957-63.

It is clear that a governing class so painfully affected by the war would be likely to have difficulty in seeing it in perspective. Misapprehensions would not find a ready corrective in that quarter.

But the misapprehensions themselves went far beyond the governing class, which was only a very small fraction of the total population. They were a phenomenon very closely associated with that large section which we call, somewhat vaguely, 'the middle class'. What was it that so disturbed that normally rather stolid body of British opinion? What put the British middle class into a state of trauma? Correlli Barnett blames war literature; he says:

The middle classes' picture of the Great War was the result more than anything else of the tremendous effect produced on their minds by best-selling memoirs and novels about life on the Western Front.

He is, of course, referring to that large body of writing in the 1920s and 1930s which we usually call the 'Literature of Disenchantment'. It reached its height, not in the strange, sad book of that name by C. E. Montague which came out in 1922, but in the poems of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others, with their searing and haunting imagery, whose definitive editions started to appear at the end of the Twenties. There is no doubting the impact of this literature, continuing to this day. Correlli Barnett is right; it was a factor - a very important one. But I think there is one that goes deeper.

It relates, not so much to what actually happened, as to those to whom it happened - that very special British Army of 1914-18. Some years ago I wrote an Introduction to a reprint of one of the best known of the war books, the novel The Secret Battle by A. P. Herbert. The new edition came out in 1982, with its original Preface by Winston Churchill. It is a book which I heartily recommend to you. In it A. P. Herbert - a very civilised man, later a distinguished Member of Parliament - displays his recoil from the uncivilised procedures - the stupidities, the lack of perception and imagination, the wanton cruelty - which he had witnessed in the war. And none of these elements, I remarked in my Introduction, had been in short supply. I added, however,

It was not that horrible things had never happened to British armies before - on the contrary. But they had never happened to an army like this, so the impact was new. The armies of the 18th century, or the Peninsula (1808-14) or the Crimea (1854-55), were composed of people considered by the English middle class as expendable: in the ranks, the 'lower orders', and as officers, the sons of the aristocracy and the squires. Both of these groups could be easily spared. But in 1914 the middle class itself went to war for the first time, and the British bourgeoisie was tutored in military experience. It had everything to learn.

And that, I think, is the heart of the matter.

Perhaps I should explain it a little further, because we have here one of the great British curiosities - indeed two: the class system, and the military system.

In 1914 all the armies of the European powers were conscript armies, all subject to a draft of varying degrees of severity. In France it was very severe indeed; in such a country as Belgium, very much less so; less so also in Germany, When the United States entered the war in 1917, the draft was introduced six weeks after the declaration of war (18 May). This followed the Civil War precedent of March 1863.

In Britain there was no such precedent.

Alone among the powers, Britain went to war with a volunteer army, and continued to depend on volunteers for the first two and a half years of war. This volunteer army had been much admired when it won victories in war but in peacetime was much execrated by the middle classes as a refuge for the idle and worthless, and a horrible expense which had to be borne by more thrifty and industrious people. The Navy they could put up with; the Navy stood between the British islands and potential invaders; the Navy protected trade on all the oceans - and the middle class was definitely interested in trade. Best of all, the Navy was usually out of sight. It protected the Empire, of course but unless they had very definite trade links with some part of it, or supported missionary societies at work in it, the middle class did not, generally speaking, pay much attention to the Empire, though they were vaguely proud of it.

Furthermore, the Army had nasty habits. Its officers assumed airs of superiority which 'decent hard-working people' (to use a favourite description of themselves) found infuriating. The historian F. S. Oliver tells us:

The school of thought which remained predominant throughout the great industrial epoch bitterly resented the assumption ... that the profession of arms was more honourable in its nature than commerce and other peaceful pursuits... Inefficiency, idleness, indifference, trifling and extravagance were a standing charge against soldiers as a class ... The soldier ... according to Political Economy, was occupied in a non -productive trade, and therefore it was contrary to the principles of that science to waste any more money on him than could be avoided.

The Army's lower ranks - sometimes referred to as 'the scum of the earth' - tended to get drunk, to brawl, and make lewd advances to women, even to nicely-brought-up young ladies. These were definitely not the sort of people that 'decent people' wished to know. One working-class mother - a Mrs. Robertson - hearing that her son had enlisted in the cavalry in 1877, wrote to him:

... what cause have you for such a low life ...? there are plenty of things Steady Young Men can do when they can write and read as you can ... [the Army] is a refuge for all idle people ... I shall name it to no one for I am ashamed to think of it... I would rather bury you than see you in a redcoat...

As it turned out, Mrs. Robcrtson's son William was going to rise to the highest rank in the Army and hold its highest post; he was the only man in the whole history of the British Army to go all the way from private soldier to field-marshal, the five-star rank Mrs. Robertson did not live long enough to see that, but she did live to become very proud of her son.

All these attitudes changed very quickly in 1914,

The British pre-war method of purely voluntary recruiting has been described by one of her most eminent soldiers, Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, as 'conscription by hunger'. Sir William Robertson said, 'We have always had compulsory service, the compulsion of hunger'. Another eminent figure, Lord Esher, who knew the Army very well, called the voluntary system 'the principle of Unequal Sacrifice'. And it was on the basis of that principle that Britain went to war.

On 7 August 1914, three days after the declaration of war, the new Secretary of State for War, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, asked Parliament to sanction an increase of the Army by 500,000 men, and began with a national appeal for what became known a; 'the First Hundred Thousand'.

The response was staggering. Here are the statistics:

298,923 men volunteered for the Army in August, 1914;
462,901 volunteered in September;
136,811 in October;
169,862 in November;
117,860 in December.

This makes a total of 1,186,357 volunteers by the end of 1914. And by the end of 1915, shortly before Britain adopted conscription, the voluntary principle 'of unequal sacrifice' had produced no fewer than 2,466,719 volunteer recruits. It is one of the most astonishing phenomena in British history, and still awaits a considered, rational explanation. Perhaps there is none; perhaps we just have to write it off as utterly irrational. What it certainly was, of course, was appallingly wasteful and inefficient. In Lord Esher's words, it produced a pernicious influence and disorganising effect on the nation at large, by taking all the finest, physically and morally, from the mass of youth available in the first bunch, and indiscriminately plucking out from important industries ... the very men who under a rational and fairer system would have been ordered to remain at their posts.

Such was the British Citizen Army, the first in British history, the core of the force with which we fought the war and helped so well to win it. And in that Citizen Army, for the first time ever, there was a very large, highly-motivated middle-class element. By definition, that element was reasonably, sometimes very well, educated. Its sensitivities were recognisably cultivated. It was, generally speaking, highly articulate. And in the shock of the experience that it was about to undergo we may find, in my opinion, the true seat of the British trauma.

Let us look now, albeit briefly, at that experience.

Of course, as the United Stales had discovered between 1861 and 1863, large numbers of enthusiastic men flocking forward to offer themselves for military service do not immediately constitute an army. In 1914 and the early months of 1915, as far as fighting was concerned, Britain depended on her Regular Army, which was the only force she had that was trained and equipped to take the field. The Citizen Army (as distinct from the Regulars) - consisting of the men who had rushed forward at Lord Kitchener's call, and the Territorial Army, composed of similar men who had volunteered in peacetime for a small but useful amount of training for home defence, and who now volunteered to serve overseas - the Citizen Army as such did not begin to reach the Western Front until April and May 1915, and did not lake a large part in battle until September of that year.

But by the end of 1915 the various categories - Regular, Territorial. New Army (often known as 'Kitchener's Army') - really became unrealistic. As casualties mounted all were replaced from the same source - the monthly intake of fresh volunteers - and all consisted of the same type of men: the Army, in fact, became a cross-section of the British people. One could say that, broadly speaking (allowing for the inevitable exceptions) by mid-1916 the whole British Army had turned into a Citizen Army - something it had never been before. This is what gave its experience such special poignancy.

I referred earlier to British delusion during the event. I fear that this delusion began right at the beginning of the war, and lasted until its very end. It was nowhere more apparent than on the main front, the Western Front, where the German Army placed it main body, and where alone that Army could be decisively engaged. Out of more than eight and a half million men of the British Empire who put on uniform during the Great War, almost five and a half million served, at some time or other, on the Western Front. Evidently, a delusion about the Western Front would be a very serious delusion indeed and so it proved.

The following statistics clearly demonstrate the comparisons between the British and French experience. In August 1914 the British Government sent to France an Expeditionary Force of four infantry divisions and one cavalry division. The French put 61 infantry divisions and ten cavalry divisions in the field. I need scarcely say which High Command - French or British - had the decisive say on how operations should be conducted. But this preponderance of the French effort was something that the British never came to terms with. By the end of 1914 the British infantry strength had risen to eight divisions plus two Indian divisions and some cavalry (rather more than a quarter of. million men). It seemed a tremendous number - but in relation to the task in hand it was almost nothing.

The British were holding 21 miles of the Western Front; the French held 430. By the end of 1915 the British Expeditionary Force consisted of 36 infantry divisions, plus two Canadian - an unbelievable expansion. But out of 139 Allied divisions on the Western Front, 95 were French, and yet they held about 360 miles of the front.

The casualties, of course, reflected these comparisons: by the end of 1915 French casualties amounted to just under two million. British casualties - on all fronts, including the costly Gallipoli campaign - were just over half a million. This is a fact which the British public was unaware of at that time; only a very small number of people (chiefly soldiers) guessed it; and to this day most people in Britain do not grasp it. France was carrying virtually the whole burden of the land war in the West. Yet the delusion persists that Britain could have an independent strategy. Not until 1916 did this picture change.

By mid-1916 the British Citizen Army was at last a force to reckon with: 4 divisions in France, backed by nine from the great British overseas Dominions - four from Australia, four from Canada, one from New Zealand.

For the British, 1916 was and ever has been the year of the Somme - that great ferocious battle which, with the battle known as 'Passchendaele' the following year, has become an epitome of the war to this day. For most people, it stands for murderous losses, very small gains of ground, enormous consumption of munitions, immense destruction and nothing else.

The Battle of the Somme opened on 1 July 1916, and continued (officially) until 18 November: a period of 141 days, during which British casualties amounted to 419,654 officers and men. This was the beginning of the trauma; this was when the British middle class began to pour out its blood. This was when whole towns, whole districts, suddenly found that in the course of a day, or a week, they had lost great numbers of their young men. It marked the time of the terrible telegrams from the War Office, saying that husbands or sons were killed, the long daily lists of casualties in the newspapers, to be watched with awful anxiety every day. The first day of the Battle of the Somme alone cost 57,000 casualties - about 20,000 of them dead. It was a freak; nothing like it ever happened to the British again. But it cast a long, long shadow. The first day of the Somme is with us yet, as reactions to its 70th anniversary in 1986 showed, and each year produces new evidence.

It is easy, at this distance of time, to talk about the 'shock' of the Somme to the British consciousness. In the broad sense, it was a shock. In the more exact, historical sense, it is better described as a cumulative awareness. It was to do with seeing the casualty lists every day; with seeing the Post Office boy delivering first one telegram, then another along the street; hearing the stories of the wounded, when they came home; listening to men on leave. A picture began to form which was very different indeed from the bland official communiques and the cheery reports in the newspapers. And this sense of having been deceived was itself, I suggest, to become a powerful ingredient of the trauma. In their mounting mood of outrage and revulsion - 1917 was when it began to show itself clearly - the British lost sight of two things, their Allies, and their enemy.

The Battle of the Somme opened on 1 July 1916 but the real war of attrition had begun long before that - on 21 February, when the Germans launched their attack on the French at Verdun, with the slated intention of causing the French Army to 'bleed to death'. That is attrition. It is what Grant did to Lee in 1864-65. This battle, on a relatively narrow front at Verdun, was to continue for ten months, and by the end of it the French had lost over 360,000 casualties, on top of their dreadful total at the end of 1915. (The Germans themselves lost about 340,000 at Verdun.) By July, the strain on France was becoming nearly unbearable - which means that the strain on the Anglo-French Alliance was also becoming unbearable. 'When will the British do something?' 'Will the British ever do something?' Those were the natural thoughts in French minds, constantly expressed by their civil and military leaders.

1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, was a terrible day; it witnessed some terrible scenes. But I think the perspective of those scenes does alter - should alter -when we reflect that 1 July was also the 132nd day of the Battle of Verdun. And it was also the 698th day of the war, and not until that day did France cease to bear virtually the whole burden of the Western Front. There was not a soul in France, I should imagine, who would not say 'About time, too'.

The total casualties of the United Kingdom during the war (killed, wounded and missing) are in the region of 2.5 million (for the British Empire, about 3,25 million) Four-fifths of Britain's total were incurred in the years 1916-18. So we see at once that those were the years of trauma.

And in accounting for that heavy loss - about 2 million men in just under three years - we see that to the delusion consequent upon ignoring their Allies, the British added that of disregarding their enemy. In each case, of course, the other party was considerably to blame. The French, for reasons of national morale, deliberately concealed their fearful early losses from their people - and, by the same token from their British Allies, which proved in both the short and long term to be very counter-productive. The Germans, for obvious reasons, were reluctant to reveal what damage they were suffering, and in 1916 adopted the practice of deliberately disguising their casually figures. So some degree of delusion during the event is forgivable. What is not forgivable is to continue to harbour that delusion, as so many people do, all these years later.

What was the reason, then, for the heavy British losses of 1916-18? Different answers have been given:

  • lack of equipment (there is something in that);
  • lack of training (but war itself is a great trainer);
  • lack of military instinct (but 1914 and 1918 seem to contradict that); and above all,
  • incompetent generalship (a favourite myth).

Clearly, there was more than one reason for the tragedy of two million casualties in three years. But I believe that (here was one reason which overwhelmingly predominated: it was, quite simply, the nature of the task being performed.

What I mean by that is, that in those three years, the British Citizen Army almost continuously engaged the main body of the main enemy in the main theatre of war. It was what the French had been doing between 1914 and 1916 - and they had suffered very heavy losses indeed, about 2.5 million. It was what the Russians did in the next war between 1941 and 1945 - and their losses were appalling. [Some 13 million dead alone.] Frankly, I think it would have been a miracle, requiring supernatural explanation, if the British had not had heavy - losses between 1916 and 1918. Consider more closely what in was they were doing:

  • in 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, the British Expeditionary Force engaged 95 ½ identified German divisions (43 ½ of them twice, four three times - a divisional total of 143);
  • in 1917, between April and November, in the Battle of Arras and the Flanders campaign, it engaged 131 German divisions; and
  • in 1918, in March and April, the Germans attacked the British front with 109 divisions; between August and November, in the Allied Final Offensive, the British engaged 99 German divisions (some twice, some three or even four times).

And in that Final Offensive, which ended with a German delegation crossing the lines with a white flag to ask for an armistice, the British Armies under Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig captured 188,700 prisoners and 2840 guns. All the other Allies together, French, Americans, Belgians, captured 196,500 prisoners and 3775 guns. In other words, the British took just under 50% of all the prisoners and just over 40% of all the guns.

That was the achievement of the British Citizen Army; I have called it, more than once, the 'finest hour' of the British Army. There has never been anything like that '100 Days' Campaign' of continuous victory in the whole of our military history. In the words of one who served from 1916 to 1918 and died only recently, Professor C. E. Carrington:

In our thousand years of national history there has been one short period (1916-1918) when Britain possessed the most effective army in the world, and used it to win decisive victory.

The most sinister of all the delusions within the trauma was to lose sight of that.

And there I might end, but I want to say one final word about that 'delusion before the event' to which I referred at the beginning.

The delusion was this: for a couple of centuries, protected by the Royal Navy the British had expanded their Empire overseas, undertaking, from time to time, small colonial wars (sometimes, as in South Africa at the turn of the century, quite big colonial wars) and occasionally taking an important but always limited part in the wars of Europe The great pre-war delusion was to suppose that this system, based firmly on the principle of limited liability, could co-exist with entry into the European system of alliances. It amounted to the extraordinary belief that a Continental policy could be adopted without; Continental liability. Or, to put it another way, one could say that in entering an Alliance - the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 - an Alliance which became a Coalition with the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907, the British never examined the disciplines of coalitions or of coalition wars. This was, I fear, wilful blindness, cutting across parties; it was a national frame of mind; they did not want to know.

One cannot say that if they had prepared themselves better, as other nations did they would have suffered less. The example of the nations which did prepare conspicuously Germany and France - does not suggest that that could have been so. But I do suggest that better physical (and above all, mental) preparation might have saved some of the most needless loss, and above all, perhaps avoided the trauma.

So there we have it: the great British Trauma, bred of delusion. And the result? It was not a pretty one. Let me sum up in the words I used some years ago. Writing of the effect of the war on some of the major belligerents, I said this:

No part of Britain had been occupied by the enemy; no British town had suffered the fate of continental towns like Ypres. But Britain had lost about three-quarters of a million dead; one and a half million more had been wounded, many of them maimed for life. There was a War Debt amounting to over £1,300,000,000. And above all there was a transformation of a way of life; British security had been pierced by air bombardment; British stomachs had tightened under submarine blockade; British liberty had accepted conscription; British liberalism had given way to State control; British toleration had flown out of the window.

Those were the elements of the trauma in 1919; what no-one could foresee was that it was going to last until the end of the century.

John Terraine

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 12 March 2011 17:56 )  

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