Prof Catriona Pennell, from the University of Exeter, talks about her book on the popular responses to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 (published by OUP).

Her own interest in the period stems from being made to read ‘Deaths Men’ when she was taking her GCSEs. This set in motion thoughts on survival and man’s inhumanity to man. Years later she is studying history under some icon educators: Alan Kramer, John Horn and David Fitzpatrick. In 2020/3 she is studying for an MSC at LSE and she found herself wondering how ordinary people felt about war and it took her back to the period of 1914. Her reading took to the myth-busting works of Jean-Jacques Becker and Jeffrey Verhey on the complex emotions and motivations of the French and Germans as these countries went to war.

War enthusiasm was being debunked in the late 1980s; it was more nuanced.

Only an elite were privy to conversations about what was going on in Europe. The public were aware and anxious; other crises had come and gone, indeed that had been a period when Anglo-German relations had been improving. In England there was greater preoccupation with the issue of home rule in Ireland, suffragettes and labour unrest.

The response to the war was as complex as people. There was shock and despair,some were stunned, others took a stoical view. There was a hunger for news which is why people gathered in crowds at post offices, newspaper officers, even railway stations and town noticeboards hoping to hear the latest first.

Catriona Pennell’s aim in her PhD thesis which was later published, was to study the fine chronology of August to December 1914, to unpack it hour by hour, day by day. At first their had been a hope for neutrality, there was an anti-war movement, but this evaporated once war was declared, what we found was people coming together - both the Labour movement and the suffragettes put their grievances to one side for a moment.

A new normality was quickly established, one with tensions, dislocation of employment and in a matter of weeks - the casualty lists. The daily landscape changed with the site of men in uniform, men training, practice trenches being dug, search lights coming into use and of course separation between husband and wife, families and their sons.

Further Reading 

The Spirit of Militarism. Myth and Mobilisation in Germany in 1914. Jeffrey Verhey

The Great War and the French People. Jean-Jacques Becker


Tom Thorpe [00:00:38] On today's programme, Professor Catriona Pennell from the University of Exeter talks about her book on the popular responses to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. I spoke to Catriona from her home in Cornwall. [00:00:57] Catriona, welcome to the Dispatches podcast. We're going to talk about your book today, which examines public and popular responses to the outbreak of the Great War. Before we start, can you tell us about yourself and how you became interested in the First World War? 

Catriona Pennell [00:01:10] Of course, and thank you for having me on the podcast programme, Tom. So my name is Catriona Pennell. I'm an associate professor of history at the University of Exeter. And I think by my last count, this is my 10th year in this post this year. So it feels like quite a milestone. And my book, 'A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland' came out in 2012 and was then reissued as a paperback in 2014. So it is much more affordable. It came out with Oxford University Press and is based on my doctoral thesis based on my PhD research.

But how did I get to this point?


Well, your question has sort of provoked a bit of nostalgia, really. I've sort of been thinking back as to how I got involved in the history of the First World War. I studied it at GCSE in the very sort of classic traditional sense of thinking about trenches and thinking about the experience of soldiers in the trenches. Denis Winter's 'Death's Men' was a prominent text that my GCSE history teacher introduced me to. For all its problems that ... I'm perhaps now more aware of, as a more accomplished historian, it did provoke questions in my mind about how people could survive and endure something so horrendous: how humans have such a capacity to commit inhumanity to one another and questions around how conflicts of this scale could be allowed to happen by the societies that were involved in them. So I went on to study history and politics at Trinity College, Dublin as an undergraduate, and then again as a postgraduate student. And in my time there, I was was lucky enough to be taught by three leading and seminal scholars in the field of European and Irish history of the First World War, Alan Kramer and John Horne, who are, of course, very prominent scholars on the European side, and the late David Fitzpatrick, who really was the leading scholar of his time on Irish experience of the First World War.

So I got to pursue my interest in the First World War in much more detail and with this added angle of Irish recovery of that story. But it wasn't really until 2002, 2003, I'd left Trinity to undertake my M.S.C. at the London School of Economics. I thought I was going off to change the world, join the U.N. and I studied international relations, but I got a bit distracted whilst I did my MSC, because it was the same time that the Coalition were planning the invasion of Iraq, which eventually took place in March 2003. And as I got more and more involved in the Stop the War movement, which culminated in the tremendous mass rally on the 13th of February 2003, I kept coming back to this question of how societies and war. How do ordinary people feel about this moment of their country going to war? And I kept coming back to 1914. How did people feel in August 1914 that people in Britain and Ireland as their country and what would we now know as the First World War? 

Tom Thorpe [00:04:26] So why do you think a book was necessary in 1914 in particular? I think you've probably touched on this already. 

Catriona Pennell [00:04:31] So during my studies at Trinity College as an undergraduate and in particular studying with with John Horne, it became clear that there were some really important studies on the topic of how French and German societies entered the First World War in 1914, but there wasn't really anything similar for Britain and Ireland. So in France you've got Jean-Jacques Becker's study of French public opinion 1914, how the French entered the war in its translation, which which came out in 1977 and really is a landmark contribution to the scholarship and the methodology that we as historians can employ to uncover public feelings, from people who have long since had long since died. And then more recently, Jeffrey Verhey's 'The Spirit of 1914: militarism and mobilisation in Germany', which came out in 2000. And again, not only helps us to understand how German people felt as they entered the war, and also does quite a bit to challenge myths of jingoistic mass enthusiasm in the German context. But again, it also raises really interesting questions about methodology, particularly in Verhaye's case, around how, as historians, we dissect crowds, how we analyse crowd behaviour, and also how we use newspapers as sources of public opinion. So combined, you know, these are two really important studies for France and Germany that by default exposed the very prominent gap on the library shelf for Britain and Ireland. So that's essentially what I wanted to do was to contribute, contribute to the historiography of the First World War and provide a ... comparative, comparative volume to Verhay and Becker's work. 

Tom Thorpe [00:06:29] You touch very briefly on the myths around the outbreak of war in terms of the mass jingoism, what sort of myths surround the popular reception of the Great War in Britain and Ireland? 

Catriona Pennell [00:06:40] Sure. So just to deal with Britain first - traditionally and these are ideas that you see emerging in the interwar period, particularly in the memoirs of politicians at the time: David Lloyd George is perhaps the most prominent example of ... a vector of this myth of war enthusiasm. But you see, the idea of war enthusiasm continuing right through and until, well in the historiography right through until the late 1980s. But you also see it appearing in more popular circles - most recently in 2014, where Gareth Malone, the celebrity choir conductor, organised a military wives choir for proms 2014. And in a couple of newspaper interviews, he talked about how he wanted to because it was the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. He wanted to use this moment to rekindle the elation of 1914. So this sense that there was something very enthusiastic about war breaking out or that people responded to the outbreak of war in Britain in 1914, very, very enthusiastically that that you see descriptions of crowds behaving behaving in this sort of drunk and feverish manner that they are sort of clawing at the gates to get across to the continent and kill as many Germans as possible. So that's the ... myth that ... or the picture of ... feeling that had stayed very prominent, as I say, for the decades since 1914. The Irish case is effectively the opposite. And in the ... traditional understanding of Irish reactions to the outbreak of the First World War, it was, you know, 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity' and that people were revelling in England's tragedy, that Irish people didn't want anything to do with Britain's war, that it was nothing to do with them. So those were the two kinds of prominent ideas about the war that I really wanted to try and not necessarily challenge, I hoped I would challenge them, but I wanted to nuance them, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to explore the ... elements that made up that picture. And as a result, I believe I did end up challenging both those ideas on the British side of mass enthusiasm and on the Irish side ... of mass apathy. 

Tom Thorpe [00:09:11] Now, one thing it's one to rewrite history is that we had this idea of hindsight. And when we look at the outbreak of war in August 1914, was it expected by people at the time? 

Catriona Pennell [00:09:21] I think this is a really difficult question to answer, Tom, and to answer briefly, because it depends who we're talking about. Now, if we're thinking about elite level military planners, naval experts, political officials, all of whom would be privy to much more detailed debate and discussion than, you know. And I'm using my 'rabbit ears', inverted commas, 'ordinary people', those who were not privy to those types of discussions and debate. Then I would say that there was a clearer sense of the European political landscape in the lead up to August 1914, and that there was an understanding that a potential confrontation was on the cards at some point. I mean, nobody has a magical crystal ball. Nobody knew precisely when that would happen or more importantly, what format that would take. I mean, I don't think anyone envisaged the mass industrialised warfare that became so characteristic of the First World War. But I would say at elite level, there was a sense that this kind of confrontation on the continent was a possibility. But I think we have to be careful how far we take this idea, because, of course, most people were not privy to the details of official discussion. 

Catriona Pennell [00:10:34] I would say that by July 1914, British and Irish people were certainly anxious, and they were certainly aware that a future war was a prospect. It was not a welcomed prospect, but it was a prospect. But they didn't necessarily envisage it as an immediate contingency. And I think as well, to add to this ... complexity of feeling, you have to remember the other crises, other European crises, the Agadir crisis of 1911, the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. They had past and they had past. Okay. Yes. I'm not I'm not claiming that these weren't particularly in the case of the Balkan Wars, bloody and violent, but they had passed without Britain being sucked into it. So even if tensions were running high in July 1914, I would say that most people felt that this current crisis would pass. And to add another layer of sort of nuance and complexity, ironically, Anglo-German relations, which I think in traditional historiography, is sort of wheeled out as the cause of the First World War. And I'm not claiming that it's not an important factor, but ... paradoxically, the period 1911 to 1914, you actually witness increasing attempts to improve Anglo-German relations. So, for example, the Haldane Mission of February 1912, which was trying to improve Anglo-German relations after the Agadir Crisis, wasn't successful, but the very fact it happened demonstrated a willingness for the two sides to cooperate and talk to each other. Britain and Germany cooperated during the Balkan wars. They reached agreements in the preceding years before the First World War over Portuguese colonies as well as the Baghdad Railway. So there was a sense, I think, amongst ordinary people that yes, it was possible, but it wasn't imminent. It wasn't something that was absolutely on the horizon. And then the final thing I would say to that question is the focus that both British and Irish people had at the time on domestic issues.

Britain, the British government, was facing a kaleidoscope of problems in the summer of 1914: labour unrest, the suffragette protests, as well as the fact that the situation between Britain and Ireland was at its lowest point. In fact ... King George the fifth, the monarch of the time, was openly talking about prospects of civil war in late July 1914. So what I'm saying here is that even if people in Britain and Ireland were aware of things getting tense on the continent, there were far more pressing matters happening at home domestically, to ... occupy their attention and their anxiety. 

Tom Thorpe [00:13:19] So August 14 comes around, the war breaks out. How was it received across Britain and Ireland? I know it's a very complex question. And with the population of 40 million odd. 

Catriona Pennell [00:13:29] Well, I think what strikes me from the research that I've done is the range of emotions that are felt. And whenever I talk about this part of my research, I always feel like I'm you know, I'm stating the bleeding obvious, really, that humans are complex creatures and we react to things in many different ways, often having a range of emotions felt simultaneously. So how on earth the idea that 40 million people reacted to the outbreak of war with one emotion - 'enthusiasm', lasted for so long is really beyond me. But anyway, it's given me the platform to write what I hope is an interesting book on the subject. So I think the point I'm trying to make here is the range of emotions: shock, despair, panic, a sense of ... stoic necessity, 'Well, this tragedy has befallen us. We must do our duty. We must react to it in the most sort of appropriate way possible', as well as a thirst for news, I think was a very common reaction - people grabbing at whatever nugget of information they could get their hands on to try and understand the rapidly changing and unfolding situation that was, you know, the bank holiday weekend of late July 1914. The type of language that you see across the local and national press, as well as in private diaries and personal letters, things like 'thunderbolt', 'stunned', a 'whirlwind', 'unexpected', 'bolt from the blue', which ... adds to this sense of shock and and, you know, sort of stupefaction, really. And I was very, very struck in my research by the efforts people went to to try and find out what was happening as the situation changed, hour by hour, day by day, gathering at railway stations, gathering at post offices, at newspaper headquarters, gathering - if they were London residents, gathering in Whitehall, Parliament Square, Buckingham Palace. So in some way that helps us to understand the phenomena of crowd gatherings that we can't necessarily read as crowds gathering because they were jingoistic and hungry for war. I would say a lot of these people are gathering because they are desperately trying to understand what's happening and to fill the vacuum, all of the news and information. 

Tom Thorpe [00:15:58] Was there any opposition in the war in the weeks after its declaration? 

Catriona Pennell [00:16:02] Yeah. And I think I think, you know, to answer that question properly, Tom, I want to emphasise that chronology matters and a fine chronology matters. I mean, that's one of the reasons when I undertook this research project and again, I was heavily influenced by the way that Jean-Jacques Becker and Jeffrey Verhay had approached their research. I wanted to zoom in on a short period of time, August to December 1914, in order to really try and unpack what was happening on an hour by hour, day by day basis. Because things change, particularly in those last weeks of July, first weeks of August, things changed very, very rapidly. So to answer your question about opposition to war - chronology matters, because before Britain officially enters the war on the 4th of August, and in fact before Germany declares war on France on the 3rd of August, there was, I'm not sure I would describe it as opposition to war, but there was a strong sense of campaigning for pro-neutrality. So you see a lot of people across British society arguing the case that Britain absolutely has to stay neutral in this conflict, that this conflict was not Britain's fight. You also see a lot of arguments around strategic and economic necessity to stay neutral, that it would privilege economics if Britain stayed neutral. So you see a lot of campaigns and in the press, both locally and nationally, campaigning for neutrality. There was a large anti-war demonstration on the 2nd of August. People gathered in Trafalgar Square. The Scottish Socialist and Labour Party MP Keir Hardie was one of the key speakers at that event. But I think what's interesting is how quickly, once war was declared, that type of opposition pretty much evaporates. Three cabinet members resigned, but that tended to be their single act of resistance. In fact, they talk about how they're going to maintain a tactical silence from that point on so they've resigned, that's their active resistance, but they're not going to disrupt parliament's business moving forward. They're not going to disrupt the war effort moving forward. You see groups that were traditionally in a very antagonistic relationship with the British government. I'm thinking about the independent Labour Party. I'm thinking about the Suffragettes. I'm thinking about Nationalist Ireland and Unionist Ireland. You see these political groupings beginning to suspend political differences. They see that once war is declared, once a person is in this fight, they need to put political differences aside and to come together for the common good. So opposition was not widespread in 1914. It didn't disappear entirely, but it was not a majority force by any stretch of the imagination. 

Tom Thorpe [00:19:02] And how did people feel and view the war at the end of the current period that you were examining around December 1914? 

Catriona Pennell [00:19:10] Well, I think what struck me as I was, you know, undertaking this research and applying this methodology of a fine chronology, you know, really trying to drill down into a day by day account of what was going on across Britain and Ireland. I think what you see happening is within about six weeks or so of ... Britain entering the war, you begin to see chaos and dislocation beginning to settle down. It doesn't resolve, you know, economic dislocation doesn't disappear, but you start seeing people get more used to the new normality. If you can describe it as that, people start getting used to what being at war feels like, what it looks like. But tensions are also beginning to manifest themselves. You know this phrase 'business as usual', which is bandied around very ... casually in British society at this time, was only ever really an aspiration. It was not a reality. Things were not 'as usual'. Things were not 'normal'. Economically, things begin to level off, but there is still quite a degree of dislocation, employment patterns change and this is why you see quite a degree of regional difference appearing. You see people having to make sacrifices, which of course is all relative depending on your socioeconomic circumstance. But there is this element of frugality that luxuries have no place in wartime society, that people need to be making sacrifices. You see the emotional weight of war beginning to take its toll. So whilst economically perhaps things are levelling out a bit emotionally, things are becoming very hard. Casualty lists are beginning to be printed, people are beginning to understand what 'industrialised warfare' looks like, particularly by November and the first battle of Ypres. And I would say as well that people are beginning to see how war is changing every aspect of their life. I talk in the book about changing landscapes. You know, people start to see obviously lots of men in uniform. They start to see in certain parts of the country trenches being dug, for example, on Folkestone Cliffs. People start to see search lights, blackouts. You know, the things that are so characteristic of 20th century warfare, start to become part of day to day reality. And finally, I would say people are beginning to have to get used to separation. They're beginning to have to get used to families being split apart. Husbands, brothers, fathers going away to war. And this sort of speaks to the point I'm making about the emotional toll. So I think by Christmas 1914, people are beginning to understand the cost of war, and certainly that the longer the war goes on, the more devastation would be inflicted. And people understood this. 

Tom Thorpe [00:22:00] And finally, where can people get your book from and find out more about your research? 

Catriona Pennell [00:22:04] Well, I did a cheeky check on Amazon and my book is still available in paperback on Amazon and I'm sure in all good bookshops, but probably not. But yes, it's still available there, but I'm pretty sure that it's available in a lot of libraries around the country. So I would of course encourage your listeners to make use of libraries, keep libraries alive and borrow books rather than buying them. In terms of my research, since the book, I'm very active on Twitter. My handle is at TeachLearnMore, and that is indicative of some of the more recent research I've been doing during the centenary around the cultural memory of war and the way young people interact with that. So people can find out more about what I'm up to more recently, if they are Twitter users, by checking into that. Otherwise, do feel free to look up my profile on the University of Exeter web page, and if you want to make contact with me, do drop me an email. 

Tom Thorpe [00:22:57] Katrina, thank you very much for your time. 

Catriona Pennell [00:22:59] Thank you for having me. 

Tom Thorpe [00:23:04] You have been listening to the 'Mentioned in Dispatches' podcast from the Western Front Association with me, Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this edition. The Theme Music for this podcast with George Butterworth's 'The Banks of Green Willow' was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Chris Rickman and produced by BIS Records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by the Western Front Association. This is available from all Coupeville stores under the record code B.S. 2195. Until next time.