A Culture of Consent

In a recent TLS article Jay Winter described the arguments among French historians about whether the war took place within a culture of coercion (people bullied and deceived into supporting the war) or a culture of consent (the war effort as something that people supported freely and willingly). The French Left has concentrated on the first approach, being especially interested in evidence of conflict such as the 1915 mutinies. The “Historial” school has developed the idea of a “war culture” of consent.

In Britain there has not been such clear polarisation within the community of historians, but there is a gap between specialists and the general educated public. When I tell people I’m researching Great War literature, they usually assume that I’m reading Sassoon and Owen, and that I’m looking for evidence of futility, disillusion, and callous leadership.

The pardons controversy has shown how a coercion model is behind the average person’s thinking about the Great War. The picture given by the campaigners and their press supporters is a polarised one: on the one side, all soldiers are victims, with the deserters more victims than the rest; on the other side, the rigid uncaring generals, with Haig the least caring of all. The Daily Telegraph describes the background to Harry Farr’s case:

…at the time, the Battle of the Somme was heading for its ignoble place in British military history and there was little mood among the top brass for showing mercy.

Really? As Gary Sheffield and other historians have patiently explained, the Somme, however terrible, was finally a victory. And the merciless “top brass” – are these the same ones who commuted over 80% of death sentences to terms of imprisonment?

The more I read of Great War texts and history, the more I’m impressed by the extent to which wartime culture was a culture of consent – a war that the bulk of the people actively supported.

Until 1916, all soldiers were volunteers. As I have suggested in my White Feathers paper, they may have been under strong social pressure to enlist, but still they saw themselves as having made a free commitment to the war effort. Once in the army, they found a complex culture (and that of the New Army was more so than that of the old regulars). It takes a novelist as subtle as Frederic Manning to show how men related to one another, how there was not a simple dichotomy between officers and men, and how (as in the extract I posted yesterday) some soldiers thought that the top brass had been too soft on the deserter Miller who had let them down.

After 1916 men were conscripted, but once again this does not make them victims. From time to time I have been posting extracts from the diary of Ferguson Hamilton, a Scottish gunner. He did not want to be a soldier – he had a career as a schoolteacher. In his diary he frequently complains about small things – the food and accommodation, for example. His commitment to the war is never in doubt, though, and he is proud of his battery and of his own military skills. His attitude is roughly: This is terrible, but it has to be done.

Support for the war prevailed in the civilian community. The near-unanimity of the press in support of the war was not a result of government censorship, but by and large a reflection of popular feeling. The government propaganda machine existed – but its effect was insignificant beside the efforts of the free press, which people bought and read because they wanted to.

Your Country needs you

Look at the famous Kitchener poster declaring “Your country needs you”. The small print at the bottom acknowledges that this image came from London Opinion, a commercial magazine that people paid to buy. I would argue that most government propaganda picked up and developed themes that already existed at grass-roots level. In fact, officialdom quite often had to dampen down popular enthusiasm – the white feather campaign, for example, was seen as something that could get out of hand,

There were, of course, subcultures of dissent. Cyril Pearce’s Comrades in Conscience is a fascinating study of a community of conscientious objectors in Huddersfield, based around local Quaker and Socialist institutions. This does indeed show a small thriving anti-war culture – but one that is besieged by a wider culture of war enthusiasm. The pacifists had a tough time from their neighbours, as well as from the authorities.

So if the Daily Telegraph wants to play the blame game – should it blame Haig? Or the climate of opinion (well-represented by the Daily Telegraph of the time) that saw conchies and cowards as figures of hate, so that harsh punishments seemed acceptable? Maybe they should wonder which victims of today’s popular hatreds may seem deserving of a pardon ninety years from now…


  1. Dan
    Posted August 19, 2006 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Like the new design George, and I think you’re absolutely right to explore the culture of consent. I find this is one of the hardest things to get across to students – although I’m not sure whether that’s because the meme of coercion is so strong, or because the First World War is in that peculiar historical position of being close enough that students don’t think about changed paradigms, whilst being far enough away that they really need to. Pearce’s book is a lot of fun – and he makes the point that we need lots more local studies like his – but like you I came away from it thinking about how much it emphasised the particular nature of Huddersfield.

  2. Andy Frayn
    Posted August 23, 2006 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    An interesting point is that in JW’s article he mentions the figure of soldiers having ‘pariah status’ as 343. What happened to the other 37 in the pardoning stakes?

  3. Posted August 23, 2006 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    There were 36 murderers who were executed, I think. And two mutineers. Which still doesn’t make the figures quite add up, of course.

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