Consent or Coercion

I’ve previously expressed support for the theory that the war culture in Britain from 1914 to 18 was one of consent rather than coercion – that there was a profound popular conviction that the war had to be won. I agree with Jay Winter’s point that in Britain (as opposed to the Empire) the state was weaker than in other European countries, while the independent press and other agents of culture were much stronger.

By and large, the war effort had a huge amount of popular support; people at home felt the horror and tragedy – everyone in the country must have had a least one friend or family member who had been killed or seriously injured – but they acquiesced and made sacrifices that would have been unthinkable in peacetime, or in a country not fully behind the war effort – think of the licensing laws, for example. The vast majority had thought about the war, and supported it.

This is not how it seemed at the time to Douglas Goldring. He went to war in 1914, was invalided out of the army, and became a committed pacifist and member of the awkward squad. In Reputations (1920) he wrote of:

That deliberate poisoning of the wells of human feeling, that organised campaign of lying and incitement to hatred (and thus to “atrocity”) which began in August 1914.

Yet in the first years of the war at least, here was very little officially sponsored propaganda for home consumption. The vast amount of patriotic material produced in this period was produced by writers who felt that this is what they needed to say, and read by people who willingly paid their own cash for the privilege. Works published by Wellington House were intended to persuade overseas readers, not those at home (though many found an eager audience in Britain). Masterman, the director of W.H. seems to have spent a lot of effort making sure that his propaganda was as truthful and serious as possible, refusing to print atrocity stories about corpse factories, and cutting the more extreme opinions of Kipling from his pamphlets.

When British journalists complained about censorship restrictions, it was almost always because they wanted to be able to print more details about the military operations with which their readers identified, not because they wanted to criticise the war effort.

For Goldring the “inciters to hatred and slaughter” were able to get “a stranglehold on public opinion” by:

battening on the terrors and prejudices inevitably occasioned by warfare, and by influencing the passions of the mob by atrocity stories and distorted news.

His particular scorn is reserved for the writers and intellectuals who supported the war:

And we know that they were able to do it because of the active help, or the tacit connivance, of the men whose reputations as leaders of thought or as national spokesmen stood highest within the community.

He characterises these men as:

those who ratted from the intellectual conflict, who made war profits out of the nation’s peril, lent their aid to government propaganda and encouraged either actively (or by their silence) all those evils of rampant militarism from which the common people of the British Empire are now everywhere suffering.

Goldring finds it hard to accept that people with views contrary to his own can be sincere.Yet writers like Arnold Bennett or John Masefield or Rudyard Kipling or John Buchan or May Sinclair or J.M.Barrie were not people who would sell their integrity for cash or for popular approval. If they supported the war, it was with complete sincerity. The problem is that in literary circles at least, one still finds critics who assume that the anti-war attitudes of Sassoon and Owen (and Goldring) are the only possible ones, and that any writers who say the opposite are conspirators caught up in the propaganda machine, or deluded victims of ideology and “false consciousness”.

I always think that history becomes more interesting when you assume that the protagonists are more or less sincere in what they say. Conspiracy theories, and the idea that the general public are merelythe puppets of propagandists, simplify things, and leave out much that is significant.

Yet Goldring was sincere too. His account of the intellectual situation in wartime Britain was not a deliberate falsification, but was how things looked to him. He was in a hostile climate, and found most channels of communication closed to him. Things that seemed obvious to him were rarely stated in the press. The fact of censorship made editors cautious – not just out of fear, but because they sincerely did want to be behind the war effort. There were occasions when the government acted clumsily, as in the banning of overseas sales of The Nation in 1917 ( I’m interested in this at the moment, and will be writing a post about it soon).

So was Goldring merely rationalising the national consensus away by reinterpreting it as a conspiracy of intellectual knaves? When he later claimed that his 1917 anti-war novel The Fortune had been “hushed up” did he have more basis for this than a few sniffy reviews? I want to try to find out.

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