This is a good time for books about the social history of the War. I mentioned Jessica Meyer’s Men of War last week, and there is another book that I have been meaning to write about for a while. It was published last year, but I don’t think I’ve seen any reviews of it. Maybe I haven’t looked in the right places.
Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War has a title that may seem off-putting. He wanted to call it The Last War, because that’s what many at the time hoped desperately that it would be – “The War to End Wars” in Wells’s rather glib formulation – and contender for the least successful prophecy of all time. His publishers told him that people would take that to mean 1939-45 (Why not Iraq?) so he made it The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War.
The Last Popular War might have been a better title, because the main theme of the book is the popular support for the War, despite anxieties, disappointments and tragedies. Adrian Gregory has used an impressive range of resources, and he’s used them well. I can say this because I have covered some of the same ground, and whenever he mentions a resource that I have looked at, he seems to get it right.
He’s good on propaganda and atrocity stories, showing how the British people were less gullible than some later historians have made them out to be. By carefully checking original texts, he is able to show how careless that influential writer Arthur Ponsonby was about checking his sources in Falsehood in Wartime. (That book was so influential on left-thinking opinion that the saintly George Monbiot was still repeating its line exactly in the Guardian last Remembrance Day.) Gregory also shows that even Northcliffe’s Daily Mail tried to report the war accurately.
A chapter I found particularly interesting was the one on the Church in wartime. Gregory quotes warlike prelates such as the ghastly Bishop of London who urged a great crusade:
…to kill Germans: to kill them not for the sake of killing but to save the world; to kill the young men as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant…
He also shows however that as well as clergymen using their religion to promote war, there were far more trying to use the War’s popularity to bring people to religion. The National Crusade of 1916 was an attempt at channelling the wartime spirit of self-sacrifice into specifically religious channels. It doesn’t seem to have worked.
Gregory is good on class. He analyses the changes in attitudes of the working classes, and makes it clear why strikes occurred, despite powerful public condemnations. He considers the relative sacrifices of the various classes, and points out that while numerically a majority of the dead were from the working class, the middle classes proportionally suffered more. This was because a large proportion of the industrial workforce was in skilled occupations deemed necessary to the war effort; such workers avoided the “combing out” process, and were in many cases exempted from conscription.
On remembrance, of course, Gregory has written before, and more fully, but the chapter in this book adds to the picture, showing the tensions between the bereaved, the ex-soldiers and local elites about how the dead should be remembered.
The book is packed with statistics,anecdotes and examples. I’ll be coming back to it.