Tuesday’s event in the University of Birmingham War Studies seminar series was Adrian Gregory talking about The Last Great War (a book which I praised highly on this blog last year).
He explained the book’s over-riding purpose (more explicitly perhaps than in the book itself), which was to suggest that British society in the inter-war years avoided extreme political instability because it did not experience defeat in the Great War, and that its wartime victory was the result of a stable and united Home Front (a phrase that was invented during this war). In countries where civilian consent was withdrawn from the war effort, this failure was transmitted to the battlefield – most notably in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.
I suppose I like this book so much because it validates so many of my own findings (though coming at things from a different angle). Gregory sees wartime Britain as possessing a culture of consent, and a people actively engaged in supporting the War effort. He says now that he wishes he had called his book ‘The People’s War’. He has looked at wartime propaganda, and has come to the same conclusion that I have reached – that on the whole it was not a top-down process, with the authorities indoctrinating the masses, but a bottom-up one, an expression of popular enthusiasm. The authorities were caught in a bind: should they discourage wild rumours about German corpse factories and such, which they knew to be highly improbable? If they damped down the myths, would this harm the War effort? The popular mood set the tone, and the authorities had to respond to it.
Gregory has looked closely at evidence about the popular mood at the start of the War, and has come to the conclusion that there was little in the way of jingoistic enthusiasm. The characteristic responses were stoicism, fear, and putting on a brave face – together with incidents of panic.
He is good on the move from voluntarism to compulsion, once again suggesting that this was not entirely directed from above. There was a groundswell of public opinion about the unfairness of the voluntary principle, and a feeling that some men were getting a free ride while others suffered on their behalf.
The language of ‘diffusive Christianity’, he argues, was the most important discourse of the time. This was not a secular society; although formal religious practice was not universal, Christian values (of sacrifice, especially) were pervasive. Gregory argues that this was truer in Britain than in other European countries, where antagonism to the Church was far commoner.
Who sacrificed most? Gregory’s analysis is that the working classes lost out in the first half of the War (maintaining productivity but losing wages) but regained wage levels in the second half of the conflict. Many of the middle classes felt that they had lost out while the workers had gained, and middle-class dissent was expressed as hyper-patriotism of a kind that could have led to a militant right-wing movement had the War been lost.
Criticising his own book, Dr Gregory suggested that its biggest lacuna was Ireland, which in the early months of the War was more firmly integrated into the United Kingdom than it had been for a century. This fell apart, despite Ireland having had a good War – not conscripted, not rationed. Was it Lloyd George’s 1918 threat to extend conscription to Ireland that broke down goodwill, even more than the mishandling of the 1916 rebellion?
Finally, Dr Gregory raised interesting questions about memory, and especially about the myth of universal bereavement. It was not true that every family had lost someone, yet this was the accepted myth. Memorials were not particularly there to comfort the bereaved (and many of the bereaved objected to some memorials, and especially to the uniformity of the battlefield graves). The project of memorialisation was about other things, and especially about defining the experience of War in particular ways.
After Dr Gregory’s talk, question time focused largely on questions of religion (there being a very energetic project at Birmingham studying the religious effects of the War). Dr G suggested that the War had been a good one for Catholics and a bad one for chapels. Dissenting churches were more often male-dominated, and the War reduced the leadership in Nonconformity. Researchers who had looked at particular religious communities challenged this, and it was quite an interesting ding-dong.
Mostly, though, the talk made me want to re-read the book, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the Great War.