Paxman’s mystery

In a Guardian interview puffing his forthcoming TV series on the Great War, Jeremy Paxman makes some comments on the Gove/Evens disagreement, and makes this interesting point:

Paxman added: “To me the great mystery of the war, and I still can’t answer this properly, was why people kept faith with this enterprise. I was really struck by how people kept with it, they endured. It is something we have never had to endure and can’t really imagine enduring, and certainly wouldn’t be countenanced now because of social changes.”

I think he’s absolutely right about this being the central historical question about Britain and the War. Why did British morale, both civilian and military, stay firm through four gruelling years? The British Army was the only major force unaffected by serious large-scale mutinies, while the population at home put up with much, and never turned seriously against the war effort, unlike the Russians and Germans.

Military morale is a more complex question, but my reading of civilian morale is that the people of Britain, rightly or wrongly, believed deeply that it was a just and righteous war, and that this belief was rooted, not in patriotism alone, but in a horrified disgust at German brutality towards Belgian civilians in 1914, a feeling that persisted even through the discouragements of 1917.

Of course, a historian or cynic could argue that this horror was to some extent naive. An army occupying a land whose population is hostile will almost unavoidably turn to tough tactics (as the British themselves had done in South Africa a dozen years before) and such a situation will, equally predictably, give scope for some individual soldiers to take things much too far and commit atrocities (as has happened with British and American soldiers in Iraq). These are things that happen in wartime, and we should not be surprised by them, even when rightly appalled.
For the British in 1914, however, such cruelties happening only a few miles across the Channel created a terrible shock, and the feeling that in combating them the country was fighting a Great War for Civilisation was not just a figment of official propaganda, but felt by citizens of all walks of life.
In other words, many British felt that they were fighting for more than their country, which was why there was so widespread a welcome for Edith Cavell’s message: ‘Patriotism is not enough.’


  1. Ralph Spurrier
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    It is a fascinating area for research George and the more I read on and around the subject I wonder what part the lack of “media” (radio and television completely and a fairly goevernment-benevolent newspaper industry) had on the perception of what was actually happening just over the Channel. The Empire was still a potent force in the national conciousness (Queen Victoria had been dead less years in 1914 than Princess Diana from now) and the sense of a country being the foremost in the world was still strong. The masses, subject to poor housing and working lives that were far from ideal saw an opportunity – their only opportunity – to be an integral part of that “defence” of the Empire and readily walked off to the Front. Once there they became subject to the over-weening British social class system that simultaneously kept them rooted in the mud and unable to effect any consolidated or organised “revolt”. Those that walked away did so singly – and were duly shot for their pains.
    The reckoning was to come after the Armistice with the realisation that not only Great Britian but most of Europe had embarked on a venture that was so far removed from the popular concept of a “decent” war with its set pieces and local skirmishes that it was nigh on impossible to contemplate the utter foolishness of the loss of a whole generation.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Ralph, I think your idea that the 1914 newspaper industry was ‘fairly government-benevolent’ is very wide of the mark.
      The press was much more varies a century ago (every major town having its daily paper) and ownership was far less concentrated.
      Political discourse could be vitriolic, as can be seen from the campaign against Haldane. It could also be very effective; the papers played a large part in the fall of Asquith.
      Probably the most venomous articles are in papers like London Opinion and John Bull.
      A while back I included some comments from a 1916 copy of John Bull. Here they are again:
      ‘They have muddled the war from the beginning to the end,’ says one article. Another declares: ‘Our Admiralty is a disgrace – and it is a wonder that the Navy doesn’t revolt against it. The War Office is little better.’
      Abuse of politicians is crudely personal:

      ‘The Foreign Secretary is a pompous and solemn ass; the Home Secretary is an oleaginous, smug, self-righteous prig; whilst as to some of the Treasury Bench underlings – ye gods! Have you seen their faces on the films?’

      Typically, such papers attacked the government for not pursuing the war effort with enough efficiency or sense of purpose. Since large numbers bought the papers, one assumes that they were expressing the views of their readers.
      Papers that expressed hostility to the war effort had very small sales. they were very much catering to a minority.
      Are you suggesting that it was mainly the fear of reprisals that kept the soldiers from mutinying? After the Armistice, when the imperatives of war no longer applied, there were several mutinies over grievances about demobilisation, but during the actual war years soldiers’ morale seems to have remained much higher than in many other armies.

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    The problem with the ‘why did the troops endure it?’ question is that it’s never put into a comparative context. We’re always wondering why the men of the Western Front put up with their suffering, the assumption being that it was a uniquely dreadful experience. We never ask why, say, the aircrew of RAF Bomber Command put up with it in the war that followed, even though their job was much riskier (you had a one in eight chance of being killed in the trenches, an evens chance of being killed in a Lancaster). And aircrew could ask to be stood down whenever they chose, albeit at the risk of being branded cowards.

    Maybe the unfashionable truth is that the British soldiers of WWI put up with it because, as military ordeals go, ‘it’ wasn’t all that terrible.

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      And maybe they stuck it because the officers knew how to handle men. I came across this description of introduction to trench life in The Manchester Guardian of 1915. It’s from a letter from a soldier, and shows how soldiers were (at least in this instance) not flung straight into horrors, but gradually accustomed to the dangers of war:

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