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.’