Warfare and Welfare
- The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation by Correlli Barnett
Macmillan, 359 pp, £14.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 333 35376 5
- The Great War and the British People by J.M. Winter
Macmillan, 360 pp, £25.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 333 26582 3
Everyone knows that over the past century Britain has declined as a great power. But Correlli Barnett is one of the very few historians with a compelling, personal vision of the reasons why. Most of us assume that in a general way the process was inevitable, since the Empire was too big, and the economy too small, to sustain the role of a great power in the 20th century. Barnett, however, believes the decline could have been arrested or even reversed but for the peculiar decadence and irresponsibility of the British governing class.
His latest book, a swingeing attack on the social and economic policies of the Churchill coalition from 1940 to 1945, is best understood as Part Two of the Barnett Report on What’s Wrong with Britain. In Part One, The Collapse of British Power, published in 1972, he traced the imperial, military and diplomatic descent of this country from the Victorian era to the defeat of France in 1940. It was no accident, Barnett argued, that British governments made so many disastrous mistakes, culminating in the ill-starred policy of fair play for Hitler. There was a fundamental cause in the cultural history of the élite: the triumph of Victorian values.
According to Barnett, the rot set in with Evangelical Christianity and the Romantic Revolt. The 18th-century ruling class had been hard-headed realists, competing with a will in the world-wide struggle for trade and colonies. But the moral revolution of the early 19th century gradually divorced the governing class from realpolitik and immersed them in a dream world of philanthropy and humanitarianism. Victorian values, the opium of the bourgeoisie, were instilled by the public schools, whence generations of idealistic young men emerged in a state of permanently arrested development, their minds befuddled by cricket, Christianity and the Classics. Incapable of grasping the base motivation of the rest of the human race – the French, for example – they were no less ignorant of industry, science and technology, the foundations of Britain’s military and economic strength. The governing class were, in short, unfit to govern. Instead of organising the resources of the Empire in the national interest, they ran it as a branch of Toynbee Hall. Instead of adapting the educational system to fit the requirements of a nation competing for markets, they indulged in the fraudulent exercise, much trumpeted by Classics dons, of liberal humanism for the masses.
Part One of the Barnett Report dealt with the illusions of external policy, and ended with Churchill handing over the title-deeds of Empire to Roosevelt under the impression that Americans were allies. In The Audit of War Barnett’s critique of the British Establishment is unchanged, but this time he applies it to the management of the British war economy from 1939 to 1945. He has written a provocative and important book that will shift the terms of historical debate: but I doubt if he proves his case.
The book opens with a startling and paradoxical thesis. The long post-war industrial decline of Britain can be attributed, according to Barnett, to the events of the war years. Although the demands of war production revealed appalling deficiencies in industry, these were concealed behind the façade of victory. The Establishment mind, confronted with a choice between the dictates of realism and the temptations of romance, opted once more for romance. Instead of facing the facts and planning ahead for the Cruel Real World (as a Treasury minute put it in 1944), the élite ran after the Brave New World promised by the Beveridge Report. But this, of course, proved to be illusory: having added one more burden to the sinking ship of industry, the Brave New World was fated to go down with it: a dream, so Barnett writes, ‘turned to the dank reality of a segregated, subliterate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism’.
The inefficiency of key wartime industries like coal, or aircraft production, has been well documented in the past. But in Barnett’s hands the issue takes on a head of steam it never had before. From the files of the production departments he has compiled a dossier crammed with damning evidence of the British Disease. Here are tanks that boiled their crews like lobsters, forgotten fighters and bombers that posed no threat to the enemy but terrified the RAF, unions whose restrictive practices impeded war production, managers who muddled through in ignorance of modern business methods, and industries starved of skilled and scientific manpower. No wonder British industry suffered from low productivity, and was already dependent upon imports for the most advanced technology in electronics and engineering. Surveying the prospects for post-war exports, the Board of Trade had good reason to fear the revival of competition from Germany and Japan.
Vol. 8 No. 16 · 18 September 1986
SIR: Paul Addison asserts (LRB, 24 July) that in the First World War ‘a disproportionate number’ of the three-quarters of a million British servicemen killed were from ‘the upper classes’. He does not say whether he found this statistic in either of the two books he is reviewing or indeed what is the evidence for it. It is an all too familiar assertion and I would like to know where the figures which underpin it can be found. At the moment, I am removed from most of my books, but I seem to recall that I once came across in a work by one of his authors, Correlli Barnett, a total of British officers killed. It was, to the best of my memory, around thirty thousand. I make that 4 per cent. Were the upper classes much less than 4 per cent of the population in 1914? Were, indeed, all the officers members of the upper class? My own hunch is that members of the upper class made a so much greater hole in the consciousness of the articulate section of society when they were killed that they tended to be counted over and over again. Raymond Asquith, say, would easily outweigh, with all his friends, cousins, school and college contemporaries, colleagues and dependents in the heart of the Establishment, 25 Durham Light Infantry privates. But this may be just lefty prejudice. Does anyone really know what proportion of the First World War dead on the British side were this or that class? If so, would he or she kindly let us hear from them?
Vol. 8 No. 18 · 23 October 1986
SIR: Alan Brien casts doubt (Letters, 18 September) on my assertion that a disproportionate number of the three-quarters of a million British servicemen killed in the First World War were from the upper classes. What, he asks, can be the authority for such a statement? I did, in fact, make it clear in my review that I was reporting one of the key findings of Jay Winter’s The Great War and the British People. This book is the first thorough statistical analysis of the demographic consequences of the war, and it furnishes a number of different proofs of the social bias of the casualty figures. By way of illustration, here are his figures, calculated from the annual reports of the British Army, for the percentages of officers and other ranks killed at various stages of the war:
If Alan Brien will agree with me that, broadly speaking, the officer corps were recruited from the upper classes, these figures alone should settle the question. The explanation is probably that junior officers set an example by leading the attack, often in a daredevil spirit.
University of Edinburgh
Vol. 9 No. 1 · 8 January 1987
SIR: Alan Brien asked for figures showing that ‘the upper classes’ suffered greater casualties in the First World War than the rest of society (Letters, 18 September 1986). His suggestion that Raymond Asquith and his peers merely attracted more attention than privates in the 25th Durham Light Infantry is not entirely the result of his ‘left prejudice’. With some important exceptions (Isaac Rosenberg is perhaps the most obvious) the vast majority of those who wrote about their experience of the war were officers. Consequently, our perception of the trenches is largely derived from the perspective of the leaders rather than the led. However, there is no doubt that casualties amongst the upper echelons of society were proportionally higher than elsewhere.
There are several reasons for this, largely the result of recruitment and the structure of the Army. When war was declared and it was realised that there were not enough regular officers to command a vast new army, it was decided to recruit officers from the public schools in the belief that their education had instilled into them qualities of leadership, and that their training in the OTC would prove invaluable in an army of civilians. This official War Office policy meant that the vast majority of officers were from the upper and upper-middle classes. Large numbers of young gentlemen entered training camps rather than return to their schools for the new term that autumn. Many younger sons of the aristocracy had already entered the forces as a career and their brothers joined them, and fell with them, when war was declared. Reginald Pound writes in his book The Lost Generation (1964) that by the end of 1914 the fatalities included six peers, 16 baronets, six knights, 95 sons of peers, 82 sons of baronets and 84 sons of knights. As the casualties mounted, men whose backgrounds were less socially impeccable were commissioned, but there is no doubt that throughout the war the public schools, for good or ill, provided most of the officers and that public-school rankers remained a rarity. The University and Public Schools Brigade was formed with the intention of providing battalions in which every recruit had been to a recognised public school – only those whose alma mater was in the Public Schools Yearbook were eligible – but other regiments were calling for officers of the correct background, and a high proportion of these public-school privates took commissions and transferred.
Once an officer had joined his regiment, his chances of survival were less than those of his men both because of the structure of the Army and because of the duties the officer was expected to perform. The working unit in the line would be a company of 250 men led by a captain and five junior officers. Attacks would be led by an officer, whose smart uniform set him apart from his men and made him an obvious target for the enemy. Because there had been no conscripted army in Britain the majority of the soldiers were amateurs, unlike their professional opponents. Knowing this, the Germans instructed their men to pick off the officers in an attack in the belief that without leadership there would be widespread confusion amongst the ranks. Wiring parties and other dangerous forays into No Man’s Land usually consisted of one officer and one or two men (all volunteers), so that each time a patrol was required to crawl out into the night, the chances of taking part (and thus the chances of becoming a casualty) were as little as 1 in 125 for a ranker compared with 1 in 6 for an officer.
The consequences of these circumstances may be seen in casualty figures. In the summer of 1915 officer casualties were said to be running at double those of the other ranks. Clearly this does not mean that for every ranker casualty there were two officer casualties: it means that the percentage of officers killed or wounded was higher than the percentage of men. To take one (admittedly extreme) example from that year: during the Battle of Loos the 2nd Royal Warwickshires went into action with 17 officers and 650 men: not a single officer emerged unscathed and only 140 of the men returned.
Loos, of course, took place comparatively early in the war, before conscription was introduced and before the enormous casualties suffered amongst the ranks on the Somme. By the end of the war death had somewhat levelled the classes. In a booklet published in 1923 entitled ‘Public Schools and the Great War (1914-19)’, A.H.H. Maclean calculated that about 13 per cent of officers were killed in action compared with around 10 per cent of other ranks. However, even amongst officers the upper classes seem to have suffered proportionately more. The average proportion of fatalities amongst public-school recruits was around 20 per cent. At some schools (Harrow, for example) the fatalities were as high as 27 per cent.
Vol. 9 No. 2 · 22 January 1987
SIR: Glad to see the correspondence I initiated about upper-class casualties in the First World War still trundles on. If it is to continue, however, may I suggest a certain tightening of definitions? Since there are no figures for proportions of various classes among either serving members or those killed in action, the rough-and-ready distinction must be between officers and other ranks. The war was fought on several fronts, and by three different branches of the Services. We cannot narrow down our sample to the area, the period and the troops of the Army in France during particular battles, say the Somme or Loos, and generalise from those experiences.
What I was querying was not the comparatively minor imbalance between percentages of officers and men killed over individual years, I wanted to know whether it was, or was not, true that the Great War had finally made ‘England’ suffer a lasting wound to its cultural, intellectual, moral health due to the huge bite taken from its privileged youth, those who would supply future poets, philosophers, statesmen, the so-called ‘Lost Generation’. I must say no one so far has convinced me that this is not largely a myth. Peter Parker (Letters, 8 January) provides some compelling reasons for believing that the public school/university recruits ought to have been much more vulnerable, because of their commissioned rank, than the working-class NCOs and privates. His final citation of an actual statistic hardly bears this out: 13 per cent of officers dead against 10 per cent of men. J.M. Winter, the Cambridge specialist whose book The Great War and the British People provided the statistics for an earlier contribution to this correspondence, gives the figure of 15.2 per cent of serving officers killed, and 12.8 of serving men. Even if this way of analysing the death toll is accepted, it is hardly a nightmare vision of disproportion. The actual numbers for the Army were 37,484 officers and 635,891 others. There were pit villages as heavily hit as Harrow School.
Before I go on to suggest that another, equally reliable exercise in arithmetic may provide contradictory evidence, I should mention that in the Royal Navy, where all risks were equally shared, the percentage of officers lost was just over 5 per cent compared with nearly 7 per cent of ordinary matelots. In the RFC, where almost every flyer was commissioned, almost 17 per cent of officers died in action against less than 1 per cent of the rest. It is difficult for anyone, especially those now far removed from actual killing, to realise what such numbers mean. John Terraine in his recent study of the RAF in the Second World War notes that the total of British officers, all Services, killed by 1918 was 38,834. He then points out that in my war and my service (RAF aircrew 1939-45) 55,573 of us were killed out of a total of not much more than a hundred thousand. We do not hear much of this ‘Lost Generation’, a far greater proportion of the total casualties, both proportionally and absolutely, than the golden dead of the earlier war.
But my reason for still doubting the great upper-class holocaust is contained in an earlier study by J.M. Winter, Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’ (Population Studies 31). After tables already reproduced by an earlier correspondent here, of annual totals showing the proportion of officers’ deaths as regularly almost twice that of other ranks, he mentions that 275,121 men served as officers in the Great War – 5.28 per cent. And then that 5.57 per cent of those killed were officers. Statistics are funny things. But this one seems to me to suggest that when the final count was made as many of the upper class were killed as might have been expected. In defining his search for the ‘Lost Generation’ J.M. Winter proposes that he might expect that 10 per cent of the Army were officers and 20 per cent were killed. From this, he says, ‘it would be safe to conclude that officers bore a disproportionate share of war losses.’ 5.57 to 5.28; 15.2 to 12.8; 13 to 10? None of these seem to me to support the proposition of wholesale slaughter of the jeunesse dorée between 1914 and 1918.
Vol. 9 No. 5 · 5 March 1987
SIR: I have only just seen the correspondence in your columns concerning the social distribution of British casualties in the 1914-18 war. Since the appearance of my book, The Great War and the British People, occasioned this exchange of views, perhaps you will permit me to add a few words on the meaning of the term ‘Lost Generation’? The argument I advanced in my book was that the higher up in the social scale a man was, the greater his chances of becoming a casualty in the Great War. This was for three reasons. First, enlistment rates were higher among the middle and upper classes than among working-class men. Secondly, more working-class men failed to pass the medical tests for military service, or passed them as fit only for home duty. Their physical disabilities probably saved the lives of thousands of such men. Thirdly, casualities suffered by the educated and propertied classes were proportionately greater than those suffered by the working class for two simple reasons: 1. the officer corps was recruited until late in the war from the sons of the middle and upper classes; and 2. casualty rates among officers were substantially greater than those of the men they led, and in particular, casualty rates among junior officers (not isolated from staff officers in the aggregate statistics) were higher than those of non-commissioned officers and men in the ranks. These considerations led me to the conclusion that the more privileged paid a disporportionately higher price for the war than did the less privileged.
This should not, however, obscure the fundamental fact that the true ‘Lost Generation’ was that of the nation as a whole. For every officer killed, 20 men of lower ranks fell during the war. And since individual families did not experience war losses in proportional terms, we must not lose sight of the fact that British war losses – like the British Army and the British nation – were made up of a majority of working-class people.
For this reason, I prefer to refer to the ‘Lost Generation’ as a legend rather than a myth. There was a real phenomenon behind the elegiac refrains and the repeated talk of social élites sacrificed during the war. The memorial records of public schools and universities yield appallingly high statistics for one part of the ‘Lost Generation’. For instance, 31 per cent of undergraduates who matriculated at Cambridge in 1913 were killed during the war. But we must make a careful distinction between this statistical fact and the uses to which it was regularly put in the inter-war years and after. To take but one of dozens of examples: on occasion, Baldwin sought to explain away his limited political successes in the 1920s and 1930s by reference to the absence of men of talent who would have been available for public service had there been no war. Of course, there is no way to prove or disprove this assertion: it is merely one illustration of the way in which the consequences of the war were conscripted in later years to serve many political purposes. Baldwin helped further a legend, not a myth.
This is as true in cultural matters as it is in the political sphere. I have trouble in accepting the view that the absence of Owen, Sorley and Péguy, to take only a few names among many, was a more important feature of post 1918 cultural history than the presence of Eliot, Pound and Pasternak. Indeed, as Paul Fussell has shown, the war ironically enriched the cultural life of subsequent generations by occasioning a new kind of writing, which he calls modern memory. The consequences of the war were, as one might expect, complex and contradictory. It does no service to history to explain British decline in this century in terms of the war losses of one part of the population.
Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987
SIR: The concept of the ‘Lost Generation’ referred to recently in your columns is one I came across when tracking the scent of a more unusual beast called ‘university education for journalism’. Although it is exactly 100 years since the first (private and commercial) London School of Journalism opened its doors, just off Fleet Street, under a Mr Anderson of the Daily Telegraph, the subject of educating journalists rarely rouses much attention outside a limited coterie. Yet in trying to find an answer, if there is one, to the changing face of the British newspaper in the inter-war years, I was struck by references made by journalists to their luck in being born when they were. Usually the references indicate a change in the recruitment into journalism after the First World War. Until then, a large proportion of men could waltz from the ‘Greats’ course in Oxford into the employment of newspapers, as many memoirs reveal. Writing about this in 1948, Percy Cudlipp wrote: ‘Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express, and I … benefited from the fact that many clever men had been killed in the first Great War. There were gaps to be filled, and so fellows like you and me, who had been too young to fight, had an early chance to show what we could do.’
On checking the records for Oxford and Cambridge it would appear that nearly five thousand Oxbridge men lost their lives in the First World War. One attempt to cope with post-war reconstruction in journalism was the introduction of the Diploma for Journalism course at London University in 1919. While many, then and now, strongly believe that journalism cannot be taught, this course produced many who approached the pinnacles of the press during their working lives: from Home News Editor on the Times to editor of the People. One of the interesting facts about this course, which did not re-open after World War Two, was that more women won the Diploma than men, 219 to 194. Among the women were Kathleen Nott, Stella Gibbons and Elizabeth Ferrars, who was one of about fifty English authors to receive the maximum payment of £5000 when Public Lending Right awards were first made two years ago.
Kingston on Thames, Surrey