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Warfare and WelfarePaul Addison
Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986

Warfare and Welfare

Paul Addison

3382 words
The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation 
by Correlli Barnett.
Macmillan, 359 pp., £14.95, March 1986, 0 333 35376 5
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The Great War and the British People 
by J.M. Winter.
Macmillan, 360 pp., £25, February 1986, 0 333 26582 3
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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.

On the basis of this evidence, Barnett attempts to pin the responsibility for the postwar decline of British industry on the Coalition Government. Whitehall, he points out, was fully aware of the ‘audit of war’, and ought therefore to have given first priority in post-war planning to the re-equipment and re-organisation of industry. Instead of which the Government succumbed to the campaign for a New Jerusalem, and the national income was mortgaged for decades ahead to pay for the new Leviathan of welfare.

And so to the Addison Report on What’s Wrong with Barnett. In vivid chapters tracing the roots of wartime problems as far back as the 18th century, Barnett shows that the flaws in British industry were structural and originated in the Industrial Revolution itself. This was a Heath Robinson affair, with laissez-faire giving rise to a ramshackle form of capitalism swiftly overtaken by other countries. So much for self-help! From this angle, Barnett is no Thatcherite: he does not suppose that a return to laissez-faire in 1945 would have wrought an economic miracle. On the contrary, he believes the Churchill coalition ought to have developed a coherent industrial strategy.

But why single out the wartime coalition as uniquely responsible? The state has been heavily engaged in the regulation of industry ever since 1915, when Lloyd George set up the Ministry of Munitions. The facts about the relative industrial performance of Britain have been repeatedly demonstrated in every decade since then, but no government has managed to find the cure. Why, then, should the blame not fall equally on the Lloyd George coalition of 1918, the National Government of 1931, or the Wilson Government of 1964?

If governments were conscious of the problem but could not remedy it, there must have been some formidable obstacle in the way. In Barnett’s view, the prime obstacle was the enlightened Establishment with its anti-industrial values and romantic complacency. This is not very convincing. Several of the reports and inquiries on which Barnett’s book relies were themselves compiled by the Great and the Good. There is no reason whatever why a Classical education, a liberal conscience or a passion for the Lake poets should prevent intelligent men and women from reaching sensible conclusions about industry. The Liberal Industrial Inquiry of 1928, a body drawn from the progressive élite so despised by Barnett, produced a report that in many ways anticipates his own by more than half a century. Detachment has its advantages, and art graduates have never found it hard to string together an analysis of the problems of British industry, or to think up wheezes for modernising it: witness the leader columns of the Times at any period since the Boer War. If the cultural élite had ever been in a position to decide the issue, British industry would have risen from its sickbed long ago. But until recent years, industry has been the most conservative and intractable force in British society.

Since Edwardian times, the social services have been organised and run by the state. At a pinch, therefore, they can be reformed by the state through its own officials, though the exercise is never straightforward politically. But industry has been a self-governing and self-financing republic, with power shared between two entrenched oligarchies. Even when the state nationalises an industry, management and unions retain considerable autonomy. From 1914to 1979 British governments assumed, therefore, that industrial policy depended upon the co-operation of unions or management, or ideally of both.

The Second World War represented a high-water mark of corporatism, with industrialists and union leaders firmly established at the apex of power. Here, then, were the people best-informed about the audit of war. Here was an unparalleled opportunity for the productive classes to assert the primacy of industry by framing a long-term policy for the regeneration of manufacturing. But no such strategy emerged. As much of Barnett’s data goes to show, the ‘two sides of industry’ were highly resistant to innovation. Steeped in the customs of the trade, their ideal was business as usual. If there was a great opportunity missed, it was they who missed it.

Meanwhile the social reformers, or New Jerusalemers as Barnett prefers to call them, were busy converting the Government to the principles of the Beveridge Report. Barnett argues that the welfare state was a sentimental conception at odds with the hard facts of economic reality. It devoured resources that ought to have gone into the re-tooling of clapped-out assembly lines, or the research and development of new products. And but for the agitation of the ‘enlightened’ élite of half-baked liberals, the whole misguided project need never have occurred. For there was no spontaneous, popular demand until the propagandists got busy disseminating their fantasies among the war-weary people.

One might as well argue that there is never a spontaneous demand for wage increases: it is trade-union leaders who put the idea into people’s heads. One of the home truths of Thatcherism is that there are such things as economic imperatives and few will quarrel with Barnett’s contention that historians ought to read them into the record more often than they do. Much of the history of modern Britain has been written as though our forebears were travellers on a magic carpet, with nothing to do except debate the principles of democracy and social justice. But if an understanding of the past demands a recognition of economic imperatives, social imperatives cannot be left out. And there are times, as the Thatcher Government is belatedly discovering, when they force their way to the top of the political agenda.

One of the deeper factors at work in the making of wartime social policy was class conflict: muffled by patriotism and mediated by social reformers, but a restless presence at all times. Barnett recognises that class conflict was an important issue, but tries to fence it off from the welfare state. In a chapter on the human legacy of the Industrial Revolution, he bases himself on E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the classic Marxist account of the origins of class conflict. The beating down of the labour force by callous entrepreneurs, the alienation of workers from capitalist enterprise, the physical stunting of the working class by malnutrition and slum housing, are all graphically depicted. The analysis is carried right through to the evacuation of lice-ridden, half-starved children from the slums in 1939. The chapters on wartime industry highlight the grumbling industrial discontent that produced so many lightning unofficial strikes. To assert, in the teeth of all this evidence, that the wartime demand for basic social and economic rights was all got up by a few woolly-minded idealists is to omit a more fundamental cause. War production depended upon the mobilisation of labour, and the Labour movement was determined to exact a price in the shape of a new social order. The demand for social change was every bit as real as the dilapidated state of British industry and, indeed, arose directly from it.

The 1945 model of the welfare state has been falling to pieces over the last few years and, as can be seen in retrospect, there were design faults at the outset. But why should we assume with Barnett that social reform and economic recovery were mutually incompatible enterprises? Many Western nations expanded their social services after 1945 but went on to enjoy faster economic growth than Britain. To adopt, for a moment, Barnett’s own cost-benefit analysis, social reform had its value as an industrial investment. He writes indignantly of the high priority accorded to the housing programme at the end of the war. But nearly half a million homes, mainly in the industrial areas, had been destroyed by bombing. For six years the building of new houses and repairs to the existing stock had come to a stop. In the summer of 1946 the housing shortage was so acute that about forty thousand people moved into disused army camps and settled down as squatters. How were firms to attract labour if there was nowhere to live within reach of the factory gates? How long would the incentive to work have lasted had there been no hope of homes for young couples? If bad housing was a major cause of ill health, would not the production statistics benefit from a fitter labour force?

In writing of social provision, Barnett unconsciously applies a double standard. Increases in public expenditure are singled out for attack. The housing programme and the National Health Service are presented as greedy predators, guzzling up resources. But the alternatives, private expenditure on health and housing, also divert resources away from industrial investment. Much of the cost of health care in the 1930s was met by fees or donations, so it is by no means certain that the establishment of the National Health Service led to an increase in the share of the national income devoted to health. As for housing, capital investment was higher during the private housing boom in the 1930s than it was under the municipal housing programme of the Attlee governments of 1945 to 1951. In the 1980s state investment has almost dried up, but the consumer society diverts larger sums than ever before to the housing market. Why, then, should the austere collectivism of the Forties be regarded as uniquely ruinous in its consequences? And if, as Barnett insists, the effect of the welfare state was to staunch the flow of capital to industry, how come that investment in plant and machinery was 32 per cent higher in 1951 than it had been in 1938?

Barnett’s most scathing judgments on wartime social reform are reserved for the Butler Education Act of 1944. According to his philosophy of history, the proper function of an educational system is to supply industry with skilled and scientific manpower, thereby augmenting the power and efficiency of the nation-state in a ruthlessly competitive world. But the British educational system was captured in the 19th century by liberal academics with a lofty contempt for science and technology. Time after time official reports and inquiries revealed that Britain was lagging behind the Continent and the United States, but still nothing effective was done. The Butler Act, which might have laid the groundwork for curriculum reform and a massive injection of public expenditure in technical and scientific education, proved to be yet another victory for Oxbridge and public school tradition.

As a beneficiary of the Butler Act, which gave me the chance of a grammar school education, it pains me to admit that there is much truth in Barnett’s expert demolition job. The 70 per cent of children who attended a secondary modern after the war got little or nothing out of it in skills or qualifications. The failure of governments to think constructively about the needs of the secondary modern pupils, or to devise for them any form of continuing education after the age of 15, was a scandal. For the great majority of working-class children, the Butler Act might just as well never have happened. ‘Secondary education for all’ was the cry, but the educationalists who raised it were masters of abstract windbaggery – a vague secular religion of moral and spiritual uplift. What it came down to in the end was another year at school, with boys learning to bake a cake and girls to mend a fuse: all very well-meaning, but hardly the stuff of a great educational advance.

Barnett is wickedly funny about the pretensions of the clergy in the making of the Education Act. There are shades of Sixties satire as he machine-guns bishops and headmasters much in the style of the hero in Lindsay Anderson’s film If. Barnett is a joyful debunker of patriotic myth, but not, of course, from a left-wing standpoint. He is probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism. His admiration for the German nation-state, through every stage of its development from 1870 to the present day, is the most prominent theme in the book.

There are glowing passages, which make one pause, on the productivity of German industry under the Nazis. No trade-union agitators there, no socialists or liberal softies putting a spanner in the works! The occasional admiring references to the United States do little to modify the teutonic feel of the book. Barnett is, in fact, the heir of Sir John Seeley, the Late Victorian prophet of a federal British Empire, whose admiration for Prussia led him to the conviction that Britain must develop along the same lines or perish as a great power.

The failure of Britain to adopt the German model of a military-industrial-educational complex is the mainspring of Barnett’s critique of British institutions, and arises, perhaps, from his early career as a military historian. But the antithesis between hard Germanic realism and soppy English romanticism often breaks down. Wilhelmine Germany was much more advanced than Victorian Britain in technical education, but German culture was riddled with the romantic delusions of extreme nationalism. Nazi Germany produced the same mix of technocrats who were brilliant inside the laboratory and barking mad outside it. Hence the fact that Germany twice launched wars that ended in catastrophe, while Britain, whose idealists were comparatively shrewd and sane, won the Darwinian struggle of competing social systems. Our values triumphed and thriving social democracies were established throughout Western Europe.

In view of Barnett’s philosophy, there is one curious blind spot in his interpretation of the welfare state. As he is doubtless aware, it was pioneered by Bismarck and first introduced into Britain from Germany. The capacity of the state to nourish its citizens or heal the wounded soldier was one measure of its capacity to wage a total war. The National Health Service grew out of the Emergency Medical Service created to treat victims of the Blitz, and the Beveridge Report was a true reflection of a society where the welfare of every citizen was a precious national asset.

The same was true of Britain during the Great War, as may be discovered from Jay Winter’s superb scholarly analysis. The subject-matter is more specialised than his title suggests. This is a socio-economic historian’s investigation of the impact of war on population trends and civilian health, with an epilogue, which reads a bit like the start of a different book, on popular memories of the conflict. Patient readers will discover that statistical methods can yield the most humanly fascinating results.

Winter explores what he calls the paradox of war: the fact that the Great War was a bloodbath and a landmark in the improvement of civilian health. Nearly three-quarters of a million British servicemen were killed, a disproportionate number of them from the upper classes: but meanwhile the life expectancy of civilians rose and infant mortality dropped sharply. After the war, the two phenomena merged to produce a new pattern: in spite of a lost generation of males, women made up the difference by marrying younger men, and marrying in larger numbers. With the aid of improved health services, healthier wives and mothers replaced the missing males, and a new generation of boys grew up to fight the next war and vote for the welfare state in 1945.

In the 1980s the picture has changed and the welfare state is no longer of much value to the warfare state. The next great war will not require the democratic participation of millions of civilians. We shall be incinerated within a week or two, before there is even time for an opinion poll to discover whether we are for, against, or don’t know.

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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.

Peter Parker
London W11

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?

Alan Brien
Llandrillo, Clwyd

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:

OfficersOther Ranks

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.

Paul Addison
University of Edinburgh

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.

Alan Brien
London NW5

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.

J.M. Winter
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.

Fred Hunter
Kingston on Thames, Surrey

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