- Dear Old Blighty by E.S. Turner
Joseph, 288 pp, £7.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1879 0
Britain lost three times as many combatant lives in the 1914 war as in the 1939 and, by the end of 1916, more than in all wars since the Plantaganets. (France lost twice as many as we did in the first war and Germany three times.) The pain and terror of the first war have so invaded the consciousness of later generations that there are always new readers for books about it. In Dear Old Blighty E.S. Turner is concerned with the home front, on which, he says, relatively little has been written. He makes it plain that the cynical view (as in the musical play Oh what a lovely war) that this was a generation ‘duped into the Forces by damsels singing patriotic songs or bullied by peremptory posters’ has much truth in it. Indeed, the extraordinary thing is how long the Liberals resisted conscription and the ‘overdue spreading of the load which had been borne by three million volunteers’: by their delay wasting the country’s natural leaders and fomenting such attitudes as that of the ‘white feather’, which inspired women to taunt any man seen on the streets in civilian clothes.
The mismanagement, the lack of planning were very great, and there was much hysteria to match the heroism, personal greed as well as self-sacrifice. The mere possession of a German name was enough to convict anyone of shining lights at night to guide the raiders, while the services of men like Prince Louis of Battenberg, who had been naturalised for half a century and personally gave the order for the Fleet on manoeuvres to stand last in 1914, were lost to England. Hard-faced men profiteered out of supplying the Army, sometimes out of supplying poor material to the Army; while the industrial unrest and the militancy with which workers pursued the demand for higher wages are compared to what, by a most atrocious perversion of one of the great analogies of English literature, has come to be known as ‘the winter of discontent’.
‘Almost all forms of industrial militancy familiar today were practised in the years when the armies pulped each other in France,’ Mr Turner writes, and he adds that it was generally the shop stewards who chose the way of militancy, irrespective of their unions’ advice. Then, who remembers today that the restrictive drink laws, under which Great Britain suffered until 1977, were first introduced because the munition workers could earn enough in two days to keep them in drink for a week?
Twice as much time separates us from the second war as passed between the two wars, and yet one need only read Susan Briggs’s book. Keep smiling through, on the home front in the second, to realise the enormous advance in civilised values which had taken place in the intervening time. Some of this must be attributed to the spread of education but not all, because, as Mr Turner shows, the spirit of pitiless hatred was common to all classes.
When the first Zeppelin, the L 21, was brought down at Cuffley – to the accompaniment in London of ‘one of those great shouts, full of triumph, execration and gloating, which many of those who heard them were afterwards to recall with Fit apologies’ – tens of thousands of people made their way to see it and they travelled not only in trains, but in cars and carriages which blocked the roads for miles. ‘Some of the pilgrims were hoping to see a dead German, but police and military forestalled them.’ Here Mr Turner aptly cites the Kipling story. ‘Mary Postgate’, in which a lady’s companion refuses aid to a wounded German airman, and after watching him die, goes home to a hot bath and tea.
The most important reason for the stability of the home front during the Second World War was probably the obvious one, that, because of the bombing of the major cities, there were no non-combatants. In a book called Keep the home fires burning (all three writers see the home front in terms of popular songs), Cate Haste covers much of the same ground as Mr Turner, although her theme is specifically propaganda in the first war. She quotes J.A. Hobson: ‘It is less the savage yearning for participation in the fray than the feeding of the neurotic imagination that marks Jingoism. The actual rage of the combat is of a different and more individual order. Jingoism is the passion of the spectator, the inciter, the backer, not of the fighter’. And it is the passion of the spectator which produces the most degrading emotions. Clearly gallantry was no less in the second war but it is much less anguishing to read about it, because the exaltation had been replaced by stoicism, the worst excesses of feeling by a wry humour.
In 1914 the incitement to jingoism was probably necessary. With so much to fear, the population must be made to see the enemy as a monster under whose yoke life would be so unbearable that death is to be preferred. Hence the atrocity stories. Mr Turner, like Barbara Tuchman and others, makes it plain that the German atrocities were not all inventions, but many were. There is the letter from Nurse Hume in Belgium, quoted by most writers on the subject:
Dear Kale, this is to say goodbye. Have not long to live. Hospital set on fire. Germans cruel. A man here has had his head cut off. My right breast has been taken away.
This letter turned out to have been written by Kate herself: Nurse Hume, having never been out of England, was quite safe in Huddersfield at the time. But it was published not merely in the Dumfries Standard, where it started, but also in such papers as the Evening Standard, the Pall Mall Gazette and the Westminster Gazelle.
In the second war there was no need of invention to inflame the passions of the civilian population, because, although largely against their own people, the Nazis committed atrocities on such a scale, and with such defiance of previous concepts of the limits of human evil, that no one could be in any doubt of the real need to defend himself. Curiously enough, there appears to have been a rumour in the first war, for which there was no satisfactory evidence, and which was furiously repudiated by the Germans, of a factory where the corpses of German soldiers were ‘passed through disinfecting and drying chambers into a “digester” where they were left for six or eight hours. Among the by-products were stearine and other fats used for soap.’
The whole dehumanising industry of propaganda to incite hatred was unnecessary in Britain in the second war, and although some posters proclaimed that ‘Careless talk costs lives,’ or warned against the spreading of alarm and despondency, they were more often used to promote a healthy diet and cleanliness in shelters; while cartoons of fat men in pubs drinking beer, or, in the early part of the war, people lying about at the seashore, mocked the German propaganda that ‘in Britain, the entire population, faced by the threat of invasion, has been flung into a state of panic.’
Closely connected was the fact that in the second war everyone believed, more or less correctly, that they were being told the truth. Probably the greatest contribution to the steadiness of the civilian population was the Churchill broadcasts, in which he continued to announce bad news and to offer only ‘blood, sweat and tears’. In the first war, it was believed that the people could not stand the facts, and only the most carefully censored reports appeared. I personally heard Lord Beaverbrook boast that when he was at the head of the Ministry of Information and Arnold Bennett in charge of the propaganda to France, they wrote the news together every morning.
A common complaint against political and military leaders is that they fight every war in terms of the last. Yet it was exactly because the lessons of the first war were immediately applied in the second that the civilian population showed such remarkable spirit. In the first war conscription had not been introduced until 1916 and food rationing not until 1918. The questions of reserved occupation and of conscientious objectors were never satisfactorily solved. In 1939 it was accepted that certain categories of people, such as doctors and farmers, must be exempted from military service and that petrol, food and clothing must be rationed. Conscientious objectors were directed into useful work from the start. When the Labour Party joined Winston Churchill in coalition, everyone believed in fair shares for all.
The loss of aristocratic power between the wars may have been the most important factor of all. In 1914 the structure of society was still astonishingly feudal, and Mr Turner speaks of regiments being raised by the nobility; Lord Derby, he says, caused ‘a storm in Labour circles when he announced that, after the war, he would employ only those who had done their duty at the Front and would award farms on the same basis.’ One of the very few comments in a largely factual book occurs after Mr Turner has told us that the middle and upper classes were faced with Five Questions: ‘Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who at this moment should be serving your King and Country?’ He adds: ‘These were good questions and there must have been ribald spirits who would have liked to see similar questions addressed to the lower orders: “Have you a landlord shooting pheasants when he should be shooting Huns? Have you a mistress nursing a lapdog who should be nursing wounded soldiers?’” His book is full of half-forgotten facts such as that after the battle of the Somme the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post confined their casualty lists to the names of officers and at the end of 1917 the Times followed suit. He also tells us that, at a time when the average wage was not more than a £1 a week, and the pension of a private soldier’s widow 5s a week, Winston Churchill, Arnold Bennett and Horatio Bottomley received never less than £100 for writing articles for the Sunday Pictorial and sometimes more. Such startling contrasts would have outraged opinion twenty years later. The concepts of planning and of equality are temporarily out of fashion: but they might be said to have won the Second World War.