Disgrace Abounding

E.S. Turner

  • A Class Society at War: England 1914-18 by Bernard Waites
    Berg, 303 pp, £25.00, November 1987, ISBN 0 907582 65 6
  • Working for Victory?: Images of Women in the First World War by Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard
    Routledge, 201 pp, £19.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7102 0974 6
  • The Countryside at War 1914-18 by Caroline Dakers
    Constable, 238 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 09 468060 4
  • When Jim Crow met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War Two Britain by Graham Smith
    Tauris, 265 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 1 85043 039 X

How did the Great War – the first total war – affect the class structure of English society? An exhaustive answer, as Bernard Waites recognises, is probably beyond the power of any one historian. The difficulty is that class structure, or ‘social differentiation’, is something which, unlike crime or illegitimacy or whooping cough, defies both definition and statistical analysis. It depends on subjective attitudes, not on income or education or domicile, and is thus a most slippery concept on which to rear up an edifice of social theory. No one doubts that the Great War wrought changes in attitudes as between ‘Us and Them’, but many of these changes were already on the way. Dr Waites does not shy from the question: if the Archduke’s driver had not made the wrong turning in Sarajevo, would the class structure of England have been much different in 1924? He notes the belief of many that ‘England was about to experience unprecedented class conflict when the war broke out,’ and that Ernest Bevin declared in 1914, for what it was worth, that the country was on the eve of ‘one of the greatest industrial revolts the world has ever seen’. In the event, the fierce, class-rooted, industrial strife which had disfigured the early years of the century continued, intermittently, through the war, giving the impression, in the slightly bemused words of the Ministry of Labour, of ‘unrest paralysed by patriotism – or, it may be, of patriotism paralysed by unrest’. There were some bad moments: in the summer of 1918, thanks to a miniature general strike involving even the London Police, the dead lay unburied in England as well as in France.

As the war progressed, the ‘Us and Them’ divide was deepened by many factors, among them hatred of the profiteer (a new word in the vocabulary) and envy by the housewife in the shop queue of those ladies who sat at home while the chauffeur stocked up on food for hoarding. However, most of the class feeling tended to arise in the ‘wage-labour market’. Total mobilisation of the factories served to wipe out the bitter poverty in which all too many families began the war, but unfamiliar prosperity could be the breeding-ground for new resentments. There was a narrowing of differentials; the unskilled learned that many of the boasted skills of the engineers could be picked up very quickly indeed, not least by women. Thanks to higher wages, the country was soon awash with jokes about munitions workers buying up all the available pianos, but not all the new wealth was spent on luxuries: this book shows that more and more parents were able to afford secondary-school fees for their children. There was a ‘gentling’ of manners, caused in part by those early restrictions on round-the-clock consumption of drink, and also by a far-sighted watering of the beer.

The losers were the middle classes, the office-based, ‘black-coated poor’ left behind in the race by the artisans and mechanics. Among the author’s happier discoveries is the forgotten Middle Classes Union, founded by the ‘salariat’ to prevent itself being ground between Capital and Labour. Whenever employers or workers visited Downing Street, the Union complained, the Government kowtowed to them, while snubbing those at the centre. One of the aims of this ‘aggregate of consumers and taxpayers’ was to urge the Government to extract income tax from manual workers, those notorious piano-owners; another was to restrict hand-outs to the unemployed. Defining the middle classes remained almost impossible, since a clerk could earn less than a dustman. Ernest Bevin, eager to advance a wage claim by his transport workers, turned up at a court of inquiry with a plate of ‘unattractive bacon bits, without vegetables’, supposedly a typical worker’s meal. His contention that middle-class families had two vegetables every day of the week was stiffly rejected: not even families disposing of £400 to £500 a week, he was told, could count on such a luxury.

Dr Waites exercises much skill in disciplining his often elusive material. It is odd that he excludes Scotland from the scope of his book, for the Clydeside troubles were a potent threat to the nation’s unity. He also excludes women from his analysis of the class structure, even though the jacket of the book shows a woman war worker at her bench: this is in deference to the ‘sociological orthodoxy’ which held that a woman’s position was determined by that of the head of the family. The war, in his view, offered women little real or lasting liberation. ‘I fear that my decision adds an iota of insult to their injuries,’ he apologises. It is refreshing, therefore, to turn to Working for Victory?, a first-class picture gallery of women workers in the Great War, with a minimum of accompanying social theory. When hostilities began, there was strong competition among upper-class women to found uniformed private armies of their own (this was long before the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – the WAAC – was formed to serve in France). Eagerness was such that the redoubtable Dr Elsie Inglis had to be told by Whitehall to ‘go home and sit still’ (she later served in Serbia and saw the Russian Revolution in). Specialised forces to get off the ground included the Military Massage Corps, the Women’s Forestry Corps, the Women’s Convoy Corps, the Women’s Forage Corps, the Women’s Police Service, the Women’s Legion and the Lady Instructors’ Signal Company. The authors note a tendency for women, having achieved the right to wear a self-designed uniform, to individualise it according to fancy. Out of uniform, there were women mine-workers, mule-exercisers, sand-blasters, chimney-sweeps, and sorters of deloused garments from the trenches. Especially arresting is the picture of a top-hatted woman hearse-driver, who lends not only dignity but a sombre chic to death. Many other activities are not included in the book. One could argue that Lady Randolph Churchill’s famous foot-girls – in footmen’s uniform, suitably modified – were also doing their bit. War gave a temporary excuse to abandon domestic service, but the home front would have been in peculiar straits if all such labour had been withdrawn. Were women cooks less necessary than women sweeps? The quality of these 150 photographs, from the Imperial War Museum, is very high; they may often have been posed, and intended primarily for propaganda, but they were well worth disinterring. If the robustly cheerful younger women look far from smart in the uniforms of the day, and if senior women went out of their way to look masculine, well, that is the way it was. Why, incidentally, is there a question-mark after ‘victory’ in the title?

Women war-workers turn up again in Caroline Dakers’s The Countryside at War, tilling the land in company with soldiers, German prisoners and conscientious objectors, a more-than-dubious mix in the farmer’s eyes. The sight of girls in breeches shocked an older generation and land girls were ordered not to appear in public places unless they were wearing overalls. At Bateman’s in Sussex the household was ‘caught up in the sexual rivalry between their female labourers and male foreman’. One girl was pursued by another into the hall, where the master of the house, Rudyard Kipling, ‘found her looking like Britannia on her pitchfork and howling “Ther dirty woman!” ’

This book has no axe to grind. It draws discriminately on published memoirs and aristocratic archives to build up a sympathetic, often poignant picture of rural life under stress. Class feeling is sometimes close to the surface. ‘Join up or be sacked’ was the message of the lordlier haves to the have-nots. The tribunals set a fashion of exempting farmers’ sons from the trenches but not farm labourers (some farmers made a show of handing over their lands to their first-born for this reason). At the end, sons of the aristocracy were sometimes judged to merit something exceptional in the way of a memorial. The Horners of Mells commissioned from Munnings and Lutyens a large equestrian statue of their son Edward, but the villagers did not favour the idea of a young horseman riding up the aisle of the church and, finally, the statue was squeezed into the family’s private chapel. It is a pity, perhaps, that so much attention is given to the already over-exposed families of the ‘Souls’ and the ‘Coterie’ (Horners, Wemysses, Asquiths and the rest), and to the far-from-neglected war poets: nevertheless, the author has dug up some curious new material. Not surprisingly, she has been drawn to the recently published memoirs of the Essex clergyman, the Rev. Andrew Clark, and quotes extensively from that admirable record (Echoes of the Great War). One chapter deals with the unhappy French countryside, which for four years was methodically (and, from the South Coast, audibly) reduced to mush. Sir William Orpen, visiting the Somme battlefield six months after the slaughter, reported vividly and unexpectedly:

no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. While daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure, dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies; your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land; but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked ‘Unknown British Soldier’, for the most part.

Until 1917, few Britons had ever encountered an American in the flesh and even fewer had come across black men, other than as comic figures in the films. The American black troops who arrived in Britain that year were mainly in transit; they made a much greater impact in France, where the population befriended them to a degree which worried white Americans. Negroes were easily ‘spoiled’; the French were urged to avoid social contacts with them, otherwise they would grow impossibly ‘uppity’ on their return to America. (Britain, it is worth recalling, had undergone a minor scare on these lines in 1899 during the Prince Lobengula affair, when the women of London had befriended, even fondled, the Africans in a show kraal at Earl’s Court, thus threatening racial pride and the fabric of Empire.) The colour problem returned with a vengeance in 1942, as Graham Smith unsparingly describes in When Jim Crow met John Bull. The British Cabinet groaned at the prospect of an invasion of black troops. Anthony Eden wanted them sent elsewhere and claimed they would be unable to withstand the British weather. It was important not to upset America, but equally important not to go along with American ideas of ‘JimCrow’ segregation. Lord Simon rashly boasted that Britain would never do such a thing. Sir Stafford Cripps broadly endorsed ‘Dowler’s Notes’, the recommendations of a major-general, which urged that British soldiers should not make close contacts with black troops and that women should refrain from walking out, dancing or drinking with them (they were already doing that and more). A vicar’s wife in Somerset urged shopkeepers to serve blacks but tell them not to come back, and to move away from them in cinemas. A former official of the British Information Service in America wrote a book which described how to treat ‘this amiable curiosity equipped with a broad, pearly smile, the accoutrements of war and, by British standards, pocketfuls of money’. If any critic was heard opposing a colour bar, he said, the thing to do was to ask him, preferably in front of others: ‘Would you like your sister to marry a Negro?’ Initially at least, the ‘Choc’late Drop Soldier’ (as he was described in a patronising song) enjoyed widespread good will. A West Country farmer is supposed to have said: ‘I love the Americans, but I don’t like these white ones they’ve brought with them.’

Soon a form of apartheid was established on British soil. Cinemas and public-houses made their own discriminatory rules. Towns were designated white or black for recreational purposes (Northwich was black, Chester white), or were black one night and white the next. The Women’s Voluntary Services opened Silver Birch Clubs for blacks only. Winston Churchill, informed that a black member of the Colonial Office staff had been barred from a restaurant in deference to white Americans, is supposed to have quipped: ‘That’s all right; if he takes his banjo with him, they’ll think he’s one of the band.’

Outrageous suggestions were advanced on all sides: that blacks should be bottled up in the seaports, ‘where people are used to all kinds of foreigners’; that they should be sent to North Africa, or ‘to fertilise the Italians, who are used to it anyhow’ (a Conservative MP’s suggestion); that blacks should be sent over to help ‘entertain’ their black brethren (Roosevelt quashed this idea of John G. Win-ant’s). Meanwhile race riots broke out, notably in Dudley, Bamber Bridge, Launceston, Leicester, Bristol and Kingsclere, and American courts-martial sentenced black soldiers to death for rape (the sentences were not carried out). Dr Goebbels’s propaganda machine made maximum mischief out of this unlooked-for gift.

Norman Longmate by no means overlooked the story of the ‘Choc’late Drop Soldier’ and the ‘tan babies’ in The GIs: The Americans in Britain, but Graham Smith has worked hard at unsuspected, neglected and hushed-up documents to produce this comprehensive survey. The publishers mysteriously call it ‘a tale rich in human dignity’: others might see it as a record of disgrace abounding. It is unlikely to pass unnoticed in Johannesburg.