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This article is intended to suggest an approach to the global history of the First World War that can provide a method of managing the potentially unwieldy concept of global conflict by understanding it through the war's impact on localities. By concentrating on four relatively small but significant cities; Oxford in England, Halifax in Nova Scotia, Jerusalem in Palestine and Verdun in eastern France, which experienced the war in very different ways, it looks at both the movement of people and things and the symbolic interconnectivities that made the war a ‘world war’. This local focus helps challenge both the primacy of self-contained national history and the focus on the violent interaction of the opposing sides which are the more normal ways of narrating the war. It does not deny the usefulness of these traditional structures of narration and explanation but suggests that there are different and complementary ways the war can be viewed, which create different emphasis and chronologies.
In a wartime history of Hyde in Cheshire, there are a number of anecdotes about the experiences of local inhabitants. When the Lusitania was torpedoed, two local people were drowned. Vernon Livermore, a ship's bugler from Hyde, survived. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, except that it turns out that he had also been a ship's bugler on the Titanic. The history doesn't record whether ‘Jonah’ Livermore went to sea again, or indeed whether any shipping line would employ him.
Livermore wasn't the only link between the two doomed ships. The sinking of the Lusitania evoked memories of the Titanic, barely three years earlier. But whereas the latter was generally seen as an act, perhaps even a judgement, of God; the Lusitania sinking was understood as the work of the devil.
The torpedoing of the liner was the final evidence required to complete the ‘demonising’ of the enemy in the public mind. But it was also an act of war that involved the deliberate killing of over a thousand civilians. Every step on the way to the demonisation of Germany was prompted by real events, albeit events interpreted in a highly partisan framework. Any discussion of atrocity propaganda must bear in mind the reality of atrocities. That there was exaggeration and invention is undeniable, but the inhabitants of Hyde knew civilians who had died on the Lusitania, the inhabitants of West Hartlepool knew civilians killed by the German navy and the inhabitants of Folkestone knew civilians killed by bombing.
On All Saints' Day 1914, the vicar of Bradford preached a sermon entitled ‘Precious Blood’. His opening line betrayed a Yorkshire inflection that gives an immediacy to the published version: ‘Blood! An awful word is that. A solemn word.’ He continued: ‘A word that takes you straight to the sublime sacrifice of the Incarnate God. A word which reeks in our newspapers these days.’ On All Saints' Day, when, ‘we commemorate those who have given themselves, whether in life or in death for the Imperial cause of Christ’, then, ‘it is obviously fitting that we should think of those who during the last weeks – weeks which seem like years’, had given themselves for love of the country. The German Army had been thwarted, great things had been achieved: ‘To the noble army of Liberators we pay homage. But the moment we do so we are up against the stupendous fact … the power which achieved it was one and one only – Sacrifice.’
This was a particularly Anglican version of the universal language of wartime. The relationship between Christian rhetoric and wartime values was an intimate one. This was not accidental, and will be expanded upon later. For the moment it is the issue of this national language and local inflection which needs to be explored. If blood was the currency, how did the books balance?
Three years ago, the war was popular, a thing for which people were glad to make sacrifices. At present as far as I can see, it is not. I doubt one could get a hearing at a working class meeting if one spoke of the principles at stake. One would get laughed down.
R. H. Tawney, December 1917
The limitations of a language of sacrifice had been neatly anticipated by the Daily Herald in the first week of the war: ‘The toilers may well be tired of sacrifices. All their life is a sacrifice.’ At the start, this newspaper, along with most of the Liberal press and much of the Conservative press was anticipating complete industrial collapse: there would be massive unemployment accompanied by shortages and inflation. August did indeed prove turbulent, but by September prices were stabilising, there were no widespread food shortages and a labour shortage in certain industries led rapidly to full employment. Although there was a good deal of criticism, the Prince of Wales Fund for the relief of distress sent a helpful signal to those suffering from economic dislocation that the middle and upper classes were not reacting with indifference to their plight. Yet even with these qualifications duly noted, the first half of the war saw a great deal of real hardship for the industrial workers. In these circumstances, the relative social peace of the first two years of the war came as a surprise.
Your country knows that it is no light sacrifice that she demands of you …
If you do not go willingly to-day, you and your children and your children's children may have to go unwillingly to wars even more terrible than this one.
Recruiting advertisement, Daily Express, 10 February 1915
A cartoon in The Passing Show in June 1915 shows a young man about town, monocled and smoking a cigarette through an exaggerated holder, standing in front of a shop window. The window carries a poster of soldiers going into battle and, underneath, the slogan ‘Don't stand looking at this, Come and Help.’ The caption, referring to the young man, is: ‘Who's looking?’
It was a complicated joke. The poster exhorts the move from spectatorship to participation, yet the ‘knut’ is not even engaged as a spectator. The line between spectatorship and participation could be blurred. In May 1915, the weekly issued a heavily ironic ‘Six don'ts for patriotic civilians’. Advice included: ‘be phlegmatic … The Press Bureau will tell you when to get excited: till then forget there is a war on’; when troops go by, ‘don't take your hat off … it is liable to distract attention from shop windows’; civilians shouldn't cheer: ‘Cheering is only permissable at horse races, football matches, strike meetings and in the trenches’; civilians shouldn't go out ‘without a plentiful supply of White Feathers’; they should ‘cultivate an upright and military bearing’, so that even if they were not in the volunteer reserve, people would think they were.
What was it that the British people believed they were fighting for in 1914–18? This compelling history of the British home front during the First World War offers an entirely new account of how British society understood and endured the war. Drawing on official archives, memoirs, diaries and letters, Adrian Gregory sheds new light on the public reaction to the war, examining the role of propaganda and rumour in fostering patriotism and hatred of the enemy. He shows the importance of the ethic of volunteerism and the rhetoric of sacrifice in debates over where the burdens of war should fall as well as the influence of religious ideas on wartime culture. As the war drew to a climax and tensions about the distribution of sacrifices threatened to tear society apart, he shows how victory and the processes of commemoration helped create a fiction of a society united in grief.
Ever since August 1914, our capital, once the blithest and jolliest city in Europe has been in danger of being Prussianised … not of course by the enemy, but by the scarcely less disagreeable Puritans in our midst.
In the course of 1917 the strains of war were creating a widespread sense of gloom. The journalist Charles Sheridan-Jones, in a book published that year, complained of a ‘plague of regulations under which the most harmless things had become “verboten” ’. In the capital it had become impossible ‘to get a whisky after nine-thirty or cigarettes after eight’, and that ‘the shopkeeper who sells you chocolate may face a ruinous penalty’.
Small symbolic changes could indicate wider issues. Looking back, Dorothy Peel remembered of the winter of 1917–1918, ‘the world was poorer for the disappearance of the muffin’: an institution of her domestic life had ceased to exist. That winter was the winter of the queue: ‘anyone who penetrated the poorer neighbourhoods became familiar with the queue’. Initially this was a burden which fell on the working class, but soon, ‘the middle classes who could not obtain servants also swelled the queue’. By early 1918, ‘women used to go from shop to shop trying to find one at which they could buy meat or margarine’.
The low point in public confidence was between October 1917 and February 1918. The prospects never seemed bleaker.
The British still seem to take the First World War personally. It would be difficult to imagine a contemporary British historian of the Napoleonic Wars writing a preface about how their great-great-great-grandfather died of typhoid at Walcheren or lost an arm at Badajoz, but it seems almost instinctive to evoke a grandfather at Loos or a great-uncle on the Somme. Moral indignation is not without benefits for a historian; the crimes and follies of mankind do require something other than cold detachment. But history demands perspective, and intense personal involvement can and does lead to distortion.
Hindsight has been the other curse of writing about the war. Of course, it would be absurd to banish hindsight from our historical judgement. It is one of our assets. We know how things turned out and can therefore attempt to explain why they turned out as they did. But hindsight carries risks when applied to understanding the thoughts and actions of people in the past.
We must remember that hindsight is unavailable to those who are living through the experience, and it cannot inform their decisions. We might choose to condemn the First World War as a human tragedy and an error of colossal proportions, but in doing so we must be aware that there is something essentially anachronistic about this. It can lead to unjustifiable wishful thinking based on little more than romantic nostalgia.