A war of survival

THE OUTBREAK OF war, and the sudden disruption to routine that it offered, had generated immense excitement among all classes — particularly perhaps those most credulous and least well educated. This persisted throughout the second week of the war. It even intensified, as the press refined an ability to combine a lofty moral tone with a sensational narrative. The Daily Mirror broadcast The King’s Clemency on 11th August, whereby suffragettes and strikers who were presently enduring the assorted horrors of imprisonment were to go free. On the same day, the paper reported confidently that the Prime Minister had declined to allow the Territorial Army to be used in Ireland, expressing his confidence that Ireland would “contribute her full contingent” to the recruitment drive headed by Lord Kitchener. The suffragettes had been radicalised to such an extent that, in retrospect, their immediate volte face appears both tactical as well as stunning. By contrast, when it came to Ireland, Asquith seems to have been suffering from a bad case of hubris.

Public excitement needed to be whetted by any means to hand. The Mirror also reported that two German spies had been caught cutting telegraph wires in Cromer and that the Prince of Wales’s national relief fund had reached £500,000 in just three and a half days – an impressive illustration, surely, of the resonance of the Royal Family upon the public imagination during a time of national emergency. Of this, British tobacco had contributed £15,000. Big business enjoyed public displays of high-mindedness.

Energy and enthusiasm seemed inexhaustible in those first days. One suspects that the complacency of the matriarch who organised her servants to “help in their spare time to sew up these nightshirts for the wounded, and hem these sheets, provided by the Red Cross Society”, was appreciated more at a distance than by those within her exhausted household. The Daily Express, however, reporting the story on 12th August, wrote of this latter-day Mrs Jellyby in gushing terms. This kind of excitability could be downright dangerous, however. The next day the Mirror noted that a peddler had been shot dead in Liverpool by over-zealous sentries – one of a startlingly large number of similar cases.

In a society so unselfconsciously stratified, not to say straitjacketed, the lurch into new behaviours was sudden and dramatic and, not unreasonably, a matter of remark. The day after the Glorious Twelfth, the Daily Express remarked that “Most of the Scottish moors were without a single sportsman”. On 15th August, a contingent of British nurses had left Brussels for the Front — a matter which was reported by the British popular press with its trademark alchemy of solemnity and simmering sexual innuendo. Two days later the Daily Mirror archly noted that a number of shop girls and nurses were being taught marksmanship at Harrods’ rifle range. One girl was quoted as saying “women ought to be allowed to fight as well as men”. A more restrained tone of admiration was adopted by the Daily Express on 19th August when it reported that “the Early Bird Lord Kitchener was at work in The War Office by 8 a.m. each day”. Heavens.

This slightly manic cheerfulness was not intended to detract from what was, by now, happening just across the Channel. The war, for now, was emphatically one of movement, and from the perspective of the British its outstanding characteristic was the advance of the German army through Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France on 16th August, the same day as the fortress town of Liège was completely overrun by German troops. The next day, the Belgian government decamped from Brussels to Antwerp. The Daily Mirror commented that day that “the greatest battle in the history of the world has begun… in all probability the battle will last at least a week, possibly longer”. It did last longer and anyway became subsumed in time into a war of far greater proportions and savagery. Within a few days, the British press would slightly soft pedal on battle reportage and concentrate instead on outrages it claimed were perpetuated by German troops against Belgian civilians.

For ministers, a new narrative had now opened up which, they fervently hoped, would channel public indignation and maintain support for the emerging conflict. As early as 13th August, the Daily Mirror wrote gloatingly of the 200 Germans interned in Olympia. To leaven the diet of Germanophobia, it also made early swipes at those letting the side down. On 18th August came a cartoon depicting food hoarders as pigs. Strong meat for those days, but evidently it felt right at the time.

The motives of ministers who colluded in whipping up the public mood need more careful delineation than they have often received. Why should they have worried? Excitement at the outbreak of war was not a media invention — not even nearly. Moreover, Britain was an indisputably Great Power with strong allies. The strength of combined French and British armaments was not something which the newspapers, however loyally intentioned, could manufacture by force of newsprint alone. Britain’s army was small, but it was deadly professional and was growing fast. On 17th August, the Daily Express reported that 40,000 men had enrolled within a week. Moreover, even an enlarged BEF was expected to play only a subordinate role by comparison with that played by the French. Anyway, the navy was soon to come into the front line – was it not?

The answer must be that the Cabinet knew something the public did not – not something specific, but it discerned the cumulative probability that the struggle would be attenuated, bloody and close-run. The declaration of war on Austria-Hungary by Britain and France (on 11th and 12th August) pointed to the growing internationalisation of the conflict. The Russian promise of autonomy to Poland two days later certainly indicated that Russia, at least, was worried, and the day after that Japan issued an ultimatum to Germany. Closer to home came discreet rumblings from a few sceptics – some doubtful that any of the protagonists would be able to escape hideous slaughter in the battles which were now beginning, others fearful that Britain’s Dreadnoughts would be unable to fulfil anything other than a secondary role in the war which was unfolding. These voices were whispers in a gale.

Still, the notion that the war which had begun was one of survival was understood seriously by the British and French people at large. Britain went to war in 1914 to defend the ports in northern France and Belgium. The guarantee of Belgian neutrality signed in the 1839 Treaty of London was a diplomatic veneer, but the need to protect the Channel and the North Sea (so far as possible) was intuitively understood.

We can parody the idea of fair play, but it had deep roots in the psyche of the British people, whose island existence allowed them to exalt, perhaps even to fetishise, the sacred inviolability of national frontiers. Along with their government, they recognised also the strategic dangers – and the risk of starvation – if the Germans were allowed to proceed unimpeded. The privations of the Napoleonic Wars had been endured for similar reasons a hundred years earlier. In France, perhaps few poilus had heard of Schlieffen, but most shared in the collective memory of the rape of Alsace-Lorraine forty-four years earlier. The French government, despite the lurid fears of the German military, had quite given up any thoughts of revanchisme. But Belgium was being attacked and France was evidently next on the list.

Germany’s soldiers were probably more ignorant politically than most of those they fought. The slightness of German democracy was to blame, and in consequence its foreign policy owed literally nothing to public endorsement. The Schlieffen Plan had been conceived purely as a theoretical exercise, and then bulldozed into reality – testimony to the abstractedness of not merely the military élite (there was nothing exceptional in that) but also of Germany’s politicians. The Kaiser was irresolute and terrified, but he was also pitiless. He and his colleagues had talked for a decade at least about the need for a pre-emptive war with Russia, and seemed unembarrassed to have done so. They were prepared to invade Belgium and France as a tactical contrivance in pursuit of grand strategy.

No wonder Asquith and his colleagues were worried. Germany’s leaders were not merely ruthless and ambitious, but (it seemed) at least half mad. The British public had long enjoyed bashing the Kaiser – not so much because he was German, but because he was believed to be a buffoon, thin-skinned and self-important. Once again, the Daily Mirror set the tone on 18th August, referring to him as a “Royal Jack-of-all-Trades”, and wryly welcoming reports that he was contemplating assuming the role of Commander in Chief of the German Armed Forces. It was good news for Britain and her allies, the paper believed. To date, he had dabbled in theology, architecture, pottery, shipbuilding, agriculture, economics, music and painting. Here was another opportunity to make a right royal hash of things

For the West, therefore, this was a war of survival. Excitement was not going to be enough. Britain’s leaders knew they were in it for the long haul, and that it would be terrible in ways they could not imagine. In a way which seems unconscionable to a later generation, this was a perception they hugged jealously to themselves.