Britain enters the war

AS USUAL, THE received wisdom cannot be trusted. The declaration of war on 4th August did not provoke in Britain a sudden explosion of patriotic fervour.

To judge from the popular press of the time there were points that week when the public mood hung in the balance. But within seven days a new and vengeful orthodoxy dominated the popular press and, after a fashion, that may have been true of the people of Britain.

On 4th August, the very day on which war was declared, the Daily Herald opposed the conflict. Famously its readership deserted it in droves, but not – quite – then and there. The following day, the Manchester Guardian, perhaps hedging its bets under a veneer of portentousness, expressed its hopes for peace – yet without issuing any explicit condemnation of the war itself. Indulging in the dangerous game of prophecy, it opined that, “In two or three months at the outside we shall probably know how it will end.” A later generation might smile at this fatuity: it was to be four years before the ultimate direction of the war was not in serious doubt.

The great rush to enlist and the enthusiasm of the crowds were real enough, but these should be understood as a noisy demonstration of excitement rather than one of martial ardour or of thoughtful political engagement. To an extent that is hard for us to envision, the lives of most Britons and Europeans in 1914 were desperately circumscribed, physically and socially. The prospect of war, now an incontestable fact, stimulated the population in those first days far more obviously than it unnerved them.

In Britain as elsewhere, this excitability could be conveniently misconstrued as a national unanimity of purpose. This was something which had been in very short supply. In recent years the fragility of any social or political compact had been painfully demonstrated in battles over reform of the Lords, over female suffrage and over Home Rule. Now war, in addition to its terrible dangers, offered an anxious government a window of opportunity. In Britain, the King required an army and, for the tolerably young and fit males, adventure beckoned. The new Secretary of State for War, appointed two days after war began, was Earl Kitchener of Khartoum. A spectacularly unattractive figure for more squeamish later generations, he was glib and facile and untroubled by doubt. That, in addition to his bristling mustachios, chimed in perfectly with the new mood settling across the country.

The Cabinet perceived perfectly the public excitement but, with the possible exception of Churchill in the Admiralty, they did not share in it. They needed the public not merely to hang up bunting and to enlist, but to be persuaded into supporting a conflict in which the stakes could not have been higher and from which there existed no obvious or early exit strategy.

It is in the light of this great danger that the immensely dense narrative of the first week of war draws its especial significance. Generations of British schoolchildren were drilled into remembering the names of the Breslau and the Goeben, two battlecruisers whose firepower began now seriously to exercise the Admiralty, although few ever learned that the nation which suffered most grievously from their depredations was Algeria. On 10th August, the two ships arrived in the Dardanelles, in effect forcing the Ottoman Empire to declare itself for Germany and the Central Powers. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Austria-Hungary. Closer to home, on 6th August, HMS Amphion had been sunk by mines off Yarmouth; 150 British lives were lost. The next day the British and Germans fought a brief, inconclusive, naval action in the West Indies.

That broadening canvas of war impinged itself less on the popular imagination than the dramatic events in and around Liège. The Germans besieged the town on 4th August, and two days later the first reports began to circulate in the British press about outrages perpetrated by the enemy upon its population. It is against that backdrop, perhaps, that one should interpret the fulminations of the Daily Mirror the next morning, demanding to know why the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges had not yet composed a poem to celebrate the onset of war. The very next morning, on 8th August, the Daily Express led with a screaming banner headline “The Mad Dog is held up at Liege”.

Less than a hundred hours since the formal outbreak of hostilities, a popular demotic was asserting itself from which all moral ambiguities had been purged. Is it fanciful to suppose it was one which the public found congenial, and in which the press and government tacitly colluded? Irrespective of how it had come about, Britain had found a voice by the end of the first week of the war.

British Recruiting Poster, 1914

British Recruiting Poster, 1914

On 11th August came a full page advertisement in the Daily Mirror: “Your King and Country Need You”, it read. That same day, the Daily Express declared “Every Woman Should do her Utmost to Induce Young Men to Answer The King’s Call”. Three days later the Church Times showed a remarkable absence of equivocation: “Without a single exception,” it declared, “it would appear Church and nation are convinced beyond a doubt that this is an appeal to the sword which they are forced, however reluctantly, from the highest motives to take up.”