Feature Articles - The Most Popular War in History - Moral Certainties, Patriotism and Self-Confidence

Caption reads: 'Girded for Knighthood' (Young England for 1912, p129)

Ideas in the Air

This was an age which saw issues far more in moral black and white than we do and was more prone to pass moral judgements, something which will have prompted people to take up arms in a righteous cause.  It was a time of absolutes and certainties in which the practice of war, which demanded the ultimate, absolute sacrifice of one's life, had a more natural place than now.

It may be significant that Britain did not actually enter the Great War until Belgian neutrality had been violated - an unambiguous moral issue.  One wonders if the country would have been quite so enthusiastic about rallying behind the Entente Cordiale, where the obligations were less clear-cut.  (It is worth remembering by the way that some of the things the Germans did, such as the sack and burning of Louvain in 'neutral' Belgium, would surely be reprehensible at any time.  I don't want to imply that in 2003 we have no moral sense!  Episode 3 of the Great War BBC documentary of 1964 describes this disgraceful act in graphic detail.)

We have already seen how the public-school ethos, disseminated as it was amongst the rest of the population, contributed to the enthusiasm for fighting (Queensberry Rules etc, of course).  This was not, however, the only influence.  My father (At Duty's Call chapter 2, pp18-34) describes other strands of thought going back as far as Clausewitz in the early nineteenth century, famous for his remark that 'war is the continuation of policy by other means'.  Clausewitz (again quoted by my father) is also on record as saying that 'war satisfies the soul's longing for honour and renown' as well as being part of the normal intercourse of the human race. 

Already we can see the beginnings of the idea of war, and particularly death in war, as a kind of ultimate life achievement.  Later on (1859) came another major intellectual milestone - the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.  Not only did it upset the more conservative end of the religious establishment, it also encouraged other thinkers and writers to extend his idea of 'survival of the fittest' to different nations and races amongst the human species.  The fact, for instance, that a handful (comparatively) of white Britishers ruled an Indian subcontinent of three hundred million or so will only have contributed to feelings of white, British superiority (a number of sources quoted by my father would now be seen as quite unacceptably racist).

'Germany Rising' (my father's chapter heading, p61)

However the same source also emphasised competition, probably giving (indirectly at least) a spur to this country's rivalry with Germany, which perhaps deserves a special sub-section.  Significantly, during the years immediately before the Great War when this country's rivalry with Germany was developing fast, there were strong moral overtones to a lot of the comment.

In particular, this country was seen as soft and decadent.  My father quotes one P A Hislam writing in 1908:

'Germany is virile, England is lethargic; Germany is aggressive, England is peaceful; Germany is ambitious, England is complacent.  The temperament of the two peoples promises nothing with more certainty than that when Germany believes her opportunity to have come she will have no difficulty in taking England unawares.'

The British had good reason to be apprehensive about Germany, especially after 1871 when Prussia, already powerful, transmogrified itself into the German Empire after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War.  By the period we are discussing (discounting the British Empire) their homeland population was larger and their natural resources in coal and iron excellent (Silesia, now part of Poland, in the east, and the Ruhr in the west).  Their industry, including their armaments industry (Krupps of Essen), was formidable and as mentioned at the beginning of this article they had stolen a lead in newer industries such as electrical goods.

This feeling of insecurity was not helped by the antics of Wilhelm II, one of whose notions was to build a fleet to rival Great Britain's, and which he put into practice with the German Navy Law of 1898.  It is this sense of growing German power which was probably responsible for the 'scare' novels and thrillers which appeared after 1890.

These include The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, where the Germans plan to launch a surprise invasion from the Frisian islands using small, flat-bottomed boats hidden amongst the shoals and channels as troop-carriers.  They would have landed at the Wash and cut the country in two by a quick march westwards.  As interesting as the plot is the attitudes of the British characters towards Germany - a mixture of both fear and admiration - they even manage to like Wilhelm II.  By implication at least, comparisons are being made with a more lethargic England.

This panic grew in the years immediately prior to the war.  It was helped by the rise of popular print media (the Daily Mail, the Express and Horatio Bottomley's John Bull which appeared only in 1906) - my father mentions a fear of German spies everywhere.  The Mail in fact published a series of articles in 1909 which would be reprinted in August 1914 as The War that was Foretold.  There was even talk of a pre-emptive strike against Germany before the Kiel Canal (joining the Baltic and the North Sea) could be made ready to take large battleships, a process estimated to take until 1914.

There was also talk of introducing compulsory military service both from senior politicians and from novelists - Erskine Childers may have had it in mind when writing Riddle of the Sands.  At the end of this book he suggests training everyone for either Army or Navy.

Lord Roberts (the country's top general and another enthusiast) became head of the National Service League in 1905.  However despite this push from both prominent public figures and politicians resistance to compulsion remained strong (and in fact there was no conscription until January 1916, well into the Great War).  Many professional senior officers (despite Lord Roberts) disliked the prospect of floods of unwilling conscripts, and there was still the almost visceral dislike of a large peacetime standing army dating from the rule of Cromwell's Major-Generals.

Also, the country was surrounded by a natural moat, efficiently patrolled by the Royal Navy.  Apart from the small Regular Army, therefore, there were only the Volunteers who eventually became the Territorials, never more than 300,000 in strength.  Unfavourable comparisons were often made between the British and the Germans (and also 'far-off Japan') for whom undergoing training to die for their country was a 'sacred duty' (General Sir Alex B Tulloch, quoted by my father p80).

Talk of peace-time conscription seems to have been one expression of the general concern for the nation's moral decline, of which the various German scares seem to have been another.  Again and again, the theme is surprise (for instance, Saki's When William Came, published 1914 when the Germans take over in a week), or Germany's greater virility - the rising star, if you like, supplanting the setting one (Britain).  My father suggests that the eagerness of the upper classes to answer the call in 1914 may partly have been a function of guilt for indolence and 'soft' living, and in this connection quotes Rupert Brooke (p76 of  At Duty's Call):

'Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping...'

Heroics, Chivalry and Boy Scouts

Caption reads: 'Just like Saint George of old, the Boy Scouts of today fight against everything evil and unclean." (from Scouting for Boys p11)There is no doubt also that it was General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon's unwavering faith in his God and his sense of divine mission which gave him the confidence to take command of a rag-tag guerrilla army of Chinese during the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860's and convert them to an efficient fighting force. (For more on Gordon, click here.

Gordon was a nineteenth and early twentieth-century hero par excellence.  A puritanical Christian, he devoted his life to various conflicts in a righteous cause, culminating in a final confrontation with the 'forces of darkness' (the Mahdi) and heroic death at Khartoum in January, 1885.  The fact that this was stage-managed by himself in direct disobedience to the orders of his Government seems to have escaped notice (but made for a riveting film in 1965).

There was also a belief, again following on from the more basic belief in general European moral superiority, that war between European states would be 'civilised' and, less logically, short and sweet.  Less logically because although the Prussians had made fairly short work of the French in 1870-71, the American Civil War had lasted four long, disillusioning years (one result of this being disastrous riots in New York in July 1862 - see the award-winning film The Gangs of New York).  The Franco-Prussian war, after the brilliant victory at Sedan, had ended in the long drawn-out siege of Paris: even with Krupp armaments, the reduction of the city took months.

Such unpleasant realities seem to have largely escaped or been ignored by people at the time (apart from a certain moral revulsion at the Prussians' bombardment of Paris).  Apart from the boys' magazines, my father quotes large numbers of other sources many of whom portray war as a kind of adventure and test of manhood, with the nobility of the ultimate sacrifice of death frequently in the background at least.

G A Henty, very popular, wrote a number of novels based on military campaigns (for instance With Clive in India), and Peril and Patriotism by one Cassell in 1900 apparently had a cover showing a white man throttling a 'savage'.  Non-fiction too emphasised power and imperial glory.  Apart from the 'Super Dreadnought' already quoted (and many, many other similar illustrations in the boys' magazines) there were books like Wonder Book of Empire and Wonder Book of Soldiers which supplemented (perhaps more for middle-class consumption) the material in the magazines.

The man who would later become General Garnet Wolseley and relieve Khartoum wrote, describing a real experience in Burma:

'You are for the time being... lifted up from and out of all petty thoughts of self, and for a moment your whole existence, soul and body, seems to revel in a true sense of glory'.

Field-Marshal Earl Haig, alumnus of Clifton College referred to above (for some, the infamous Douglas Haig) was also a very pious man, believing in his cause almost as much as General Gordon although not quite so showily.  Even a comparatively level-headed general with wide experience of real fighting could come out with this:

'As the Valkyrie ride exultant up northern skies to Valhalla, bearing fallen heroes home, spurning fear pain and death beneath the hoof-strokes of their galloping horses, the President of the Peace Conference reclines in his opera-box and yawns.  The triumphant rush through the air, the clash of sword and hollow reverberating clang of brazen buckler, the storm and wild joy of battle are in his ears - but he hears not'.

General Hamilton, quoted by my father in At Duty's Call p.55)

The glorification of death in battle is becoming well advanced.  The subliminal message is becoming clear: peace is not only dull but morally enervating, leading to indolence and flabbiness: fighting is what brings out the best in a man, with death in battle (and translation to Heaven, in this case Valhalla) the most glorious of all. (Later on, General Hamilton was to command at Gallipoli).

Amongst the upper classes, but percolating to the rest of the population through magazines and books, there was an upsurge of romanticised interest in mediaeval chivalry (for more on how this affected certain prominent ruling-class families, click here.  After all, some at least of them would actually have descended from mediaeval aristocracy and gentry.  It took the form of an interest in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and romanticisation of orders of chivalry and of the semi-mythical King Arthur.  In 1839 several country-house owners went so far as to join forces to re-create a mediaeval jousting match, calling it the 'Eglinton Tournament'.

Chivalry was also taken very seriously at a popular level: Girded for Knighthood (left) is featured in Young England and points to a long article on the initiation of a new knight.  The article in turn describes how the new 'Law of Chivalry' dawned on an age previously dominated by 'might is right' (bit of a clash with the popular exegeses on Charles Darwin).

It is supposed to have imposed a code of obligation on the upper classes to look after those lower down or at the bottom of the scale, to fight cleanly and to treat women with an elaborate but somewhat distant courtesy.  The training of the young knight-to-be is described in considerable detail, from his induction as a 'page' in someone else's household, through to becoming a 'squire' and beginning military training via outdoor sports and riding, to finally becoming a knight during the ceremony illustrated.

The article discusses circumstances in which several boys might be attached to the same lord (shades of being sent to public school?), and the vigil in church before investiture as a knight.  Religious faith and military prowess go forth together, and a military career (and, by implication, the ultimate sacrifice) are further glorified.

Another highly influential author fascinated by chivalry was Robert Baden-Powell of Boy Scout fame.  His book Scouting for Boys is interesting for a number of reasons.  First of all, he sees becoming a Scout as a way of living out patriotic duty.  Not only does he begin the book with the remark, 'I suppose every boy wants to serve his country in one way or another', he also makes extensive reference to the St George legend as shown here.

On the same page as this illustration he quotes extensively from what he conceives as 'The Code of the Knights': its precepts included the sacredness of honour, loyalty to God and country, and courtesy to women, children and weaker people generally.  He is very keen that his Scouts emulate the mediaeval knights (or at least the knights as envisaged by Sir Robert Baden-Powell - the real thing was probably as rough and unscrupulous as people any other mediaeval social group).

Caption reads: '"S" stands for Sloucher, and "I" stands for you, if you are upright. Ask yourself this question, "Am I 'S' or am I 'I'?"The other interesting - and sometimes infuriating - aspect of Scouting for Boys is the curious mixture of sensible advice and moralising.  This also throws an interesting light on attitudes at the time.  His ideas on outdoor survival are still valid and his advice on such things as keeping observant, alert and in good trim is undoubtedly worth listening to - there is after all a lot of concern in this age about obesity and related health issues.

(Were I not anxious about mislaying a document of historical interest I would take my copy with me for Mount Etna and other outdoor adventures).  Yet when he discusses even such matters as posture he will insist on introducing moral overtones (see Sloucher and Upright Man above).

More alarmingly (from the standpoint of AD 2003), in a book aimed at least partly at adolescents, he has just 3 lines in 270-odd pages on girl-friend type relationships.  He advises: 'Don't spend time on a girl whom you would not like your mother or sister to see you with.  Don't marry a girl unless you are in a position to support her and to support some children.'  And that's it.  Sexual innocence - or simply the ignoring of sexual urges - indeed permeates the whole of the book, and will have reflected the attitude to this in the country at large (and the fact that my edition was published in 1932 indicates how durable the attitudes were).

Such innocence seems to have been an essential part of all the adventure fiction and school stories - deep relationships with girls would have muddied the waters.  The introduction of girl-friends and romantic interest would therefore have changed them beyond recognition, as acknowledged by G A Henty, interviewed by another boys' writer and friend of his George Manville Fenn:

'It speedily dawned on him [Henty] that there is nothing a boy likes better than a good description of a fight - with fisticuffs not objected to against some school tyrant - and here, in his descriptions, the writer was thoroughly at home... His boys were fighting boys, very manly, full, as he termed it, of pluck ... not so much boys as men, saving... that he kept them to boy life, and never made his works sickly by the introduction of the tender passion (i.e., girls).  "No", he [Henty] said, "I never touch on love interest.  Once, I ventured to make a boy of 12 kiss a little girl of 11, and I received a very indignant letter from a dissenting minister."'

(Quoted by my father on pp 27-28 of At Duty's Call).  One does wonder if Henty would have liked to have introduced boy-girl relationships, but felt unable to do so.

This seems to me to say a lot about what lay behind the enthusiasm for military glory - almost a sort of arrested development.  Yet of course young men did meet the opposite sex, did marry and did raise families, not all of which, to use the trendy modern term, were 'dysfunctional'.  People then seemed to have been a lot more restrained than us and, perhaps more significantly, sex was seen then as a less important motive than it is now: patriotism and moral confidence were just as important if not more so.

Irritating as Baden-Powell can be, his work is an example of how seriously absolute moral concerns were taken during the period we are discussing.  Furthermore the Scout Movement was extremely popular, taking in many thousands of boys before 1914.  Along with the magazines he helped ensure that the otherwise rather cloistered, over-idealised chivalric code as re-interpreted by the Pre-Raphaelites and others got to a very wide audience.

The ideals of Scouting were also a powerful reinforcement to the already pervasive patriotic sentiment (echoed incidentally all over Europe.  If there is one thing all the major Powers, and some of the minor ones too such as Greece and Serbia, had in common before 1914, it was intense patriotic fervour).

Other content of popular literature frequently served to reinforce this message, including sexual continence.  Apart from the historical romances and school stories, the boys' magazines frequently figured more general 'ripping yarns' (for instance The Mysterious Aeroplane in Young England vol. XXXIII for 1912) and advice on careers and hobbies.

Notably lacking (by twenty-first century standards) in magazines aimed at least partly at adolescents is any reference to sex, girl-friends, or advice on relationship problems (partly perhaps because boy would meet girl at a later age than now).  However there are veiled references to masturbation (e.g. reply to a reader worried about 'School Vice - Equinoctial' - The Boy's Own Paper Annual for 1899 p.352), something of an obsession at the time.  Many of the non-school, non-mediaeval stories still emphasise physical courage and 'pluck' (initiative with bravery).

Finally, patriotism, Empire and associated ideals were reinforced by the national education system at all levels - globes and wall maps with large areas of red, glorifying the British Empire were a feature of most if not all elementary school classrooms.  Despite the country's economic decline relative to Germany and the USA, there was still a perception of Britain as the 'workshop of the world', the hub of an enormous trading system based on the Empire itself and British subsidiaries or companies in other countries.

Even everyday objects would be pressed into the service of promoting the country.  At Victoria's Golden and Diamond Jubilees, as well as at the coronations of Edward VII and George V and other notable events such as the relief of Mafeking, commemorative mugs, jugs, plates and other articles were produced glorifying not only the monarch but also the British Empire.

The dust-jacket of Honey's book on public schools - a sort of still-life of public-school paraphernalia - even features a pencil-case adorned with flags, ships and men on horseback (or possibly on camels).  The Empire and Britain's achievements were woven into the very fabric of life in a way inconceivable today and it may be this which caused enthusiasm for the war to over-ride all other emotions and cross-currents such as incipient socialism and the tensions in Ireland.

For right up to the declaration of war in August there was serious concern that other issues (mainly industrial relationships and Ireland) could boil over and possibly rip the country apart.  Ireland was particularly serious in that sufficient Army personnel were refusing to move against the Ulster Protestants to render the Army unreliable in a matter of national security.  Yet even this threat dissipated like mists before the dawn on August 4th 1914 (although the Irish issue was to resurface first with the Easter Rising of 1916 and subsequently with the very dirty civil war in Ireland after 1918).

Next - War is Declared

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

A "blimp" was a word applied to an observation balloon.

- Did you know?

Minor Powers