Feature Articles - The Most Popular War in History - Some Conclusions

In an age when dying for a cause is once more acquiring an ominous significance, this period repays study.  Although it might be tempting to court controversy and try to draw parallels with present-day extremists there are obvious and important differences.

Today's extremists are a minority, on the edge of society (although they are supported by a groundswell of sympathy).  Those who joined up in 1914 by contrast were simply ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds with plenty to live for outside death-or-glory.

Furthermore great emphasis was placed on the concept of 'fair fight', sportsmanship and so on - in other words, conflict was constrained by elaborate rules, at least in theory.  It may be fashionable to snigger a little at the idea of 'civilised warfare'.  Yet it is also worth contrasting such institutions as the Geneva Convention and the Red Cross (originally dating from before 1914) with the activities and attitudes of present-day fanatics.  Admittedly the rules were not always adhered to - the sack of Louvain and its university library springs to mind - but at least they were there.  Suicide bombers have no such inhibitions.

It is probably more profitable to see 1914 as a crisis of ideas, or world-views, and as an illustration on the importance of ideas in making things happen.  In both Britain and Europe a heady mix of patriotism, ideas of European superiority and of the crowning ideal of self-sacrifice had been brewing, or perhaps more accurately fermenting, for a long time.

It was a world in which a sense of absolute values was important.  Other ideas were beginning to grow - Socialism, for instance, undermined patriotism by tying allegiance to social class irrespective of country.  It was significant in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent.  Counter-arguments were suggested by exegeses from Charles Darwin, and by Nietzsche, emphasising the moral superiority of people (and by extension nations) who were fitter and stronger.

In Vienna, (centre of the ultra-conservative Hapsburg Empire of all places) there were the stirrings of modern psychology, beginning with Sigmund Freud.  This was opening the way to ascribing base motives (for instance, sexual) to apparently elevated sentiments and social values.  Marxist and allied analysis was starting to perform a similar de-bunking in the political sphere by ascribing war not to elevated notions of honour, patriotism and so forth, but rather to the machinations of the arms industry and the need for the upper classes to keep the proletariat quiet and obedient.

In Britain, the foundations of the modern welfare state were beginning to be laid, and the aristocracy lost most of their political power with the abolition of the House of Lords veto in 1911.

However Marxist and psychoanalytical notions were by no means yet in the general, popular discourse - they had no equivalent of the Daily Mail, Ward Lock encyclopaedias or the boys' magazines.  Furthermore, it had been nearly a century since Britain had been involved in a proper war.  Direct memory of the real thing was therefore hazy to say the least, which allowed the more attractive, romanticised, Boy's Own attitudes to fill the vacuum, fuelled by a very powerful mass print media and educational system on which more progressive opinion was yet to make serious impact.

On the Continent (especially in France on account of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71) memories would have been more recent.  However this was counter-balanced by the desire to regain Alsace-Lorraine, and to re-assert European dominance generally.  It was after all less than a century since the defeat of Napoleon, under whom France had been master of the whole continent and the Prussians, by contrast, very small beer (and, to boot, they had been thrashed at Jena and Austerlitz).

Society in general, the public schools in particular and many other things have of course changed since 1914.  The public schools, in fact, seem almost to be going the other way.  Living conditions are comfortable, the range of school subjects is enormous, extra-curricular activities are as likely to be music and theatre as sport, and a great deal more is known about child and adolescent development.  Many schools now admit girls where before they had been all-male. 

Yet as I said towards the beginning it is interesting that Mr Blair, currently seeing himself as a crusader alongside George Bush against the evil incarnate in Baghdad, went to Fettes College, a public boarding school in Edinburgh (fully co-educational since 1983 by the way).  Even more interesting, its founding and very formidable headmaster Dr Potts is on record as saying this on his death-bed:

I wish to offer to all the boys at Fettes College, particularly to those who have been there any time, my grateful acknowledgement of their loyalty, affection and generous appreciation of me.  I wish, as a dying man, to record that loving-kindness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life; that faith in God is the sole firm stay in mortal life; that all other ideas than Christ are illusory; and that duty is the one and sole thing worth living for.

(Quoted by Honey in Tom Brown's Universe p341.  Emphasis mine)

To me, this quotation from a public school headmaster sums up a lot of the sentiment predominating in the pre-1914 era - the supremacy of duty and the certainty in Christian faith.  So perhaps for one important public figure at least, the 'spirit of 1914' is, so to speak, not that distant after all.

Finally, as my father says, quoting Oliver Cromwell right at the end of his book: 'They knew what they fought for and loved what they knew'. (At Duty's Call p134).

Next - Appendices & Sources

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

'Kitchener's Army' comprised Men recruited into the British Army a result of Lord Kitchener's appeal for volunteers.

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Minor Powers