Why the Great War?

On her blog dedicated to the nurses who served in the First World War, nurse historian Sue Light talks of the four years of conflict as the “great comma” in history because afterwards, nothing would be ever quite the same. It was the age of modernity and Modernism. Western life had become increasingly urbanised and industrialised; a shrinking world spinning faster and faster, seemingly divorced from the soothing rhythms of natural time and familiar places. Writers and artists rose to the occasion; Wolfe and Joyce, Picasso and Dismorr and a joyous, disturbed, questing host of others, whilst politicians fought for control and social activists seized the moment.

Popular culture does not do the Edwardians justice. Forget the starched collars and cap-doffing; this was a restless, raucous, argumentative time. Literacy rates soared, local newspapers proliferated and were devoured by all classes, lending libraries opened windows into new worlds of adventure and opportunity. Lives might be framed by duty and religion but imagination, ambition and a strong sense of social justice set them free. People agitated and organised – for everything; for the vote, for rights within marriage, for safety at work, for orphans and street walkers and ill-treated animals, for justice and freedom at home and abroad. This was a world we would have sadly recognised; racist, imperialist, paternalistic, prejudiced – yet energetic and compassionate, romantic and irreverent.

And then came war; first a European and then a World War. And so the spotlight moves from the teeming streets of Manchester and the smoky music halls and crowded meeting rooms of London to the trenches in northern France, to unremitting misery and mud and blood and miles and miles of barbed wire, and suddenly everyone shut up and stopped joking and jostling and questioning, froze into sepia placidity, and did as the Generals told them for four long bloody years –

Did they, heck!

Women celebrating the Armistice, probably in London

Yes, they marched to war in their millions – first as volunteers, later as conscripts; men followed to within yards of the front line by ranks of out-spoken, unstoppable women – but when they were there they laughed and drank, swore* and whored**; wrote letters, sung hymns and painted pictures; watched birds in no mans land and films in lamp-lit barns; played lots of football and drank lots of tea; fell in love and cared deeply for each other and, above all, took professional pride in work well done; innovative, daring, resilient – and brave beyond anything we can imagine.

And then they came home – most of them, 88.5%, in some form or another – to broken promises of jobs and homes for heroes, and betrayal abroad; unfulfilled dreams of recognition for the peoples of Africa and the Caribbean; new feuds and hatreds in the East thanks to the careless pen strokes of powerful white men; fears and insecurities everywhere – of nationalism, of revolution, of Communism – so that when new evil arose in Europe, nobody recognised it until it was almost too late.

*I refer anyone who thinks their grandfather never swore to the original unexpurgated (1929) edition of Her Privates We by Frederic Manning – and to one (of several) contemporaneous accounts in which the writer notes that new soldiers knew the situation was serious when the sergeant omitted the adjective in “get yer f-ing rifles!”

**Also with respect to ones grandfathers, take a look at They Didn’t Want to Die Virgins, a highly academic tome by the aptly named Bruce Cherry (Helion & Company, 2015)