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'The essence of freedom, as we know it,
is that the individuals of a nation shall be able to think what they believe to be true and to do what they believe to be right.
The Times 21 November 1914

'Recruiting for the Regular Army is lacking in enthusiasm in London and the provinces.'
Daily Telegraph 25 November 1914

'We killed them in heaps’

Few people knew what the declaration of war in August 1914 really meant but most, like the government, were certain that the war would end by Christmas. Only a week after fighting began, the Swindon Advertiser newspaper carried an advertisement from the Dresden Conservatoire, announcing the 59th year of its courses in music and the start of a new season in April 1915. Prospectuses were now available ‘on the expectation of a speedy return to normal’.

Most people failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation simply because they knew very little about it or understood that events can quickly spiral out of control. There was no radio or television. National newspapers had a relatively small circulation and carried little information. Shortage of news was reinforced at the outbreak of war by rigorous censorship of news reports by war correspondents. The need for this had been learned at the time of the Crimean War: the British commander-in-chief remarked that the Russians needed no spies: they had only to buy a copy of The Times to find out what the British plans were.

The only way people at home could find out about the reality of war was from the letters of serving soldiers. Some of these were published in local papers until after the first battle of Ypres in November 1914. A handful of papers went on including letters until mid-1915, when the censor stopped them so as not to undermine national morale.

- ‘The Boer war was a picnic to this.’ (Whitby Gazette)

- Private Downes, commenting on a night of artillery fire at La Bassée which caused 836 casualties in his regiment (the Germans used searchlights freely): ‘It was a night of terror I will remember as long as my life lasts. It was murder. It’s dreadful out in the trenches’ (Catford Journal).

- The Evesham Journal in October 1914 summarised a letter from Private Blakeman: ‘The fighting he describes as very exciting work and sometimes the slaughter is terrific. It is often impossible to bury the dead and the stench from their decomposing bodies is very bad indeed. Sometimes, after what he describes as a ‘stand up’, the bodies lie on the ground over the space of a mile as thick as sheaves after the self-binder in the harvest field. Sometimes explosions lift men eight or nine feet into the air and then they simply go to pieces.

- A few had a different view, like this correspondent in the Watford Observer: ‘We went into action on Monday morning . . . We killed them in heaps like flies on paper. It was terrible work but we glorified in it. We gave them a couple of bayonet charges. Their pluck lasted until we were about fifty yards off, then they were off. It would do you good to see our little chaps who were laughing and shouting and chasing the big fellows. You wouldn’t think it was war.’

These are quotations from letters written by ordinary men stuck in the trenches. What was happening in the war as a whole, or how serious the general situation was, there was no way of knowing.

'Hanging on the old barbed wire.'

'I cannot recall any discussion on the subject in the Cabinet until the Friday evening (24 July, 1914) before the final declaration of war by Germany. We were much more concerned about the imminent threat of civil war in the North of Ireland . . .

In looking back on those few eventful days one feels like recalling a nightmare and after reading most of the literature explaining why the nations went to war, and who was responsible, the impression left on my mind is one of utter chaos, confusion, feebleness and futility, especially of a stubborn refusal to look at the rapidly approaching cataclysm. The nations backed their machine over the precipice. Amongst the rulers and statesmen who alone could give the final word which caused the great armies to spring from the ground and march to and across frontiers, one can see now clearly that not one of them wanted war; certainly not on this scale.'
David Lloyd George Prime Minister from December 1916

joining up

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