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It is true, of course, that there were real political and social problems which created circumstances making the First World War possible. But all could have been resolved (and successfully) by other means than war. Many of these problems were unknown to the public – or of no interest to them. When fantasy is mistaken for reality the results can
be disastrous.

London recruiting office 1914


People asking questions about the First World War want to know why so many men rushed to join up at the start of the war, and why enthusiasm later waned. But it’s not often asked why so many volunteered at a time when few people thought the war was important and there was no real pressure from public opinion. There is no simple explanation, but there are some things to consider.

For a start, few people felt that war was an unacceptable activity. Many people of all classes looked on soldiering as an honourable profession. They were encouraged to think so, not by historical facts but by chivalric fantasy. This was nurtured by books, comics, and propaganda. Popular fiction in the closing years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century often featured conflict between England and either France or Germany, or the ‘heroic’ and ‘noble’ exploits of British soldiers in the colonies, bringing the indigenous peoples to heel. The British were portrayed as ‘good guys’, trying to keep untrustworthy ‘Johnny foreigner’ or ‘wily orientals’ in their place. Jingoistic writers portrayed – and exaggerated – the threats to invading colonists (‘our chaps’), and devised elaborate and unrealistic plots to show how the fantasy threats were (often brutally) dealt with.

Who responded most enthusiastically to the call to arms? Some were men from the wealthy and aristocratic classes: they came forward to volunteer as leaders. But most volunteers were from the poorest classes, and their role was to obey the leaders’ orders.

When conscription was introduced, and some men resisted the call-up, tribunals were set up to deal with these conscientious objectors.

'None thought of it as a noble calling.'

At first the men who appeared at these tribunals were mainly professional men, the self-employed and those who had gained hard-won respectability. Only men who could afford a solicitor and professional counsel were likely to think it worthwhile to confront the state.

Reading accounts of some of the tribunals, one meets most frequently men like the Penzance mineral water manufacturer who told his inquisitors that one son at the front lost him £3 a week: if another son went, he would be broke.

For the well-off, a mixture of patriotism, notions of medieval chivalry and a deep sense of duty played its part. Harold Macmillan (who became Prime Minister of Britain in 1957) wrote: 'The general view was that it would be over by Christmas. Our major anxiety was by hook or by crook not to miss it.' Or writing to his brother Lieutenant Carver explained: ‘The grand obstacle Hun hunt is now open. There is no charge for entry. At present we are sitting and looking dubiously at the first obstacle. It's a devilish stiff one and lots more like it to follow. However, if one does take a nasty toss, there's always the satisfaction of knowing that one could not do it in a better cause. I always feel that I am fighting for England - English fields, lanes, trees, good days in England all that is synonymous with liberty.’

For impoverished young men with no notion of what war was really like, joining up offered an escape from unemployment or from low-paid tedious or crippling work, and a chance of being decently fed. In the past the army had offered these things to any young man in the prime of life, before he returned (if he survived) to the hard life of, say, a labourer or the tedious life of a clerk. Now it did the same for many more. East Ender Henry Winter was earning 10 shillings a week from his London clerical job in 1914, working from 9 am to 6.30 pm six days a week. When he joined up, he got 5 shillings a week from his firm, 7 shillings army pay, 14 shillings and 7 pence ration allowance, and 3 shillings and 6 pence allowance for his army uniform. The total amounted to three times his peacetime wage.

A job in the army also meant a break in a dreary routine: 'a chance to get out of a rut,' wrote a recruit. Another wrote, 'I cannot remember that I ever thought of soldiering as anything but a better way of life than sitting at a desk. None thought of it as a noble calling - it was what your friends were doing.'

After the war, very few of the surviving young men looked back to examine their reasons for joining up. But something can be learned from the few that did. The war had appealed to a masculine sense of adventure. As Macmillan noted above 'The general view was that it would be over by Christmas. Our major anxiety was by hook or by crook not to miss it.' Another public-school volunteer remembered 'What fun we meant to have!' – thus reducing the horrors of war to mere sport.

NEXT: in their own words

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