It is no mere point of academic interest to assess when it is right for Britain to go to war. In World War II, conscription had been re-introduced some months before war was declared. Not so in World War I.
Volunteering for the army in World War I was a touch point about what it meant to be British. It has often been taken for granted or even dismissed as romantic and naïve. It was the largest mass movement in British history and it deserves to be taken seriously.
The scale is unbelievable. Until the introduction of conscription in 1916, 2.5 million men volunteered for the British Army – almost a quarter of the eligible male population. It was unprecedented. There were volunteers for the Boer War but there was no significant national recruitment campaign.
The peak of volunteering was in the first few weeks of the war – 46% of the volunteers over the first eight months came forward in the first two months. Before the age of the internet, the author went through the microfiche of almost five hundred volunteer records to identify who these men were. They were poorer and older than you might expect. The vast majority (75%) were working class, mainly unskilled together with semi-skilled workers. The average age was 27. A quarter of them had children, a small proportion (4.3%) had babies under one year old.
In 1939, there was almost six months’ warning that war was looming. In 1914, the war came out of nowhere. As we noted, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June did not produce an immediate international crisis. Whilst there was intense diplomatic activity between Germany and Austria-Hungary, the first the world knew that a war was likely was the ultimatum to Serbia of 23 July. The world didn’t have 37 days’ notice of an imminent war, it had 12. If you were Serbian, Austrian or Hungarian if was 6 days; German or Russian 9 days; French 11 days. Germany only invaded neutral Belgium on the morning of 4 August. That was sufficient to tip Britain and British public opinion decisively to enter the war which they did that evening! To say the outbreak of world war was a surprise is an understatement of British proportions.
The shock of the war produced immediate financial panic. The London Stock Exchange was closed for three days; the Bank of England increased interest rates. The war precipitated an unexpected and deep recession. Inflation jumped to 10%. Unemployment more than doubled overnight in August 1914 (7.1% compared to 2.8% in July). Once the country got used to the idea of war and War Office orders filtered through, unemployment rapidly declined. There was a strong correlation between enlistment and unemployment.
Whilst army pay was poor compared to almost all other occupations, in the face of unemployment it would have been economically attractive. It must be accepted that many of the volunteers enlisted because they could not afford to do otherwise. The slogan “meat every day” is telling.
When the phenomenal initial deluge of volunteers abated, the “long tail” of volunteering (October 1914 to May 1915) produced a consistent average of 20,000 men per week. That’s a lot of men. By this stage of the war, there was no hiding the reality of its brutality and cost. Romantic naivety will not do, other potent and consistent factors were at play.
There was psychological pressure too. The “Pals” battalions provided promises of camaraderie which appealed. There was peer pressure in the workplace or in clubs, particularly rugby. Volunteering had a social attraction, but locally-raised units only represented at most 10% of volunteers.
We are all familiar with Kitchener’s finger beckoning men to their deaths. There is anecdotal evidence of white feathers, but the numbers are insignificant. The main efforts by the Establishment to apply pressure to volunteer arose after the peak of enlistment suggesting their efforts produced diminishing returns. Yet twenty thousand men a week continued to volunteer. Something deep and ingrained, particularly in working-class culture, was triggered by the war that compelled so many to leave their homes and families for the horrors of the trenches.
There was patriotism amongst this mass of working class men. But it wasn’t jingoism. The essence of their patriotism was defensive, not aggressive. They responded to being attacked rather than seeking conflict. This played to deep-seated notions of a society broadly united by mutual obligations. A creed of individual liberty resonated in notions of “fair play” and independence from the state. The state was held in suspicion – even vaccinations were widely opposed because they were compulsory irrespective of the benefits for public health.
The German invasion of Belgium was an assault upon “fair play”. The German state in 1914 represented the epitome of an oppressive and militaristic state. The dilemma facing every working man was whether he volunteer or be prepared to see the values that defined him crushed.
Stories emerged of atrocities committed by the Germans on innocent Belgian citizens. They were not all propaganda. The burning of the ancient Belgian city of Louvain and its famous library in August 1914 brought home to many what was perceived as being at stake. The scale of the German onslaught brought home the need for more men. The two weeks following the famous Retreat from Mons saw the peak of recruitment – the British Expeditionary Force demonstrated huge courage but was being swept aside because it was too small. For the potential volunteer, the luxury of waiting for others to volunteer could no longer be afforded.
If you accept the most basic principles of international law, British involvement in the war was emphatically just. The scale of the enemy and the threat they were perceived to pose to liberty and “fair play” made volunteering a personal responsibility to any man who took such notions seriously.
During 1915, despite the continued level of recruitment, the number of men coming forward was not enough. Harder questions began to be asked whether everyone really was in this together. Conscription was introduced in part to guarantee equality of sacrifice. That the extraordinary level of volunteering proved insufficient to meet the manpower needs of the war is witness more to the war’s unprecedented appetite for young men than to a lack of belief in the need for victory.
Would we have done so today? Let us hope we would.
Great Britain is not the great power it once was. We have come to terms with this. We gave up an Empire to pay the debts incurred in destroying Hitler. Yet, until the Iraq War of 2003, the world did pay attention to our stance. We had an authority greater than our power. This owed much to standing up to the Kaiser and Hitler; as did France, but France had been defeated. Britain stood alone and prevailed. We were respected and admired before we sought to embark on a moral foreign policy.
The declaration of a moral foreign policy is unnecessary and raises expectations across the world which cannot be met.
Our respect can be regained by refining our moral policy into specifics. A moral foreign policy makes sense if it is understood as supporting the international rule of law as set out in UN resolutions, the defence of fundamental national interests and, finally, the good judgement of the British people. We always have the ultimate right to act as we see fit – as we did in Iraq in 2003, but let us pray our judgement can be improved in the meantime.
The crises in Crimea and Ukraine are tests of whether the soldiers of 1914 and 1939 died in vain. It would appear we are no longer willing to pay a sacrifice to defend the weak nations of Europe from a bullying great power. The twelve thousand merchant seamen who know no grave other than the sea would beg to differ. The lamps are going out over Great Britain, they should be relit and burn brighter than ever.