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Mark Bostridge: The Fateful Year - England 1914 (Viking)

Nineteen fourteen would have no more resonance than any other year had it not been for the advent of the First World War.

It was, as those who marched enthusiastically towards it were variously reassured, a just war, a great war, the war that would end all wars. In fact, it was none of these fatuous things. Rather, like all wars, it was ultimately senseless and inchoate and brokered by politicians who were either hellbent on it happening or could do nothing to prevent it. Indeed, it was the war that bred Hitler.

While others of his ilk banged jingoistic drums and cheered as their sons clumped to their doom, George Bernard Shaw was among the few who realised at the outset exactly what was unfolding. "We are sacrificing ourselves to an insane cause," he said, a sentiment he reiterated in his pamphlet Common Sense About The War: "The more thoroughly we realise that war is war and death death, the sooner we shall get rid of it." For his pains, notes Mark Bostridge, Shaw was made an international pariah.

At the beginning of the fateful year he was putting the final touches to his play Pygmalion, which in time would be adapted for the cinema as My Fair Lady. He was also in love, the object of his infatuation being not his wife but the actress who would play Eliza Doolittle, Mrs Patrick Campbell. Like many plays, Pygmalion's birth was beset with complications. High on the list of the playwright's banes was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who owned the theatre in which Pygmalion was to be performed and who was scheduled to take the part of Henry Higgins. So grand was Sir Herbert that he made little attempt to learn his lines, much to Shaw's fury.

In hindsight, the process of transferring Pygmalion from page to stage deserves little more than a footnote in world history. But for Bostridge it is part of the overture to the First World War, one example among many of the calm before the storm. The Fateful Year proceeds month by month through 1914, each chapter an almost independent essay concerned with portraying a sense of England shortly before it was changed for ever.

And it is England with which the author is exclusively concerned, even though we were all, including Ireland, Scotland and Wales, supposedly in the mess together. In his preface, Bostridge explains the rest of the nation's exclusion from his narrative thus: "Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their own separate histories. In the case of Scotland, for example, not the least interesting aspect of its experience of 1914 is that the country produced a disproportionately high number of volunteers for Kitchener's New Army in the early phases of the war." Eager to know more? Then you have no option but to go elsewhere.

The impression thus given is that it was largely thanks to England that Germany was ultimately defeated. This is not only offensive, it is indicative of a frame of mind that relegates those unconsidered parts of Britain to the margins. Is it any wonder, then, that Nationalists feel aggrieved and agitated? For as is apparent as The Fateful Year advances, there was little that happened in England that did not also affect the three satellite countries. How difficult, then, to embrace them in a book such as this? And how insensitive not to!

Having said which, Bostridge offers a welcome and refreshing reminder that in the days leading up to the digging of trenches and the indiscriminate slaughter of tens of thousands of young and naive men, England was a far from harmonious country. On the contrary, it was at war with itself on several fronts. "By the summer of 1914," writes Bostridge, "a civil war, a sex war and a class war seemed either imminent, or were already taking place."

To illustrate these he devotes chapters to individuals and incidents, some of which are more interesting than others. The book opens with a somewhat pedestrian account of an unsolved murder of a child, Willie Starchfield. Most likely, the murderer was his father, John, who was acquitted. But it may have been someone else. The larger point to make is that this seems a rather odd case with which to open this book, given - even today - its relative commonplaceness and inconclusiveness.

One of the wars to which Bostridge refers was that prosecuted by the Suffragettes which, by 1914, was becoming increasingly violent. On March 10, one "militant" Suffragette, Mary Raleigh Richardson, entered the National Gallery and attacked Velazquez's Rokeby Venus with an axe. In a statement, Richardson said she had vandalised the painting of "the most beautiful woman in mythological history" in retribution for the rearrest of Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day in Glasgow, whereupon she was sent back to Holloway Prison, where she resumed her hunger strike.

Increasingly, the Suffragette movement was becoming more bellicose and worrisome to the Establishment. But so, too, were socialists, such as Tom and Kitty Higdon, whose sacking as teachers prompted pupils at Burston Green school, south of Norwich, to go on strike for their reinstatement. It was, remarks Bostridge, one among a number of such strikes in England, precedents for which can be found in Scotland and Wales. While the strikes were often sparked by concerns over excessive physical punishment and classroom conditions, the wider issue was class. The Higdons - "Christian socialists with rock-solid egalitarian principles" - were part of a movement that was sweeping the country and becoming increasingly visible and powerful.

Then there was Ireland. If anything, events unfolding there threatened the status quo in Britain - sorry, England - more than any others. As the deeply divisive and controversial Home Rule Bill made its passage through the Commons, Prime Minister Asquith became enamoured of Venetia Stanley, who was 35 years his junior, and whom he bombarded with love letters. Eventually, the Bill was passed, but with war now inevitable, its operation was suspended.

The latter chapters of Bostridge's book are concerned with the war which, temporarily at least, put a stop to the other wars bedevilling the country. Overnight England was transformed and united against "the Hun". So-called spies were spotted everywhere and anything that smacked of Germany - dachshunds, sausages - was treated with suspicion. One spy, Carl Hans Lody, was executed, while people with German-sounding names, such as the Cheltenham-born composer, Gustav von Holst, who was required to drop the "von", were regarded with suspicion.

As yet there was no conscription, but men rushed to join up. Those who did not could count on being handed a white feather which, writes Bostridge, "was commonly recognised as a mark of cowardice and inferior breeding". Many of its recipients were neither. One man who was given one was waiting for an artificial leg to be fitted; another was a surgeon treating the wounded. It was all part and parcel of the hysteria that war engenders. Few escaped the contagion. The pressure to join up was intense. One who felt it most keenly was Edward Thomas, whose love of England was expressed in his poem Adlestrop, which was inspired by a trip in the summer of 1914 through a landscape where blackbirds and thrushes provided the soundtrack and willow-herb and meadowsweet the scent.

Frustratingly, Mark Bostridge does not tell us whether Thomas did join up. He did, and died in 1917, killed by a shell as he stood to light his pipe.

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