Part Four: Tommies, Tars, Munitions Workers and Soldier-Poets, 1906-1921.
Two scenes from April 1914, one from Suffolk and the other from Shropshire, begin the Acts of war and change which the next four and more years wrought in British society and its English regions. First, to Felixstowe, which flared, quite literally, into the national morning newspapers with the report of a previous night’s fire which had completely gutted the resort’s most exclusive hotel, the Bath Hotel. Arson was immediately suspected, particularly when leaflets were picked up which had been scattered around the building, stating There can be no peace until women get the vote and No vote means war. A few days later two visitors to the town, Hilda Burkett (31) and Florence Tunks (26) were arrested and charged with the crime. During their various judicial hearings the two women behaved in a manner calculated to cause the maximum disruption to the legal process. They shouted, laughed, and ridiculed the court. I am not going to keep quiet, cried Hilda Burkett, when ordered to be silent, I have come here to enjoy myself. They eventually left the assize court at Bury, screaming and shouting, to begin long spells of imprisonment and hard labour.
The second scene is the one in the picture, showing the launch of the new Clarion van in Shrewsbury, in time for May Day, by the voices of the Potteries’ Clarion Choir. Robert Blatchford had founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford serialised his Merrie England and then issued it as a book selling twenty thosand copies at a shilling each. Reaching out further, he issued it as a penny edition and in less than a year had sold three quarters of a million. The sales of The Clarion reached sixty thousand and Clarion clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of socialism to country villages. The supporters of The Clarion became known as Clarionettes.
Clarion vans, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature, became mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time. The group posed by the new national Clarion van were photographed at Shrewsbury on 12 April 1914 after a dedication ceremony in the market square. The construction of the van, designed by the great socialist artist Walter Crane, was a great collective enterprise, involving craftsmen from both Scotland and England. She was to have been the first of a new series of beautiful vans to replace the old ones that had become weather worn after their long journeys around the villages and towns of England, but war was only months away and the photograph may well show the last Clarion ever made.
At a national level, the two Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith had initiated, between 1906 and 1914, a series of social and political reforms of a far-reaching character. Yet by 1921 the Liberal Party seemed to be in terminal decline. The period between 1910 and 1914 was identified in the 1970s by the historian George Dangerfield as bring about the strange death of Liberal England. The significance of his thesis is not in its memorable title, but its identification of the four basic strains upon Liberalism caused by the political and industrial crises of the time. These were the issue of Votes for Women and the increasingly violent campaign by the Suffragettes of which the Felixstowe arson case is an example; the continuing conflict over Irish Home Rule, both in Ireland and the UK Parliament; the wave of Syndicalist or Industrial Unionist strikes throughout Britain; the crisis over the powers of the House of Lords within the Constitution which began with their refusal to accept Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909. Other historians have argued that it was the 1914-18 War which fundamentally undermined Liberalism as an ideology of conscience, rather than the earlier threats. They argue that the Great War brought many basic Liberal ideals into question. It also led to Asquith being challenged first with the creation of a broad coalition government in May 1915, and then being displaced following a split with Lloyd George in December 1916, resulting in the latter becoming Prime Minister (right).
On 4 August 1914, the British nation was at war, an unimaginable war that would totally transform its way of life. Shocks and sensations were in store for it, and they began at once. It was no surprise that the first service to be active was the Royal Navy; instant readiness was part of the naval tradition, and in 1914 this meant that the Fleet went straight from its annual exercises to its war stations six days before hostilities began. The surprise lay in what followed: instead of the expected Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet, the Grand Fleet found its enemies locked in their harbours, where (except for occasional sorties) they would remain for nearly two years. This meant that the Grand Fleet was itself very much tied to its base, Scapa Flow, a bleak, uninviting anchorage almost devoid on amenities on shore. One sailor remarked:
Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown… There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word…
(Brown and Meehan, Scapa Flow, 1968.)
One of my own relatives, Alfred Tidmarsh (left), born in Great Rollright in the 1860s, was killed at Scapa Flow in 1917. He was the eldest of five children, the third of whom was my great-grandmother, Bertha Tidmarsh, who married George Gulliver (born in Ufton, Warwicks, in 1862), in 1887. The family had a naval tradition; it seems, possibly stretching back to Nelson’s time. Alfred’s uncle, also Alfred, had joined the Navy before him, before the age of iron-clads, and had done twelve years before the mast, then changed his rating to the Marines and became Master at Arms, finishing up as Chief Superintendent of Portsmouth Dockyards.
Young Alfred Tidmarsh did five trips to India on HMS Malabar, the troop ship, as a stoker, later becoming the chief stoker and a diving instructor. He was serving on HMS Ramillies, the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet at the time of an earthquake, and he raced to give assistance to Admiral Sir Charles Beresford. He did twenty-one years’ service. He got married, but his marriage was dissolved and he got married again to a Russian lady, a governess to a rich family out there where his ship was anchored. He made quite a bit of money on the ship, using a sewing machine to make sailors’ suits. He only had to buy the collars and put them on; a very straightforward job. He also ran a bank for them, and had about a penny in the shilling.
During the First World War, although pensioned, Alfred Tidmarsh joined up again and met misfortune when HMS Vanguard was blown up at Scapa Flow. On that day, 9th July 1917, 804 sailors lost their lives as a result of an internal explosion which sank the ship almost instantaneously. Later, Alfred’s Russian widow and children lived in London, and Bertha Gulliver, Jessie’s sister, used to go and see them when she lived in London. Presumably, Alfred’s widow would have become a refugee from Bolshevik Russia sometime shortly after October/ November 1917, if she had not already left after the February Revolution. Anyway, the connection was maintained until the Second World War, when the family moved, and the Gulliver family never heard of them again. The children had a college education given to them by the Admiralty, and Grandma Tidmarsh had a small pension, as Alfred used to send her a little money, and the Admiralty never stopped it when he got blown up on the ship. He was interred in Kirkwall cemetery, probably due to his identity disk revealing him as a prominent mason. Only two survivors were picked up from HMS Vanguard.
Alfred Tidmarsh was succeeded into the Navy by his nephew Alfred Gulliver (right), born in Ufton in 1893, the fourth child of George and Bertha Gulliver (née Tidmarsh), their second son (left, front middle). Alfred worked on a farm with his elder brother Vinson and his father when the family moved to Wroxall, not far from Berkswell Station, in 1904. He worked there until he was fifteen and then went into the Navy, following his uncle Alfred Tidmarsh, whom my Great Aunt Jessie remembers visiting Wroxall in about 1905, home on leave following the Boer War. Alfred Gulliver served on HMS Thunderer throughout the Great War, becoming a Chief Petty Officer. Later, due to exceptionally good eyesight, he became a range-finder, serving in the Second World War, aged fifty-five, but staying in dock training gunners.
Britain entered the war as the only belligerent relying on a volunteer army. Such was the response to the call to join the colours that the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription, was not passed until January 1916. If there was any doubt as to whether the trades unions and the Labour Party would support the war, the doubt was soon swept away, within a week of the declaration of war, in a wave of patriotic fervour. The resolutions of class solidarity, the vows of internationalism, the pledges of strikes to stop wars were as whispers in the wilderness.
At the beginning of the war, the ordinary British Tommy was not always as popular as the British tar, as is revealed in this verse by Rudyard Kipling:
I went into a public ’ouse, to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ’e up a’ sez, “We serve no redcoats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play..
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.
(Definitive edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, 1940.)
In August 1914, Britain was the greatest naval power in the world, and whereas the Royal Navy was seen as the shield of British democracy, and very much admired, the British Army was largely unknown to the British people. It was particularly in the lower middle class, and the respectable working class, with special emphasis in chapel-going areas, that this hostility to the Army was most pronounced. Brigadier Stanley Clarke recalls a by no means untypical case that he encountered:
My RSM was a Drill-sergeant from the Grenadier Guards and I remember him telling me that his father was a small farmer in Gloucestershire. When he told his parents he wished to join the Army he was abused for wanting to join “that scum” and told that if he did they never wished to have anything more to do with him. I asked what he had answered. He said he was joining, and as far as their ultimatum went it was a game two could play. He added: “I never did have anything more to do with them”.
(Quoted in John Baynes, Morale, 1967.)
Following Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits to his New Army, men were promised if they joined up with colleagues or friends they would be able to serve in the same unit. The first battalions of pals to join up were in Liverpool and soon the rest of the country followed. The battalions included the Birmingham Pals and the Cambridge Pals.
In 1914 and 1915 thousands of young Suffolk men volunteered for military service. Ipswich alone sent ten thousand to the fronts. The Suffolk Regiment was made up to a strength of twenty-seven battalions. It saw action in all the main theatres of the war – the Western Front, Gallipoli, Macedonia and Palestine. Appalling losses were suffered on the Somme and the Gallipoli beaches. The Regiment returned at last with two Victoria Crosses and minus seven thousand men. Of course, the experience of war was no worse for Suffolk men than for others, but, as for those others, it changed the attitudes of a generation and ensured that life back home in East Anglia would never be the same again. In Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, an old farm worker recalled why he joined the army and what happened to him:
I returned to my old farm at Akenfield for 11s. a week, but I was unsettled. When the farmer stopped my pay because it was raining and we couldn’t thrash, I said to my seventeen year-old mate, “Bugger him. We’ll go off and join the army…”
In my four month’s training with the regiment I put on nearly a stone in weight and got a bit taller. They said it was the food but it was really because for the first time in my life there had been no strenuous work… village people in Suffolk in my day were worked to death. It literally happened. It is not a figure of speech. I was worked mercilessly…
That evening we wandered about on the dead ground and asked about friends of ours who had arrived a month or so ago. “How is Ernie Taylor?” “Ernie? – he’s gone.” “Have you seen Albert Paternoster?” “Albert? – he’s gone.” We learned that if three hundred had gone but seven hundred were left, then this wasn’t too bad. We then knew how unimportant our names were…
He survived Gallipoli, the Somme and a prisoner-of-war camp and was eventually demobbed:
The soldiers who got back to the village recovered very quickly. People who had lost their sons felt strange. Generally speaking, we were thankful that it was all over and we could get back to work. Yet things had changed and people were different. The farm-workers who had been soldiers were looked at in a new way. There were more privileges around than there used to be. They’d let you take a rabbit or two, for instance. Before 1914, if you’d caught a rabbit, my God, the world would have come to an end! The sack was the least you’d get. We felt that there must be no slipping back to bad old ways and about 1920 we formed a branch of the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.
Those last sentences sum up admirably the situation after the war – the delayed shock, the determination to get back to normal, and the slow realisation that things would never be the same again.
In the photograph, reduced to the helplessness of a baby in a pram, a wounded soldier is pushed by his compatriots along Granby Street, Leicester, in 1918. By the end of the war, almost three million British troops alone were listed as dead, wounded or missing. The statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors of the holocaust of the western front. The war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history. General Haig, whose name was to be stamped on billions of artificial poppies, felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help and instructed his infantry to walk at a steady pace, symmetrically aligned, packed in tens of thousands, through the enemy lines. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, sixty thousand young men strolled into destruction. Haig was not deterred, and by the time the offensive floundered in the November mud, the British and Irish losses alone had exceeded four hundred thousand in sixteen weeks. King George V promptly promoted Haig to the rank of Field Marshall and, as the annual slaughter was repeated, the names of Ypres, Passchendale and Marne became synonymous with stupid butchery.
At first, my grandfather Seymour also went to work on the farm near Walsgrave with his father and brothers when he left school just before the Great War. He later told his daughter, my mother, how he rode on top of the hay-loaded waggons into the city centre, coming into the narrow medieval Spon Street on top of the hay, with it touching the overhanging eaves of the half-timbered houses on either side. He then went to work in Binley Pit, first of all in the office. He tried to join the Army in 1917, although he would not be eighteen until the following spring. He was at Catterick Barracks when the influenza epidemic struck, wiping out almost all of the Company he had joined. He wrote to his mother, Bertha, and she arrived at the gates in Yorkshire, produced Seymour’s birth certificate and demanded her son back. She took him back to Coventry on the train, and so he survived both the war and the epidemic, marrying a ribbon-weaver from Walsgrave, Vera Brown, soon after (left, in the early 1970s).
On the Home Front, women could get well-paid jobs working on munitions. My Great Aunt, Jessie Gardner (née Gulliver, born in Ufton, 1901) was working for Brown’s Butchers at Ball Hill, Coventry, for a year before the First World War broke out, and then anyone who had bedrooms in the city had to take Australian soldiers in. She didn’t know what port they came in (probably Portsmouth), but they all came through Walsgrave, past Caludon Lodge where here family were living by then. They were all dressed in khaki, with their hats turned up at the side, waiting for the British government to say where they were to go (right: an Australian soldier in the trenches.)
So three of them were staying at Brown’s. They’d had two fellows living and working there, taking the meat around in those days, but they’d had to go to war themselves. So Mr Brown asked Jessie to take meat down to Stoke Park Hall, and they asked her to take their orders back to him.
Jessie soon got a job working at the Royal Ordinance Works, Red Lane. She got much more money there and soon had enough saved for a bicycle. Instead of having to walk all the way across by Wyken Church, right up the Black Pad to the Ordinance Works, night and morning, she could cycle:
That’s how my life went on through the war years. We were working from six in the morning till six at night on two pieces of bread and ‘dripping’ (lard) and canteen tea which you could have wrung a dishcloth out in.
Many Coventry firms were important suppliers of arms and equipment to the services during the First World War. Activity at the Ordnance Works at Red Lane was immediately boosted by a rapid increase in demand for naval and land armaments, but in addition the company expanded its aviation work, which at the beginning of 1914 was still in its infancy. Reginald Bacon, managing director of the works, later recalled that he almost lived on the telephone taking orders for the firm’s products. New workshops had to be built with the old ones overflowing with work and, as orders mounted, the debts that had accumulated during the company’s early days soon disappeared. The Ordnance Works’ output during the First World War included 710 aeroplanes, 111 tanks, 92 anti-aircraft guns, nearly four hundred thousand cartridge cases and millions of fuses and detonators.
The works was the obvious candidate for expansion under the stimulus of wartime conditions, but its experience was far from unique since Coventry’s industrial structure by 1914 ensured that the city would be heavily committed on a broad front to the production of war materials. Courtaulds, for example, were able to sell all the artificial silk they could manufacture, while the company’s Coventry laboratory was used by the Ministry of Munitions for research into explosives. Yet it was the city’s engineering base that made it a prime recipient of Government contracts. Alfred Herbert noted that:
The effect of the war on the engineering industry has been to render demand, enormously and continuously, in excess of supply. It has not been a question of obtaining orders, but, on the contrary, every engineering concern has been swamped with orders in excess of its possible output and competition for the time being has practically ceased to exist.
The Red Lane factory of Thomas Smith’s Stamping Works became so involved in the manufacture of engineering equipment for military purposes that in March 1916 the firm was placed under official control, with its entire output being determined by Government departments.
The motor manufacturers experienced the most significant impact of war, since not only were they required to produce large numbers of military vehicles, but also the practice of motoring and motor vehicle engineering received a stimulus that was to prove important to the industry in the post-war period. Although the production of cars fell away, the main War Office contractors turned to ambulances, trucks and armoured vehicles. Daimler, for example, produced more than four thousand commercial vehicles, including a number of three-ton lorries, which were set up as travelling workshops. These were used for servicing the Daimler sleeve-valve engine, which was employed initially in heavy tractors for pulling fifteen-inch howitzers, and later in tanks. The Rover Company ceased production of its cars, but became heavily involved as a contract supplier in the manufacture of parts for staff cars and ambulances. It also built motor cycles for military and official use, though it was rather overshadowed by Triumph, which enjoyed enormous success with its Model ‘H’ machines, selling some thirty thousand for war Office use.
The Daimler Company also made vast quantities of shells, while Standard supplied mortars, and both companies entered the market for aircraft. The Standard factory at Canley was established in 1916 specifically for aero work and by November 1918 some 1,600 aircraft had been built there. Similarly, the Daimler factory was extended to meet the demand for aviation equipment and eventually the company even constructed its own airfield at Radford to test airframes. Near the end of the war Daimler was manufacturing approximately eighty aircraft per month, more than four times the number produced by Standard. Siddeley-Deasey was another Coventry motor manufacturer to become involved in aircraft production.
Under the pressure of wartime demand many Coventry firms extended their physical capacity and technical capabilities, both of which helped to facilitate the city’s subsequent economic growth. High levels of output were also sustained by the development of mass production techniques, the use of female labour and longer working hours. Labour supply was a serious concern, since the outbreak of war brought a rush of conscripts from among Coventry’s engineering workforce. Standard recruited women shop floor workers for the first time, mostly for the manufacture of shells, while at Daimler as the war progressed female labour increased by leaps and bounds. Very few women had been involved in the manufacture of machine tools before 1914 but the needs of the war effort brought about a dramatic change in the industry’s labour force. Alfred Herbert was a somewhat reluctant convert to the employment of women in the engineering industry, claiming that due to fundamental differences in mentality it is perfectly certain that, save in the most exceptional instances, women cannot become skilled mechanics. However, even he admitted that when a woman has become familiar with the details of a definite operation she will continue to repeat that operation satisfactorily.
Men and women were expected to work long hours in order to maintain output levels. Adults began work at the Ordnance factory at 6.00 a.m. and, punctuated by meal and rest breaks, continued until 8.00 p.m., when the night shift took over. An employee at Smith’s Stamping Works recalled the relentless pace of Coventry’s war effort:
Never was a hammer allowed to stand idle! If a stamper was sick, or for any reason could not come to work, his hammer had to be kept going. Many a time, I can remember, after I’d done a hard day’s work and had just gone home, there came a knock at the door. This was the foreman of the night-shift come over from the stamp shop to ask me to take another man’s place on the hammer. I swallowed my tea and back I went. It meant working the full round of the clock, but many of us did it often.
A Government Commission in the West Midlands in 1917 noted that the workmen are tired and overstrained. Invigorated by the wartime conditions, Coventry’s industrial development, despite experiencing the slump and unemployment that characterised the whole of the West Midlands in the early twenties, continued to expand, especially the motor industry.
During the First World War, with the rapid build up of the local munitions industry and the influx of armaments workers, particularly women, the number of Coventry’s inhabitants climbed to 130,000. In 1918, at the end of the war, Coventry did not immediately return to the pre-war pattern of demographic expansion.
The majority of female munitions workers from outside the city returned home and the post-war economic crisis forced many males to move elsewhere. Although in 1919 the population reached 136,000, it dropped to just over 128,000 in 1921 during the slump that followed the boom years of 1919-20, as the city began to experience a much slower rate of growth.
Although fully occupied in day-to-day all out manufacture, Coventrians were sometimes they were quite nervous about the war, especially if families had a loved one on the Western Front. Otherwise, they did not feel directly affected. On one occasion, however, they did see a huge airship, a Zeppelin, sailing over Walsgrave, which frightened them all to death, and made them realise some of the reality of modern warfare for the first time: It was terrifying, just like a great big boat. The Suffolk Coast, however, was one of the first areas of Britain to experience an air raid. On the night of 15 April 1915 three German airships set off on what was to have been a raid on the industrial and dockland area of the Humber. In the darkness they lost their way and L5 dropped its load of six high explosive and forty incendiary bombs on Lowestoft and Southwold. The most serious damage was that done to a Lowestoft timber yard, which was largely destroyed by fire.
As in Coventry, women stepped into many of the jobs vacated by men – in engineering workshops, in the offices and on the land. Many of them employed their feminine talents for care and concern in the medical services, strained to capacity throughout the war. At one hospital alone, the East Suffolk and Ipswich, 7,777 casualties were treated. New wards had to be set up, and Broadwater, a large house in Belstead Road, was converted into an annexe. As well as this a hospital requisites depot was opened in Northgate Street, which sent over two million bandages, dressings and medical supplies of every kind to hospitals at home and at the front. Most people who could or would not fight contributed in some way, giving time, money and energy to the war effort.
Other than in terms of work, Jessie recalled that, in Coventry:
…It was only really the rationing which touched us, because my mother had about ten of us at home, and had to go into Coventry for what she could get… it was a good job we had the garden and all the stuff from it and my Dad could always keep it beautiful and grow plenty of potatoes, cabbages, etc. We survived!
After the Armistice the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages while the other ranks returned to stand in the dole queues, if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions. Tommy and Jack, beloved of the fraudulent Bottomley and other war profiteers left the Marne, the Somme, Mons and the high seas to return to a hero’s welcome as crosses of stone flowered on village greens. Every parish raised its monument to the fallen and vowed never to forget. In honour of the pledge new hospital wings, playing fields, sports pavilions and other memorials were opened. Victory was celebrated with fetes, dances and socials.
But the gratitude with which the returning heroes were greeted at the end of 1918 did not extend to ensuring employment or improving working conditions. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered by reality as the ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to resume their old jobs. Men wandered from farm to farm, village to village, looking for work. They joined unions if they could afford the dues. The number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented eight million, and thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since the syndicalist days of 1912 and the second highest figure since records had begun in 1893. But many had no bargaining strength, especially in rural trades and areas. The jobs were simply not there. As ex-servicemen stood on the kerbs selling matches or singing for pennies, the number of unemployed rose and by 1921 had reached two million.
The problem of rural depression was an old one but the post-war generation was not prepared to tackle it in an old way, as the old farm labourer in Akenfield had suggested. The war had loosened class relations in society, broadened horizons, changed social and political aspiratrions. In 1920, a Labour MP was returned for South Norfolk. Perhaps it was the women who had blazed the trail, not just in the persistence, sacrifice, unity and violence of the largely middle-class suffragettes in challenging the establishment before the war, but in the way the working-class women had found new confidence in their work during it. Their achievement of the vote in 1918 was a watershed moment for women of both classes.
When the war finished, Jessie went to Oxford, to her aunt, Molly Tidmarsh (née Sanders). Things were much better for her there, because it was impossible to get a job in Coventry; nobody could, immediately after the war, neither woman nor man. But, when the women went to sign on at the Labour Exchange, the officials often insulted them. They asked, ‘have you been round all the factories?’ when they knew very well that there were no jobs in the factories, especially for women. Jessie’s Aunt Molly kept an old coaching inn, The Black Horse at Kidlington near Oxford. She had one daughter, so she told her sister to ‘send Jess over to the pub; I’ll give her 10s a week, that’ll keep her in clothes. She’ll be a friend for Doll’ (her daughter).
Living in the country and having a can of milk twice a day meant Jessie became much healthier too. With her cousin, she went dancing in Oxford with the undergrads, who would bring them home in a taxi to Kidlington. She began to speak much better and dress better. She had a boyfriend in Coventry whom she used to write letters to, but when she went home to Walsgrave he said there was a vast difference in her, and that he couldn’t believe she’d changed so much. Jessie had also decided to go up to London, because she’d been offered a job there, but she wasn’t able to stay with her aunt and uncle because the cottage wasn’t big enough. So she went into service at Primsbury Park. She came home to Coventry only on short holidays, when she was able to go to dances. Many soldiers were there in uniform, not yet ‘demobbed’. Aware that soldiers were still viewed as lesser catches than sailors, she danced with a young man, Tommy Gardner, who looked very smart in blue dress uniform with gold braiding all across his chest:
Girls were not supposed to fancy soldiers or sailors in those days, because we always thought they were common. But I liked him, so I danced with him all that evening and he asked to see me home. I had come with a girl from next door, so I found her, and the three of us went home together. As we stood talking by our house, he asked if he could see me again the next day. I agreed, but told him I was returning to London on the Monday. He suggested that I write and ask for another week, so I did. We kept on writing after that, and he asked me to come home again, because he was feeling very lonely.
Now the men also voted with their feet. They severed their age-old roots in the land, moved into the manufacturing towns and cities and created a more solid and self-conscious urban working-class than had existed in these places before 1914. At this time, the early twenties, the Gulliver family had left their farm and their pleasant homestead of Caludon Lodge, on Green’s farm. They had lived there for about twelve years, since Jessie was eight. However, with four children still at home, and the factories expanding again in the early twenties, George Gulliver (left) had decided to take the better wages offered there, even though it meant leaving their farm tenancy and moving into a smaller rented house in Foleshill. So he went to work for Armstrong-Siddeley as a stoker in the early twenties, aged nearly sixty. In more rural counties such as Suffolk, an urban working class had scarcely existed before 1914. Now it came into being.
No portrait of the First World War, especially one focusing on the English Midlands and East Anglia, would be complete without reference to its English soldier-poets. Among them, the Shropshire poet, Wilfred Owen, is now widely recognised as one of the greatest literary figures writing in the English language, in the twentieth, or any other century. The basic facts of his life and premature death are widely known. He was born in Oswestry, on the border with Wales, in 1893 and from 1911 to 1913 he was lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. After two years as a private tutor in France, from 1913 to 1915, he returned to England to enlist, and was commissioned as an officer in the Manchester Regiment. Very early in 1917 he was in the front line on the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Although he is obviously most renowned for his poems, historians and literary scholars alike have drawn on his letters to his mother, at home in Oswestry, as evidence of the shock and horror felt by ordinary soldiers caught up in the mud and muddle of war at the front. In the wintertime, in no-man’s land, all water froze, so that his men were in simultaneous danger of death from thist, frostbite and sniper’s bullets; they felt marooned in a frozen desert. Although, like his close friend and mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen came close to becoming a pacifist during the time they spent together convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland in 1917, Owen insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He felt that he had to return to France to remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men fighting and dying there.
Just before his return, on 31 August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a Preface for it, which began:
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.
Owen pitied others, not himself; his revisions of his poems gradually got rid of all mention of himself; and so his poems present universal pictures of typical scenes on the Western Front. Owen’s best poetry is concerned with the plight of individuals only when they are typical of doomed soldiers as a whole, and so the men whose deaths he regrets in poems such as Futility are not identified in the way that Sassoon defines specific casualties:
He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town.
(A working Party).
In Futility, as in his other later poems, Owen seems to reject Christianity more openly. He arraigns God in the most direct way for ever even allowing Creation to take place:
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything can wake him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil,
To break earth’s sleep at all?
In one of his letters to his mother, Owen vividly portrays the features of trench warfare by contrasting them with thoughts of her and his home in Oswestry:
I nearly nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising above my knees.
Towards 6 o’ clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate: so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty to crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man’s Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards.
I was chiefly annoyed by our own machine guns from behind. The seeng-seeng-seeng of the bullets reminded me of Mary’s canary. On the whole I can support the canary better…
On 4 October 1918, after most of his Company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and took scores of prisoners, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the armistice, on 4 November, he was killed when trying to construct a make-shift bridge in order to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. A week later, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as the church bells in Oswestry were ringing out to celebrate the armistice, Mrs Owen received the telegram informing her that Wilfred had been killed in action, and no doubt, soon after…
The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est, Pro Patria mori (Sweet and Honourable it is, to die for one’s Country)
In a less well known poem, The End, Owen expressed the most serious doubts he ever put into poetry. He ask what will happen on the Last Day:
Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?
His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:
It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.
Owen’s finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs of an afterlife and rejects eternity, but that in which his faith and his doubts hang in the balance. A similarly uncertain debate about pacifism is hinted at in his best poems, but rarely gets expressed directly. Exposure briefly states the case against pacifism:
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn:
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
It was in his letters home, however, that Owen sometimes put the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:
Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was… Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill…
Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend.
Is it spoken in English only and French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.
Arguments such as this are stated explicitly in his letters, but are only ever implicit in his poems, beneath the surface, often in a note of tragic nobility. Other poets achieved this less frequently than Owen, and are better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at rousing pity for dead soldiers. Purer in their protests against war itself and in their pacifism, even in their Christianity. Tragedies like that of the young Midland member of A Working Party impel Sassoon to shout out his desperate, prayerful protest, O Jesus, make it stop. Similarly tragedies, some deeply personal, impelled other poets, both civilians and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, who lost his son in action on the Western Front, compares the modern soldier’s agony to that of Christ in Gethsemane. In As The Team’s Head-Brass, Edward Thomas reports a conversation between a ploughman and a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move the elm tree, felled by a blizzard, that they are sitting on, because one of his mates on the farm was killed in France on the same night as the blizzard:
’… Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved this tree.’
’And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ’Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all, all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clouds crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
Ivor Gurney was a Gloucestershire poet and composer of great promise; a pupil of Herbert Parry and Vaughan Williams. He fought on the Western Front in the ranks and was so shattered bx his experiences that finally he died in a mental hospital in 1937. During his last years he was unable to distinguish the past from the present and continued writing war poetry as though the war was still on. His poem, To His Love, is not simply about the tragedy of lost love, but about the sense of loss of the south Cotswold landscape against which it was set:
He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
His body that was so quick
Is not as you knew it
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.
You would not know him now…
But still he died
Noby, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.
The focus on the poetry inspired by the apalling carnage of the years 1914 to 1918 has tended to be on the mud and blood and terror of the Front, understandably so. But we also need to look at the lives of those left behind, the countless mothers, wives, sweethearts, sisters and daughters whose lives were full of the war and its privations, and yet empty of the grim experiences of the men folk, unless they were serving themselves as nurses behind the lines. Life was grim at home too but not in the same desperately random way as at the Front. Then there was always the fear of the unknown. With no easy means of communication, months would go by before a precious letter would arrive and, agonisingly, letters would still be arriving after the fateful telegram advising of death in action. Women took up many of the roles formerly performed by men and this changed most of their lives irrevocably as they found, of necessity, new freedoms and responsibilities. However, despite repeated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these government-initiated attempts had not been conspicuously successful. In July 1915 there were about twenty thousand less permanent female workers on the land than there had been in July 1914. For many female agricultural labourers, as for many domestic servants, the war had provided a blessed release. Some, like Jessie, returned to domestic service, but many others did not.
To say that the war brought votes for women is also an over-simplification, though one which contains a kernel of truth. The question of women’s rights should not be viewed in isolation, but as part of a wider context of social relationships and political change. The political advance of women in 1914 had still been blocked by two great fortresses of prejudice: the vigorous hostility of men, and the often fearful reluctance of many women themselves. The war brought a new confidence to women, dissipated apathy, and silenced the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly the replacement of militant activity by frantic patriotic endeavour also played its part as well.
More than this, the war generated a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovations. Whatever might or might not have happened had there been no war, only the war could have provided the concentrated experience which both gave to women a new confidence in themselves, and showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Lloyd George’s successor as Minister of Munitions, E. S. Montague, observed, on 15 August 1916, that:
Women of every station… have proved themselves able to undertake work that before the war was regarded solely the province of men… Where… is the man now who would deny to women the civil rights which she has earned by her hard work?
But these were also women who also mourned the passing of their menfolk not only for the first few frozen months, but for the rest of their lives. This sense of both loss and enforced change was clearly expressed in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), in which she recalled her mixture of emotions on hearing of the armistice:
I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world, I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate had gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were once my contemporaries.
For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.
The 1918 Coupon election returned the Coalition to power by a landslide. Yet, as the political diarist Beatrice Webb saw, Lloyd George’s personal triumph as a successful war leader should not divert attention away from the vulnerability of the Liberals in working class areas to the advance of the Labour Party, which now received twenty-two per cent of the total vote. A fusion between the Coalition Liberals and Conservatives seemed a possibility in 1919-20, the creation of a progressive centre party to counter the reactionary Right and the revolutionary Left, but Lloyd George failed to grasp this opportunity and by 1921 it was too late.
Liberal England had died its strange death on the battlefields of Flanders, in the large-scale abandonment of the impoverished rural areas, and in the coming of age of an independent urban working class.
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Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.
Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson Educational.
E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry: An Anthology. London: University of London Press.
John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.
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