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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her 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.

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

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The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002; Chapter Two   Leave a comment

Chapter Two: A Social Revolution?

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The main achievement of the first quarter century of Elizabeth II’s reign was to be found in the significant expansion of education across England and Wales, caused mainly by the post-war baby boom and the continuing rise in birth-rates throughout the fifties and sixties. This was largely the achievement of the Local Education Authorities, given their statutory responsibilities by the 1944 Butler Act. In Coventry, the Labour-controlled Authority used the selective system to establish most of its initial comprehensive schools and, of the schools that opened in the 1950s, only Binley Park began with a predominantly secondary modern intake. The first head of the Woodlands School told his audience of Rotarians in 1954, that the Comprehensive School is not revolutionary; all the things have been tried time and time again; we have only brought them together. In 1954, the Chairman of the Education Committee was reported as saying that Coventry had decided to build schools where a variety of courses could be provided rather than building a number of different schools. However, Coventry continued to provide secondary education in a variety of different schools alongside its comprehensives: secondary modern schools, two selective grammar schools for girls and a boarding school for boys. In addition, it continued to provide places for boys to attend the two Direct Grant Grammar (later independent) schools in the city.

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At this point, it looked as if Labour would win the local elections in 1955 and be able to carry through this plan itself. However, the local elections of May 1955 were preceded by a month of high Cold War controversy. Objections had appeared in the local press as well as among Conservatives against Labour’s opposition to the civil defence plans of the Conservative Government. Councillor Hodgkinson had consistently argued the futility of implementing precautionary measures against a nuclear attack. His wartime experience of Coventry’s Blitz had convinced him that international fraternity was of far more value than local defence expenditure. However, prior to 1955 the issue had been somewhat marginal. The situation changed dramatically in 1955 when a party of delegates from Stalingrad were invited to Coventry by the City Council to repay a visit of the previous year to Russia by its members. The lavish hospitality provided for the guests, no doubt an attempt to match that received in Russia, was widely reported. An article in the Coventry Standard reported how,

Mellowed by an eight course dinner at which vodka and five different kinds of wine were served, the two hundred people who attended the banquet in St Mary’s Hall… to mark the end of the Stalingrad delegation, (listened as the leaders) spoke affectionately of each other’s countries.

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The new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who had commanded the Soviet troops in Stalingrad during the war.

The visit, albeit during the thaw in the Cold War following Stalin’s death and the speech of Khrushchev (above) to the CPSU Congress, proved to be the moment the Conservatives had been waiting for. The Standard told it readers that the issue before them on polling day was simple, … the Kremlin versus Coventry. It’s Conservatism versus Communism. The Conservatives entered the local election with the slogan, Clear out the Reds. It was also pointed out that the local Labour Party’s view of Civil Defence and the H-bomb was the opposite of the national Party’s policy. The Standard reported that its own survey of the population revealed that Coventrians were equally divided on the Stalingrad issue, but the Conservatives were able to use it to claim that the local Labour Party was dominated by a few extremists who did not represent the views of ordinary Labour voters. Certainly, despite the special relationship with Stalingrad that had been developed through the popular wartime campaign for the opening of a second front, the Party leaders had seriously misjudged the mood of the local population. The city was highly prosperous and enjoying the fruits of Eden’s mixed economy. The Conservatives were enjoying rising fortunes nationally. Moreover, many local workers, particularly those in the aircraft industry, were dependent on the continuation of defence contracts for their livelihood. Five seats, both in the city centre and around the outskirts, including Lower Stoke and Walsgrave were lost by Labour. Most of these wards were relatively affluent areas dominated by skilled or semi-skilled factory workers. Although Sidney Stringer claimed that the campaign had been the most vile in all my years in politics and blamed the result on the local press, they really had only themselves to blame in taking their voters for granted and not guarding against a well-known enemy in the Tory press.

However, the Coventry Labour Party soon appeared to have learnt the lessons of their 1955 losses. Civic adventurism in bricks and mortar, either in the rebuilding of the centre, or the schools around the outskirts, were entirely acceptable, but taking a firm stance on foreign and defence matters was not what local government, even a municipal socialist one, was for. In future, although civic links were established, through the Blitz commemorations, with town and cities around the world, these were low-key in nature and, in the case of eastern Europe, were largely abandoned after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The message from Labour supporters in the local elections of May 1955 was underlined in the Parliamentary elections that took place the following month. Not only were Labour majorities reduced in Coventry but the eve of poll ritual march from the major factories to Pool Meadow in the city centre, to hear the addresses of the Labour MP’s, Crossman and Edelman, were poorly attended.

There was a cruel irony for Labour in the events of 1955 in that the main energy of the local Party since 1945 had been directed into the rebuilding of the central area of the City. By 1955 the precinct was just beginning to take shape and Coventry’s affluent workers had a shopping centre commensurate with their spending power. Yet the connections between the availability of consumer goods in bright new shops and the ideals of municipal socialism were difficult to make, even amongst the better informed members of the population. What mattered more was the availability of money to spend and Coventry’s capitalist owned industry was providing this in abundance. Perhaps more attention to housing, health, education and housing would have provided a more solid long-term political allegiance for Labour, particularly in the delivery of a top-class comprehensive secondary school system.

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Above: Grammar School Boy, Harold Wilson, Labour leader and PM

However, the debate about grammar schools was not simply one which existed between the two main political parties, but also within the Labour Party, which had sought to expand grammar school education before the war as a means of social mobility, and a route out of poverty for many working-class children. Ellen Wilkinson, left-wing Education minister in the Attlee Government, had continued with this policy within a tripartite framework which would include multi-lateral schools. Even in the 1960s, it was not unusual for comprehensive schools to be compared with grammar schools by leading members of the Labour Party, including Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, who referred to comprehensive schools as grammar schools for all, a strategy that was only partly designed to overcome the fears of the general public, especially parents, who resented the abolition of grammar schools. As products of grammar schools themselves, Labour’s local and national politicians well-understood the emotional attachment and sense of aspiration that many respectable working-class parents still had for these schools. However, hard choices about local priorities needed to be made, and these involved building schools which could serve children of all backgrounds and abilities, however they might choose to structure the curriculum.

A similar strategy was used by Alderman Callow, who chaired the Education Committee between 1958 and 1961, and who compared Coventry’s comprehensive schools with grammar schools when writing in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. He argued that comprehensive schools were both grammar schools and secondary modern schools. All eight of the City’s comprehensives provided the same courses in grammar schools but in addition offered all the courses available in secondary modern schools, having the additional advantage of the possibility of changing from one type of course to another within the same school as aptitudes developed. For Callow, therefore, the Coventry comprehensive was little more than one school that combined all the courses that were available in different schools under one roof. Six years later, Alderman Sidney Stringer, then Chairman of the Education Committee, stated that the Authority was bringing into existence many more schools that were equal to grammar schools, providing courses through which pupils could maximise their intellectual abilities.

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The city still operated a selection examination at eleven plus, provided places at the Direct Grant schools for boys and maintained two grammar schools for girls, and allocated selective places within the comprehensives. The headmaster of Caludon Castle School commented in his speech day address in 1960 that a truly comprehensive shool hasn’t even been brought into existence… though Coventry has created comprehensive buildings it was still without a single comprehensive school because the schools’ incomplete intake prevented their becoming what their names, size and cost proclaimed them to be. In 1964 the head of Whitley Abbey School concluded that Coventry now needed to choose between returning to a grammar and secondary modern school system or go fully comprehensive. He thought that if the Authority continued to abolish secondary modern schools while retaining grammar schools it would result in a situation whereby the comprehensive schools would be little more than secondary moderns within a selective secondary system.   Therefore, in the early 1960s at least, grammar schools and selection were still at the heart of Coventry’s so-called comprehensive revolution.

In Britain as a whole, the paradox was also apparent. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. In the 1950s, almost everything changed in British society, but only a little. No segment of society, no corner of the kingdom, no aspect of life remained untouched. So, part of the story of the fifties is the story of emergent patterns of change and a sense of discontinuity with the prewar past. However, there was also considerable continuity over the decade itself compared with the decades which were to follow. There was, as yet, no social revolution, unless we mean that the wheel of change came full cycle and returned to exactly where it had been at the beginning of the decade without taking society very far forward.

In October 1963 Harold Wilson, then Labour leader of the opposition, predicted that Britain would be forged in the white heat of the technological revolution. Certainly, living standards continued to rise, aided by the discovery in the North Sea of natural gas in 1965 and oil in 1969, and consumer goods became even more common. But there were also disquieting signs that Britain was approaching an as yet undefined crisis, cultural as well as financial. British economic growth rates did not match those of competitor states, and it was partly for this reason that Britain applied to join the European Economic Community, in 1961 and 1967, entry both times being vetoed by France. In addition, television programmes like Cathy Come Home made the public aware that poverty remained in the midst of Britain’s affluence. The Teddy Boys of the fifties were gradually replaced in the early sixties by Mods and Rockers, their social alienation being fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats in which they felt like caged animals. Britain was also becoming a more secular and iconoclastic, as well as a more materialistic society. Sexual intercourse began in 1963, wrote the Coventry-born poet Philip Larkin, perhaps with not a little exaggeration! The 1960s were certainly dramatic years in Britain: demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent.

In 1964 a Labour government had again taken office, under Wilson, after thirteen years of Conservative rule. It promised economic and social modernisation. In an attempt to tackle the residual problem of poverty, public expenditure on social services was expanded considerably, resulting in some small degree of redistribution of income. It issued Circular 10/65 which requested that LEAs provide details of their plans for secondary education with a view to ending selection at the age of eleven in favour of introducing comprehensive schools. Coventry already had a working party in existence which was considering the pattern of secondary education across the city. It was the work of this group which resulted in a shift of emphasis within the LEA and brought about a change in mood on the Education Committee by September 1966. The proposal which emerged was to move towards a fully comprehensive system involving the abolition of the girls’ grammar schools and the disappearance of the remaining secondary moderns.

However, Labour’s ups and downs in the local elections had closely followed national trends since 1955 and in 1966 the Party’s rule in the City was again threatened, this time by the new austerity measures of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson in 1966. Economically, the real problems of the decade arose from the devaluation of the currency in November 1967, and the increase in industrial action. Employment in manufacturing nationally declined, until it accounted for less than a third of the workforce by 1973. Car production slumped and some Coventry firms declared redundancies, as their long boom appeared to be faltering. The incomes policy declared by the Wilson Government was hard to swallow for local engineering workers who had long enjoyed the benefits of free collective bargaining and wage differentials. Thus Coventry began to suffer for the first time since the early thirties with the twin problems of rising unemployment and stagnant wages. By way of contrast, employment in the service sector rose, so that by 1973, over half of all workers in the UK were employed in providing services.

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Local idealism in Coventry had been toned down since 1955 and by the mid-sixties the Coventry Labour Party had become a party of civic administration. It had run out of new ideas and was failing to attract new, younger members. After a presentation to mark his twentieth year as an MP in December 1965, Richard Crossman wrote in his diary:

I have tended to get depressed about Coventry. … I am… aware of a decline in the Party and a decline in its quality on the council. Mostly it was old people who were there for the presentation; only a handful were young.

This generation gap was to present long-term problems for the local party as the lack of new blood in the sixties and seventies made the party staid and unadventurous. The local Conservatives, by contrast, were able to fight the 1967 local election as the party of opposition to central government as well as local government. They had developed policies on four key local issues. Top of this list was the protection of grammar schools, popular with working-class parents with high aspirations for their children. Secondly, and   predictably, they proposed to prune the rates. The third policy promised council tenants the right to buy their own homes, and the fourth was an especially attractive one on public transport. They proposed a major reduction in fares, which they claimed would produce an increase in passenger numbers and an improved service. They were ably led in the election by Gilbert Richards, and their offensive on national issues, coupled with a new brand of local Tory populism proved decisive.

Labour lost control of the council after thirty years of continuous rule. The average overall turnout across the city was 49 per cent, but in some key marginal wards, such as Wyken, over 60 per cent of the electorate voted. The Tories stayed in power for another three years. Apart from a small degree of financial retrenchment, however, there were few new policy initiatives. Labour’s secondary education proposals were put on hold when the Conservatives gained control of the council. Nevertheless, during their period in power, although the Tories kept their promise to retain the girls grammar schools and continued to purchase places at the direct grant grammar school for boys, the phasing out of the secondary moderns also continued, a further comprehensive was opened, and building programmes went ahead for further comprehensives. After the 1967 local elections, Labour was never again able to recapture the commanding majority it enjoyed in the immediate postwar period. Yet, on the whole, Coventry remained a distinctly Labour city, holding three of the four local Parliamentary seats.

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Young people were most affected by the changes of the 1960s in Britain as a whole. Education gained new prominence in national government circles and student numbers soared. Higher education in Britain saw particularly rapid expansion over the whole quarter century. In 1938 there had been just twenty thousand students, but by 1962 this figure had increased by nearly a hundred thousand. However, the real increase in numbers came after this, as new plate-glass universities were formed and former colleges of advanced technology were given university status.

By 1972 there were forty-five universities, compared with just seventeen in 1945. By 1966, seven new universities had opened, including the University of East Anglia and the University of Warwick at Canley in Coventry. More importantly, students throughout the country were becoming increasingly radicalised as a growing hostility towards what they perceived as the political and social complacency of the older generation. They protested loudly against poor student accommodation, the unfairness of examination systems, restrictions on academic freedom, civil rights in Northern Ireland, dictatorial decision-making by academic hierarchies, support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Vietnam War. The latter of these issues placed immense strain on the special relationship between the US and British governments. Although protests were generally less violent than those in the US, due partly to more moderate policing in Britain, there were major protest all over the country in 1968 and some, like the one which took place in Grosvenor Square in London, involved police charges against hundreds of thousands of protesters.

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Anti-establishment and anti-capitalist values spread much wider than the student population. The cultural revolution had a profound effect on sexual behaviour and on women’s rights. Sex before marriage became less taboo and there was a more general feeling of sexual freedom. The Women’s Liberation movement gained considerable ground, leading to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The family also underwent important changes, many of which had begun in the 1950s with smaller family sizes, aided by changes in the laws on abortion, more widely available and effective contraception, including the pill from 1962, and increased domestic technology. In 1956 only seven per cent of household had had refrigerators; by 1971, this had increased to seventy per cent. By this time, sixty-four per cent of households also had a washing machine. In addition, the rapid and real growth in earnings of young manual workers, sustained over the past decade, had, by the early sixties, created a generation who had money to spend on leisure and luxury. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, their attitude was summed up by the fashion designer Mary Quant, whose shop, Bazaar, in King’s Road, provided clothes that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom.

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If London was swinging, Liverpool was providing the beat. No band was more important than the Beatles, though there were others who helped to produce the distinctive sound which emerged from Merseyside. The fab four expressed both a vibrant, diverse youth culture and a keen commercial outlook, the latter largely due to their clever manager, Brian Epstein. They provided British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent, nationality, region and religion. First known as The Quarrymen, they formed in July 1957 and by October 1962 they had hit the all-important top twenty singles’ chart with Love Me Do. In April 1963 From Me to You became their first number one hit single. Between 1957 and 1970 they performed live in eighty-four different venues in England, fifteen in Scotland, six in Wales and two in Ireland. In Dublin, teenagers sang She Loves You on the double-decker buses which had replaced the trams, children imitated them with tennis-raquets, using tree houses for stages in suburban Middle England, each pretending to be a different member of the group, and young mothers sang I Wanna Hold Your Hand as they crossed busy streets to the brand new precincts in Coventry when out shopping with their children.

Beatlemania swept the British Isles, and pretty soon they became a global phenomenon, playing all over Europe, as well as Australia, Japan and, of course, the USA. Meanwhile, a more working-class sub-culture emerged, particularly in London and the South-East, as rival gangs of Mods and Rockers followed hard rock bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones. In the summer of 1964, they rode their mopeds and motorbikes from the London suburbs down to Brighton, where they met up on the beach and staged fights with each other.

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The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given much air time. Anyone wanted to listen to the new artists and groups had to tune into Radio Luxemburg, but reception was often very poor. At Easter 1964, however, the first illegal pirate station, Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. Within months, millions of young people were listening to the station and to others which sprang up, often, to begin with, from transistor radios hidden from prying parents under their bedclothes. Not only did these stations broadcast pop music, but they also warned that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct attack on youth. Eventually, the BBC gave way and set up Radio One and, in 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

005The event which marked the high point in popular culture for many in Britain, not just England, was the English national football team’s victory in the 1966. The tournament was held in England for the first time, and the team, built around Bobby Charlton, the key Manchester United midfielder who, along with Nobby Stiles, had survived the Munich air crash earlier in the decade, and Bobby Moore, the captain, from West Ham United, who also had two skilfull forwards in the team in Martin Peters and striker Geoff Hurst. Manager Alf Ramsay had been part of the team which had lost 6-3 to Hungary at Wembley thirteen years earlier, their first ever defeat to continental opposition at home, in the run up to the 1954 World Cup. On 3 August they faced the unlikely winners from that year, West Germany, now a much stronger team than the one that had squeaked past a magical but tiring Magyar team in that final. Although a colour cine film recording of the match was made and released later, people watched it live on TV in black and white. Only the hundred thousand at Wembley that day saw the red shirts of the England team raise the Jules Rimet trophy after the match. People’s memories of the details of the whole match vary somewhat, but most remember (in colour, of course) Geoff Hurst’s two extra-time goals and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary because they have watched them replayed so many times. After the match, people dressed up in a bizarre, impromptu mixture of sixties fashion and patriotic bunting and came out to celebrate with family, friends and neighbours just as if it were the end of the war again, or at jubilee street party, copying Nobby’s knobbly-kneed skipping they had just seen on the box. After that, it was downhill all the way to Mexico in 1970 where England’s 3-2 defeat by Beckenbauer, Müller and company seemed to sum up the change in the fortunes and mood of the nation compared with those of a resurgent West Germany. At least, this time, we could watch the golden Brazilian team thrashing the Azurri in colour, usually at a middle-class friend’s house.

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances and the dramatic shifts in popular culture, there was a general feeling of disillusionment with Labour’s policies nationally. In the 1970 General Election, the Conservative Party, under its new leader Edward Heath, was returned to power. When the Labour group regained the ascendancy in Coventry in 1970, they sought to press ahead with the plans for fully comprehensive secondary education they had made four years earlier. The Conservatives accepted the demand for comprehensive education but continued to argue that the rights of parents to have their children educated in a grammar school should be respected. Despite this dogged resistance, the Labour proposal was approved by the Council and subsequently by the government, ending the purchase of direct grant places, reorganising the girls’ grammar schools as comprehensives, and ending the eleven plus.

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Edward Heath

In addition, the comprehensive schools would be reorganised as community colleges, each serving a defined neighbourhood. The first of these were opened in the academic year 1972-73, one near the city centre (Sidney Stringer) and the other on an estate on the outskirts of the city (Ernesford Grange). These schools were to have a dual function, operating as community centres which would open for up to fifty weeks of the year, six days a week, and for twelve to sixteen hours each day, with the provision of additional buildings, equipment and recreational facilities. However, this development was not fully completed until 1979, when the ninth of these colleges, Alderman Callow, was finally completed to its planned size. These purpose-built colleges took several years to complete due to the need to build by instalments at that time. However, the comprehensive schools within them were all opened by September 1975. The community element provided facilities covering a range of activities and organisations with playgroups, pensioners, parents and children coming together on one site. The concept of the community college was originally developed from Henry Morris’ idea of the village college, but applied to the urban and suburban context in Coventry. Robert Aitken, the Director of Education responsible for its application in the city, also argued that the community dimension would help to overcome the clash between home and school which existed on many working-class housing estates in the sixties and early seventies, developing pupils’ self-respect and utilising the skills of parents and teachers in tandem.

The principles and practices of the Sidney Stringer School and Community College were the best-documented of all the Coventry schools, both by a succession of headteachers and by its general teaching staff and through evaluation in the wider community. The school population was fifty per cent of Asian background, forty per cent European and ten per cent Caribbean. It opened in August 1972 with an intake of nineteen hundred pupils, a hundred and forty teaching and community staff and seventy non-teaching staff. Among the distinctive features of the school were its mode of government, its House system and its curriculum. Arfon Jones, its second head, claimed that two of the key aims of the school were to raise the consciousness of the people in the area and to develop a mode of democratic control. In these terms, the LEA decided to delegate authority and accountability to local people through the governing body, combining its statutory responsibilities with the strengths of a Community Association. Under this system, the Association elected a Council, some of whose members represented it on the Governing Body, which then involved pupils, parents, staff, local residents and LEA representatives in equal numbers. Besides determining the policy of the school and college, the governors had responsibility for the plant, finance and community development. Although there were some gaps between the scheme and the practical realities of managing the facilities, it did represent a bold attempt to make the school government more broadly and genuinely representative of an albeit loosely defined local community.

 

Contrary to popular mythology about Coventry, comprehensive education was only fully established in the 1970s; first in the voluntary controlled sector, when the Catholic schools became fully comprehensive in 1970 and subsequently in 1975 when no further selective places were available for girls and the Authority no longer purchased places outside the maintained sector for boys. The development of comprehensive education was therefore as slow in Coventry as it was in many other LEAs, including Birmingham. Coventry was still operating secondary school selection well into the 1970s, concerned to offer grammar school courses in many of its schools. By that time, the school-leaving age was raised from fifteen to sixteen in 1973. By 1975 the number of comprehensives in Coventry had increased to twenty-one, five of them Church controlled, with an additional LEA boarding school. In total, the number of enrolled pupils stood at 28,538, compared with 20,385 in 1960.

From the early 1950s to the mid 1970s was a long period of economic expansion and demographic growth which helped to fuel educational development in England in general and Coventry in particular. Over these decades the city’s Director’s of Education, the LEA and the schools themselves pioneered different forms of comprehensive schooling and education, so much so that, in the educational imagination, Coventry became synonymous with educational innovation. Yet the evidence suggests that while Coventry was among the first authorities to build schools with the purpose of comprehensive secondary education in view, this was, for the most part, the result of practical imperatives following the war. In common with many other authorities, it then struggled with the process of developing the principles of comprehensive education. Whether, by 1977, a truly comprehensive system of education had been achieved was open to question, at a time when primary school rolls had begun to fall and practical priorities had to be confronted once more. With the benefit of hindsight, through subsequent decades of economic and industrial decline, it still is open to question.

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