Part VI

Don't Look Down: The Twentieth Century

In this part . . .

The assertive confidence of the nineteenth century was destroyed on the battlefields of the Great War.

The Second World War seemed to change it all back at a stroke. The nation rallied to Churchill’s voice, promising victory from the jaws of defeat. When victory finally came, the British could continue for a while in the fond belief that they were still a force to be reckoned with in the nuclear age.

At the same time, Britain seemed a gloomy place after its wartime triumph. The bomb sites gave way to dreary tower blocks and British industry was stricken with conflict and strikes. Old certainties were changing: Commonwealth people came to live in Britain, and Britain threw in its lot with the European Union.

Chapter 20

The Great War: The End of Innocence - and Everything Else?

In This Chapter

● Big changes and challenges happening in Britain before the war

● How the alliances and agreements made in the early nineteenth century came back to haunt Britain

● The death of Franz Ferdinand and the start of the Great War

● Horrors on the battlefields

Put simply, you cannot begin to understand modern Britain unless you look at the First World War. Every 11 November, the British wear red poppies and gather at war memorials to listen to words written in memory of the First World War dead. The date is the anniversary of the Armistice in 1918, and the poppies recall the only flowers that grew on the shell-torn battlefields. Schoolchildren regularly visit the cemeteries in France and Belgium where the graves of the dead of the First World War are still lovingly tended. For the story of modern Britain, start here.

Indian Summer...

To get an idea of why the war still matters so much, look at the world it ended. Peruse the pages in any book of old British photographs and you’ll see scenes that look as if they’ve come straight from The Railway Children or Beatrix Potter, with tradesmen’s horses and carts, pretty thatched cottages, and little girls in petticoats or boys in Eton collars playing in the road with hoops or tops and not a car in sight. The images look very innocent, but of course, more was going on in those photos than meets the eye.

Suffering Suffragettes

The Suffragettes showed incredible courage, but they almost certainly harmed their own cause. Most politicians were in favour of extending the vote to women as well as to the rest of the male working population, but they couldn't if doing so made it look as if they were giving in to violence. The Suffragettes wouldn't see it. When anyone - including her own daughter Sylvia - dared disagree with Mrs Pankhurst, she threw them out of the movement. (Sylvia's disagreement with her mom? She wanted to get the vote for working class women: Mrs Pankhurst was more interested in getting the vote for middle class ladies like herself.) In the end, it wasn't the Suffragettes who got the vote for women at all; it was Mrs Millicent Fawcett's non-violent Suffragists, and they got it by hardnosed political bargaining. But they didn't smash windows or run under race horses, so no-one's heard of them.

Go easy on the ice

Take the year 1912. That was the year the Titanic went down. It was the biggest ship afloat, had all the latest radio equipment, was fast and the absolute height of luxury. Below the First Class cabins and ballrooms were the poky little holes for the steerage passengers, those people who could only afford the cheapest tickets. The Titanic represented Britain: Confidence in technology and class, yet felled by one of the oldest and simplest hazards in the book - an iceberg.

The same year there was another icy tragedy. Captain Scott and his men died after failing to beat a Norwegian expedition to the South Pole. Although Scott became a national hero, in fact he largely had himself to blame. His expedition looked splendid and heroic, but it was badly planned. Did Scott’s ill-fated expedition also represent Britain - proud and confident, but fatally flawed and heading for catastrophe?

Not so quiet on the home front

If you had been in Britain in the years before 1914, you wouldn’t have thought it a very peaceful country. There were serious industrial strikes, Parliament was in turmoil, women were demonstrating for the vote, and it even looked as if civil war was about to break out in Ireland.

Home rule for Ireland?

In 1912 Parliament passed a Home Rule Bill for Ireland (this meant giving Ireland a parliament though not actual independence. If you want to know a bit more about the background to all this, have a look at Chapters 15 and 19). The Ulster Protestants were furious: They signed a Solemn League and Covenant saying they would resist Home Rule tooth and nail, and they got hold of the guns to do it, too. The Catholics got guns as well, to fight for Home Rule (which, let’s not forget, was the law by then). The army was all ready to intervene, except that a number of British officers said they wouldn’t fight against the Protestants - which is what’s called taking sides. In fact, the only thing that stopped these events from becoming a shooting war was when the Germans invaded Belgium and everyone agreed to put it on hold.

Gloves off in Parliament

Another hot topic in Britain at the time was the budget. Now, you wouldn’t think that a budget could cause so much fuss, but Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” of 1909 couldn’t have caused more trouble if it had tried. The Liberal government, which had won a massive majority in the 1906 General Election, had already introduced Old Age Pensions, and the budget brought in the taxes to pay for them. For once, the rich were going to have to stump up most of the money. But the House of Lords wasn’t having it. They threw the budget out. “Right”, said the House of Commons, “they want a fight, do they? They can have one”.

An election - the Peers vs. the People - was called and the House of Commons introduced a bill saying that the House of Lords could never stop a budget ever again. In fact, the House of Lords would never be able to stop much of anything. The Lords had a choice: Either agree to the bill, or be swamped with Liberal peers, who would do what the government said. It was a fine old battle. The Lords gnarled and gnashed their teeth and stamped and said it wasn’t fair, but in the end they had to give in. The House of Lords has never had that much power ever again.

Votes for women!

If anyone knew how to behave properly, surely it was nice middle class ladies having tea parties and asking the vicar if he would like more sugar. Right? Yet in the 1910s, these ladies were precisely the ones who started smashing windows and heckling government ministers and generally behaving in a most un-ladylike way. And all in the cause of Votes for Women.

Most books will tell you that women didn’t have the vote because men thought they were too hysterical or too easily swayed to be trusted with it, but, as with most things, the suffrage issue wasn’t anywhere near that simple. For one thing, most men still didn’t have the vote either, and for another, not only did women have the vote, but they were being elected in large numbers - in every sort of local election there was. People had every reason to expect that the vote in Parliamentary elections would be next, if the women and their supporters kept the pressure up. Instead, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst’s Suffragettes seized the headlines by heckling Cabinet ministers at public meetings and getting themselves arrested. The Suffragettes staged demonstrations and bombed postboxes and went on hunger strikes in prison; the authorities used force-feeding - that’s not forcing your mouth open for a spoonful of casserole, it’s ramming a rubber tube up your nose and pumping liquidised food down it. It’s a form of torture. But by the time war broke out in 1914, all the efforts of the Suffragettes had failed. The government was set against votes for women, and that was that.

Part VI: Don't Look Down: The Twentieth Century

Affiance Building

As if all the problems going on at home weren’t enough, things were looking very threatening abroad.

Back in 1870 the Germans had invaded France and, within weeks they were shelling Paris. Europe was shocked and Europe was awed. What was the Germans’ secret?

Get military: In Germany, everything was planned along military lines - schools, politics, police, even the railways. Other countries began to do the same. In Britain they even copied the German school system, with regular drill in the playground - for girls as well.

● Get strong: The French were strong, but the Germans were stronger. The key seemed to be to attack with overwhelming force.

● Get fast: Apart from the siege of Paris, the invasion was over in a matter of weeks. Lesson? If you got A and B right, you could have a short war, march into your enemy’s capital and be home in time for tea - or Christmas.

The trick seemed to be to team up with someone else in an alliance. An alliance is basically an agreement that, if you hit me, my friend will come and hit you back. And of course, if your enemy gets an ally, you need to get one too. Preferably more than one. So in the years after 1870, there was a sort of square dance in Europe with countries signing alliances with each other and then signing alliances with other countries until eventually it all came down to two big alliances glaring and snarling at each other, while rapidly arming to the teeth: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were on one side, and France and Russia were on the other.

Loitering with entente

The British weren’t keen on getting dragged into other people’s quarrels, so they hung about on the edge in what they liked to call Splendid Isolation, which means they didn’t have a friend in the world and pretended they didn’t care. But actually, they did care: Their army had done incredibly badly in the Boer War (Chapter 19 explains what this was all about). What if one of these alliances (the German-Austria-Hungary-Italy alliance or the France-Russian alliance) decided to attack the British Empire? Perhaps it was time to make one or two friends.

So the British signed two agreements, one with France and one with Russia. They weren’t alliances - the British still didn’t like that idea - but they were ententes, “understandings”, clearing up leftover business from the Empire. The French entente sorted out who should have what in Africa, and the Russian entente a couple of years later cleared up the Great Game in Central Asia (if you’re not sure what all these colonial problems were, you’ll find them all explained in Chapter 19). But even if these understandings weren’t officially alliances, when the Germans twice deliberately provoked the French in Morocco, the Brits stood by them so strongly that they might just as well have been.

Going great guns - The naval race

One of the oddest things about the First World War is that the British had no particular quarrel with the Germans or their allies, and the Germans liked and admired the British. At one time, it even looked as if the Brits and the Germans might have their own alliance - after all, who could have resisted the German army and the British navy? The trouble was the Kaiser. In some ways Kaiser Wilhelm II could hardly have been more English. His mother was Princess Vicky, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (You can meet them properly in Chapter 18). When his grandma, Queen Victoria, lay dying, he rushed to be with her - she died in his arms. He was an honorary admiral of the Royal Navy and very proud of it: He even had a desk made of oak from Nelson’s ship Victory. (See Chapter 17 for more on Nelson.) But William was not English, he was German, and he never forgot it. Why shouldn’t Germany have a share in England’s glory - her “place in the sun”? That was why he was so pleased when Germany started getting colonies in Africa and why he started building up the German navy.

If you really wanted to scare the British, you threatened their naval supremacy. With such a small army, the navy was all the British had to make them feel safe, especially after HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1905. Until then ships could either be fast and light (first on the scene, not many guns) or powerful but slow (big guns, no handbrake turns). But Dreadnought had big guns and thick armour plating and it was fast. Suddenly dreadnoughts were all that mattered and the British got building. But so did the Germans.

“What do you want all those ships for?” asked the British government. “Well, we have colonies too, and we have a coastline to defend, don’t forget”, said the Germans. “Coastline my foot,” said the British: “you want to invade us!” Suddenly everyone was reading spy stories like Riddle of the Sands, all about sinister Germans planning to invade Britain with thousands of boats. Britain must outbuild the Germans. Four dreadnoughts now, said the government - which had a big social programme to fund as well - and four later. “We want eight!” clamoured the public, “and we won’t wait!” So eight they got. In the end the British did out-build the German fleet, but the idea got fixed in the British public’s mind that the Germans were the Enemy.

Bullets in Bosnia

And then it all blew up, quite unexpectedly, in the glorious summer of 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Habsburg, nephew to the Austrian emperor and, thanks to a series of assassinations and suicides, the heir to the Austrian throne, was gunned down in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. The Serbs wanted Ferdinand because they reckoned Bosnia was Serb territory and the Archduke had deliberately chosen the most important date in the Serb calendar, 28th June, the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo - which was also his wedding anniversary - to review what they called the Austrian army of occupation. There had been plenty of important assassinations recently, including an American President and numerous Russian ministers, so what was so special about this that made it the catalyst for the First World War?

● The Austrians were longing for an excuse to hit their old enemies, the Serbs

● The Germans said they would support the Austrians whatever they decided to do

● The Serbs knew they could count on their old allies, the Russians

● The Russians had old scores to settle with the Austrians

All of which is fine if you’re going to have a war between the Austrians and the Serbs with the Germans and the Russians joining in. But Russia would want its ally, France to help, and the Germans would be caught in the middle. But the Germans had a Plan . . .

General von Schlieffen's cunning plan and Britain's ultimatum

Chief of the German General Staff Count Alfred von Schlieffen had devised a clever strategy, which went something like this.

1. We are going to have to fight the Russians and the French.

2. So why not knock France out quickly and then concentrate on Russia?

Schlieffen reckoned the way to knock France out was to invade through Belgium. No-one, not even the French, put up defences against the Belgians.

There was a problem in Schlieffen’s plan: Britain. The British had helped create Belgium in the first place. Belgium is just the place if you’re thinking of invading England so the British reckoned it was better to have a small Belgium that couldn’t harm anyone than to have the area controlled by big countries trying to dominate the world. In the past, that had meant the Spanish or the French, but in 1914, it meant the Germans.

Sir Edward Grey and the street lights

The night that the British ultimatum to Germany expired, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, stood looking out of the window of the Foreign Office watching the street lighter going along lighting the gas street lamps with his pole. "They are putting out the lamps all over Europe" Sir Edward remarked; "we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." It's a lovely quote, which catches the moment perfectly.

Needless to say, some historians have said there's no evidence that he ever said it, and in any case why should the sight of lamps being lit put him in mind of lamps going out? But it doesn't really matter. For people like Sir Edward, who had a better idea of what was coming than the ordinary people who would soon be rushing to join up, it was the end of an era. And anyway, why shouldn't he have thought of it?

When the Germans invaded Belgium in August 1914, the British government told them to clear out fast, and when the Germans said Nuts! - or Nusse! - Britain declared war.

The Great War

No-one called it the Great War to start with. The Great punch-up if you like. All those years of tension, of telling people to beware of the Big Bad Germans or the Russian Menace - now at last the chance had come to have a crack at the other guy and show him what British or French or Serb or Russian or German men were made of.

Everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas. Why? Because so many wars recently had been very short. And with all those modern trains and motor cars everyone thought they would be in the enemy’s capital within a week. No wonder people were afraid they might miss it. So what went wrong? Two things.

The Russians got their act together. That was a shock because the Russians hadn’t been in time for the start of a war since the eighteenth century. But somehow the Russians managed to get their troops into uniform and on the right trains with boots, rifles, and clean vests within three weeks. Which was a lot faster than the Germans had banked on.

The Schlieffen Plan didn’t work. The Germans invaded Belgium all right, but then they ran into the British. The British army was so small it wasn’t even called an army, it was the British Expeditionary Force, but it was highly professional, and it held up the Germans long enough to give the French time to rush up from Paris.

And that’s when both sides dug in.

Your Country Needs YOU!

Someone once said Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the British war hero and Secretary for War in 1914, might not have been a great general, but he made a great poster. You’ve almost certainly seen the famous one of him pointing and saying that Your Country Needs YOU! But be fair: He was one of the first people to recognise that the war was not going to be over by Christmas and that Britain was going to need a lot more troops. And that meant getting a million volunteers: hence the posters.

The Suffragettes also helped the war effort. They organised a campaign of handing out white feathers for cowardice to young men out of uniform - even if it turned out they were soldiers home on leave or in essential war work at home. But women were needed in other ways, too. In 1916 the government introduced conscription, so women had to replace the men in the factories and on the land. To everyone’s surprise - including their own, sometimes - women showed they could run machinery or drive tractors just as well as men. The work was dangerous, too: In munitions factories, you could be arrested just for carrying a match - hundreds of women were killed in accidents.

The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) gave the government emergency powers to take over factories and control production. Pubs had to close early so that the workers could go back to work sober, and the post and the press were closely censored. When the Germans started torpedoing supply ships, the government introduced strict rationing and everyone, from the King and Queen downwards, started growing food on small allotments. It was total war.

Death in the trenches

Even though people were feeling the pinch at home, they had no conception of what the men at the front were experiencing. In the west, the trenches went in an unbroken line all the way from the Swiss border to the English Channel. The British manned the trenches in northern France and Belgium, where there was a bulge, or salient, around the town of Ypres. The town was flattened by German shelling, and the salient was not a popular place to be stationed because the Germans could fire on you from three sides.

The trenches were deep, and they went in a sort of zigzag pattern, offering corners to hide round if the enemy happened to get in. If you weren’t actually on duty, you could rest in a dugout, which was a sort of room buried deep underground (Figure 20-1 shows a cross-section of a British trench - now scribble all over it with a brown pen to see how unpleasant it was when full of the mud that gathered there). At first, the British soldiers went into action wearing caps, but so many of them got shot in the head peeping over the top of the trenches that in 1916 the army issued them with steel helmets.

Figure 20-1: Crosssection of a trench.

The most common type of action was to go on patrol into no-man’s land, the area between the two front lines. In some places, the front lines were so close that the soldiers could hear the other side talking. In 1915, the Germans used poison gas for the first time. The British and French complained bitterly, and then started using it themselves. So on top of everything else, soldiers had to carry a gas mask and know how to put it on in seconds.

The generals on both sides were completely thrown by trench warfare. Everything they had learnt at staff college said that the attackers always had the advantage, so they hurled more and more men at the other side’s trenches. You started by shelling - for some reason, they thought that would cut the barbed wire - and then your men advanced behind an artillery barrage. In theory, that meant that the shells kept pace ahead of your men, but all too often in practice the men were blown to bits by their own barrage. Even more deadly were the machine guns, just one or two of which could wipe out whole battalions, especially if they got stuck on the barbed wire.

Death in the Dardanelles

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had a nearly brilliant plan The idea was to break the trench deadlock by attacking Germany’s new ally, Turkey (no-one thought much of the Turks as fighters; they were wrong there). Then the allies could send troops to help the Russians, squeeze the Germans so tight they would have to divert troops from the west, and hey presto! the war would be won. Even better, to do it, you only had to take the narrow entrance to the Black Sea known as the Dardanelles. You know what they say about the best-laid plans.

First the British used the navy. The Turks were caught completely on the hop. This strategy might have worked if one of the ships hadn’t hit a mine. So they pulled the navy out and decided to try again, this time with the army. No-one at allied HQ seems to have pointed out that they had rather lost the element of surprise. When the allied troops (consisting of British and French soldiers and a substantial contingent of ANZACs - the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - did land, at Gallipoli, they found to their amazement that the Turks were ready and knew how to use a machine gun. The allies were never able to move inland from the beaches, and after spending the better part of a year pinned down, losing thousands of men, they pulled out. That, at least, caught the Turks by surprise.

If you’ve seen the film Gallipoli, you know that Australians portray this battle as their men dying because of stupid British generals. In fact, all the allied troops suffered, and once the Turks knew they were coming, the allied generals could do very little. The Dardanelles was an attack that either worked in the first surprise, or it didn’t work at all. It didn’t work at all.

Death at sea

Before the war, the British had been obsessed with German battleships, but it was German submarines that proved the most deadly threat. The Germans declared that they would sink any ship in British waters, even neutrals, and they did. So many ships went down that the government had to start rationing food and the British had to sail in convoys with warship escorts. In 1915, the Germans sank the British passenger liner SS Lusitania, which had sailed from New York with a number of Americans on board. The Germans had been tipped off, probably correctly, that the ship was carrying arms, but America was outraged. A couple of small sea battles occurred in the South Atlantic, and the German raider Emden did a lot of damage before it was finally sunk.

The only major naval battle of the war was at Jutland, off the Danish coast, in 1916. If you decide who won by the number of ships lost, then the Germans won; if you decide by what happened next, then the British won - because the Germans sailed back into harbour and never came out again except to surrender at the end of the war. Nevertheless, Jutland was a bad day for the British. Not only did they lose contact with the German fleet at the crucial point, but the Germans found that, when they fired at a certain angle, the lightly armoured British battle cruisers blew up. Just when you don’t need it, you discover a design fault.

Death on the Somme

The Somme made all the difference. The battle began in mid-summer and lasted into the autumn, but it’s the first day, 1 July 1916, that really matters. On this day, the soldiers - most of them volunteers from 1914 taking part in their first big battle - were arranged in pals’ battalions, so called because lads who worked in the same factory or lived in the same town were all together in the same units. The plan was to launch a massive attack against the German lines near the river Somme. Because the British commanders were worried that these young, inexperienced soldiers might end up running all over the place, they gave orders for them to walk. One officer even gave them a couple of footballs to kick about, to jolly them along.

The idea was that British artillery would flatten the German trenches with the biggest bombardment in history. The bombardment lasted a week, and you could hear it in London. The Germans said it was like hell on earth. But their dugouts were deeper and stronger than the British realised: They sat there until the guns stopped, and then they ran back up to the top with their machine guns. There they saw long lines of British soldiers walking slowly towards them. So they shot them down.

The casualty figure you see in the books is 60,000: as a rough rule, that’s a third dead, a third permanently maimed, and a third wounded. That’s 20,000 dead, in one day! And thanks to the pals’ battalions, some communities lost all their young men.

The British couldn’t believe it. What about all those promises their generals had made? Whose stupid idea had it been to tell the men to walk? Who had said that shelling could cut barbed wire? The Somme made the British begin to ask some very serious questions about the people at the top.

Death in the mud

There was one last nightmare for the British. In 1917, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander on the Western Front, attacked the Germans in Belgium, near the village of Passchendaele (pronounced passion dale). It rained, and the shells turned the battlefield to mud. Not football-pitch-mud, or even assault-course-mud. We are talking mud so thick and deep that you sank in it up to your chest. That’s if you didn’t drown in it, which plenty of men did. The battle went on for months, and got nowhere. One staff officer, fresh from grappling with the paper clips back at Chateau Comfy HQ, came visiting the front line to see what it was like. He stared in horror. “Did we send men to fight in that?” he asked. Yes, my friend; you did.

Field Marshal Haig - lion or donkey?

The British commander on the Western Front was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. People still argue bitterly about him. Haig was obsessed with winning the war, even if it had to be by attrition, killing as many people as you can until there are more of you left than there are of them. The Germans couldn't understand him. They admired the courage of the British soldiers, but thought they were "lions led by donkeys", as one of them put it. In the 1960s show Oh! What a Lovely War, Haig appears as a bumbling murderer, which is pretty much how most people saw him. But soldiers at the time adored him. After the war, he devoted his life to working for the men who had been wounded in the trenches, and it was the Earl Haig Fund that produced the poppies people wore every November. Historians have begun to rethink him. He had learned his soldiering in the days of red coats and cavalry charges; now he was fighting a new kind of war with tanks and gas and aeroplanes. He didn't really understand it, but then who did?

The War ends

The main reason the war ended was because the British, French, and Germans were totally spent. Exhausted. Couldn’t go on any longer. The Russians had pulled out to have their revolution, and in April 1917, the United States joined in, though American troops didn’t really start arriving for another year. By 1918, the Germans reckoned they had one last chance. They were so short of food thanks to the British navy blockading their coast that they could not survive another winter. So in March 1918, the Germans launched their last, huge attack. And it worked.

They pushed through the British lines (on the Somme, ironically) and charged on towards Paris. It was like 1914 all over again. Only this time, they ran out of steam, and there were fresh American troops barring the way. By the autumn, the Germans were in full retreat and asked for a ceasefire, or armistice. The allies agreed, and on 11 November 1918, at 11 o’clock in the morning, the Great War ended.

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