Category Archives: Home Front

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

14 MAY, 1915: The Blame Game

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the optimism with which most European belligerents anticipated their spring offensives in 1915. It didn’t last long. On the Western Front in particular, where the Entente powers were doing almost all the attacking while German offensive efforts were focused on the east, optimism was already degenerating into a public, political and military search for scapegoats by the middle of May.

To recap, French c-in-c Joffre had launched repeated offensives against the bulge (or salient) in the German front line, focused primarily on its southern edge in the Champagne region, from December until March. They took the form of massed infantry assaults preceded by heavy artillery bombardment, and they failed. Hindsight makes their failure unsurprising, given the advantage contemporary technology bestowed on defenders of fortified positions, but Anglo-French commanders didn’t see it that way.

Massive expansion of the BEF’s volunteer forces, the sheer scale of French conscription and further progress towards industrial mobilisation for war (particularly in Britain) combined to give the Entente an advantage in men and materiel that Joffre believed must, if properly concentrated, crush the enemy. With the support of BEF commanders, he planned a bigger but essentially similar assault on the northern sector of the front between Arras and Lille for May.

Before the Entente was ready for what became known as the Artois Offensive, the Germans launched their one major offensive of the year on the Western Front, making first use of poison gas during an attack on British positions around Ypres. This, the second Battle of Ypres, achieved only carnage, but heavy fighting continued until 25 May and was still in progress when Joffre launched his own grand offensive.

After a massive five-day artillery bombardment, French infantry attacked along a ten-kilometre front between Arras and Loos on 9 May. Pétain’s central corps broke through and advanced five kilometres in ninety minutes, but in line with previous experiences the gains couldn’t be supported or sustained, and both sides were about back where they’d started when the first wave of fighting died down on 15 May. A second assault, lasting from 15–19 June, didn’t break the deadlock, by which time the offensive had cost the French Army 100,000 men.

The BEF also attacked on 9 May, at northeastern end of the sector, on a front either side of Neuve Chapelle, but a shortage of shells meant the advance by General Haig’s First Army was preceded by a mere forty-minute bombardment, trivial by Western Front standards. Poorly supported the attack was called off later the same day, having achieved only the loss of 11,000 men. A second attack further south, around Festubert, was launched on 15 May after a four-day bombardment. It made initial gains but soon became bogged down in the usual ways, and had pushed the German Sixth Army back less than a kilometre when it was called off twelve days later.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the blame game was heating up fast. Popular and press demands for a coalition government had been gathering strength all year, founded on the perception that Asquith’s Liberal regime had mismanaged national mobilisation. There was something to said for the argument. The first months of war had exposed glaring inefficiencies in some government departments, and the British economy had been relatively slow to produce weapons and equipment for mass armies. On the other hand Britain hadn’t been planning a major land war before 1914, and so had a lot more adjustments to make than, for instance, Germany or France, but as the promised victory failed to materialise this logic cut little ice with a shocked public.  When The Times of 14 May 1915 published a report claiming that initial failures at Neuve Chapelle were caused by a serious shortage of high explosive shells, pressure on Asquith’s regime hit new peaks.

The report was written by one of the country’s most influential war correspondents, Colonel Repington, and The Times was then considered a semi-official newspaper. The article had also been passed by the government censor, and therefore carried considerable authority. As intended by the paper’s owner, press baron and serial meddler Lord Northcliffe, along with his political allies and many senior Western Front commanders, the ‘Shell Scandal’ fatally damaged the government, which would be replaced by a coalition on 25 May.

Northcliffe failed, however, to achieve his ultimate aim of discrediting War Minister Lord Kitchener, who lost control of munitions production to a new ministry under Lloyd George but remained in his post.  Another Northcliffe newspaper, the scandal-friendly Daily Mail, followed up with a series of direct attacks on Kitchener, but his iconic status and mass popularity were unbreakable. Say what you like about Northcliffe (and I agree with most of the many bad things said about him), but getting rid of Kitchener was a good idea. For all that the august hero of colonial warfare made an excellent poster, as a government minister in a vital position he was an almost unmitigated disaster.

Enigmatic and uncommunicative, with a touch of the mystic about him, Kitchener was responsible for the breakneck recruitment of volunteers for a mass army in 1914, and for failure to anticipate either its needs or the economic effects of its creation. As a strategist he was arbitrary, contradictory and prone to certainty without the benefit of information. He backed concentration on the Western Front, and provided mass reinforcements for the BEF in 1915, but also gave support to the Gallipoli adventure without ever providing it with the organisation or reinforcement it needed to succeed.

A major obstacle to efficient relations between the government and the Army, Kitchener remained untouchable until his death in June 1916, when he drowned off the Orkneys after a mine sank the cruiser taking him on an official visit to the Russia.  Undoubtedly a significant boon to Britain’s war effort, his demise has of course been feeding conspiracy theorists ever since… but much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t think he was assassinated by the Daily Mail.

19 MARCH, 1915: New Labour

A word about the British home front seems appropriate, because it’s been a hundred years since the government of the day and most of the principal trades unions came to an agreement that changed the face of the nation.  Known as the Treasury Agreement, it guaranteed the unions better pay and working conditions in return for accepting a non-strike agreement and ‘dilution’ of the workforce with unskilled labour.

The Agreement’s greatest significance lay not in the details, which you can look up if you need them, or even in the vital stimulus it gave to Britain’s wartime industrial capacity, but in formal recognition by the government that the unions were essential partners in the national war effort. Given that a considerable chunk of the pre-War political establishment regarded organised labour as a dangerous, potentially revolutionary force, bent on disrupting and capable of scuppering any war effort, this constituted a seismic shift in attitudes on both sides of the sociopolitical fence. It was also a permanent shift, redefining British industrial relations forever.

The catalysts for change were pretty basic. When war came, international socialism’s militant pacifism evaporated overnight, and ‘revolutionary’ workers in Britain (and all over Europe) were instantly transformed into fighting patriots. Once the War was fully underway, the government discovered that ‘business as usual’ – the slogan of the day that encapsulated its spectatorial attitude to the economy in 1914 – wasn’t anything like enough to supply a conflict lasting more than a few weeks.  The door was open for a new kind of dialogue.

The Liberal government had taken on wide emergency powers in early August 1914 under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), but in the spirit of laissez-faire it had been reluctant to use them for anything but absolute necessities, i.e. controlling the railways and the supply of (scarce) imported sugar.  By the end of the year this approach was failing badly, as a rush to enlistment inflicted random losses on the nation’s skilled workforces just as demand for their labour went through the roof.

This was true in all sectors relating to military supply, but the crisis was most acute in the vitally important munitions industry.  Ammunition production had met only five percent of War Ministry orders by the end of 1914, all other weapons output was behind schedule, many orders for allies had simply been ignored, and attempts to alleviate shortages by introducing unskilled, non-union labour, particularly women, had been thwarted by dogged resistance from the unions.

Although everyday public life in Britain had been relatively undisturbed by the first months of the War, with unemployment all but disappearing and rapid inflation being matched by wage rises, press and public opinion of the government had soured by the spring of 1915. High battle casualties, the prospect of a much longer war than expected and shocks like December’s German naval raid on the east coast  had all contributed to a general sense of administrative incompetence.  Something had to be done to maintain faith in the government’s ability to conduct a successful war, but nothing much could be done without acceptance of the need for state intervention on a previously unheard of scale and a radical change in the industrial landscape.

Hammered out under the canny and energetic supervision of Chancellor David Lloyd George, the Treasury Agreement did the trick.  Women and unskilled workers were integrated into the factory system for the rest of the War, and while unofficial strikes remained a problem, usually in protest against rising prices or unauthorised ‘dilution’, official stoppages dropped well below pre-War levels and remained relatively rare until a pre-victory surge in 1918, when more than a million man-hours were lost to strikes.

Britain’s industrial performance wasn’t transformed overnight.  A couple of months down the line a massive scandal over shell shortages would prompt a change of government, with Asquith presiding over a new coalition cabinet packed with competent bureaucrats and including one Labour member, but by the end of the year the nation’s economy had been effectively transformed into a mechanism capable of supplying a modern state at war. In the process the mould of nineteenth-century capitalism, unfettered by state involvement, had been broken, not by the dreaded revolution from below but by super-fast evolution instigated from above.

The result was an alliance between state, labour and capital that, though at best uneasy during the War years, set a precedent and a standard for British society in the later twentieth century. At the time it was called ‘war socialism’, as were comparable experiences in belligerent nations all over Europe, and the phrase is still bandied about today. It wasn’t socialism, or anything like it, but it was arguably the blueprint for the imperfect, fluctuating compromise we live by today and call social democracy.

This was just a quick skim of a big issue’s surface for those otherwise confined to the heritage industry’s commemorative effort, worth the trouble as a demonstration that the War on Britain’s home front wasn’t only about emotional upheaval or votes for women.