‘Nothing would ever be the same in their lives and nothing was ever the same in the life of the country.’ 100 years to the day, Great Britain’s Great War author Jeremy Paxman writes about the outbreak of war in Britain.
There’s a picture taken in August 1914 of three ladies on the beach, with their parasols. It hadn’t been a particularly brilliant summer but they were enjoying what sunshine there was. A newspaper boy is behind them, brandishing the day’s headline: ‘War Declared: Official’. The ladies are completely oblivious to it. I think that this was symptomatic of the cast of mind of the country as a whole. People really had no idea of what the country was getting into.
There are various stories in the great myths about people suddenly jumping for joy, keen to be at war. And when the deadline passed for the Germans to get out of Belgium, and Britain therefore found itself at war, there was certainly a tremendous mood of excitement. But nobody really understood what the excitement was about. If you look at the accounts people have left about why they joined up, you will find little suggesting that they thought it would be a very speedy war which we would joyously enter into and whack the Jerries (or the Huns, as they were called then).
The British army was very small at the time. It was a professional army, and a great deal more competent, man for man, than most of the continental armies, which were conscript armies. Most experience of war in the century up to 1914, or slightly under the century up to 1914, had been of conflicts taking place a long way away, fought by a professional army whose exploits impinged very little on the lives of people at home. The initial force sent to the continent as the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the war started off at about 80,000. This was, by comparison with the millions of soldiers who could be put under arms by France or Germany or Russia, a tiny number. The BEF quickly found that they were overwhelmed and there was a catastrophic retreat, after which a dispatch was published in The Times informing the British people that something very serious was afoot.
The problem then was to raise an enormous new army. After the Mons dispatch was published people joined in vast numbers, signing up by the tens of thousands. It was very easy to join the army. All you had to do is be between 18 and 35, over 5’4’’ tall and able to inflate your chest to 34 inches. There were plenty of people who joined up under age; allegedly there were some 13, 14-year-olds. But most people joined from a place of work or school – and they joined in very large numbers.
What was the motivation? I think it was probably a sense of duty. I think there was a tremendous enthusiasm for joining some enterprise that your friends were joining. There was no real understanding of what was going to meet them once they crossed the Channel into France. As we all know, famously – it’s the story of the war that we recall – what met them were the trenches. Squalid, wet, muddy, dead bodies everywhere – this was an intensity of experience that any of us would find it terribly hard to get our heads around. This changed the people who went through it. Nothing would ever be the same in their lives and nothing was ever the same in the life of the country.
Jeremy Paxman is the author of Great Britain’s Great War, a book on what life was really like for the British during the First World War.