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NEVER AGAIN: OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

As WW1 started the British Government quickly set up The War Propaganda Bureau (WPB) and appointed Field Marshal Lord Kitchener as the War Minister. He made a call for all men between 19 and 35 to enlist and the WPB issued a number of pamphlets, including ‘To Arms’ by Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The New Army’ by Rudyard Kipling and ‘The Barbarism in Berlin’ by G. K. Chesterton. The ‘Report on Alleged German Outrages’ claimed that the invading Germans were torturing Belgian civilians.

George Coppard volunteered for service in the early years of WW1 and, although only sixteen, he became a soldier in the Royal West Surrey Regiment. He later told about the heightened pro-war aggressiveness on the streets and his enlistment:

‘Although I seldom saw a newspaper, I knew about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo. News placards screamed out at every street corner, and military bands blared out their martial music in the main streets of Croydon. This was too much for me to resist, and as if drawn by a magnate, I knew I had to enlist straight away. I presented myself to the recruiting sergeant at Mitcham Road Barracks, Croydon.

 There was a steady stream of men, mostly working types, queuing to enlist. The sergeant asked me my age, and when told, replied, “Clear off son. Come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen, eh?” So I turned up again the next day and gave my age as nineteen. I attested in a batch of a dozen others and, holding up my right hand, swore to fight for King and Country. The sergeant winked as he gave me the King’s shilling, plus one shilling and ninepence ration money for that day’.

The drumbeats of war increased and the WPB produced a steady stream of recruitment posters that began to appear everywhere:

Throughout the country an anti-German feeling was created allied to a patriotic ‘save Britain from the Hun’ atmosphere. Some women started to hand out white feathers, as a sign of cowardice, to any man they met who was not in uniform.

Even the Manchester Guardian newspaper issued this statement to their employees in August 1914:

‘A battalion is being raised composed entirely of employees in Manchester offices and warehouses upon the ordinary conditions of enlistment in Lord Kitchener’s army, namely, for three years, or the duration of the War. The Battalion will be clothed and equipped (excepting arms) by a fund being raised for the purpose.

We therefore desire to call the attention of all our employees between the ages of 19 and 35 years to the call of Lord Kitchener, which was emphasized by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, for further recruits, and, in order to encourage enlistment, we are prepared to offer to all employees enlisting within the next two weeks the following conditions: 1) Four weeks’ full wages from date of leaving. 2) Re-engagement on discharge from service guaranteed. 3) Half pay during absence on duty for married men from the date that full pay ceases, to be paid to the wife…’

Two leaders of the Suffragettes movement, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, struck a deal with the government that saw imprisoned suffragettes released from prison in exchange for the women’s help towards the war effort. There was opposition to this, as suffragette Anne Kenney later explained:

‘Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war.’

Sylvia Pankhurst strongly opposed the pro-war stance of her mother and sister and with other women she set up the Women’s Peace Army that demanded a negotiated peace.

Backed by the establishment and the government, however, the tide in Britain was stridently pro-war and the journalist Horatio Bottomley went up and down the country attacking ‘the Hun’ and promoting enlistment into the armed forces. At one public meeting he talked about the ‘heroes’ he had recruited:

‘Every hero of the war who has fallen in the field of battle has performed an Act of Greatest Love, so penetrating and intense in its purifying character that I do not hesitate to express my opinion that any and every past sin is automatically wiped out from the record of his life.’

These public meetings often occurred at Music Hall venues and Bottomley, who was connected to the ‘John Bull Magazine’, made a large amount of money from his patriotic speeches.

The Music Halls themselves often promoted public displays of pro-war fervour in their acts. As portrayed in this scene from the ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ film:

The volunteer soldiers were trained and indoctrinated and then sent to the front to serve in the trenches. Compared to the General Staff, wallowing in the comparative luxury of safe base areas, junior officers had to share the hell of the front line. Some started to take issue with aspects of the war and a few developed kindred feelings for the soldiers they commanded.

These officers were typical products of their class; highly educated, articulate and confident. This officer disillusionment and fraternisation with the ‘lower orders’, in an organisation which had adhered rigidly to a class system, was often expressed in verse, producing much of the famous First World War poetry.

Siegfried Sassoon was incensed by the jingoistic support for the war back home. He attacked this attitude, especially as expressed in the music-halls, in his poem ‘Blighters’:

The House is crammed: tier upon tier they grin
And crackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Siegfried Sassoon was known as ‘mad Jack’ to his men in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was a model front-line officer, leading with such bravado that he had won a Military Cross. In 1917, recovering from war wounds in a British hospital, Sassoon wrote ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.’  

Sassoon’s declaration was published as a letter in ‘The Times’ and he was ordered to travel to Liverpool, where he angrily threw his Military Cross ribbon into the Mersey river. He fully expected to be court martialled, and hoped to use the process to focus attention on securing a quick end to the war.

Instead, a friend and fellow officer, Robert Graves, organised for him to appear before a medical board. The authorities were happy to go along with this and the board immediately sent him to Craiglockhart war hospital in Edinburgh as a shell shock case. This successfully curtailed Sassoon’s protest, suggesting that his anti-war views had come from someone suffering mental problems.

In Craiglockhart, which he nicknamed ‘Dottyville,’ Sassoon was to see at first hand the ravages that the war had brought to the minds of some of his fellow front-line officers. Sassoon wrote of the hospital:

‘The doctors did everything possible to counteract gloom, and the wrecked faces were outnumbered by those who were emerging from their nervous disorders… But by night they lost control and the hospital became sepulchral and oppressive with saturations of war experience… One became conscious that the place was full of men whose slumbers  were morbid and terrifying – men muttering uneasily or suddenly crying out in their sleep …’

Sassoon clearly felt deeply about the suffering of his fellow soldiers and expressed anger against those who had caused it:

‘Shell Shock. How many a brief bombardment had its long-delayed after-effect in the minds of these survivors, many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour; but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all, in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncomplaining – this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock; it was in this that their humanity had been outraged by those explosives which were sanctioned and glorified by the Churches; it was thus that their self-sacrifice was mocked and maltreated – they, who in the name of righteousness had been sent out to maim and slaughter their fellow-men. In the name of civilisation these soldiers had been martyred, and it remained for civilisation to prove that their martyrdom wasn’t a dirty swindle.’   

After enlisting, George Coppard became a machine-gunner and fought at the battles of Loos, the Somme and Arras. He was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry before the battle of Cambrai, where he nearly died after his femoral artery was severed – a fellow soldier saved him by whipping out a bootlace and applying it as a tourniquet. After the war Coppard wrote the book ‘With a Machine Gun to Cambrai’ about his experiences.

In London in 1922, on the anniversary of Armistice Day, 25,000 unemployed First World War veterans marched past the Cenotaph in remembrance of the dead. To protest about their own plight, many veterans pinned pawn tickets beside their medals and George Coppard recalled:

‘Lloyd George and company had been full of big talk about making the country fit for heroes to live in, but it was just so much hot air. No practical steps were taken to rehabilitate the broad mass of de-mobbed men.’

In the ten years after the ending of WW1, pension boards examined over 100,000 cases of former front-line troops suffering from mental disorders. At the start of WW2 the British Government was still paying £2 million pounds a year to shell-shocked veterans of the First World War. Shell Shock then became known as Combat Fatigue in WW2 and in our own day it is recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

At least in part, it results from the battle in the minds of soldiers, between the civilian ethos, where the worst thing you can do is kill another human being and the ethos of the battlefield, where you are trained for, and expected to do, just that.

So, nothing changes! Today the wars / conflicts go on and on – and while a few make money from them, many more are casualties. And a considerable number of today’s de-mobbed veterans, who are still seeking care after discharge, are on the streets, or in jail – tormented by PTSD because of what they have seen or done. While those who sent them off to war still treat them as inconvenient cannon fodder.


Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army from 1960-68.

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  • James 18/09/2018, 17:44

    Thank you for this piece… really enjoyed reading it.

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