- The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War
The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War is Adrian Gregory’s excellent new investigation of the course of the war for Great Britain’s civilian population. It is not a textbook covering all aspects of the war, indeed it shies away from most of the political concerns of the day. Rather it is both a general synthesis examining some of the cultural attitudes and experiences of civilians during the war and, at times, relying on primary research, a captivating analytical study of some of the war’s more controversial social, religious, and economic debates. Although Gregory apologizes for not detailing the concerns of uniformed men directly and neglecting “military history, strictly defined,” The Last Great War is nevertheless an important contribution to this historical subfield and readers of The Journal of Military History will appreciate the author’s clarity and brevity, which make the work a good choice for classroom use.
Among other issues, Gregory examines British volunteers and their motivation for enlistment, set amidst the backdrop of a somewhat divided society which more or less came together after the declaration of war. Gregory argues that the contemporary image of war enthusiasm is largely mythical; in August 1914, the public was excitable but not necessarily eager to join the conflict. The German invasion of Belgium may have had a significant impact on the Cabinet but it did little to mobilize crowds. While the end of the war brought 100,000 more onlookers than usual to London’s center, perhaps only 10,000 men and women paraded through the streets of the capital at the war’s start. It was only with the defeat at Mons in the third week of August and a more urgent appeal that Britons joined the rush to volunteer.
It was not an effective propaganda machine which galvanized public support for the war. Gregory argues that much too much has been made of Lord North-cliffe and British propagandists’ efforts to captivate and control the British public. He believes that it is time to discard this myth, created in the 1920s. Much of what was later seen as conspiratorial in nature was the creation, according to Gregory, of popular folklore. He demonstrates, for example, that the public had created and the spread the story of the corpse-rendering machine long before it took official notice. Likewise, the infamous and untrue Bells of Antwerp atrocity story has its [End Page 1360] roots in the German press and not British propagandas. Civilians spread many more rumors than the press did; and civilians got more of their information from their friends than from news agencies. Most importantly, Gregory concludes, propagandists and the press did not have to dehumanize the Germans; real events, like the bombing of the British coastal towns of Hartlepool and Scarborough, and the sinking of the Lusitania, did that.
Gregory looks at the role of religion in wartime Britain and the political use of the image of sacrifice, the human cost of war and its “blood tax,” the growing despair of 1917 and 1918, and misconceptions of civilian-soldier alienation. The themes he uses to investigate British wartime civilian society allow for discussions and analysis of gender, labor, and class relations. They may seem to the general reader, perhaps, a bit arbitrary, yet Gregory effectively portrays the tensions and turmoil driving a society apart when it most needed to come together. The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War is an important read for students and scholars of World War One and is a good starting point for an investigation of some of the war’s controversies. Because of its omission of British soldiers as central actors and its general neglect of political history it cannot serve as a general history of Britain during the war, but nevertheless it is a valuable addition to the historiography of the Great...