The Grim Reality Behind First World War Enlistment

WWI Poster

World War I Recruitment Poster, playing on the British love of sport

Yesterday I posted a sample of the great artwork from the strip, ‘The Coward’s War’, from the anti-First World War graphic novel anthology, To End All Wars. I also criticised Jeremy Paxman’s comments made a few weeks ago during his recent tour of the Gulf State. Newsnight’s long-running anchor had complained that today’s young people lacked the idealism and patriotism that had moved their great-grandfathers to volunteer for the War. He declared that most of today’s kids wouldn’t know what to do if they were put in trench. In his opinion, they’d probably just photograph it with their mobiles rather than do anything useful. I argued in the piece that if today’s young people don’t have the ideals of the Victorian and Edwardian predecessors, it’s because history has shown that all too often those ideals merely resulted in imperialist wars of oppression and exploitation.

I also received two comments on the post from Ulysses and Jess pointing out that the men, who volunteered to fight were hardly motivated by patriotism. The reason instead was to escape the grinding poverty and harsh unemployment conditions of Britain a century ago.

Ulysses stated

After reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, i seriously doubt Patriotism was the main reason for the majority of British working class men signed up.
I gather, from reading that account, conditions on the front were immeasurably better than the struggle at home to keep body and soul together by prostituting yourself to the tender mercies of employers or the poor laws, charities and Churches of the time.
The Army gave you 3 square meals, a pair of boots that reasonably fit and weren’t 4th or 5th hand when issued, and reasonable clothing that needn’t be pawned and clawed back by hook or crook between bouts of unemployment and the choice was eat, or sell the clothes off your back.
The description of Town Councillors of that time, I could easily put contemporary names to the characters in the book the parallels are so striking, it seems as though the Local Authority have taken that work of semi fiction as a working plan on how to run a town for the last 100 years.

And as for Paxo and his views on the youth of today?
I seriously hope they’d all have more sense than to spill their blood for the ideology of the ruling classes.

Jess also commented that there was no mass voluntary enlistment, and that the soldiers who did join the army did so to escape hardship and deprivation at home.

” volunteer en masse as they did for the War”
This is an old canard beast.

Quite simply, people didn’t ‘volunteer en masse’ for WW1

No ‘reputable’ historian would still suggest they did.

There were many things that caused people to enlist….over the course of the war….But the BEF that went to France in 1914 was a professional army

It would take too long, and too much space to go into detail, but , as one example, single men, thrown out of work by the outbreak of war, were denied Unemployment Assistance unless they (guess what?)

And workhouses and labour colonies were toured by recruiting sergeants looking for ‘suitable’ recruits, until a magistrates court put a stop to that…

The fact that the myth of the British volunteering en masse for service in the War is still believed, despite being discredited by historians, shows just how desperately we do need popular treatments of the War, like the To End All Wars volume above.

I don’t really know much about the First World War, and so rely on those who know more about it than me. But Ulysses’ and Jess’ comments corroborate some of the other pieces of information I’ve also come across about the reasons men volunteered for the armed forces in Britain’s imperial heyday.

Way back in the 1980s a radical historian from South Africa or Zimbabwe – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten which – presented a controversial piece on the BBC’s history programme, Timewatch. He compared the miserably malnourished British squaddies of the time of the Zulu War, with their Zulu opponents. The average British soldier joined up to avoid starvation due to unemployment, and the lack of nourishment showed itself in their poor physiques. The army had to reduce the minimum height requirement several times until it was gradually reaching four feet simply because of the poor physical standards of the men, who were volunteering for service. He also argued that they were held in contempt by the rest of British society, as Kipling depicted in his Barrack Room Ballads with the lines

‘An’ it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that,
An’ throw him out, the brute,
But it’s the thin red line of England
When the drums begin to beat.’

Their Zulu opponents, on the other hand, were the fit, well-fed elite of their society.

This caused a storm amongst the patriotic, and the BBC said they’d received a number of angry letters in response to the programme. Nevertheless, the poor physical standard of British troops was a major concern to the late Victorian and Edwardian establishment. These years saw the emergence of the Campaign for National Efficiency, which sought to make Britain and her empire better governed, and which sought improvements throughout society. And one of its aims was to improve health and physical fitness of the British people in order to raise the physical quality of the army’s recruits. The army had been alarmed at how the Afrikaaner farmers had been able to hold off the British until defeated through sheer force of numbers and superior military equipment during the Anglo-South African War. And, it should be added, other, horrific tactics such as the imprisonment of Afrikaaner women and children in concentration camps, which has created a bitter legacy amongst some Afrikaaners towards their Anglo-South African fellow countrymen.

Back to the sample artwork from To End All Wars, it struck me that the pose adopted by firing squad at the bottom of the panel mimics the pointing finger gesture in the recruiting post at the top of the page.

Coward's War pic

Sample page from To End All Wars printed in Wednesday’s I newspaper.

It’s probably me reading too much into it – after all, this is the natural posture used to sight down a gun. Nevertheless, it seems a bitter comment on the patriotic posters like that above urging the young and idealistic to sign up for death, pain, fear and mutilation.

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11 Responses to “The Grim Reality Behind First World War Enlistment”

  1. Ulysses Says:

    Reading the Kipling piece above, and the BBC historian account reminded me of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of books-
    Though clearly fiction, within the confines of the stories seem reasonably historically accurate, and i think it was reading these that it was noted the uniforms by mid campaign, were no longer red, but ragged patches of whatever material the beleaguered squaddies could get their hands on to repair there uniform, as it was a rare day when re issued any kit after recruitment…

    It seems the “lower Orders” have always been treated the same in this country.

    Cheers for the mention btw 🙂

  2. Ulysses Says:

    An aside, wasn’t the phrase “get fit” from WW1, as in get fit for service? As you point out above, most of our lads were far from that ideal, due to malnutrition and other diseases related to poverty

    • jess Says:

      “wasn’t the phrase “get fit” from WW1, as in get fit for service”

      It came from the propaganda of the National Service League, a pre WW1 organisation who advocated conscription (for the working classes) as a means of getting them ‘fit for service’ in the military and factories.

      I posted a reference earlier, but these three from the wiki entry

      give an insight into its connections;

      Frans Coetzee, For Party or Country. Nationalism and the Dilemmas of Popular Conservatism in Edwardian England; Oxford, 1990).;

      Jeffery, Keith Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier. (Oxford; 2006).

      Gregory D. Phillips, The Diehards. Aristocratic Society and Politics in Edwardian England ( Harvard, 1979).

  3. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    Ulysses and Jess are also commenters on Vox Political, and it’s good to know we’re both being read by highly intelligent, well-read and critical people. 😉

  4. Barry Davies Says:

    It’s the Daily Fail but the recruitment posters show just how not so subtle psychology was employed especially the ones involving women wanting you to go and fight.

    • jess Says:

      The ‘key’ propaganda paper for the war effort in 1914 was the liberal ‘Daily Chronicle’

      Its editor, Robert Donald, was later ‘elevated’ into organising the ‘war propaganda’ on behalf of Lloyd George

      Another wiki, I’m afraid;

      But ‘O tempora o mores’ seems appropriate

  5. Barry Davies Says: missed the link sorry.

  6. wrjones2012 Says:

    I can only repeat what I’ve written elsewhere of what a workmate’s father told him of what life was like in Gobowen Shropshire during the First World War.He was told of the grand parades that were held,at which the local bigwig urged young men to volunteer to go over to France to be shot!

  7. Eijnar Says:

    Anyone visiting a decent military museum will be struck by the size of the uniforms our recent ancestors wore.Grown men with chest sizes of 34 inches or smaller are quite common even during WW2 with anything bigger being decidedly uncommon!

    A typical bit of film of smiling British Tommies setting off to thrash the Hun in 1940,before they got hammered at Dunkirk,shows them to be thin,weedy and almost toothless. This was the direct result of grinding poverty caused by working for employers who kept the wages they paid as close to starvation level as was possible.

    An almost total lack of protein had produced a generation of bow legged,knock kneed,pigeon chested,toothless runts that somehow still felt protective of a country that for most of the time couldn’t even be bothered to properly feed them even when they were children!

    If you want any more evidence of how tiny our ancestors truly were then simply examine a pair of standard handcuffs from the period and try and put them on your own modern adult wrist! One of Jack the Rippers victims was a Swedish woman noted for her great height and thus known as Long Liz. She was several inches taller than most of them. When you learn that she was barely 5ft 3in tall and towered over most of the local women,and a good number of the men, it becomes clear just how low their incomes truly were!

  8. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

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