A culture entrenched by war

Blighty
October 4, 1996

This is a lively and well-written conservative interpretation of the impact of the first world war on British society. It convincingly highlights the effect of war on containing and constraining changes in the social and political structure of Edwardian Britain. As such it will be a useful teaching aid to undergraduates who need ready arguments about why women were not emancipated by the war, why new voters chose the Conservative party after the Representation of the People Act of 1918, indeed why the shock of war left so few direct visible traces on political and social events of the 1920s and 1930s. Still more, this study will reinforce the trend to examining the interwar years in terms of a profoundly conservative political and social culture, against which trade unionist and socialist struggles were doomed from the start. It is a self-conscious reflection on the history of early 20th-century Britain written by someone who arrived here just after Margaret Thatcher's electoral victory of 1979.

The author is fully at home with the vast published literature surrounding this subject, and provides an up-to-date and able guide to it. Still, there are aspects that remain disappointing. The first is its eclectic, slightly rambling structure. It is social history in the mould of an earlier generation, of Trevelyan (no mean accomplishment) and not of Lawrence Stone or Linda Colley, let alone Fernand Braudel or Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie. This helps ensure that Gerard DeGroot's book is a pleasure to read, but it limits the force of its argument.

Surely the strengths of DeGroot's point of view will be established only by comparison, both in time and place. It is a pity that DeGroot did not offer some reflections on these issues in a postscript or conclusion. Why was the direct impact of the second world war perceived at the time to be so different from that of the first world war? Was it indeed the case that some of the conservatism described in Blighty ran out of steam by 1945? Given the power of Linda Colley's analysis of participation in the Napoleonic wars in Britons, a story not dissimilar to that of the Great War a century later, a backwards glance would have helped set the author's argument in context.

Second, there is comparison within Britain itself. Was the garrison town of Bury hit harder than Norwich or Aberdeen; did industrial England suffer more than rural Wales, where casualty rates were probably well below the nation as a whole? I wonder. And there is comparison across the Channel. Britain may not have entered Europe fully even as late as 1996, but she surely did in 1914-18. What made the impact of war in Britain a force restraining social and political change, whereas both among losers and winners on the Continent, the opposite was the case?

Finally, given the author's title, a reference to 1914-18 as an imperial war, what about the empire? Was it pure accident that General Dyer massacred demonstrators in Amritsar so soon after the end of the war, or that Ireland was partitioned after it? Perhaps so, but this approach to British history does not enable students to pose these questions, let alone answer them. What does she know of Britain who only Britain knows? A great deal, but not as much as she should.

Jay Winter is a fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War

Author - Gerard J. Degroot
ISBN - 0 582 06138 5
Publisher - Longman
Price - £44.00
Pages - 357

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