A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland

June 28, 2012

The public response in the UK to the approach of war and its outbreak in August 1914 has been depicted by many historians as one of irrational enthusiasm, fever and jingoism. It is a view that has been embedded in popular consciousness by novels, films and television documentaries, which linger over the crowds on the streets of London as war loomed closer during the Bank Holiday weekend, the queues of men outside recruiting stations after war was declared, and the subsequent instances of intemperate attacks on German residents, the destruction by mobs of German-owned shops and the stoning of unfortunate dachshunds. Hindsight enables this exuberant enthusiasm at the outbreak of war to be contrasted with the horror and the hundreds of thousands of deaths that were to follow.

Similar scenes have been used to depict the response to war in France and Germany; for socialists at the time, affronted by the failure of a European working class to display international solidarity against the war, and for leftist historians later, the support for the war by working people and labour leaders represented an emotional spasm of false consciousness. It also provided what Catriona Pennell describes as a "cathartic explanation" for pacifists, who believed that all wars were irrational and that, therefore, those who supported war in 1914 were, necessarily, behaving irrationally.

Pennell argues that historians of the UK have lagged behind historians of German and French history in reassessing the picture of "war fever". She seeks not to demolish the notion of Britain and Ireland as accepting the need for war, but rather to argue that the public's support for war against Germany was based on a reluctant, but rational, agreement that it was necessary. After an exhaustive search in primary sources, she concludes that "in reality, the responses of ordinary British and Irish people were much more complex than the myth of war enthusiasm would suggest...[they] did not back the war because they were deluded, brain-washed and naively duped into an idiotic bloodbath, as the subsequent myth would have it".

The book's title, A Kingdom United, emphasises the way in which the war united society behind the war effort, gaining the support of all classes, most shades of political opinion and suffragettes. Most importantly, it temporarily brought "John Bull's Other Island" back into the fold. "At least until the Easter Rising of 1916, citizens in Ireland took to the war with as complex feelings and justifications as their compatriots across the Irish Sea", while "the majority of people - including those in Ireland - supported the onset of war in a spirit of seriousness and acceptance of duty". For the moment, the fratricidal conflict between Ulster Unionists and southern Nationalists was stilled and both communities were to make enormous sacrifices as the conflict developed.

That support for the war was no late-summer madness, born of a foolish optimism and the expectation of early victory, is demonstrated by recruiting figures. Unlike the other combatant powers, the UK had only a small regular army in 1914 and eschewed conscription during the early years of the war, but the response to the call for men to join the colours testified to broad support for the war. By the end of 1915 more than 2.5 million men had joined up and were either fighting in France or in training. It is significant that it was in September 1914, after the retreat from Mons and the revelation in The Times of 25 August of just how hard-pressed British forces were, rather than in the first weeks of war, that the greatest number of recruits came forward. As it became clear from military reverses that there was little hope of a swift and glorious end to the war, and as reports of German atrocities in Belgium circulated, so resolve hardened. This was no "war fever", but a commitment to victory by a UK convinced of the justice of its cause.

Whether the nation's interest demanded war is, of course, a different question from why people supported it, but the concept of popular support as an irrational fit is demolished convincingly by Pennell. Historical myths are notoriously enduring, but that of a British "collective war enthusiasm" at the outbreak of war in 1914 should not survive after this excellent and important book, and should be replaced by a view of a nation accepting the need for a war of national defence.

A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland

By Catriona Pennell. Oxford University Press. 328pp, £65.00. ISBN 9780199590582. Published 1 March 2012

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