Gradually, much of the scaffolding of the influential, but historically inaccurate, depiction of British opinion during the First World War, reflected in countless novels as well as older historical studies, is being dismantled. The disillusionment of the war poets is no longer seen as typical of soldiers’ attitudes and the fortitude of British society is increasingly recognised. The view of public opinion in 1914 as overwhelmed by war hysteria and unthinking jingoism has been replaced by one of a reluctant but resolute nation convinced of the justice of the war. But the question remains as to how morale was maintained as the conflict dragged on and the casualties and deaths mounted. David Monger addresses this question in a detailed examination of the role of the hitherto unexplored history of the National War Aims Committee (NWAC), a semi-official parliamentary organisation set up with cross-party support in the summer of 1917.
Monger argues that earlier in the war, censorship had been limited, the press was relatively free and despite the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, powers to suppress unwelcome publications were sparingly used. Meanwhile, encouragement of support for the war had been left to a hotchpotch of voluntary organisations and branches of the Foreign Office and the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
Even the NWAC’s “semi-official” status points to government ambivalence about propaganda and, Monger suggests, a desire to keep it at arm’s length. It was only in the most testing year of the war that the new prime minister, David Lloyd George (who had worried as early as 1915 about how long morale could be maintained in the face of mounting casualties and no sign of victory), encouraged the creation of an organisation responsible for propaganda to combat war-weariness and pacifism.
Until 1917, governments had been relatively sanguine about support for the war effort. Voluntary enlistment had produced the “Kitchener” armies, while the political parties had called an electoral truce. Government, trade unions and employers all combined to direct industry and labour to the war effort. Even during the unprecedentedly deadly Somme offensive in 1916, public opinion, although shocked, remained resolute. There was opposition to the war, of course, but as Monger points out, even critics in the Independent Labour Party and the Union of Democratic Control tended to accept that the war had to be fought and largely limited their attacks to its conduct.
In 1917, however, faith in victory began to weaken. U-boat warfare led to food shortages and industrial disputes indicated a slackening of organised labour’s support for the war, while the Russian Revolution, mutinies in the French army and a socialist conference in Leeds in June, during which calls for the creation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils were made, led to fears of militant activity. Were morale, the war effort and even the stability of state and society in danger? Monger’s analysis suggests that this was not the case, but that what was required was an effective appeal to patriotism and a reaffirmation of the justice of Britain’s war. The answer was found in the creation of the NWAC.
The NWAC’s national network of agents and committees concentrated less, this study argues, upon vilification of the enemy than positive patriotism. Its success in reviving national confidence in the last years of the war was due to the nature of its patriotic language: it built upon familiar forms of loyalty current in pre-war Britain and created a tapestry of patriotism that combined devotion to community, nation and empire with praise for the values of Britain and its allies. Perhaps, when so many have seen the First World War as a great watershed, the most radical element in this book is its emphasis on the continuity of national cohesion and consciousness in early 20th-century Britain.
Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain: The National War Aims Committee and Civilian Morale
By David Monger. Liverpool University Press. 310pp, £70.00. ISBN 9781846318306. Published 21 August 2012