Battle of the dons of war

October 30, 1998

Inspired by his grandfather's time in the trenches, Niall Ferguson attacks the academics who sent students to their deaths

The first world war was a catastrophe for all Europe. It also devastated European higher education. Twelve per cent of all men mobilised in Britain between 1914 and 1918 were killed; but for graduates of the ancient English universities, the figure was far higher. Nearly a fifth of Oxford graduates who served did not return from the war; the figure for Cambridge was 18 per cent.

Colleges such as King's, Cambridge, and Balliol, Oxford, suffered mortality rates twice the national average. Among those who matriculated at Oxford in the years 1910 to 1914, a staggering 29.3 per cent were killed. Nor was the phenomenon of a "lost generation" peculiar to Oxbridge. The mortality rates were just as high at the Royal Technological College, Glasgow, the London City and Guilds and the Royal School of Mines.

The irony is that even as their students were being slaughtered, many British academics threw themselves eagerly into the significantly less hazardous business of war propaganda. It was a busy time for the media dons of the day. Among the 52 "well-known men of letters" who signed a government-inspired anti-German manifesto published in The Times on September 18, 1914, were Gilbert Murray, regius professor of Greek at Oxford, and the historian G. M. Trevelyan.

An especially striking example of intellectual "self-mobilisation" came from the Oxford history faculty. Working with a speed unusual in the annals of the university, five Oxford historians led by H. W. C. Davies and Ernest Barker wrote Why We Are at War: Great Britain's Case - sometimes called The Red Book - which the university press managed to publish as early as September 14, barely two weeks after the manuscript was delivered. Later came a series of Oxford Pamphlets for "the intelligent working man".

Historians from the "provincial" universities also waded in, including D. J. Medley from Glasgow and Ramsay Muir from Manchester; and there were historical lectures in major cities to counter the possible belief "among many of our working men I that if Germany wins they will be no worse off than they are now". Dons from other faculties also did their bit. In addition to signing the "Men of Letters" manifesto, Gilbert Murray wrote How Can War Ever Be Right?

For British propaganda, the German violation of Belgian neutrality (and of the human rights of individual Belgians) was the ace in the pack, and it was played ad nauseam. Britain, so the "Men of Letters" put it, was fighting "to uphold the rule of common justice between civilised peoples (and) to defend the rights of small nations". The Oxford Red Book contrasted Britain, a state guided by the rule of law, with treaty-breaking Germany. The "solemn treaty more than once renewed" was, Oxford's Gilbert Murray argued in How Can War Ever Be Right?, the decisive argument for war. The historian Arnold Toynbee was one of countless academics who inveighed in print against German "frightfulness".

The media dons also seized the opportunity presented by the war to heap abuse on the enemy's national culture. Partly in response to the German academics' manifesto pompously addressed To the World of Culture, there were denunciations of the "truculence and stodgy erudition" of the "Teutonic professorship". British academics, for decades made to feel inferior by the rigour of the German universities, warmed to this theme. Gilbert Murray was not above a sneer at German scholars who "spent their lives in narrow and absurd pursuit of some objective which I possessed no great importance and no particular illumination or beauty".

In Cambridge too, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch - King Edward VII professor of English literature - declared war on "the dry chaff of (German) historical research and criticism". In 1916 the vice-chancellor of Oxford declared that his university would "proceed upon our own lines and not attempt to import German methods and German rigidity I into our system". (Ironically, the degree of doctor of philosophy was in fact introduced during the war, in imitation of the German postgraduate system.) How much the media dons contributed to the maintenance of the British war effort is hard to gauge. But their outpourings certainly sold. By September 1915, 87 different Oxford pamphlets had come out, with a total print-run of 500,000. Priced at between one and four pence, they proved remarkably popular: just under 300,000 had been sold by January 1915. The Oxford Red Book alone sold 50,000 copies by 1928.

All this supports the idea, immortalised by war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, that the old men in their studies exhorted the young men to their deaths.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that all British academics acted as university recruiting sergeants. To the Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell, foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey was a "warmonger" and the war resulted from a failure to pursue a rational policy of appeasement towards Germany. In August 1914 Russell observed the "cheering crowds I in the neighbourhood of Trafalgar Square" and "discovered to my horror that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war".

True, Russell's opposition to the war cost him a fellowship at Trinity College. But his views were far from unique. Professor J. J. Thomson opposed British intervention publicly in 1914, as did the historian F. J. Foakes-Jackson. Neville Keynes, father of the economist John Maynard Keynes, miserably played golf to take his mind off "this terrible war". At the London School of Economics, Graham Wallas was a member of the British Neutrality Committee. The historian G. M. Trevelyan also initially opposed "the participation of England in the European crime".

Less well known are the expressions of anti-war sentiment in more conservative Oxford. Two Oxford fellows were among those who signed the "Scholars Protest Against War with Germany", published as a letter to The Times, which declared: "We regard Germany as a nation leading the way in the Arts and Sciences, and we have all learnt and are learning from German scholars. War upon her in the interests of Serbia and Russia will be a sin against civilisation." This view was endorsed by the vice-chancellor, T. B. Strong of Christ Church, in his speech at the beginning of Michaelmas term 1914, in which he described Germany as "the one power in Europe with which we have had the closest affinity".

The Oxford Magazine paid tribute to German Oxonians killed in the war and in January 1915 even published a letter from Kurt Hahn - a former Christ Church man - blaming Grey's foreign policy for the war. Although the student magazine Varsity adopted an increasingly Germanophobe tone, over a hundred university members signed a letter of protest against the magazine's harassment of the German professor H. G. Fiedler (culminating in a call to boycott German examinations).

Even academics who gave their support to the war effort often did so without enthusiasm. John Maynard Keynes sought vainly to dissuade his brother Geoffrey and his Hungarian friend Ferenc Bek ssy from joining up. When his friend Freddie Hardman was killed in late October 1914, he wrote to Duncan Grant: "It makes one bitterly miserable and long that the war should stop quickly on almost any terms. I can't bear it that he should have died." The subsequent deaths of Rupert Brooke, another Cambridge friend, and Bek ssy intensified his anguish.

In February 1916, despite being exempt from combatant service because of his "work of national importance" at the Treasury, Keynes insisted on applying for exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection to the war. On January 4 he told Ottoline Morrell he wished for "a general strike and a real uprising to teach I those bloody men who enrage and humiliate us". He told Duncan Grant in December 1917: "I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal."

In his ambivalent, even schizophrenic attitude towards the war, Keynes personified the British academic establishment. Though many dons were prompted to support the war by a mixture of patriotism and careerism, many others regarded an internecine struggle with Germany, in so many ways the world leader in scholarship, with horror. Re-reading the arguments on both sides 80 years after the war ended, I am bound to say it was the pacifists, not the media dons, who got it right.

Historian Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War, published by Penguin on November 5, will be reviewed in The THES next week. He is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.

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