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First World War: We should think again about myth of war enthusiasm

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: September 02, 2014

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The popular image we have of the outbreak of the First World War is of crowds waving Union flags and men flocking eagerly to recruiting offices, fearing they might miss out on the action as the war would surely be 'over by Christmas'. The truth was rather different, says Dr Roger Ball of the University of the West of England

There is a perception in Britain that popular patriotic pressure drove politicians to declare war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and that the population somehow desired war.

This so-called "war enthusiasm" has been characterised in the popular memory as cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace, long lines outside recruiting offices and of soldiers marching away singing Tipperary.

These images have been recently promoted by TV programmes and films such as Blackadder Goes Forth, War Horse and Downton Abbey.

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But how true is this perception? Was the desire for war widespread? What actually happened in August 1914?

Over the first weekend of August 1914 there were numerous anti-war marches, protests and demonstrations across Britain. Similar protests involving hundreds of thousands had occurred a few days before in Germany and other European countries.

In almost every city and major town in the country thousands of people met to voice their opposition to the impending conflict and to Britain's potential entry into what became a disastrous world war.

In the preceding week, the dispute between Austria and Serbia which had begun at the end of June had begun to escalate towards a major conflict between the Imperial powers; Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Germany and Austria had declared war on Russia and the following day, Sunday, August 2, Britain was being pressurised by its allies to declare war on Germany.

Fifteen thousand people attended a demonstration in Trafalgar square where a resolution calling for Britain to stay neutral and to prevent the spread of the conflict was unanimously passed. Similar resolutions were passed across the country by tens of thousands.

Provincial media opinion, whether Liberal or Tory, expressed a firm preference for neutrality. Non-conformist churches, along with most socialists and Trade Unionists were united in their opposition to war. The evidence suggests that the public, although sympathetic to the plight of "small nations" such as Belgium, was certainly not convinced of the case for war.

As for pro-war demonstrations; these were, despite the perception of cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace, few and far between. One historian stated that "close examination of the 'pro-war' crowds in the metropolis during the war crisis causes them to dwindle almost to the point of disappearance." He estimated that the traditional Bank Holiday crowd at Buckingham Palace on 3rd August 1914 to be in the region of 8,000, little over one in a thousand of the metropolitan population."

And in Bristol?

On Sunday, August 2, an anti-war protest on Durdham Down was addressed by the Trade Union leader Ernest Bevin. Somerset-born Bevin, originally a farm labourer, was by 1914 a committed socialist and national organiser of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers' Union.

Trade Unionists such as Bevin had worked hard for years to build an international movement whose primary aim was to stop any conflict breaking out between the Imperial powers. Now they were faced with the predicted but unthinkable … a world war. Would their nerve hold?

On the Downs, a young Bevin steadfastly called for action by workers in all countries to prevent war. In the preceding months Bevin had supported a resolution at the International Federation of Trade Unions to call an international general strike if a conflict looked likely to break out. However the speed with which the Austrian-Serbian crisis had escalated in July had caught Trade Unionists and Socialists on the hop. The possibility of international action by workers against the war seemed to be receding in the first few days of August, despite protests across Europe.

Earlier that day Bevin had been speaking at a well-attended mass meeting of dockers on the Grove in the city centre to discuss the worrying situation on the Continent. Bevin, addressing the dockers, pointed out prophetically that "the South African war would be a mere fleabite compared with a great war in Europe" and added: "English trade unionists are on the most friendly terms with trade unionists across the Continent. It would be insane to fight them simply because there is a dispute between Austria and Serbia."

He railed against the machinations of the British Government with its secret alliances and diplomatic manoeuvres, all of which he argued were undemocratic and hidden from the population.

Bevin proposed a resolution which called upon the Government to "immediately declare its neutrality in connection with the European war and… upon the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, the General Federation of Labour and the Labour Party to call a national conference to discuss way and means of preventing this country from being involved in 'hostilities'".

This resolution was carried unanimously by the assembled dockers. The following day, in emergency meetings, the Bristol No.1 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (representing 1,400 workers) and their sister organisation the NUR Women's Guild both voted against British intervention in the conflict and in favour of neutrality.

These expressions of mass popular dissent against the war in Bristol were matched by the reactions of local newspapers such as the Western Daily Press, which were initially reticent to support Britain entering the conflict warning its readers of: "the grim shadow of war over the Near East" and harangued the foreign politicians for "the sheer madness of it."

That first weekend of August, churches prayed for peace and in most quarters there was widespread dread and uncertainty rather than enthusiasm. The British government declared war on Germany at 11pm on Tuesday, August 4, 1914. During the evening crowds gathered in Bristol city centre to be near the newspaper offices. There were mixed reactions in the crowd; some were stunned, others took part in impromptu marches.

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