Conflicts, but not the one you were expecting – Nigel Jones on Britain in 1914 at Swindon Festival of Literature

7 May

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It’s 100 years, near enough, since Europe was plunged into the most terrible war the world has ever seen, so you’d expect a ‘thinking festival’ like Swindon Festival of Literature to thoroughly explore the subject, which it is – as part of the official Swindon in the Great War commemorations.

Historian Nigel Jones’ discussion around his book Peace and War: Britain in 1914 is the first of three on the topic – the entrée to Kate Adie’s main course of the legacy of women in the Great War (May 12), with dessert coming in the form of Richard Van Emden on boy soldiers (May 15).

It’s fitting that Jones goes first, because his book isn’t really about the war at all, it’s about all the other stuff that was happening at the time – events that were making headlines before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo; before Germany’s blank cheque assurance to Austria, or Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia; and before the Rape of Belgium.

Jones’ book reminds us there were three conflicts troubling the British government in the run-up to the Great War, and none of them had very much at all to do with European politics.

The first was the suffrage movement, and in particular the violent tactics of the suffragettes – smashing windows, conducting firebomb campaigns, Mary Richardson’s attack on the painting The Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery.

The second was the Irish Question – the demand for Irish self rule from nationalists who had made themselves invaluable to a Liberal government that was losing its grip on power.

And the third was a social conflict: the rise of the working classes, with the emergence of trade unions and the Labour Party.

In the event, argues Jones, all three causes benefited from the Great War. Women – who had kept the country fed and the soldiers armed while the men were at war – were rewarded with the vote (so long as they were over 30); the Irish gained their independence (but not, of course, without a bloody struggle before and after the event); and the working classes returned from the battlefields of Europe with a sense of purpose, and a feeling of worth.

Jones’ discussion, held at Swindon’s Central Library, attracted a crowd that were arguably as knowledgeable and passionate about the subject as he was, and a question and answer session turned into a lively and thought-provoking conversation about the three domestic conflicts.

A few really interesting soundbites came out that I thought were worth sharing:

The first is Jones’ view that poets and artists seemed to sense war was coming before the politicians did. “As animals head to high ground before a tsunami, so artists felt the zeitgeist. The poets and artists knew a catastrophe was coming.”

We’ll be hearing a lot about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and their reactions to the horror of war, in the coming months, but Jones reminded us that artistic movements like Vorticism in Britain and Futurism in Italy – with their glorification of speed, technology, youth and violence – were almost prescient of the events that were to unfold.

The second was that despite the horrors of the trenches, and the awful and well-documented mental and physical injuries suffered by many servicemen, it’s a less well-known fact that the average Tommy actually came home healthier – on average two stone heavier, and free of deficiency diseases like rickets and scurvy.

While a newly emboldened working class led to positive social change in victorious Britain, however, in countries like Germany and Italy is led to the rise of militarised politics, and fascism.

The third was a warning from our past to be wary of current events. “My book is a snapshot of the world before the war, but is the war so distant?” Jones asked. “Recent events in the Ukraine are reminiscent of the shots fired in Sarajevo. The British Army is now as small as it was when the expeditionary force was sent to Flanders.”

If history truly does repeat itself, we should all, perhaps, take a greater interest in events in Europe.

 Words by Peter Davison. Photo by Calyx Pictures.


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