Gerard J. DeGroot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War. (London and New York: Longman, 1996.) Pages xiv + 356. £16.50
Initially intended as an 'up-to-date and affordable text on British society during the Great War', DeGroot's study not only provides an extremely useful synthesis of recent scholarship on the impact of the First World War upon Britain, but fully engages in the ongoing debate concerning the nature of this impact. In the change versus continuity argument, DeGroot comes down firmly in the continuity camp, seeing the war not as 'a deluge which swept all before it, but at best a winter storm which swelled the rivers of change' (p. 291). He makes a compelling case for the influence of deep-seated forces of conservatism on both the management of a nation at war, and the recovery from its impact. The Government, and society as a whole, endeavoured (not always wisely, and with very dubious success) to minimise the effects on civilian life of the conduct of a new kind of warfare ('Business as Usual'). Indeed, the war itself was seen as returning the nation to simple sound values, a conventional military campaign against an enemy 'out there', replacing the ambiguous and problematic prewar struggles of class, gender and the colonised. Afterwards there was 'a desire to reconstruct according to cherished patterns' (p. 311).
He is justly sceptical of received myths of the war. He takes a cynical view about the alleged loss to the nation of the 'Lost Generation' of the ruling elite, pointing out that although certainly some individuals of great promise were lost, the governing elite as a whole was based on social rank rather than merit, and that the nation still had vast untapped resources of talent, both among men who did not belong to this elite, and among women. He also debunks the idea that Britain only just missed a left-wing revolution as a result of the war, emphasising the profound conservatism, sullen deference, and patriotism which pervaded the working classes. He even inverts the traditional 'lions led by donkeys' cliché, suggesting that the working-class soldier was 'a beast of burden, a man caged by a life of drudgery, squalor, powerlessness and social stasis' (p.173). The paranoia and hysteria aroused by fears of alien spies and saboteurs, and by 'conchies', DeGroot suggests, indicates how solid and pervasive support for the war was.
There is an excellent chapter on 'Houses, Homes, and Health'. Unlike many historians who have emphasised the entry of women into new spheres during the war, DeGroot points out that for most women their task was still to keep 'home fires burning' in the face of food shortages, rent increases, delinquency among the young and all the other problems brought by war. The married woman was often in a no-win situation, urged to work for the war effort yet blamed for neglecting home and children, with few allowances being made for the double burden, and suffering the incalculable emotional strain of anxiety for loved ones in the forces (though some women, as Leonora Eyles reported a few years later in The Woman in the Little House, were 'bloomin' glad the old Kaiser went potty'). Health improved, partly, he suggests, because the absence of husbands at the front meant more food to go round the rest of the family. On questions of nutrition and rationing it would have been nice to have had some discussion of the role of nutritional scientists in forming policy and determining the composition of the approved loaf (DeGroot claims that this was 'as digestible as a howitzer shell and probably as lethal' (p.89), something that can surely only be ascertained by making up the recommended recipe).
He follows an orthodoxy already being queried about the place of women and feminism in the post-war era. Whether feminism died with the grant of the limited suffrage, or whether it mutated and dispersed among diverse campaigns, is a hotly debated issue, as is the received assumption that surviving feminists can be neatly classifiable into Old, equal rights, feminists, and New, special needs of women, feminists---a view which over-estimates pre-war, and under-estimates post-war, feminist cohesiveness. And while there was certainly a post-war rush into matrimony, there are strong arguments that the dynamics of marriage in the 1920s were significantly different from those of the 1900s.
In spite of these quibbles, this well-written and very readable book can be highly recommended. There is a substantial bibliography incorporating contemporary or retrospective accounts by participants and observers alongside recent scholarship.
Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine