Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland
reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland
by Catriona Pennell
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014

A Kingdom United gives a new and nuanced picture of the reactions of the British and Irish to the outbreak of war in 1914. They were neither wholly enthusiastic, as has sometimes been stated about Britain, nor were they completely disengaged, as historians have claimed about Ireland. There was, and indeed never could be, any "single, uniform reaction to such a major event as the outbreak of war in Europe" (227). The hitherto accepted idea of collective war enthusiasm is a simplification of popular feelings in a time of grave danger. In reality, there was a wide range of attitudes: excitement, curiosity and adventure, but also insecurity, fear and depression. And such feelings knew no national boundary.

In comparison with France and Germany, volunteerism was more prominent in Britain; indeed, 1914–1916 saw the raising of the largest volunteer army in British history. Britain and Ireland shared the same view of what was at stake: "national honour, liberty, the rights of small nations" (230). They were very different, however, in one important regard — domestic politics. While these were suspended in Britain, war was to become an integral "part of the politics of domestic peace in Ireland" (229).

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A Kingdom United is the first study to focus on how the British and Irish responded to the war. Concentrating on the first five months, from August to December 1914, Pennell explores a multiplicity of emotions, identifies patterns, and draws new and important conclusions from the evidence. She investigates newspapers, diaries, journals, memoirs, interviews taken retrospectively, photographs, police records, sermons and government records, giving equal weight to national and regional reactions to the outbreak of the war.

In addition to the above sources, Pennell's study incorporates adventure stories by G.A. Henty, H. Rider Haggard, Boy's Own magazine, and best-selling accounts of the South African War, which promoted an image of war as honorable and glorious. Pennell notes that in the years leading up to the First World War, war was increasingly becoming a moral phenomenon in which ethical issues were of critical importance.

The growing feeling that Germany was a threat to Britain is also discussed in A Kingdom United. By 1911, relations between Britain and Germany were deteriorating. Britain was expecting war to break out due to a growth of German imperialism, disputes with France and later with Germany, and the decision to abandon the traditional policy of isolationism. The attempts to improve Anglo-German relations between 1911 and 1914, and Britain and Germany's collaboration during the Balkan crises of 1912–1913, produced a false belief in the idea that the July 1914 crisis could be resolved. As a result, the sense of surprise and shock at the outbreak of war in August was, as Pennell convincingly demonstrates, significantly exacerbated.

Chapter Four, "Encountering Violence: Imagined and Real," is particularly fascinating. It explores people's knowledge of war and violence and how the opening months of the war were characterized by a vacuum of news that fueled "apprehension, rumour, and fear" (124); the possibility of a German invasion seemed to be coming ever closer. As wounded soldiers returned from the front and as people learned of the loss of their loved ones, the pain and grief "literally brought the war home" (142). As a result, the kingdom in 1914 "did not stay united, but paths of division were strongly influenced by the length and nature of the war, matters that were still shrouded in mystery in 1914, and were by no means foreordained" (232).

10th Irish "New Army" Division in Training, 1915

A Kingdom United is a fascinating and convincing study. It is fastidiously researched, contains illuminating illustrations, copious footnotes, excellent short presentations of the 441 characters discussed (Appendix I), and a statistical breakdown of their gender and prewar occupations (Appendix II), the location of the diaries, journals, and memoirs used (Appendix III), and a presentation of anti-German riots and western military events for October 1914 (Appendix IV). The bibliography is extensive and includes old as well as more recent studies. A Kingdom United is personal, engaging, and fresh. It is also written in an eloquent and easy-to-read style — a major achievement given the complexity of its subject. As an important contribution to the history of the British home front during the First World War, it is warmly recommended.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

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