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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Now the War Is Over: Britain 1919–1920


Simon Fowler and Daniel Weinbren
Pen and Sword Military, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Many uninvolved people assume that when a war ends and 'peace breaks out'-well, that's that. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there might be a collective sigh of relief from some, the agony continues but on a different note. In this, the United States, France, Germany and Britain followed parallel paths to varying degrees. How Britain reacted in 1919-1920 to the most terrible conflict it had ever known is the subject of Now the War is Over and as the authors reveal in detail, all was far from quiet on the home front after the Armistice was signed. A nation of some 46 million people can't lose over 750,000 young men on the battlefield and have a million and a half return wounded-many severely-and then pick up and carry on as usual.


In nine chapters Now the War is Over details the political, financial and social disruption that Britain experienced at the war's end. The first problems arose with countless soldiers wanting nothing more than to get out of uniform and back to civilian life. This brought about revolts against the military system even while troops were still in France, with localized mutinies, riots and general disrespect for officers. Resentment over who got to go home first was rife, and the soldiers showed it. Officers were at a loss about keeping waiting troops occupied-there were few educational opportunities such as American forces enjoyed-and one commander ordered troops to parade with their helmets burnished (scraped and polished) to give them something to do. There was more swearing over this order than had been heard for some time (4).

Fear was a common response among Britain's governing and upper classes as the war drew to an end. A society based on firm class lines saw a threat to its stability in the return of a few million war-experienced soldiers who might be better trained in violence than police and other law enforcement personnel. What would prevent upheavals as in Russia and Germany? In fact, numerous strikes, riots, protests, and demonstrations (many now forgotten) did take place all over the United Kingdom. But this unrest, violent and even bloody as it sometimes was, never became organized in any nationally united way-most remained locally organized. No soviets arose, no government was overthrown, and a troubled Britain muddled through while finding it impossible to return to the old ways and values. Life had been changed forever.

In addition to other upheavals, Ireland was reasserting its claims for independence and the IRA fought a long and violent campaign against the British State (p.22). Industrially, as factories producing war materials including vehicles and munitions cut back or closed, unionized workers protested and went on strike. Also, returning servicemen had plenty of reason to feel resentful and neglected:

Veterans found that Britain had changed during the war, often, in their eyes, not for the better. And although the fallen were commemorated in memorials and ceremonies, many ex-servicemen felt that their sacrifices were not sufficiently recognized. Protests around the Peace Day celebrations in July 1919 were often about how ex-servicemen had not been invited to the festivities. Rather the money had been spent on feting local elites who had done well out of the war (27).

"Black and Tans," British Auxiliaries Deployed to Ireland,
Blocking a Road 

The fight for recognition, reparations, medical care, and pensions were to be a constant theme in the 1920s in Britain, as it was in the United States, although no Bonus March took place.

Chapters 3 and 4 give considerable depth to both the economic and political reconstruction that Britain underwent during these postwar years, but perhaps Chapter 5, "Adjusting to the Peace," is the most interesting. The situation was to be expected:

During the war tens of thousands of women entered the factories and offices to fill the gaps left by men joining up or to boost the war economy. Between July 1914 and July 1918, the number of women employed in Britain rose by nearly 1.5 million, with virtually all of them engaged in new occupations or hired as substitutes for men. In engineering, where large numbers of women were employed, the figures rose from about 170,000 women in the industry before 1914 to 594,000 in 1918 (69–70).


Now, of course male trade unionists worked mightily to remove women from the workplace so that returning men could get jobs. Women were expected to return to the home or go back into domestic service. This worked to a certain degree, but women had changed too. Many didn't want to go back to service in a big house. Worse still, many women now smoked, painted their lips and fingernails, and wore shorter hair and dresses. They went to dance clubs, enjoyed the newfangled Jazz bands, and even became "flappers" much to the horror of the establishment. Nothing, however, was going to bring back a prewar Britain.

Although Now the War Is Over treats little that is new in the larger outline of postwar social upheaval, the authors do give intriguing examples of what was taking place on the everyday level. The second half of the book holds our attention on a variety of topics, from dealing with the wounded and mutilated to crime, drugs, horse racing, hastily written ephemeral literature, spiritualism, and the nation-wide ardor to commemorate the fallen. This latter ranged from building the Cenotaph to itinerant artists who for a small fee would provide a postcard-size sketch of a military grave with a loved one's name quickly written on it to be pinned to the wall of a grieving family's home.

Four pages of black-and-white photographs are included in the book and the notes for each chapter are excellent. If this segment of history interests you, you'll find Fowler and Weinbren's book an intriguing and useful resource.

David F. Beer

5 comments:

  1. This is such important history. Thank you, David, for the review.
    Why are modern societies so bad at supporting veterans?

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    1. A Variation of Kipling's poem "Tommy Atkins", I suppose.

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  2. This has been the theme of four of my books. The blight for the defeated could be worse since former industrial jobs were no more. Even occupations such as bakers were non-existent considering the lack of ingredients. Good review. cheers

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    1. Michael Kihntopf, I am looking forward to those!

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  3. Great review!

    The disruption did not end on Armistice Day.

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