It's not often I'm tempted to throw a book I'm half-way through into the bin. But I came close to chucking William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill “The Last Lion” last weekend. Manchester was lamenting the crippling slaughter of Britain's brightest and best during the First World War. I couldn't have agreed more about the awful waste of so many of the nation's bravest and best – and let's not forget the of the volunteers of 1914 and 1915 who survived but were scarred physically or mentally 'til their dying day.
But then, next sentence, I realised Manchester was only referring to officers. I could just about stomach his reference to the dead as the “flower of England's youth” but to ignore the flood of working chaps who volunteered to fight the frightful Hun was just too much for me. Obviously, to Manchester two of my great grandfathers were not great loss. We'll never know what their children might have achieved if they'd had a wage-earning father in the household. One of my grandfathers, whose Dad died on the Somme, had a cousin who despite his working class upbringing became a university professor. That cousin would come to my grandfather when he was stumped by a maths problem. My grandfather was sold to the British Army as soon as he was old enough to join the colours. His health was destroyed by the Army and he was unable to capitalise after his medical discharge on his skill at repairing television and radio sets.
When I was teenager, I helped research a book celebrating 200 years of the Glasgow Herald and the job involved going through two centuries worth of the paper. What struck me was how the First World War marked a watershed. The Herald was the mouthpiece of Glasgow's merchants and socially ambitious shopkeepers. Before the war the poor of the city were regarded as people who needed a helping hand to mitigate the poverty of slum life. After the war, the poor were The Enemy; in league with the Bolsheviks of Soviet Russia. No repression was too severe for them. The United Kingdom was no longer united. Class war had been declared. The losing side included the widows and children of the volunteer soldiers killed in such battlefields as the Somme and Gallipoli. In a kinder, saner, world, the fact the volunteers died following the officer sons of the merchants and shopkeepers would actually have helped knit society together.
I agree with Manchester that Britain never recovered from the First World War. I don't agree that only the officers were any great loss.