The Victorian private solider was a despised figure. Yet in the first sixteen months of the Great War two and a half million men from the UK and many more from the empire, flocked to the colours without any form of legal compulsion. This book is the result of reflection on one of the most extraordinary mass movements in history: the surge of volunteers into the British army during the first sixteen months of the Great War. The notion that compulsory service in arms was repugnant to British tradition was mistaken. The nation's general state of mind, system of values and set of attitudes derived largely from the upper middle class, which had emerged and become dominant during the nineteenth century. The book examines the phenomenon of 1914 and the views held by people of that class, since it was under their leadership that the country went to war. It discusses the general theoretical notions of the nature of war of two nineteenth-century thinkers: Karl von Clausewitz and Charles Darwin. By 1914 patriotism and imperialism were interdependent. The early Victorians directed their abundant political energies chiefly towards free trade and parliamentary reform. It was the Germans' own policy which jolted the British into unity, for the Cabinet and the nation were far from unanimously in favour of war until the Germans attacked Belgium. Upper-class intellectual culture was founded on the tradition of 'liberal education' at the greater public schools and at Oxford and Cambridge.
On Saturday 1st August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. It was uncertain whether Great Britain would join in, and the recruiting office at Great Scotland Yard in London was open for normal peacetime business. Pressure in support of the influences began to be applied as soon as war broke out. It was channelled less through official bureaucracy than through the social structure and through voluntary organisations with a strong middle-class or upper-class tinge about them. F. C. Selous, an old Rugbeian, was one of the founders of Rhodesia. When war broke out he was already over sixty and he had some difficulty in persuading the War Office to employ him, but he was eventually commissioned in the Royal Fusiliers. The Standard, with War Office blessing, appealed for voluntary recruiters. They were advised to provide themselves, from a recruiting office, with details of service in Lord Kitchener's army.
During the first half of Queen Victoria's reign, the word was associated more readily with despotic continental empires, including the Holy Roman Empire, than with the dominions of Queen Victoria. The early Victorians directed their abundant political energies chiefly towards free trade and parliamentary reform. Their ideals lay rather in the direction of universal peace than of universal dominion. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was their exuberant assertion of British commercial and industrial supremacy, not a display of imperial power. W. H. Russell's condemnation of British ferocity had less effect on public opinion than his exposure of maladministration during the Crimean War. The Mutiny evoked a fierce determination to assert the British right, the right of conquest, to rule India. British rule in India, J. R. Seeley regarded with mixed astonishment and practicality.
When the Victorians contemplated the possibility of a 'very big war', as they fairly frequently did the enemies they expected, separately or together, were France and Russia, with Germany more likely an ally than an enemy. The suggestion of help from Germany, presumably, looked plausible in 1894, even though anxiety in Britain about German industrial competition and about Prussian military strength was already keen. Joseph Chamberlain's proposal was badly received in all the countries concerned. By the time he made it Germany had begun to emerge decisively as an enemy of Great Britain, for the Kaiser's Government had committed itself to building a powerful battle fleet. From the turn of the century the Germans were preparing an attack led directly to a movement for compulsory military service, a notion repellent to the Victorian liberal mind and especially unpopular among the working classes.
In the air of 1914, there was an ardent romanticism which had long been building up, distilled from many elements in Victorian life and culture. It carried with it an invincible belief in the superiority of all things British; hostility, tinged with fear, towards Germany seen as the great rival, upstart, efficient and unscrupulous; and an innocent vision of war as a great and gallant knightly adventure. In 1914 opposition, concentrated in Ulster, to the Liberal Government's home rule bill, seemed to be bringing civil war very close indeed. But for the outbreak of war with Germany many officers of the British army might have been refusing to support the British government or even fighting against it. Members of the ruling class of Victorian England were guilty of much that, since their time, has come to be considered reprehensible.
Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), a Prussian general who served against Napoleon, and the other is Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who came of a numerous family at the centre of the high-Victorian 'intellectual aristocracy' of liberal Britain. Clausewitz's book On War, first published in 1832, was immensely influential, probably because its message was shocking and at the same time welcome to those in nineteenth-century Europe who had an interest in making war respectable. Clausewitz makes it clear that he regards war as a normal part of the mechanics of politics. G. A. Henty, still well known today and still in print as a boys' writer, in his own time was very active as a war correspondent. Henty was well qualified to provide a military or naval setting for the boys' adventure stories which he started to write in 1868.
The public schools were at the height of their prestige and influence during the forty years or so before the Great War. The influence of the Victorian public schools spread widely and deeply in English society, but the number of boys, who went to them, in proportion to the population as a whole, was tiny. The Victorian public schools fastened themselves into the mind of the mass of the nation far less through their existence in fact than through the stories told about them in fiction. As the army tradition spread to the middle-class schools of Victorian foundation, it took on a much more professional tinge, which it always had for the numerous officers recruited from the relatively impoverished Irish gentry. The most important function of the public schools, in Bishop Welldon's view, was the formation of the character of English gentlemen.
The most productive period for individual memorials, before the Great War, was the nineteenth century, with its plentiful crop from the wars of the Empire. War memorials may be realistic, like the innumerable infantry privates up and down the country or the brutal stone howitzer with its crew at Hyde Park Corner. The Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny prompted noisy patriotism, but the mid-Victorian was clear enough about the distinction between a soldier and a civilian. The civilian might join the Volunteers, and many did when a French threat appeared in the 1860's. The flow of infantry volunteers dried up at once and the Imperial Yeomanry became attractive to many men who would not otherwise have considered enlisting. The stipulated qualifications for recruits to the Imperial Yeomanry, riding and shooting, were not seriously tested and recruits were given no training at home and little, except by experience, abroad.