An anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London in 1914
An anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, on August 2 1914

The Fateful Year: England 1914, by Mark Bostridge, Viking, RRP£25, 432 pages

In the opening days of 1914, for most people in Britain, the possibility of war with Germany was not the most pressing of their problems. More immediate inconveniences were to be found in the lack of street lighting, rubbish collections and public transport due to industrial action by 3,000 local government employees, off work since Christmas. Twelve months later, the nation was mobilised for a conflict more devastating than any in its history.

Mark Bostridge’s book takes us through the year as it unfolds, in details found in a range of diaries, letters, newspapers and memoirs. He digs out stories behind the stories, shading in the wider ripples that are made in small communities by big events, demonstrating how news is dispersed and reinterpreted, how fear and hysteria spreads. Events that captured the national imagination were, as always, more likely to be about individual tragedy than dull diplomacy. The Fateful Year opens with the killing of a child, Willie Starchfield, on a London train – a case so notorious that after Willie’s father was acquitted of murder, he played himself in a film re-enacting it. It closes with housewife Evie Davies, whose husband was already serving in France: “I little knew what was coming. Now I am utterly in the dark about what to expect.”

In 1914, there were so many examples of civic disobedience it seemed that social order was crumbling completely. Even children were in revolt, with hundreds of pupils on strike on behalf of low-paid teachers and hundreds more coming out in support of a Derbyshire teacher sacked for “sex teaching” 12-year-old girls. In Norfolk, two teachers were sacked for defying twin pillars of the social hierarchy, the parson and the local education authority, by demanding “parish council democratic reform”.

The co-author of a biography of Vera Brittain, Bostridge is particularly good on the militant suffragettes: on their fierce passion and brazen affronts to Edwardian standards of respectable behaviour; the strange idolatry inspired by the Pankhursts; the horror of forced feeding in prison; the visceral fear they inspired, with men whispering “sex filth” at women selling militant newspapers. In 1914, Mary Richardson tore holes in Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus”, sparking a wave of suffragette slashing: Sargent’s portrait of Henry James was attacked with a hatchet, followed by a Clausen, five Bellinis, a Bartolozzi, a Romney and Millais’ likeness of Thomas Carlyle. Security measures were introduced, muffs and umbrellas no longer permitted in public galleries – the British Museum prohibited entry to women unless accompanied by a man. Viewed as even more degenerate was the debutante Mary Blomfield, who when presented at court refused to curtsy to George V, instead kneeling to implore him to stop torturing women. One commentator demanded that suffragettes be deported to the island of St Kilda.

Hanging in the Royal Academy near the “Rokeby Venus” that year was David Bomberg’s extraordinary painting “The Mud Bath”, a riot of angular forms. In a particularly interesting section of the book, Bostridge takes this work to illustrate the early flaring of a modernism that was not to take root until after the war. Yet in 1914, the first publication of Percy Wyndham Lewis’s magazine Blast was a manifesto for a new aesthetic: for steel and mechanisation over the bric-a-brac of Edwardiana, for the cerebral thrills of machinery and abstract art over the literature of John Galsworthy and the preaching of the Bishop of London (both of whom were listed among the “blasted”).

At the end of a scorching June, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo but to most people in Britain war still seemed distant. One month later, Hilaire Belloc, from his yacht in Devon, noted a fleet of Royal Navy ships moving to Scapa Flow, “a procession of great forms, all in line, hastening eastwards”. By June 31, the London Stock Exchange had been shut down; “Europe drifting to disaster” was the headline in the Daily Mail. By the end of August Belgian refugees had started to arrive in Britain and bellicose women were already handing out white feathers to men of fighting age considered to have shirked the call to volunteer. “The lights are going out all over Europe,” said foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey; Bostridge gives a new pathos to the famous line by describing Grey’s beloved cottage in Hampshire, his love of rural solitude and fly fishing in the river Itchen, and how his own eyesight was deteriorating into blindness.

A century later, the reader of this book knows all too well the horrors of the years to come, that 1914 is just the beginning. But there is a sense here from Bostridge’s material that even at the time, people began to look at events as if they were gripped in some cosmic spider’s web, seeing melancholy portents everywhere. It was a magnificent autumn, everyone agreed in elegiac wonderment, with a rich and prolific harvest. Pope Pius X died in the month that war was declared – the same time as a solar eclipse.

By November, the first German spy had been executed in the Tower of London. Enemy aliens were apparently everywhere – “old women in trousers” were particularly suspect, according to one local authority. When the tune for The Lark Ascending came to Ralph Vaughan Williams on a cliff overlooking the English Channel, he took out his notebook to jot it down, whereupon a boy scout appeared and charged him with making maps for the enemy. Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that anti-Germanism might be excessive but was then deluged with so much hate mail that it made him ill.

Bostridge has written a truly gripping chronicle of the mood of a nation moving unwittingly towards catastrophe. The shifting tempo of a book like this is difficult to pull off but Bostridge moves deftly between public event and vivid personal experience with sympathy and imagination. Our own hindsight, overly romantic perhaps, adds to these pictures a tragic poignancy. When Edward Thomas stopped at Adlestrop station in Gloucestershire, the blackbirds he heard through the willows inspired the poem that, as Bostridge describes it, has become “a fragile remembrance of English countryside and character in 1914”. We know that the war will make Thomas the poet he longed to be – but also that he will not survive it.

Lucy Lethbridge is author of ‘Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain’ (Bloomsbury)


Letter in response to this article:

Oops – FT gives June an extra day / From Mr Ed Karkut

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