Saturday, December 17, 2005

Fit for heroes?

The impact Britain's wartime Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised the soldiers who had fought 'for King and Country' that they would return to a 'land fit for heroes'. Many did not return at all. Of those who did, most collected their civilian suit, a pair of medals and a small cash payment – then joined the ranks of those looking in vain for work. Others collected a disability pension but were never able to work again.
The land they returned to had changed profoundly, and yet it hardly met any of their great expectations.
Unlike the Boer War 15 years earlier, far away in Africa, the 'Great War' was fought much closer to home. Its ramifications and hardships, and the fears and anxieties it generated, were felt much more directly – particularly by communities on the eastern coast, vulnerable to attack from the sea, and London's city dwellers, enduring indiscriminate terror from enemy air raids.
The large proportion of the population who played a direct role in the war produced a much greater dislocation in the society they left behind. The naïve predictions of politicians, that war 'would be over by Christmas' and that life in Britain would continue to be 'business as usual', were soon dispelled.

The absence of millions of the country's youngest and fittest workers for several years forced Britain to develop innovative ways of meeting the needs of its society. Through that process, people came to understand themselves in new ways. Similarly, those who returned from war carried a different outlook. Some claimed that the experience had 'made' them, others that it had 'destroyed' them; none said that the war had left them unchanged.
An industrial empire
Turn-of-the-20th-century Britain was a cohesive and productive society, even if it tolerated great disparities of wealth. A world economic power, it led the way in industrialisation. Although many people still worked on the land, Britain increasingly imported basic foodstuffs from overseas. Those whose parents and grandparents had laboured on 19th century farms had moved in droves to work in factories, mills and coalmines. There, they created goods for a rapidly expanding home market, as well as servicing a growing system of international trade. Living and working conditions were poor and hours long, but jobs were plentiful.

Edwardian Britain still enjoyed a huge empire. Those whose drudgery oiled the wheels of that empire saw few of its benefits. Nevertheless they identified strongly with it and the notion of 'King and Country'. For the most part, the 'lower orders' believed that their rulers were driven by moral and altruistic motives, and they were prepared to serve them with patriotic devotion.of the First World War on British society


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