Saturday, November 08, 2008


One for Remembrance Sunday: Alan Sillitoe - Raw Material (1972), recounting his uncle's memories of the first world war - (Chap 37):
His own officers, I heard him tell my father with a sort of crazed respect at their utter callousness, had lifted their revolvers to make sure the men went over the top. He remembered the voice petulantly barking as if they were cattle: 'Get on! Get on, then! Get on! Come on, you, get on. Get on, then. Get on!"
(Chap 40):
"The blow finished Britain as a world power, and as a country fit for any hero to live in. The heroes and their heroic spirit were dead. If they had survived they would indeed have insisted after the war that England be made habitable for them. But such an insistence would have disturbed the old order too fundamentally for its comfort, which with sadistic prescience saw to it therefore that those heroes did not outlast them.
(Chap 43):
For every officer killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, twenty-two other ranks fell with him. During the whole of the Boer War, in which the total casualties were under 17,000, the proportion was one officer to eleven other ranks.

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the British class war was fought out on the Western Front with real shells and bullets. The old men of the upper classes won by throwing the best possible material into the slaughter, including their own high-spirited and idealistic young. But the masses who joined up were people who had been perfected by more than a century of the Industrial Revolution. In one sense they were indeed the flower of mankind: intelligent, technically minded, and literate men of a sensibility whose loss sent England as a country into a long decline. When they died, as nearly a million did, they took their skills with them.

Such people were thrown away with prodigal distaste because they were coming to the point of stepping into their birthright. Their potential was about to become manifest, and they would have demanded what had been denied them for so long. War was the only alternative to revolution, and the leaders of every nation were faced by the same cosmic problem.

They sided with destiny and chose war.....
A remarkable book that sorely deserves a reprint.


Peter Jackson said...

Paulie, those quotes are questionable at best - particularly the last one. Officer casualties were startlingly high in WW1, and the comparison with the Boer War reflects only the much larger army formations and superior technology in the later conflict. And there was never going to be a revolution as an alternative to war. The literate, technically skilled masses often found that the Army fed and cared for them better than the society they left, and it was only after the war that a revolution of any kind was possible - partly because of the levelling of class distinctions in the trenches.

Note the 1945 election as an example of what a mass army can do in a democracy post-conflict...

asquith said...

Peter Jackson, you overlook the enormous improvements between the Boer War & 1914. The powerful were shocked to see the poverty of the working class, which had been brought about by having to live in a libertarian society.

The Asquith government's policies were a response to this. Between 1906 & 1914 things were getting better & there was distinct pressure to go further, as Sillitoe suggests.

While there had been improvements in technology etc, the army & society in general was still retarded by the fact that intelligent people who were in many cases experienced leaders (union men, factory supervisors, members of working men's clubs etc) were often denied a chance to be officers in favour of fuckwits with old school ties.

You may turn round & say the public schoolboys were best placed to lead because they were brought up to be rulers. This is true as far as it goes. But they weren't the most capable people, they were people of inherited wealth who had got where they were through nepotism. (Spot the parallels with today's wholly unregenerate society, our rulers having dodged the working man's demands for freedom from drudgery & control over his own life).

Given a few decades of peace, we could have achieved God knows what. It was a Liberal government that was leading us into a better world.

asquith said...

*a bloggertarian society :)

peter jackson said...

Thanks for your comments, asquith. As you say, the idea of a 'golden summer' before 1914 is wrong; the reforms to bring about the welfare state had already begun, and the industrial working class was developing strongly.

However, the military problem was different. The British army was tiny by European standards, and mass recruitment in 1914 produced an officer problem. Retired officers from the Boer War and earlier were 'dug out' to take charge of new army formations, but it was clearly impossible to give skilled industrial workers, no matter what their experience in workplace discipline, military commands straight away.

The obvious source was the cadet force established at public schools and at Oxford and Cambridge by Haldane's army reforms, as well as the Territorial forces set up at the same time.

Clearly, there were some class issues in the appointing of officers to the new armies as there were in society in general. But as the war continued, and junior officer casualties grew disproportionately, promotions from the ranks became the norm. Military experience trumped birth from late 1916 onwards.

I think we'd generally agree about the way society might have developed without the Great War. But it's a bit tricky to see what else the senior commanders could have done with the material they had to hand.

Thanks again.

asquith said...

You're welcome. This is something about which I'm not enormously well-informed, but I remember hearing a few things (which found their way into that post) & it seemed to me that they had contemporary relevance.

I'll be looking for Sillitoe's book. Perhaps you should join me!

Paulie said...

"I'll be looking for Sillitoe's book. Perhaps you should join me!"

I hope you both do - you won't regret it, I hope.

I picked the 'money shot' paragraphs (the book isn't just about WWI - it's really a sort of family narrative set in the years either side, but there is a lot about the war. The fury at the slaughter is quite unmoderated though. There's this:

"The assault might have proved more successful if they had been taught to stay alive - as all good soldiers should be - if they had dashed across at night, for example, with no equipment except a shovel and a few grenades, which would have achieved just as much, if not a great deal more. At such a time, the British Army should have called on a nation of poachers instead of a nation of cricketers. It was war, not sport...."

The real beauty of this is the subjectivity of an (otherwise) almost unheard voice. Sillitoe is remarkable in that he is really the only writer of his generation (or most others) to have had a childhood-long experience of extreme poverty. At the time, critics wrote him off as 'contrived'. It was only social historians later on that pointed out that his experiences were authentic, and the blind-spots that the critics had were telling.

asquith said...

I recall Sillitoe being praised by Mick "the cunt" Hume in Shite Online:

I feel a bit guilty subjecting you to a link to that site. But then, I have brought copies of the Evening No Standards into Citizens' Advice Bureau headquarters many a time (I thought it would be a laugh to see how they reacted), so I'm used to giving outrageous links :)

Will said...

Mick Hume is in favour of vouchers -- but only for Serbian fascists who never really killed anyone, honest guvnor.

D Arronovitch also attends Spiked functions for the free tunnocks tea-cakes and the tea and crumpets.

asquith said...

The single thing that pisses me off most about Spiked, even more than the politics & the attitude, is that they keep on fucking using the word "contemporary" for no good reason.


Paulie said...

It's odd -Brendan O'Neill also wrote a (quite good) glowing review of a sympathetic Sillitoe biog in New Statesman a while ago - maybe the old RCP had adopted him or something?

I recall him writing the odd piece in Colin Ward's 'Anarchy' periodical in the 1960s (before my time but there's a good anthology) and he was, I think, engaged in left-wing politics though never in the very public way that the Redgraves were.

will said...


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