Intellectual legacy of the First World War

Just a quick one – more details coming soon on last night’s Writing War seminar, once I’ve digested it a bit. Today: I’ve been doing some work on evacuation in the Second World War. Particularly in light of recent events in the States, and bearing in mind the short timescale available, British civilian evacuation just before war broke out seems a remarkable achievement. A million and a half people moved without a casualty (at least according to Titmuss). Not least, it was a magnificent conception to believe that this sort of move (and they’d planned for 4 million) was possible.

At the time of the Munich Crisis evacuation plans were pretty much non-existent, but fear of the bomber was high. As the official historian puts it:

‘the London County Council had become alarmed, and pressed the government to reach certain decisions in order to allow transport planning to begin. On 5th August, the Clerk to the Council (Sir George Gater) saw the Home Secretary and offered the services of members of the Education Officer’s staff. With political tension increased by 12th September, Mr Herbert Morrison (leader of the council) urged upon Sir Samuel Hoare the need for immediate decisions. The Council, then drew up plans, necessarily of a primitive and faulty nature, for the removal of some 637,000 children from London.’ (Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy, (London, HMSO, 1950), 29).

Even though it was never carried through, to draw up plans to shift this many people at short notice takes some doing. But what struck me as a First World War historian was George Gater’s appearance. Gater was a civilian in August 1914. By 1918 he was one of the youngest brigade commanders in the BEF, successfully leading improvised combined forces in the Hundred Days campaign which finished the war on the Western Front. He is an excellent example of the ‘learning curve’ and of the successful incorporation of civilians into the wartime army.

Evacuation in 1938 or 1939 was dependent on railway movements and billeting. Where had British administrators learned how to use these tools? How could they deploy them, at short notice, with confidence and relative competence (evacuation didn’t run perfectly, but it was, I repeat, a remarkable achievement)? Could we construct a case that some had learned these skills – or at least honed them – in the First World War? Obviously more research is needed – but let’s at least float the idea that we can.

Now, we are accustomed to participants in the SEcond World War complaining that all the best men of their generation had been killed in 1914-18. Alan Brooke, for example, often remarked on the poor command resources enjoyed by the British Army in the Second World War for just this reason. But we could reverse this argument. It might have seemed like the best and brightest were killed, but what about all those who took status, achievement and newfound abilities from their wartime experience? Perhaps, what the British had been doing was to create a skill set which, twenty years later, would serve them well in the second great conflict of the twentieth century.


3 Responses to Intellectual legacy of the First World War

  1. Brett says:

    Any post with the phrase “fear of the bomber” is pretty much guaranteed to get a response from me! 🙂

    I have been reading a little about ARP and the evacuation plans recently, in a general way. What strikes me is that even though evacuation had been discussed endlessly since 1924 (Higham, Military Intellectuals, 181, mentions some 400 memoranda and 86 subcomittee meetings on the topic of evacuation alone, just in 1924-33), it took the threat of war for actual detailed plans to be made. Actually, that’s not quite true, as Titmuss says there were out-of-date plans from 1934 (though that may coincide with the panic about German air rearmament). But given the fear about sudden knock-out blows, and the lurching from one foreign policy crisis to the next, wouldn’t it have been sensible to keep these plans updated? What would have happened if war had actually broken out in September 1938? My guess is that despite the LCC’s heroic efforts, the evacuation would have been much more chaotic and perhaps panicked than the 1939 one was. They were lucky to have an extra year’s grace.

    So you may be right about the human capital due to WWI veterans, but perhaps it’s also true that their potential was not fully realised, as officialdom seemed to need a full-blown crisis in order to actually do the things they’d been contemplating for years. (The RAF’s bomber force is another example …) On the other hand, maybe one could make an argument about generational change. The junior officers of 1914-18 (old enough to have picked up a lot of relevant experience, but young enough to be able to apply it flexibly) would be well into their 40s and 50s by the late 1930s, and senior enough to start having real influence in the civil service or wherever. Perhaps that also helped promote more realistic policy responses as the 1930s wore on?

  2. Dan says:

    Well, I decided it was time to write something that would definitely get one response at least! True, an earlier evacuation would have been more chaotic. But I think it’s worth challenging ideas about ‘a lost generation’ and that ‘fighting the last war’ is always a bad idea. And I’d try to fit this into a much broader thesis about British society and culture in the first half of the twentieth century actually being well adapted to the demands of total war.

    ‘More realistic policies as the 1930s went on’. Hmm. Have to think about that. And it would be good to have some examples other than Gater – time to look around.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The BEF’s Railway Operating Division was run after 1916 by a man named Paget who, while working for the Midland Railway, had introduced centralised control of train movement in 1909. So there’s a chance that a lot of the civilian planners also had military experience: and it wasn’t in the front line.

    Also – how many people did the UK’s railways move every Bank Holiday weekend in the 1930s? How much worse was evacuation?

    Chris Williams

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