In the preface to his Before the Bombardment, Osbert Sitwell pointed out astutely that it was “a mistake to think that a century ends everywhere at the same time, however clear the transition from one of these artificially made periods to another”. In Scarborough’s case, “the transition” was abrupt, unexpected and violent: the nineteenth century ended precisely at dawn on December 16, 1914, a little earlier than for much of the rest of the country, except for Whitby and the Hartlepools. It was a true awakening for those coastal communities, both physically and psychologically.
Less promptly, but nevertheless for similar reasons, for most of the British civilian population, 1915 marked the end of an era and 1916 the beginning of a new one, which, with hindsight, we can say ran on to 1945 – 30 years of almost unbroken mayhem and mass murder. 1915 was the year when millions of British civilians, as well as serving soldiers and sailors, realised that the Great War (as it was beginning to be called), was like no other that had ever happened in history.
During the previous century, wars were infrequent, brief, limited, localised and distant. They were fought by professional, voluntary combatants, curiously detached from and often despised by their homeland civilians. For the British, wars happened in the Crimea, in India, in China and in Africa, in which native mercenaries were hired, engaged and led by British officers. Enlistment in the British army, little more than a colonial police force, was in practice a life-sentence in the Tropics. For private soldiers it was a refuge for the desperate criminal and the penniless younger son: it was not a respectable career even for the working-class male. In the greatest contrast, the war that began in the high summer of 1914 soon became world-wide, total, never-ending and ultimately revolutionary.
This war became immediately global because it involved on one side the colonial empires of Britain, Belgium and France and that of Germany on the other. When soon the Ottoman empire joined the Central Powers, the whole of the Near East from Istanbul to Iran and from the Caucasus mountains to the Arabian Sea became potential killing grounds. In 1915, the ANZACs, volunteer troops from Australia and New Zealand, landed on the hostile shore of Gallipoli and by then African and Indian soldiers were fighting Germans on the Western Front. Not even isolationist USA could escape the Royal Navy’s blockade of its European trade or the new menace of the Kaiser’s submarines.
Naval battles that followed were not confined to European waters: they took place in the Pacific, the Indian ocean and even the south Atlantic, as well as the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
New, deadly weapons were also changing the character of warfare in 1915. In that year, for the first time, both sides used poison gas against each other’s troops; in the same year, submarines first became a significant weapon that sank the Lusitania, a trans-Atlantic passenger liner; and by 1915, aeroplanes on both sides had started to bomb civilian targets.
The German naval and aerial bombardments of English coastal towns and undefended harbours were crucial steps down the road to total warfare. They followed the atrocities committed by the Kaiser’s soldiers against Belgian civilians, men, women and children. In flat defiance of the pre-war Hague conventions, there could now be no clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Even more shocking to civilised sensitivities were submerged U-boat torpedo attacks on passenger ships sailing in international waters. Before the end of 1915, this war had become total.
Less well-known to “Westerners” were the anti-semitic and ethnic massacres unleashed by the war. In 1915 Cossacks were mass murdering Jews in Galicia and Turks were looting, raping and driving surviving Kurds to certain death into the Syrian desert. The word “genocide” was not yet in use, but the fact of it had already happened.
At home, British “civilisation”, founded on free trade, freedom of movement and the written and spoken word, Christian belief and practice, class deference, a minimal state and faith in the illusion of progress, was rapidly dissolving in 1915, significantly the last year of Liberal government.
In his Strange Death of Liberal England, published 20 years later, George Dangerfield argued that this civilisation had been already fatally compromised before 1914. The so-called Irish Question (whether the Irish should have their own parliament), had split the Liberal party in Gladstone’s time and remained unresolved. A civil war between Irish nationalists and Irish unionists was imminent. The immense increase in the membership and potential power of the industrial and transport trade unions threatened a general strike that would cripple the nation. And militant Suffragettes were jeopardising traditional forms of civil rule and parliamentary government.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 seemed to have settled or at least suspended these existential threats. The Irish were apparently reconciled, the trade unions pacified, and the Pankhursts called off their campaign, But these were merely armistices, not peace treaties. British society and politics were profoundly and irrevocably transformed by the war.
The authority of the British state was enormously increased and the liberty of the individual citizen substantially diminished. Asquith’s government immediately took over the privately-owned railways and requisitioned merchant ships; the new Ministry of Munitions ran hundreds of factories and recruited women to work in them; under the umbrella of the Defence of the Realm Acts, newspapers were censored, journals suppressed, licensing hours reduced and even the strength of spirits and beer diluted. A succession of war budgets raised income taxes and the cost of living by making essentials such as tea, sugar and tobacco more expensive. By the end of 1915 it was obvious that voluntary recruitment had failed and conscription was unavoidable. Yet another “inviolable freedom” had been abandoned.
The war gravely damaged the Liberals, gave opportunity to the new Labour party, and profited the Conservatives. No government from 1915 to 1945 was without a Conservative minister and no Liberal held office after 1922 until 2010.
Of the three male “celebrities” who died in 1915, Dr WG Grace, Keir Hardie and Rupert Brooke, the death of the last was arguably the most significant and symbolic. Rugby schoolboy, classical scholar, Cambridge graduate and popular poet, Brooke, the romantic idealist, represented an era so distant from that of the disillusioned and traumatised Wilfred Owen, who was killed within days of the armistice of 1918.