Outlook on life changed by war


One of the unexpected results of the Great War was the effect it had on men of all classes thrown into the chaos and suffering of trench warfare.

This is fairly well documented in respect of the “officer class”. For the first time in their lives, they were thrown into close contact with “the lower classes”.

Harold Macmillan came back changed so much that when he lost his seat at Stockton on Tees in 1929, the Daily Telegraph referred to him as “the Socialist Captain Macmillan”.

When he got his seat back in 1931, he spoke out strongly against mass unemployment and wrote a book called “The Middle Way” which advocated municipal ownership of essential services and moving away from laissez faire capitalism.

Even more influential in the long run, he supported the local Medical Officer of Health, G.C. M’gonigle, who wrote the first book which proved a relationship between poverty, malnutrition and ill health, “Poverty and Public Health”.

His party regarded him as a renegade and Lloyd George described him as “a born rebel”.

Harold said in later life that this was entirely due to his experiences on the Western Front which included being wounded three times, so severely in 1916 that he was invalided out and suffered the consequences for the rest of his life.

There are many other similar stories of the officer class being enlightened on the front.

The same influences changed the ordinary soldier pitch-forked from life in Civvy Street into battle. Many of them had never strayed far from home before and had been brought up to expect a deprived life during which they had to do as they were told by those in authority, their bosses.

Their stories are a little harder to uncover but when I was interviewing for the Lancashire Textile project I got good evidence of this change and one specific story.

Horace Thornton told me about an incident in Carleton in Craven. Some lads who had been in the war were having a slightly rowdy conversation outside the pub at turning out time and the young local bobby ordered them to “disperse in the name of the King!”

This didn’t go down well at all – “B****r the King!” One of the lads went home, got his service revolver which he had “liberated” on demob, came back and started shooting at the bobby’s feet! The upshot was the bobby retreated but the man got six months’ hard labour. However, the young bobby was taken away and a more experienced man sent to the village.

The moral I draw from this story is that these young men weren’t the same as when they went to war. They weren’t prepared to put up with what they endured before they went.

The same thing happened when they went back to work in their old jobs.

They had been radicalised by their experiences and were no longer “factory fodder”. This was one of the roots of the industrial troubles between the wars.