This latest book by Mark Bostridge is a superb follow up to his book on Vera Brittain.It tells a fascinating tale of the England of 1914,an England that is not quite as idyllic as sometimes painted.
The book recounts events like the disappearance of the aviator Hamel over the Channel;he was said to be a German spy despite his British public education and connections with our Royal Family; the blazing argument between HG Wells and Bernard Shaw; the rash of strikes that broke out, in all over 1000; the suffragette movement; Irish Home Rule and the bombs that fell on a number of northern coastal towns.
In brief, he tells a story of life as it really was for the different social classes in 1914.
Thus we read of suffragettes armed with axes, school children coming out on strike in support of teachers. There are many excellent photographs, for example of a typical August Bank Holiday,and the Laundry staff in Acton, the laundry capital of West London. He describes the all too typical weather,and fashion. Mark describes the reaction to the outbreak of war, a war that had 'managed to creep up on the British people'. He has a splendid analysis of Larkin's famous poem 'MCMXIV',with its famous lines, 'Never such innocence....'.
It is an easy and engrossing read that destroys the familiar romantic image of an idyllic time on the eve of war. The myth of a lost Eden is finally laid to rest.
The author makes clear that his book ls not a 'formal history'.instead it aims to capturè the spirit and shape of 1914 before the country entered a world war.
on 12 March 2014
I was in two minds about this book as I read through. Its cherry picking approach, tackling specific episodes and themes in 1914 England to the exclusion of others, at times felt rather fragmented. But this tight focus on only particular topics has its own strengths, allowing more colourful period detail to come through than might be the case in a more sweeping study. By the end everything seemed to have slipped into place and the book felt much more than the sum of its parts. The advent of war halfway through perhaps helped by providing a natural focus.
I thought a great strength was how the author let the voices of individual people shine through, quoting extensively from letters and diaries up and down the social scale. You get a real feel for real people's opinions and uncertainties as the year unfolded.
Clearly written to tie in with the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, “The Fateful Year England 1914” reminds me as regards format of Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America 1927”. The “helicopter” approach may surprise you with all the events that were occurring simultaneously, although the author’s selection is inevitably somewhat arbitrary. Everyone is likely to learn something different from the book: in my case, about the “strike schools” where, influenced by the high level of industrial unrest, pupils protested against dogmatic and repressive school boards or about the slashing of “The Rokeby Venus” along with other works of art by militant suffragettes. The photographs of the period are also interesting.
On the other hand, I found the coverage too fragmented and superficial. The decision to devote an early chapter to a highly publicised murder of the day struck me as a rather crude and unnecessary hook (Bryson does the same), whereas the complex but less exciting topic of resistance to Irish Home Rule was so condensed as to be hard to follow. The chapter “Premonitions” is particularly bitty, in its “catch all” attempt to skate over evidence of increased anti-German feeling, fed by the press and Erskine Childers’ “The Riddle of the Sands”’, Hardy’s anti-war “Channel-Firing” poem, Holst’s composing of “Mars, The Bringer of War” and the aggression of the Vorticists. The seven chapters of Section 3 on the effects of the war in England are the most cohesive and fully developed, but out of kilter with the rest of the format.
“Never such innocence, Never before or since”
There are, of course a great pile of books coming out this year about 1914, and the Great War. This book offers a panoramic view of the year itself in England, following the doings of the year largely chronologically, and by doing so offering us one hundred years later the opportunity to try and see how life was for the people of 1914, and how and why and when it changed, and what it meant for them individually and as a people.
We, with hindsight may know the beginning and end dates of this war; how many people were killed, injured, displaced; how Europe and indeed the world changed for ever; how the way in which this war was fought changed the face of military actions – but the people living in England (and the rest of the world) in 1914 did not. The English started the year with reports of a young boy found dead on a train; with scandals over the behaviour of suffragettes; with tales of daring young men in their flying machines broaching the skies. Not until the outbreak of war in August did many even realise there was a situation in Europe that could potentially lead to this outcome. For many, I suspect, the reality of war didn’t really register until in December 1914 when German warships bombarded Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby – these East Coast raids killed 118 and wounded about 200. Spies, recruitment, disbelief, hoarding, ignorance, patriotism, cowardice – these became the new realities of the time.
I found this book most enlightening; the shift in English people from the beginning of the year to the end, where war was ‘real’ and people were dying; where the impact of the war was starting to hit home to every family in every part of the country; and where the idea of this being a short war which would be ‘over by Christmas’ had faded. Who knew how long such a war, so much more destructive and deadly than any previous, could drag on? The author has cleverly blended the use of issues relating to a person or group of people and then broadening it in each chapter to incorporate the viewpoint of England – the action of a suffragette becomes the issue of suffragettes together; the issue of a village having trouble with a teacher becomes a discussion about labour and trade unions. A most interesting book, and well written; I recommend this to anyone looking to get a better understanding of the social history of England in 1914 and the beginning of the Great War.
on 1 February 2014
An inspired idea this, to write a book reflecting what people actually had on heir minds month to month through 1914 - to try to strip away the distortions which arise from hindsight.
In this Bostridge succeeds admirably. In the early months of 1914 we hear a lot about friendly connections with Germany - the relationship between these two countries is perceived to be on a better footing than for some years. As we pass through June, the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne is barely mentioned. There is a lovely portrait of prime minister Asquith on 30 July, barely five days before Britain entered the war, preoccupied not with the European crisis but with the problems in Ireland. I was quite surprised just how short the period was, between the crisis hitting the news and war actually starting. The war must have felt as if it came from nowhere, out of the blue.
The first half of the book, which explores contrasting aspects of England, is outstanding. For example, the chapter on Shaw's Pygmalion was particularly enjoyable. Had the book continued in this vein I would have given it five stars without hesitation.
However, I felt the author loses his balance the moment war starts. At this point we suddenly shift gear, from an objective account to a subjective one. Bostridge is unable to see England as an outsider would have seen it, and he gets infected by the narrow jingoism and delusions of the time. This is a disappointment, for the whole point of the book is to achieve a fresh viewpoint. If only Bostridge could have captured the objective spirit of Peter Englund's excellent book about World War 1, 'The Beauty and the Sorrow'! But Englund is a Swede - perhaps it is too much to ask for a British author to be detached, even 100 years on.
Still, the final chapters do have brighter spots. In the chapter about German spies for example, Bostridge is sufficiently detached to be able to show how ridiculous much of the hysteria was.
Recommended, if only to demonstrate that nothing about the future can be taken for granted.
on 3 March 2014
There is much to be read about this terrible war and it's horrific cost in human lives. This excellent book deals with much more. These were difficult times when national politics was absorbed with women's suffrage and Irish problems. A picture is also painted of life in general, such as the opening of Shaw's Pygmalion in the West End. Everyone knew that for years Germany had been building up its military capability but there was a definite somnambulance, over a hot summer, as our nation suddenly found itself at war. A remarkable book, slightly long winded, at times, but well worth a read.
We are now in the 100th year anniversary of the Great War, and some excellent books have been published. Some look at the war in total, but some concentrates on parts of the war, usually divided by the year. Mark Bostridge has written a superb book about the first year of the war, "The Fateful Year: England 1914".
The year 1914 was noteworthy even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in late June. Britain was awash with suffragettes protesting for the vote-for-women. These women were not afraid to destroy public property - particularly in the nation's art galleries - or go to jail for their crimes. While there, they often starved themselves and the authorities force-fed these women. The "Irish Question" was a hot topic, both politically and militarily, and it seemed everybody had a "solution". The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, was in love with a young woman who was not his wife, Margot, and he spent hours a day pouring out his heart to her in letters. (If you'd like to read more about Asquith and his "in love with love", look for the book, "Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street", by Anne de Courcy.)
With war declared in early August, Bostridge looks at the military enlistments and how different events either spurred on enlistments or hindered them. Certainly being presented with a "White Feather" by a young woman who taunts a man she doesn't think is in the military was a tactless way of accusing that man of cowardice without knowing all the facts. Bostridge also writes about the "Pals Divisions"; the practice of encouraging enlistments by having men from a village or work place serve together. Men might end up serving with their friends and family members, but the effect on a town when so many are lost in battle is often stunning.
The reason Bostridge's book is so good is what he has chosen to cover. Rather than concentrating on the military and political events of the year, he includes societal events such as crimes, artistic and literary endeavours, and affairs of the heart, which combine to make a look at 1914 England so complete. Mark Bostridge is a lively writer, and the book is one of the best I've read on such an important subject. (Mark Bostridge is also the author of several books on the British author, Vera Brittain.)
This book is simply outstanding. It is the most fluently written account of an historical period since 'The Age of Wonder' by Richard Holmes. Mark Bostridge writes beautifully in a prose style that takes you on a fascinating journey - the pages fly past. I have read a number of very fine accounts of the Great War period over recent months and most of these have been excellent reads. But in terms of reader engagement this is the best. The author also brings the 'fateful year' of 1914 vividly alive through a series of stories which span different aspects of society and culture. Each chapter contains hidden gems with my favorite being the chapter about school children going on strike over the dismissal of their two teachers. You can almost feel, taste, smell, hear the period...great stuff by an outstanding author. This book deserves to pick up a prize or two. Highly recommended - and I make no apologies for the way I have enthused about the book.
on 26 February 2014
This is an excellent book that gives both a micro and macro look at the year 1914 in England. Bostridge masterfully charts the progress of this pivotal year which starts with activities of the militant suffragettes and troubles in Ireland as well as a domestic murder who done it and moves inextricably to the looming clouds of war and then shows how everything became focused on the war effort in those first months of the bloodiest war to end all wars. Bostridge gives several views of this year from different social and cultural perspectives. Excellent notes and references for further exploration. Highly recommend.
on 18 January 2014
An interesting account of the lead up to the outbreak of the great war. Very readable and shows the amount of research the author has done. The insight into the attitudes towards the war were interesting and showed that the outbreak of war was not universally lauded. A good book to read for anyone interested in the sociology rather than the military aspects of the war. There are several strands I will be interested to read more about.