To you, the reader, I pitch the question: when you think of the British Army in the First World War, what comes to mind? I wouldn’t be surprised if the word conscription is one of the many words that will come to mind, alongside the far more colourful language surrounding the war. Indeed, the concept of conscription comes as an affront to the liberal democratic values espoused by British political thought comfortably in place by the end of the First World War and most certainly in the present day. When one thinks of conscription in the conceptual sense, it is seen as an infringement upon your freedom by being forced into a situation of service that will put your life in danger, with no say on your own behalf.
The very notion of reintroducing a form of conscription in the present day is received as bitterly, if not more so than it was by the peacetime British population between 1900-1914. However, just across the way in France & Germany, the concept of conscription was firmly woven into their national identity. I will, however, be focusing primarily on contrasting peacetime British perception of its Army with that of Germany during the same time period. This is due chiefly to my own long-standing intrigue with understanding the origin and the truth behind the post-war perceptions we still hold to a degree to this day regarding the German people as a militaristic and aggressive nation.
After all Germany as the state as we recognize it today did not come about until the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. A young nation despite its peoples long and varied history, but nevertheless forged together under Bismarck’s guile in the crucible of war. It is here where we can see why socially, the Army was far more prominent in German public perception as not only was it the organ that enabled Germany to assert itself as a unified state and something most of the German population would subsequently take pride in. Yet for most of the same span of time the Army in Britain faced far more scrutiny than admiration, such a concept reserved for the Royal Navy above all others (seeing the great pride a majority of British people felt in regard to the empire at the time). I feel it is important to recognise the importance imperial authority held in the social standing of European States during the beginning of the 20th Century. And indeed the prominence placed upon the Navies’ roles in upholding such an empire, only further encouraged by the writings of Alfred Mahan.
In order to achieve a suitable answer to the question of the British domestic perception of the Army, I shall split the remainder of this piece into 2 core themes: The impact of legislation and the influence of the social framework. Ideally, I had intended all sections to draw heavily from primary and archival data, however, the influence of Covid-19 on travel has severely limited what primary content I may take from. Therefore, many of my points shall be drawn from or take quotes from secondary sources. With that said, let us get into it with a nice quote from the Duke of Wellington to close off out first forays into the topic of conscription:
“The French system of conscription brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the earth — the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterwards.”The Duke of Wellington, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington (1886) by Philip Henry Stanhope
The Impact of Legislation:
The start of the twentieth century would herald a political shift decade’s in the making that Monarchist and conservative elements alike could no longer keep at bay via appeasements. In 1900, the Labour party would be formed in Britain, who in less than a quarter of a century would exile the Liberal party and its following forms to the third rung in British politics. In Germany, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) had been in operation under previous names since 1863, facing considerable attempts at suppression. However, with the industrial rise in Germany following unification, German industry and productivity in the third wave of the industrial revolution made Germany a true powerhouse. It is no wonder then, that the labourers of both the world’s first industrial power and its newest, were growing louder and boulder in their calls for representation in a system that had long neglected their voice in favour of the middle and upper classes. It was these same middle classes, not the rank and file man who’d be drawn from the working class, that would encourage and endorse the expansionist and imperialist designs that would up their own profit margins. It was these same voices that would hold the most sway and say over the direction of military-oriented legislation in both nations during the 1900-1914 period.
During this period, it is true that in both Britain and Germany the most grandiose of spending was lavished out on their Navies. For Britain, it was because its Navy was responsible for maintaining British international hegemony and was a point of longstanding national pride still riding off of the Napoleonic glory that had put it on top globally. In Germany, between the promise of an Empire and the Kaisers personal infatuation with the concepts of naval power, it was to become their newfound industrial and military pet project.
In Germany four Naval laws were passed between 1900-1912, each one further increasing the size of the German surface fleet. Yet, by the third of these laws passing in 1909, there were considerable worries from the then German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow that Germany could not financially support both the largest army in Europe and the second-largest Navy. These spending laws triggered what is comparable to an allergic reaction in Britain, but unlike in Germany, the response came from the bottom up, with public and opposition party outcry calling for out for the government to act and increase naval spending after the German naval law of 1909. Until this point, British naval spending had seen a steep decrease since the large expenditure in 1900 but began to rise steadily under the guide of First Sea Lord John Fisher and his reforms to counteract this German expansion and modernise the British Navy.
Now, why such a long tangent about the navy I’m sure your wondering, in a piece supposedly focused on the Army? Well, this is because understanding the level of attention both nations were giving over to their navies in this time period, is crucial in then understanding what trickled attention both armies would receive from their own military hierarchy and legislature, which would be sparing at best as by the end of the Second Boer War the British and German armies doctrines were very much the same as they have been since the later-half of the nineteenth century. The Germans were well drilled and had dedicated much thought over to grand military strategy concerning their Armies mobilisation and organisation, and Britain had long since settled into maintaining a small but professional expeditionary army in tandem with its territorial forces. This isn’t to say there weren’t changes that occurred between the start of the century and the First World War in both armies, but in my opinion, these changes stemmed far more from internal decision making rather than governmentally driven legislation.
“Even if Germany ever had any idea of challenging our supremacy at sea, the exigencies of the military situation must necessarily put it completely out of her head. Under these circumstances it seems to me that we can afford just quietly to maintain the superiority we possess at present, without making feverish efforts to increase it any further. The Navy is now, according to all impartial testimony, at the height of its efficiency. If we maintain that standard no one can complain, but if we went on spending and swelling its strength, we should wantonly provoke other nations.”
Interview with the Daily Chronicle (1 January 1914), quoted in Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George His Life and Times (1954), p. 254
Class has long defined European social dynamics, and it has been the Army that had (though over a strained period of time) acted as a bridge towards uniting people from all backgrounds in common creed and purpose to put aside their differences and to protect the interests of the nation. Whilst as we with the benefit of hindsight and an ever greater social conscious can see that defending one’s nations interests was not as heroic or glorious as recruiting officers had long since peddled to the idle listener, but it is precisely because of these tale spinning that soldiers continued to sign up in a world where warfare was ever-increasing in scale and brutality, courtesy of then-modern efficiency.
In Britain, “the typical Regular Army recruit before 1914 was a young, unskilled and poorly educated urban labourer.” It was these same men who would have no say in the system they would help to protect. Being a volunteer based system there were no governmental obligations to ensure the wellbeing of the general male population as a military resource, like that undertaken in Germany on account of conscription’s influence on military planning for those who aren’t even in service. The issue of the population’s health was ever more frequently addressed directly by the German state and seen as a governmental concern. Mandatory medical examinations, mandatory vaccinations and countless provisions, the regulations placed upon public hygiene and workplace conditions were “added to the hitherto known method of maintaining a healthy population: individual medicine” (As said by
To those poor souls who would see the horrors of war and bare physical and mental scars (many of which including what would become known as shell shocked, weren’t even acknowledged), the reforms put in place by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean was in the 1850s helped to properly begin and promote better domestic attitudes and care faculties for the war wounded. Yet, in both nations, those not born into money usual ended up at best unemployed and at worst homeless and starving. It is tragic to think that for the most part, we still didn’t treat those soldiers better irrespective of their wealth but equally as soldiers.
For those born into wealth, however, in both Britain and Germany, those who joined up would not only have a considerable safety net in the result of debilitating wounds. Yet these men usual came from prominent military families as a hangover from the day’s officers were overwhelming men who had bought their commissions rather than earn them. Or at least, that’s the truth both British and German military families wanted their nations common men to believe and in turn promote internally themselves. It wouldn’t be till the end of the Second World War before the aristocratic tendrils infesting upper military leadership would finally relinquish themselves to the now majority meritocratic system for officer appointments that has taken well over 5 generations and two world war’s to accomplish.
Yet, whilst Britain certainly suffered its woes it was and is still not a nation that praises above all else the soldiery as if they were above the average man. But the Prussian military traditions that would come to dominate a united Germany would reinforce and promote this image of truly elevating your social standing amongst the German people. It would be these elite military families who like business managers and aristocrats feared the loss of their uniquely cultivated standing of privilege in society to the ever-increasing rise of pacifistic ideals in German society. Whilst I may not be able to verify it, it doesn’t seem a far stretch to suggest that their fear might have drawn inspiration from the loss of the Samurai’s social standing in Japan in 1868. This comparison I feel is a fair one, as whilst accomplished by other more peaceful means, the German military establishment artificially manipulated the lobbyist scene in order to preserve their unique position in society. Does the UK have a comparison to this? I cannot definitely say as my research failed to produce any results that would indicate a comparable and identifiable interjection by the British military establishment into any lobbying attempts at the government or to manipulate the electorate.
For that was the truly misguided guile of the German military elites lobbying ploy, to disguise an aristocratic scheme as if it were coming from the bottom up. Undoubtedly such a scheme is one that may have been concocted in that ever devious mind of Bismarck, sharing distinct similarity to the strategy used to lull France into war in 1870.
“The social insecurity of the worker is the real cause of their being a peril to the state.”Otto von Bismarck
The Patriotic Societies:
One of the most fascinating revelations I made in my investigation was the discovery of the German Army league, the militaristic society created to champion the army and its prominence of which I had previously eluded to. It was the most junior of the German patriotic societies that sprung up after unification and before the First World War these were;
- The Colonial Society (Est 1882, confirmed 1887)
- The Pan-German League (Est 1891)
- The Society for Eastern Marches (Est 1894)
- The Navy League (Est 1898)
- The Imperial League against Social Democracy (Est 1904)
- The Army League (Est 1912)
By the beginning of the First World War, these societies had a combined membership of 700,000! Even by today’s standards, many actual political parties would be hard-pressed to say they have such a strength of direct membership, as opposed to affiliations or supporters. Therefore, imagine the scale of the influence able to be projected by these societies in championing their beliefs to government and nation.
According to the work of Historian Geoff Eley discussed by Marilyn Shevin Coetzee’s in her work on the German Army League, there were 2 distinct camps in each of these societies;
- The ‘old’ or alternatively ‘moderate’ members were those who came from “established social prestige” achieved by their forebears, which I would additionally interpret in the context of Prussian social structure to be primarily be composed of Aristocratic or upper-class families.
- The ‘new’ members were outsiders and ones set out to make a reputation or career for themselves, yet were more often than not (due to the nature of these patriotic society’s) hail from the middle-classes or families.
These societies, whilst I was only able to scratch the surface of their importance, do maintain relevance in
“The radical nationalists were composed not of the casualties of Germany’s over-rapid but distorted modernisation, but precisely those who by family, education and general cultural background were most comfortably integrated into Wilhelmine society”
Elay, Geoff. Quoted by Coetzee, Marilyn. The German Army League: Popular Nationalism in Wilhelmine Germany. Oxford University Press, 1990
So, just how prominent was the British Army in domestic society in comparison to Germany? Let us review the key findings we’ve made during the course of this piece;
- Conscription into the Imperial German Army served as a uniting element of German society, whilst Britain’s Volunteer only and regimental system encouraged a division in society between the soldiery and the common citizenry
- Officers in both nations, despite both having officially adopted the practice of meritocracy, were still primarily populated with men from the upper and upper-middle classes
- Both nations were focused more on an action-reaction relationship with their navies, which did, in turn, become a domestic and foreign focal point
- That despite the improvements being made in social security, including that of soldiers, there was still much work to be done in adequately recognising those veterans who would return from war in Britain during the period
- The middle and upper classes in both nations were highly resistant to anti-imperial and pacifist sentiments becoming popularized and thus resorted to encouraging nationalism and fear to protect their positions in society
Thus overall, we must conclude that it would not be until the mass recruitment days and the trench warfare of the First World War that the Army, not the Navy, would gain a sense of the same prominence that the German Army had seen during the pre-war years.
Books and Journals:
Coetzee, Marilyn. The German Army League: Popular Nationalism in Wilhelmine Germany. Oxford University Press, 1990. Jstor.
Dorr, Nikolas, et al. “The Military Origins of Labor Protection Legislation in Imperial Germany.” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, vol. 45, no. 2, 2020, pp. 27-67. Jstor, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26897900.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ae827e29ff7da480742ddbfd74cb18945.
French, David. Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Goerlitz, Walter, et al. History Of The German General Staff, 1657-1945. Kessinger Publishing, 1956.
Hoyer, Katja. Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918. History Press Limited, 2021.
Padfield, Peter. The Great Naval Race: Anglo-German naval rivalry 1900-1914. Independently published, 2021.
Pfaffenzeller, Stephan. “Conscription and Democracy: The Mythology of Civil—Military Relations.” Armed Forces & Society 36.3 (2010): 481-504.Seligmann, Matthew S., and Frank Naegler. The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race 1895-1914. Routledge, 2016.
“Military expenditure by country (in thousands of 1900 UK pounds), 1830 to 1913” Our World In Data, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/military-expenditure-by-country-in-thousands-of-1900-uk-pounds , Accessed 20th December 2021
“Naval Race Between Britain & Germany Before WW1.” Imperial War Museums, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-naval-race-between-britain-and-germany-before-the-first-world-war. Accessed 1 January 2022.