Lord Kitchener’s Valet. Selling ideas to impressionable young men
4th August 2014
So, here it is at last, the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War (1914-18). I have been wondering how I should react to it. There is, to be sure, little to celebrate in the matter, though by the same token surely a good deal that we should remember also. In England, one of the most iconic images associated with the war and the drive to enlist young men into the armed forces was this one:
Lord Kitchener's recruitment poster from September 1914.
A good, stern, fatherly exhortation from Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. How could you possibly resist if you were a patriotic and impressionable young man faced with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914? This was, after all, the honour of the nation that was at stake. And yet a little over half a century later I remember a shop in London's Carnaby Street (also in Portobello Road) that I would frequent in many a hurried lunch hour and which went by the curious name of 'I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet.'
This was a trendy boutique where, amid the haze of smouldering joss sticks and - er - other substances, you could choose from a vast array of old tunics and antique military uniforms. That kind of thing was all the rage in Swinging London at the time. The war of 1914, and Lord Kitchener himself had become a symbol of old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy jingoism already.
I Was Lord Kitchen's Valet (though only during my lunch break).
Newspaper cutting of the time.
Fast forward to the present
So, what about the present era? Surely, at a distance of 100 years, we are even more remote from the event, not only in time but in understanding also. All we can do is reflect and think about the horrors people went through and what that means to us personally, today. For many, of course, it will mean nothing at all. Those faded posters urging men to enlist will continue to look slightly quaint and irrelevant and hardly worthy of a second glance - when in truth they were deadly serious and manipulative pieces of propaganda.
Jolly good show chaps. Come and join in the fun!
Off to fight
It was all made to look jolly good fun at the start, rather like popping off for a slightly extended cricket match overseas with all your chums. And because so many of the team mysteriously failed to return each time, there was, of course, always plenty of room for more to take their place on the field.
My Grandfather fought in that war. And conversations with him as a teenager gave me a chilling insight into the inhumanity that normal young men were forced to accept on a daily basis in order to 'serve' their country. It was tough - far tougher than most of us, fortunately, can possibly imagine. I shall mark the event by dusting off his medals, which are not on display normally. They are framed, and I will put them up in my office. I shall do this not from any overweening sense of pride, but because they represent bravery. And we should always be friends with bravery. And every nation needs its heroes at least once in a while.
Dubious benefits of the war
But the war itself … it was a catastrophe of epic proportions, and totally unnecessary. There were no benefits directly. Far from it. Claims made by some historians that the war resulted in great things - for helping to defeat the class system; for removing the monarchist structures in many of the European nations; of female engagement in the workplace and the votes for women that followed - these all seem valid enough at first glance. But are they? Monarchy or class structure has not been removed: it has simply been replaced by celebrity culture, big banks and corporate greed in those countries that got rid of their royalty. (In Germany and Russia between the wars it was replaced with something far worse).
And votes for women ... well, that would have probably come along as a matter of course, anyway. It was a process of social evolution that was already in play, and did not require the slaughter of millions of men to achieve it.
Women at work during World War I. ('If they don't give us the ruddy vote after all this, there'll be hell to pay!')
Business as usual
The years 1914-18 saw warfare on an industrialised scale. And it no doubt made a few people very rich. War became big business. Thereafter fighting in an overseas conflict would be perceived almost as a 'normal' occupation for any powerful nation to engage in. The First World War also saw the beginnings of propaganda blended with a new kind of psychological manipulation, exploiting the discoveries of Freud and others. And the posters urging men to enlist clearly demonstrate the cynical 'sexualisation' of patriotism that took place at the time.
Only Real Men need apply.
Not only that, but the conflict even appears to have inspired thoughts towards transgenderism!
A US poster from around the time.
Food for thought indeed - because if there were actually real women out there who wished they could go to war, where did that leave you if you were a man who did not?
War and the white-feather brigade
But women were not entirely sidelined. Apart from working their socks off in the fields and workplaces while the men were away, they were also enlisted in the recruitment drive themselves. Whole bands of preferably attractive young women would go the rounds handing out white feathers to any man of fighting age they encountered not in uniform.
The white feather was a traditional symbol of cowardice recognised within the British Army. A widespread campaign to award it to pacifists was sanctioned by the government. Those who refused to fight on grounds of religion or personal principle - Conscientious Objectors - were humiliated in the courtroom and thrown into gaol, while deserters on the front, possibly mentally deranged and confused by the noise and carnage all around them 24/7, were shot as traitors.
Illustration from short story 'The White Feather' by Arnold Bennett.
I wonder how many of the white-feather ladies had any first-hand experience of nursing returning soldiers from the front with all their horrific wounds? Their blindness and mental exhaustion? To their credit, many women chose to engage in the caring and medical sectors instead.
The country under threat
So, to be a man you had to fight. To save your country and preserve your way of life you had to fight. Which brings me to a poster with an image close to my heart - the good old English countryside.
Yes chaps, all this really could disappear overnight if the Germans win.
There are, no doubt, convincing counter-arguments to pacifism - periods of history when it is right to fight. But as Sir Winston Churchill (never a man to turn away from a conflict, after all) once declared as a preference – ‘to Jaw, jaw, not to War War!’ Just talk, negotiate – anything! And the notion conveyed in the summer of 1914 that one could best protect the very fabric and appearance of the rolling fields and thatched cottages of the English countryside by slaughtering thousands of young Germans (whose countryside, by the way, looked remarkably similar) should by today’s standards at least appear somewhat disingenuous.
What's wrong with you?
A sense of loss
The whole thing leaves me with feelings of sorrow and loss. Not only for all the lives wasted, not only for all the suffering of those who grieved for them, but also for the passing of so much that was so very good in the world at the time.
Yes, it's easy to be sentimental about the past. The era of the Belle Époque that flourished before the war wasn’t perfect. A lot of people were poor and hungry. But the devastation left by the war marked the beginning of cynical modernism and the demise of Victorian and Edwardian culture.
Elegance, sophistication of manners, faith, architecture, music, fashion and the arts were all dealt a fatal blow, a slow decline from which none of it has ever quite recovered - and through four long years of mayhem, the voice of reason could not be heard above the thunder of the guns ... until it was far too late.
Arguably (and I do know it is 'arguably') those decades prior to the war were probably about the best we ever got. And we quite literally blew it.