The flower of an entire generation

P. R. C. Groves explains why, in his view, Britain in the early 1930s was possessed by a 'national defeatism', namely the idea that war was immoral and should be banned, and the nations disarmed:

The origins of the malady may be summarized as: the Voluntary System, the Somme and Passchendaele. The sacrifice of the flower of an entire generation -- largely owing to the ineptitude of the military mind, though the responsibility is at the moment immaterial -- implied the loss of a leavening virile influence in our national life. And this loss has vastly increased the influence of the feminists, the clericals, the doctrinaires and the dreamers, because it has decreased the normal healthy counterpoise to it. These well-intentioned idealists argue on a plane which has no relation to reality. Consequently their conclusions are false. The path which they advocate leads not to peace but to perdition. There is but one way to peace, and it lies through justice established and maintained by collective responsibility.1

So there are three parts to this. Firstly, the idea of a "lost generation", the premature deaths of Britain's best and brightest in the Great War. Secondly, the evil results of the loss of their manly influence: feminists and pacifists running riot. Thirdly, his rejection of this in favour of the (presumably virile!) solution of collective security (he endorses Lord Davies' New Commonwealth Society and the right wing of the League of Nations Union).

I tend to agree that it was because of the deaths of so many young men that the idea that war was inherently immoral became popular. But it seems to me (and I realise I'm going out on a limb here :) that this was more because of the fact of their deaths, and the perception that they were sacrificed to no useful purpose, rather than the supposed loss of a generation of masculine leaders. The sheer brute facts of the war, and the disillusionment with its results, were bound to influence what people thought about the use of force in international affairs.


  1. P. R. C. Groves, Behind the Smoke Screen (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 308. 

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10 thoughts on “The flower of an entire generation

  1. I can’t agree on the idea of useless sacrifice, Brett. In fact, it was pretty hard to say _publicly_ that the war had been futile at this point. Even those who argued against war had to validate the deaths of 1914-18: pacifism was justified precisely because they had died to end war forever. But you’re right to identify this as a subject that needs much more deconstruction and analysis. The massive loss of faith which the British ruling elite suffered in its people in the course of the 1930s seems such an influential factor in BRitish behaviour in the first year of the Second World War. The idea of the lost generation was very powerful – how ‘real’ it was is open to much more debate, although perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. British servicemen were much stronger and healthier in 1939 than they’d been twenty five years before. Lots of generals and civil servants – the management class of total war – had learnt what they were doing, or been made by the First World War.
    Given the suffering of the bereaved, and the perceived need to avoid causing them offence, I suppose it’s unsurprising that you don’t see a strong counter-myth produced against the ‘lost generation’ – ‘the found generation’?, or anybody saying that, given the massive level of participation, the odds are that a lot of thieves, rapists, conmen and crooks died in the trenches too.
    Half-formed thoughts, but nearly at the end of marking, so expect some more soon.

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Oh no, don’t tell me I’ve bought into the myth of futility! (I did actually look at the chapter on death in your book, but not the one on futility because my post wasn’t about that at that point in time …) Perhaps the sources I’ve been reading are more critical of the war than most (which would be interesting in itself) — after all, they are apostles of a new type of warfare which has rendered all that mucking about in the mud, well, futile: bombers will end the war before the armies have even had a chance to mobilise. Or maybe I am reading too much into what they have written about the war, criticisms are often made in very elliptical fashion and so one has to read between the lines in order to see what they are getting at, which is where I may be freighting in my own assumptions … but Groves, at least, is pretty blunt!

    With the invocation of the dead by pacifists, wasn’t it a conditional justification, rather than an argument that their sacrifice had actually ended war? “If they were not to have died in vain, then we must outlaw war/disarm/etc …” If so, could it be argued then that the idea of futility is still in implicit in this discourse? Potential futility rather than actual futility, of course, but at the stage when Groves was writing (at the end of 1933, Germany has just withdrawn from the Disarmament Conference and Hitler is victorious at the polls) it was starting to look like actual futility …

    I wonder if the writings of eugenicists might be a place to look for alternative views of the lost generation? I know there was much debate after the war as to whether war was eugenic (ie because the strong survived and the weak went to the wall) or dysgenic (eg because the best elements of the nation volunteered first). Those who argued it was eugenic were (presumably delicately) in effect saying that there was no lost generation, or perhaps rather that the benefits outweighed the losses.

  3. First, I think eugenics took a fall postwar in the UK in the general reaction against Edwardian attitudes that set in after about 1922. In a sense, that sort of social radicalism was taken over by Marxism, and concern for what was called “racial hygiene” prewar was replaced by the Marxist/Modernist project’s interest in sport and public health.

    More broadly I think it’s possible to see an important dividing line at about that point – the end of the Lloyd George coalition and the downturn of the postwar inflationary boom, and the retrenchment from intervention in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere. Call it the end of the postwar and the beginning of the interwar period – significantly, the post-WW1 event, the Beerhall Putsch, occurred in November 1923 just after the hyperinflation was stopped by the German currency reform. Hitler went to jail, everybody calmed down, and turned to social work. Two years later the UK went back on the gold standard..with bad results…

    Interestingly, it was also around that time that the Geddes Axe drastically reduced the RAF, to the point that there were two half-squadrons for the UK’s air defence.

  4. The argument about conditionality is interesting. I have no doubt that there were plenty who thought that the war had been futile – either nationally, or, much more immediately, personally. But at least in the first half of the inter-war period, if you said that in public, you’d quickly be criticised for the distress you’d cause to the bereaved (whether you were actually causing distress is another matter). For me, the way that pacifists mobilised the dead to justify their cause is as much about rhetoric and the publicly expressible as it is about futility.
    As Lloyd Clark (and following him, Brian Bond) have suggested, anti/pro-war aren’t really distinctions that make much sense when applied to the whole of 1920s/1930s Britain. I wonder, though, with relation to your topic, about the differences between pro-war and pro-defence? It was very hard for anybody to be really pro-war in the aftermath of the trenches, even if they might celebrate positive aspects of their experience. But being against war in general was different from being in favour of defending your home against attack.
    I’ve just been reading about the Territorial Army in the 1930s, and it’s noticeable that when the prospect of German air attack was perceived to have increased (and they finally got the guns), the TA AA units recruited very well. One battalion which I’ve been looking at were converted from infantry to searchlight troops in 1937-8: although initially they mourned their rifles, the fact that they were going to be defending their home area was a big mitigating factor.
    And we haven’t even started discussing military tattoos in the 1930s….

  5. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Alex:

    I think the effect of the Geddes Axe on the RAF can be exaggerated. According to James’ The Paladins, Geddes recommended that 8.5 squadrons be cut from the RAF’s total, but the air estimates for 1922-3 show that only 2 actually were. And also, the next year the Home Defence Air Force was announced, first at 23 squadrons, then 52 squadrons, so whatever effect Geddes had was very short-lived. (Of course, this programme was never fully carried out.) But I do agree that 1922-3 marks the end of the post-war period for a variety of reasons — though I wouldn’t say that the beer-hall putsch was the post-war event, internationally speaking anyway. Personally I’d give that distinction to the Ruhr occupation, ahead of the Chanak crisis.

    You’re right that there was a reaction against mainline eugenics, mainly on scientific grounds by people like J. B. S. Haldane and Julian Huxley. But that does not mean it died out immediately, particularly in the popular sense. There still would have been some people using the ideas of eugenics and talking about their implications, even if only in unsophisticated and naive ways. You only have to look at Chiozza Money for an example of that :) So I still think there might be evidence there for interesting reactions to the lost generation idea.

  6. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Dan:

    After reading Groves, I read a pacifist novel published in 1935 (Cornwallis-West’s The Woman who Stopped War) which does actually say in so many words that the war had been futile, and that the dead had been sacrificed for nothing. It even dramatises this with an argument between a war widow and a bereaved mother, where the former accuses the latter of morbidly glorying in her status! I’d love to know what the reaction (if any) to the novel was — if as you say this sort of thing was basically impossible to say earlier in the interwar period, did it still risk causing an argument in the mid-1930s?

    On pro-war vs pro-defence … I’ve mostly been reading works of the airpower school, the conventional view of which was that offence was the only effective defence. So pro-defence and pro-war were much the same thing. The more pacifist books tend to make the same equation, while rejecting the conclusion that Britain had to be prepared for an immediate counterattack when war began (that is, it should disarm instead or something along those lines). There are a few which do argue that fighter and AA defences can be effective, I suspect there may be more of these in the later 1930s, in parallel with the actual expansion of fighter and AA defences. It’s interesting what you say about the Territorial battalion, that’s the sort of evidence that doesn’t show up in my current sources.

  7. Brett: I don’t say impossible. I never say impossible – particularly given the wealth of FIrst World War related sources. But I do say difficult. And of course two problems are the very different ways audiences could read texts, and the self-selecting element. From memory, you could point to Will Thorne MP, for example, as a bereaved parent who argued in the 1920s that all war was useless, but who phrased his argument in political terms.
    I would argue that actually the breadth of wartime grief was comparatively restricted in Britain – so that by the 1930s, those who hadn’t lost an immediate family member had moved to a point where they wanted to respect the bereaved, but weren’t in mourning the whole time. So context was probably very important. Saying that 1914-18 (as opposed to all war) was futile might have been harder when the bereaved were more socially obvious, around November 11. It’d be worth re-reading Adrian Gregory’s wonderful _The Silence of Memory_ on this.
    Alex – if you mean they were grateful not to be PBI, then that might be true individually, but I’ve not really seen it. These men were a distinct sub-set in that they’d already chosen to be TA infantrymen, so had that identity already. What I’d love to do if I had time would be to look at the extent to which they had familial connections with the Regiment (the CO of 1/7th Middlesex for a good chunk of the war was the son of a Lt Col killed leading the 3rd Battalion in Flanders in 1917).

  8. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Sorry, you’re right, you didn’t say that … thanks for the Gregory reference!

  9. If you get on to the AA thing – and I realise that it’s a bit off your subject etc – you might try Peter Dennis’ The Territorial Army 1906-1940 (Woodbridge, RHS/Boydell Press, 1987): it’s got good chapters on the inter-war TA, the attitudes of soldiers, and rearmament.
    And I should have put an emoticon after the never saying impossible thing ;-)

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