By Debbie Marshall
Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore and Elizabeth Montizambert provided their readers with an insightful, moving, funny and compelling body of observations on the devastating First World War.
LONDON, England, August 1914. A crowd gathered in the shadow of the giant sculpted lions of Trafalgar Square to watch an anti-war demonstration led by labour activist and member of Parliament Keir Hardie. Mary MacLeod Moore was in the crowd, struggling to see above the sea of caps and wide-brimmed ladies’ hats. Despite the humid weather, the elderly Hardie strode across the platform, his white moustache and beard bristling. He begged the crowd to prevent England from going to war with Germany. “Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!” he shouted.
To Mary, it was almost incomprehensible that the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, only a footnote in most newspapers a month ago, had led England to this point. Yet the facts were clear. The murder of the Austrian Archduke had started a chain reaction that had led Germany to declare war on Serbia, France, and Russia. Some years before, Britain — concerned about the growth of the German empire — had made a complicated set of treaties, including a promise to protect Belgium’s neutrality. Now German troops were in Belgium, en route to France. Britain demanded that Germany withdraw from the tiny country. Germany refused to respond. All eyes were now on Parliament. Would the government lead the country into war?
Keir Hardie was adamant that it should not. He believed that the impact of a European conflict would fall hardest on the poorest of the poor. The illegitimate son of a servant from Lanarkshire, Hardie had helped support his family when he was only eight years old, working as a delivery boy. He never attended school, but was taught to read by his mother. By seventeen, he was working twelve-hour days in the mines. Later, he established a union at the colliery and in 1880 led the first strike of Lanarkshire miners. Dismissed after the strike, Hardie became a journalist and fought for miners’ rights. In 1892, he was elected to Parliament as the country’s first socialist MP. The saint of unpopular causes, he promoted self-rule in India and women’s and workers’ rights.
Mary MacLeod Moore agreed with Hardie’s support for women’s suffrage and his compassion for the poor. However, as a soldier’s daughter and avid imperialist, she parted ways with pacifists. “All parties have forgotten their differences, if one accepts the Socialists of the Labour party who are ready to beg for peace with dishonour rather than war,” she would later write. “They speak with the only alien voice, and fortunately, the unity existing in the House of Commons makes their illogical and un-patriotic demands of none effect.” (August 22, 1914) As far as Mary was concerned, Hardie was a traitor and “had no business to be an M.P.” (December 12, 1914)
Most of the crowd at Trafalgar Square shared her distrust of the labour leader. “[E]ven those in the gathering who were opposed to the speakers gave them fair play and listened to their speeches until patience could stand no more, when there was a counter-demonstration,” she observed (MacLeod Moore August 22, 1914). As punches flew, the police moved in. At that moment, a thunderstorm broke. The rain bucketed down, dispersing the crowd and leaving the pro- and anti-war forces to fight another time.
The next day was a bank holiday, that strange British tradition in which banks are closed and a public holiday declared. Bank holidays usually provided working-class people with a rare opportunity to relax with their families — but not this time. “As a rule, the people are merry-making. On Monday they walked the streets in quiet anxiety. Outside the House of Commons where Sir Edward Grey was making his wonderful speech, the crowd gathered and peered through the iron railings watching with painful interest as the Members and the journalists and District Messengers came and went through Palace Yard. When [Prime Minister] Asquith drove through the gates at six o’clock there was a rush to cheer him,” wrote Mary. “It was a glorious day of sunshine and warmth, and it was strange to see the people who are usually away enjoying the country or the sea, strolling up and down, reading the ‘extras,’ as they appeared, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for news of what was to happen next.” Crowds had also gathered outside the German embassy, where only a few weeks before, the King and Queen of England had been guests of honour. Now the embassy was empty, the ambassador and his wife recalled to Germany.
At midnight, the waiting was over. The British government announced that it had declared war on Germany. Mary’s friend, the poet Alfred Noyes, described the strange, pervasive calm with which the news was received, not “in a riot of flags and bands,” but “in silence with a mustering of men” (MacLeod Moore August 29, 1914). The silence didn’t last long — by evening, crowds of men and women were gathered on street corners, singing patriotic songs and waving flags as if cheering on invisible troops.
“In all the rush and clamor of this crowded week, the terrible tension, and the dark shadow of coming mourning and privation, two facts stand out, so clearly and brilliantly that they should illumine the pages of the history that is to be written,” wrote Mary. “They are the magnificent unity of the whole British race in the face of adversity, and the calm and freedom from hysteria of people and Press alike.” (August 29, 1914)
Unfortunately, the “calm and freedom from hysteria” Mary described was more bravado than bravery. Few Britons had ever directly experienced war. The only conflict in recent memory had been the Boer War, which had been fought successfully by a force of approximately four hundred and fifty thousand (of whom twenty-two thousand died, mostly of disease). Many still remembered the triumphal parades and celebrations that accompanied the relief of Mafeking, a minor battle but one that had instilled national confidence in British military superiority. Britain was destined for victory, at least according to the tens of thousands of young men who were already overwhelming recruiting stations across the country. They would quickly teach the Germans a lesson and be home for Christmas.
According to Dick Barron, an early recruit: “We were all patriotic in those days. I mean, most of the colonial wars had been very successful, a third of the whole landmass of the earth belonged to the British Empire. We knew nothing about wars of course, not the sordid side. I’d seen pictures of the Zulu War where we just captured them — after all they were natives and they were fighting with spears. We didn’t see the poor buggers that were wounded and lying there, or bodies stripped of anything worthwhile. No, soldiers were glamorous.” (van Emden and Humphries 1998)
Mary echoed Dick Barron’s early sentiments. As she would write to her friend Calvin, “My brother is in the Army, the last of 260 years of soldiers, of which we are proud, and his sister would like to go too if they took women!” (MacLeod Moore 1916). A combination of war fever and intense patriotism gripped Mary. It would take a long time before she would see the war as anything less than a heroic venture in which British knights in khaki were fighting valiantly for King and Empire.
PARIS, France, August 1914. To Elizabeth, the three days following Germany’s declaration of war against France had completely transformed Paris. “Events have moved so rapidly that it is difficult to realize that this time last week the autobuses were still running, the boulevards were still blazing with electric lights every evening, while the cafes were black with people eagerly discussing the news of the war declared by Austria against Serbia,” she wrote.