It happened 100 years ago on Monday. My father, FootSoldierSam, was 16, working as a junior office boy for a mining company's head office in the City of London, living at home in Edmonton, north London, with his parents, older sister Ciss, baby sister Edie, younger brother Alf and, his hero, older brother Ted (a nickname; his real name was Philip, and my father gave him the alias of "George"during the first part of this memoir, while trying out the third-person approach he shortly abandoned in favour of straight autobiography).
Finally getting my father's book out now and running this blog more or less in synch with WW1, as I intend, I'm aware of not giving readers here much background, so here are a few snippets. The family had "come down in the world". In Manchester, where Dad was born in 1898, my grandfather, Charles, and his brothers had owned a tile factory. But they proved to be the generation who ruined it, partly because Charles was too gentle and, maybe, weak to arrest the profligacy of his siblings. Plunged from considerable wealth to penury they moved to London and, in Edmonton, struggled to survive.
My father's most vivid memory of childhood hunger went like this (my father writing of himself third-person as "Tommy" still): "[Tommy] saw a lad younger than himself sitting on the ground tearing up paper and eating bits of it, he asked him, 'Why are you eating paper?' 'Because I’m hungry,' said the boy. Our lad thought, 'Perhaps it would help if I could do the same'. He tore up some paper and chewed it, but, oh, it tasted horrible."
That's why the Boy Scouts and the choir were such a relief to him – fellowship, a certain material uniformity, free food quite often! Well, that's a glimpse of his life back in the early years of the 20th century. However, by 1914 father Charles, Ted and Sam/Tommy all had jobs, and a little security and modest comfort came into their lives – except that with every passing month war talk grew more pervasive until the Archduke's assassination provoked the domino-tumble of declarations*.
This is how it felt in those final weeks and days, a hundred years ago:
"Battalions of marching soldiers became a common sight in the City – largely civilian volunteers given time off from their places of employment to undergo extra training in case they should be mobilised to replace regular soldiers who might be sent overseas. Most of them had already received considerable training at their Territorial establishments and in camps where regular-Army instructors supervised their activities.
The frequent conflicts in that region, then described as the Balkans, had been of merely passing interest to the British people, but this war, now looming, affected all, rich and poor. Fears and anticipations coloured all their thinking.
In particular, hope burgeoned among many small businessmen. War creates shortages and speculation can yield enormous profits. But among employed people too flourished a fine flush of patriotic fervour. For instance, a common boast — notably among older men quite sure they would not be called up — claimed that one trained British soldier was worth any five foreigners.
Without thinking too deeply, one could become part of this emotion and go about one’s daily activities lightened and illumined by a self-righteous glow. Probably the nation had smarted under the German threat hanging over their heads for some years. Tommy and his like caught the infection. To the enthusiastic, people who behaved and talked rationally or, at least, just as they had always done, seemed selfish, perhaps even scared.
This national surge flowed through the millions of men who were more emotional than thoughtful. They pulsated, they were invigorated, and sustained. For many, this overexcitement would later be replaced by grim determination, perhaps directed towards helping one’s country while trying to preserve one’s life – or towards making money out of it and having a good time wherever possible. But Tommy’s generation was experiencing the last of the great patriotic upsurges in this country. Wonderful while it lasted.
* Via a concatenation of treaties and other considerations, between June 28 and August 25, nations declared war on one another like this (not claiming this list is comprehensive): Austria-Hungary on Serbia, Russia on Austria-Hungary, Germany on Russia and Serbia, France on “The Central Powers” (Germany and the Ottoman Empire), Germany on France, Germany on Belgium, Great Britain on Germany (August 4 – because the Treaty Of London, 1839, between Great Britain and Prussia, later confirmed by the German Empire, guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality), Austria-Hungary on Russia, Japan on Germany, Japan on Austria-Hungary.