Till the Boys Come Home by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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The “War at Home” series has got better and better as it’s gone on.  This one – which includes a slight crossover with the much-missed Morland dynasty series – takes us up to the Armistice, making it clear to us as we go through 1918 that a German invasion was a very real possibility in the spring and that there seemed to be no end in sight even by late summer.  It was only in 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced, risking letting people go short of food apparently having been deemed preferable to interfering with market forces (too socialist!), and, with so many deaths, Russia pulling out of the war and the arrival of the first wave of the Spanish flu, things were looking pretty grim … and yet life went on, with moments of joy as well as sadness for most of the characters.

There are a lot more scenes actually at the Front than in the previous books.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers (in case anyone is actually reading my drivellings, and is also reading the books), but we get scenes with the Army, the Air Force, and with Laura Hunter driving an ambulance and running her hostel close to Ypres/Ieper.  However, it’s not a military book, and most of the action does still take place on the Home Front, with the Hunter family and their domestic staff.  We even get to attend a meeting with Lloyd George and Haig, at which the introduction of rationing is discussed.

The overall sense is of war weariness.  It’s not a gloomy book in any way, and it’s never less than entertaining, but the sense of war weariness is very well conveyed.  I quite understand about Liberal ideas of laissez-faire and all the rest of it, but it almost beggars belief that compulsory rationing wasn’t introduced until 1918.  Whilst food shortages here were obviously never as bad as they were in Russia, it’s incredibly impressive that people did put up with it.  We all know the jokes about the British forming orderly queues, but standing in orderly queues, knowing that there might be no food left by the time you got to the front of it, would have been no bloody joke.  And this was after more than three years of war, with no end in sight … and there can’t have been anyone, by early 1918, who hadn’t lost people who were important to them.  Even hearing of the death of someone you only vaguely knew, maybe even someone you didn’t like, must have been just beyond distressing.

The only people who don’t seem to be war weary are young lads, still hoping that the war isn’t going to end before they can get in on the action.  Meanwhile, men up to the age of 51 are being called up.

At home, it’s total war.  Most of the book’s set in the countryside, away from the air raids.  We don’t see anyone working in munitions factories.  The female domestic staff, and the older male domestic staff, are still in their old jobs.  Yet the sense of total war still comes across.  People look back at their lives before the war and feel that they were different people then.  That’s particularly so for the women of the better-off classes – to whom the war’s brought opportunities, as well as sorrow.  Unfortunately, some of the characters from the earlier books don’t really feature in this, so we don’t get to see how Audrey, the Hunters’ cousin, is going on in her managerial role in her father’s business, and we don’t get to see much of their cousins Jack and Beth either.  I suppose only so much could be fitted into one book, and it seemed better to concentrate on the core family and their servants.

There is a lot about the servants – but what there isn’t is any real sense of a change in the class system.  And we don’t really see the effect of the war on the working-classes: we hear about food shortages, and we’re told that the Spanish flu has killed many people in the poorer neighbourhoods, but we don’t actually see that, because the focus is on an upper-middle-class household.  That’s not a criticism, because the books are what they are and they do centre on this household, but it means that there are major aspects of the war at home which we don’t see.

On the other hand, the book shows aspects of the effect of the war which most Great War novels, or any war novels, don’t.  We get to see how a young man invalided out of the war at any early stage – David Hunter – copes with his injuries, and with his feelings of uselessness and helplessness.  We also get several romances involving older couples, which is unusual and rather nice.

A couple of minor points.  The Morland crossover is only that David is treated at the Southport Hospital, and we don’t actually get to see any of the Morlands again; but it was still nice to have that mention there.  And is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles a big Noel Streatfeild fan?  She talks about being “all over” things rather than “covered in” things, which is very Streatfeild, and Munt the gardener refers to elevenses as “beaver”!

I feel as I’m not saying very much, but I can’t say that much more without giving the game away.  Like the Morland dynasty books, nothing actually goes that deep.  The Kirov trilogy books, which IMHO are the best ones Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has ever written, go so much deeper!   Let’s say that there are births, and marriages, and deaths.  The book actually ends with a death.  It’s the death of a very minor character, but it says a lot that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles wanted to end that way, with a death at the Front on the very day of the Armistice, rather than with scenes of wild joy and rejoicing.  Yes, the war is over, but too many of the boys won’t be coming home.

I assume that this isn’t the end of the series, because a lot of loose ends have been left rather than tied up.  And I just keep thinking that the next one will inevitably involve the Spanish flu, and that that’s going to mean more deaths.  And I want to shout, no, please don’t kill off anyone else, I can’t take it.  That’s reading a book about fictional people.  How must it have been to have actually lived through that time?  Thankfully, we don’t know – but we can get quite a good sense of it, or at least of aspects of it, from these books.  At a time when the Great War is much in the news, they give you a lot to think about.

 

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WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

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This was horrible; but it said a lot about attitudes towards ordinary soldiers during the Great War, and also about attitudes in general towards mental health issues in men. It went into some detail about the story of a young man from Bolton who, having been found wandering about in an obvious state of severe trauma, was court martialled and shot at dawn.  Stories like that – and it was very sensitively presented by Dan Snow – aren’t unfamiliar, but they’re none the less distressing for that.

Jimmy Smith joined the Army in 1910, in his late teens. He was with the Lancashire Fusiliers during the famous “6 VCs before breakfast” assault on Gallipoli in 1915.  To mark the centenary of it, in 2015, there was an exhibition at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury: I went to see it.  Incredible bravery, but the extent of the fighting, the brutality of it, for 6 VCs to have been awarded for that one action, is almost beyond imagining.  And then, in 1916, he was at the Battle of the Somme.  He won a promotion, and good conduct awards: he was a brave soldier and a hero.  But then he was buried alive after a German artillery explosion.

He was rescued, and sent to a hospital back home in Bolton for treatment. As soon as he was deemed physically fit, he was ordered back to the front; but he wasn’t up to it.  He hid under the stairs at his family’s home and wouldn’t come out, but the Military Police came round and pretty much dragged him out.  Then he was transferred to the King’s Liverpool Regiment- the regiment with which my grandad enlisted during the Second World War – and sent to Ypres/Ieper.  He wasn’t well and he couldn’t cope, and he was disciplined for not obeying orders, and eventually he was found wandering about near the town of Poperinghe, a few miles away, court martialled, and sentenced to death.  They ordered his friends to shoot him.  The execution was botched, so that he was injured rather than killed: it seems likely that his friends did that on purpose, hoping he’d be taken to hospital.  No.  His best friend was forced to finish him off.

He was one of 306 men executed under similar circumstances. Pardons were issued in 2009, but that was hardly a lot of use to them, or to the grieving families and friends they left behind. shot at dawn?  I doubt it, somehow.

So what was going on? We know that mental health issues were not really understood at the time, and we also know that they were stigmatised.  People were shut away in asylums for years on end.  But shutting someone away in an asylum, however horrific, at least acknowledged that they were suffering from a medical condition, and that it was something that they couldn’t help and weren’t doing on purpose.  The attitude of the military authorities towards shell shock – and, yes, some people still hold this attitude today, with depression and anxiety related disorders – was that it was a weakness, and that was extrapolated to being a moral disorder, cowardice, a disgrace.

That talk of “good conduct awards” sounds like something out of a school story, and the whole attitude sounds, in some ways, like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was bad enough in a school situation, being applied to the horror and slaughter and … whatever words you use to describe the fighting in the Great War aren’t bad enough.  And yet, earlier in the war, attitudes had actually been more sympathetic.

From what the programme said, the symptoms associated with shell shock hadn’t been seen before. That seems strange, because there must always have been battlefield trauma, but maybe it was the technological advances that made the fighting in the Great War different to what had gone before that created different symptoms.  Or maybe it just got more attention because of the sheer numbers involved – around 250,000 men.  Doctors genuinely didn’t know what was going on, and at first thought that there had to be some sort of physical cause.

Eventually, in January 1916, psychiatric units were set up close to the front line. The idea was more to patch ’em up and send ’em back as quickly as possible, but I think that attitude, harsh as it seems, was understandable given the desperation of the situation.  At least it was acknowledged that people needed help.  The programme then explained that work was being done at home to try to improve psychiatric treatment.  One doctor, at the Maudsley Hospital in London, was trying to develop forms of pastoral care.  Another doctor, according to Dan, was a bit of a charlatan, claiming that he could cure people in an hour, and showing “before and after” film footage which clearly wasn’t what it claimed to be.

The second doctor having a local-sounding name, I decided to see what Google could tell me about him. He was actually born in Bradford, but he attended VIth form at the boys’ school which is the “brother school” to my old school.  Oh dear.  That was a bit awkward.  However, further investigation found out that he was a very highly-respected doctor, the founder of the British Society of Gastroenterology, and that many of his former psychiatric patients wrote to thank him for his help.  So I think Dan was a bit hard on him, really!   Anyway, there were two main points to this part of the programme, one being that treatment offered varied widely, and the other being that at least it was being acknowledged that these men were not cowards, or “deficient” in any way: they were ill.

Then attitudes hardened. It seems to have been largely a reaction to the number of shell shock cases.  There’s a scene in Blackadder Goes Forth (this wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but everyone was really into Blackadder in my teens, and I remember this scene well) in which Blackadder tries to get out of being sent “over the top” by pretending to be “mad”.  It doesn’t seem very funny now, because the authorities took the view that that was what was going on.  They seem to have viewed men suffering from shell shock along the lines of naughty boys trying to skive out of PE lessons.  What did I say about Tom Brown’s Schooldays?  A cap was put on the number of people allowed treatment, and 3,000 men were court martialled – of whom, as already mentioned, 306 were executed.  An inquiry held after the war said that shell shock was a “disgrace”.  The term was actually banned, and little help was given to men struggling to cope once the war was over.

The current take on the Great War is that we should be trying to move away from the idea of lions led by donkeys. But … bloody hell.  And what makes it worse is that attitudes actually had been getting better.  And then they got worse again.  It’s understandable that the authorities wanted people back in action as soon as possible, but the attitude, the callousness, when doctors had said that these men were not cowards, that they were ill.

How do you make sense of it? Desperate times call for desperate measures?  No – that doesn’t make sense.  If soldiers have got something wrong with them, you’d try to sort it.  It was the failure to accept that something was wrong, the insistence that it was cowardice, moral failure.  Part of me wants to say that it was some sort of male public school attitude, but I’ve heard plenty of people who are neither male nor the product of public schools sneer that people suffering from depression and anxiety are just looking for attention and need to pull themselves together.  And, as bad as it is for women, it’s worse for men, because of this whole “macho” thing, especially in a military environment.  So I don’t really know what to say – apart from a big thank you to Dan Snow for his very sensitive discussion of a very distressing subject, and one which many people don’t find it easy to talk about.

The programme didn’t end with the Great War. It went on to discuss the resurfacing of shell shock during the Second World War.  At the start of the Second World War, talk of shell shock was banned, and, despite everything that had happened during the First World War, the advice given was to slap “hysterical” men across the face or throw cold water over them.  Thankfully, that changed, and the number of psychiatrists attached to the Army was increased from 6 (6!  For the entire British Army!) to 300.  It was after the D-Day Landings that huge numbers of shell shock cases were seen.

That happened to my grandad: he had shell shock after the D-Day Landings and the fighting that followed. Dan spoke to a surviving veteran about his experiences, and to the son of Len Murray (the Secretary General of the TUC during the Winter of Discontent and the early Thatcher years) about his father’s experiences.  In both cases, the men’s lives had been permanently affected by what had happened to them, and neither had received much help.  I know Grandad did receive treatment, so maybe it was the luck of the draw, and it depended on whether or not you got a sympathetic doctor.  Certainly there wasn’t enough support, though.

The programme then went on to say that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was only officially diagnosed/recognised after the Vietnam War, and only recognised by the British military after the Falklands War. Excuse my medical ignorance, but I’d kind of thought that PTSD was an official name for shell shock.  Apparently not.  The symptoms aren’t the same: PTSD sufferers have flashbacks, which First and Second World War veterans suffering from shell shock didn’t.  Sir Simon Wessely, who’s done a lot of work in relation to PTSD (and also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), explained about it, and suggested that it might be a cultural thing connected to the frequent use of flashbacks in films about war.  I don’t pretend to understand how that would work, but it was certainly interesting to hear about.  Dan then spoke to a man who served in Afghanistan and, although the Army apparently knew that he was displaying symptoms of PTSD, was only officially diagnosed years later, by his GP.

It was pointed out that, whilst there’ve been improvements in psychiatric treatment for serving troops, the availability of treatment for those who are no longer in the Army is actually being reduced, to save money.  And, even when treatment’s given, it’s only really palliative.  A century after the Great War ended, we still don’t really know how to treat this.

None of this was easy to watch. Jimmy Smith’s story nearly had me in tears.  It had Dan Snow visibly distressed.  “The guy was a hero,” he said.  Yes.  He was.  And he was executed by his own side.  The programme was well-named.  “Shame” is the right word.

WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

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This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

The Flu That Killed 50 Million – BBC 2

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We all know that Manchester does things better than London, but, in this tragic case, it’s not really a reason to smile. When Spanish flu swept across the country in 1918, the medical authorities in Manchester took steps to try to stop it from spreading.  Whilst still affected, our city therefore suffered considerably less than other cities did.  Meanwhile, the idiots in Westminster did very little, for fear of affecting munitions production and causing a panic that would affect morale.  What, and letting a highly contagious pandemic rage unchecked didn’t cause any problems?!  228,000 people died in the UK alone.  Maybe that number would have been far less had something been done about it.  I expected this programme to make me feel sad.  It did, but it also made me feel angry.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. It could have killed as many as 100 million people: no-one really knows.  It’s thought that around 500 million people caught the flu – and, due to the interaction between the virus that caused it and the immune system, healthy young to middle-aged adults were the most likely to die.  It first seems to have broken out in Kansas, in late January 1918, with a second wave then beginning in Massachusetts (Wikipedia says, although the programme didn’t, that the second, even more severe, strain also appeared in Brittany and Sierra Leone at around the same time) in September 1918.  Nobody’s sure where the virus actually originated: there are various theories.  And it spread pretty much right across the world, even to remote areas.  Then it seems to have mutated into normal flu, and the pandemic ended fairly quickly.  But so many people had died, and so many survivors had lost loved ones.

Of course, this coincided with the final year of the Great War. People thought that, finally, it’s over, we’ve survived, we can try to get on with their lives – and then this happened.  Celebrations of the Armistice were breeding grounds for the flu, all those people in close proximity.  And one of the main reasons it spread so quickly was that so many people were on the move because of the war.

Many British (including, at that time, Irish) troops falling ill were brought home to be treated. Did it not occur to anyone just what a bad idea that was?  This was 1918, not 1348: people understood about infection.  Little was known about viruses at that time, so doctors and scientists weren’t able to isolate the cause of the flu and find anything to try to counter it – keeping people warm and giving them Bovril was mentioned, sadly not really much help – but how can it have been considered a good idea to move people around when they had a highly contagious disease?  Healthy troops coming home on leave also carried the virus with them.  A map showed how it spread from the Channel ports across the country.  As with most contagious diseases, densely-populated, overcrowded areas were hit worst.

On 29 September 2018, USS Leviathan, carrying 11,000 people, left New York for France. By the time she reached Brest, around 2,000 people were ill, with the deadly second strain of the flu, and 80 had died. Patients were carried on shore: there are reports of a convoy four miles long.  The programme was done partly as a docu-drama, and the representation of conditions on the ship was just horrific – talk about a plague ship.

Why was the ship allowed to dock? Why wasn’t it put into quarantine?  Why weren’t arrangements made to try to treat people on board?   I don’t know: maybe leaving healthy people on there would have been cruel – but couldn’t some sort of arrangements for isolation have been made?  Maybe it just wasn’t practical.  Or maybe they wanted to get the healthy soldiers off the ship and to the Front – that’s the one explanation that does make some sort of sense, I suppose.  Ships travelling all over the place carried the disease with them.

Going back to the first wave of infection, the flu reached Manchester in June 2018. James Niven, the local Medical Officer of Health, kept detailed records and statistics of the spread of the flu.  It was worse on the north side of the city, my side, more densely populated and more industrialised.  A graphic showed the flu moving from the city centre, where it’d arrived at the railway stations, into the outskirts and suburbs.  It was very strange and frightening seeing it moving across North Manchester, my home turf, right through the areas where most of the older people I knew as a kid would have been living in 1918.

Thanks to Dr Niven, steps were taken in Manchester to try to reduce the spread of the disease. Leaflets were distributed, posters put up, and a film called “Dr Wise” shown at cinemas, advising people how to reduce the risk of infection.  Schools, Sunday schools and some places of entertainment were closed.  OK, there were still many cases and many deaths locally. The programme followed the story of a young girl called Ada Berry.  Her entire family caught the flu.  She survived – and lived to be 99 – but her parents and brother both died.  Many others died too – to the extent that there was a backlog of funerals, because there weren’t enough coffins or enough gravediggers to keep up with the number of deaths.  But the pandemic was definitely much less severe here than it was in other cities.  Had even those steps been taken everywhere, things wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as they were.

But the powers that be in London – and, whilst public health matters were still dealt with at local level at the time, orders from the central government would have applied nationwide – decided that no steps should be taken to try to stop the flu spreading, on the grounds that suspending public transport, closing factories etc would have affected the war effort (and the spread of the flu didn’t??), and wouldn’t even go as far as Niven did, closing schools and places of entertainment, and even just advising people on what precautions might help them, because of concerns about the effect on morale. Apparently (although this wasn’t mentioned in the programme) the Cabinet didn’t even discuss it until Lloyd George himself caught it, in the September, and it wasn’t brought up in Parliament until the end of October.  There had actually been plans in place for dealing with an epidemic, but they weren’t brought into force.  I understand that difficult choices have to be made in wartime, but it’s hard not to think that the authorities got this one very badly wrong indeed.

And it wasn’t just the British authorities. The reason for the name “Spanish flu”, when the pandemic actually started in Kansas and affected many other countries before it reached Spain – killing, amongst others, King Alfonso XIII – was that the press in neutral Spain were able to report in detail on what was going on, whereas the press in combatant countries, on both sides, said very little.  And, when the second, and far more deadly, strain of the flu broke out, in an American army camp, a doctor who wanted to seal the camp off to stop the disease from spreading was shouted down by his superior.  The Australian authorities, by contrast, refused to allow any ships at all to dock in their country until the pandemic was over.  OK, it wasn’t really practical for every country in the world to try to seal itself off, but surely more could have been done.

Sadly Dr Niven’s story didn’t end happily. He did a huge amount to improve public health in Manchester: the death rate per 1,000 population almost halved during his term of office.  And he was recognised for his work, during his lifetime.  But he suffered from depression after he retired, and ended up taking his own life.  What a tragedy.

The Ministry of Health, now the Department of Health and Social Care was set up as a result of the pandemic. It was also mentioned that female doctors came to the fore whilst all this was going on.  We didn’t hear about the long-term effects of the pandemic in other countries, but there’s only so much you can say in an hour.  Quite a bit of that hour, especially at the end, was spent talking about what lessons can be learnt from the events of 1918, and what might happen if a similar virus took hold today.  Without wishing to sound complacent, I’m not quite sure what the point of that was, seeing as medical science today is so much more advanced as to make comparisons with 1918 rather inappropriate.  Having said which, as the programme – which seemed determined to scare the hell out of viewers, telling us that 200,000 people would be killed in the UK if a virus with a similar infection rate and similar fatality rate took hold – pointed out, new viruses do seem to appear from nowhere, and then mutate.

I could really have done without that bit. Those killed by the 1918 pandemic deserve to be remembered, without either scaremongering or trying to make their experience relevant to the present day.  Whilst it’s important to learn from the past, there’s no need to try to make everything about today – like that bizarre programme last year which tried to turn the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses into a discussion about the wretched European Union.  As we mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, let’s also spare some thoughts for those killed by the Spanish flu.

There’s a book called Song of Songs, by the late Beverley Hughesdon (also from North Manchester!), about a Great War nurse.  It’s not the best book ever – some of it’s very odd – but there’s a section in it in which the main character says that she feels as if vengeance thinks it’s been cheated by the end of the war, so it’s played its trump card – the flu pandemic.  That’s how it must have felt.  What a horrible, horrible time – and how frustrating to think that the government could have taken steps to ameliorate it, and chose not to do so.

Emmerdale 1918 – ITV 1, and Journey’s End

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Two very different looks at the Great War, one on TV and one a film adaptation of a play written in 1928.  I am a great believer in the power of soap operas to get messages across 🙂 , and I love the idea of exploring history via soap characters – maybe ITV and BBC could do more of this!   Personal history is increasingly popular, probably because the rise of the internet’s made it so much easier for people to become involved in genealogy, and the idea of this was to show how the war affected a number of individuals from Esholt, the Yorkshire village where Emmerdale used to be filmed, in a series of programmes presented by Emmerdale actors whose characters have similar jobs/positions.  Journey’s End, by contrast, was about fictional characters but took us right into the hell through which soldiers were living during the Spring Offensive of 1918, with almost all the action taking place in an officers’ dugout in one of the trenches.

It (Journey’s End) focussed on the mental hell as much as, maybe more than, the physical hell.  Although the action all took place towards the end of the war, we see at the beginning the attitude associated with the early months, a naïve young lad straight out of school desperate to get stuck into the action.  He was sent to the Front after only a few weeks of training.  Emmerdale 1918 showed us a video of some of the training: Charlotte Bellamy (Laurel Thomas) commented that it looked more like her legs, bums and tums class at the gym than something designed to prepare novice solders for war.

Our lad, Second Lieutentant Raleigh, was a public schoolboy with relatives in high places, and pulled strings to get himself assigned to a company captained by a family friend who’d been a few years above him at school, someone he’d always hero-worshipped and who’d got a bit of a thing going with his sister.  Only they weren’t at school any more, and the boy he knew at school was now aggressive, anxious, drinking too much, and convinced that his relationship with his friend’s sister would break her heart – either he’d die, or he’d go back to her a completely different man from the one she knew and loved.

We didn’t actually see the fighting, although we heard about the men who’d been killed: we saw how things played out in the dugout.  It wasn’t easy to watch: it was very intense and, because it was nearly all set in such a confined space, and over the course of over a few days, quite claustrophobic: it probably got the psychological hell across as well as any dramatisation could do.

The second episode of Emmerdale 1918 was also about a young lad with no military experience, going to the Front.  In this case, he was Joshua Booth, a working-class lad from a small Yorkshire village.  Of the 200 people living in the village, 50 went away to war.  That’s very hard to take in.  25% of your local community gone to war.  They don’t seem to have been in a Pals battalion, which at least was something.  In this case, we got the background: we saw the normality of this young man’s life at home, and we were read extracts from his letters to his sweetheart – who threw him over and married someone else.  You don’t expect that in a war programme, do you?  I know it sounds daft, but wartime romances are meant to end in either tragedy or joy, not in one partner dumping the other.  It was far less tense, far less intense, because it was indirect, and not so focussed on a small space and short period of time; and yet it had the intensity of being about just one person and, significantly, someone who really lived.

Different approaches, different backgrounds, and yet both stories ended the same way: neither young man survived.  Journey’s End didn’t tell us what happened to his comrades.  Emmerdale 1918 did tell us that the other 49 men from Esholt who went away to war all survived, which was incredible really … and yet some of them must have had life-changing injuries, physical or mental, and none of them could ever have been the same again.  Nor could anyone else who lived through that time.  The series is about the fact that it was a total war: we’re also getting land girls, chefs, vets … everyone’s lives turned upside down.

Do schools did get kids to compare The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum est?   It was a standard English Lit GCSE essay topic in my day.  Journey’s End was very Dulce et Decorum est: you just felt broken. Emmerdale 1918 inclined more towards The Soldier – not as sentimental, but concentrating on remembering the bravery, the heroism, the sacrifice.  More John Maxwell Edmonds – for our tomorrow, people like Joshua Booth gave their today.  So many lives lost, so many other lives irrevocably damaged.

It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost as far from the end of the Great War as the end of the Great War was from the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  25 years ago, people were starting to day that the idea of Remembrance would gradually die out, but it hasn’t.  It’s good that it hasn’t, but what a tragedy that, every year without fail, there are more and more war dead to be remembered.  And more and more people who’ve survived but suffered life-changing physical injuries and or horrific trauma.

Journey’s End is hard going, and certainly not enjoyable, but it’s worth watching.  As for Emmerdale 1918, I think this is a brilliant idea.  Soap stuff makes headlines!  We’ve seen that with so many crucial social issues. Can it now branch out into history?  OK, I think this series is a one-off, and I don’t think we’re about to see the cast of Coronation Street marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre or the cast of EastEnders showing us life in medieval London … but it would be great if we did.