Book Review – ‘Staring at God – Britain in the Great War’

A few years ago I was very fortunate to undertake an unplanned tour of the Ypres battlefields from the 1914-1918 Great War. My wife and I were enjoying a short holiday in Brugge and decided to spend a day on a guided tour (because the weather was so brutally cold – it was mid-December – we had exhausted all the indoor museums and the only option left was outdoors. At least on a tour we could be inside a warm vehicle!).

Two memories remain from that tour. The first was finding without planning, thanks to our luck of having a first class military historian as our guide, the area where my Grandfather was taken prisoner in 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk (he then spent the period 1940 to 1945 in various German Prisoner of War camps). The second was, despite my own natural curiosity in the war from my background as a military officer, a new fascination with the Great War of 1914-1918.


I have read many books since on the military aspects of the war, so to find a book which focuses on what could be described the ‘home front’ has been a thoroughly unexpected education. ‘Staring at God – Britain in the Great War’, by Simon Heffer, is his third volume of the period 1838-1939, and covers 1914-1919. There are 12 sections in the book, logically following the sequence of the period, overlapping chronologically where necessary to maintain the dialogue. We travel from Build-Up, War, through to a Coalition, then consider Conscription, the Political Coup of 1916, Attrition (Somme and Passchendaele), and end with the Armistice and then the Aftermath.

Within these sections Heffer skilfully, and without emotion or bias, stays within UK homes, Parliament, factories, coal mines, munition factories, and spends considerable time discussing the Irish situation, including the Easter Risings. The political plots, sub-plots, scheming, and the air of general incompetence abounds.

My reflections are many. I am left staggered to have found that Prime Minister Asquith, whilst a principled Liberal, was too passive in his approach at war time leadership and spent his afternoons in his London Club reading, evenings playing Bridge and weekends on the golf course. Can you imagine Churchill having adopted such a stance in the Second World War? How Lloyd George conducted a coup against Asquith to replace him as Prime Minister, and then turned into a dictator and a pathological liar (although some would argue he was already a known liar). In his pursuit of personal power he single handed managed to destroy the once great UK Liberal Party – it never gained power again. Moreover, his distrust of Haig (perhaps understandable after the slaughter on the Somme and Passchendaele), nearly led to defeat in 1918 when he lied about troop numbers in Flanders, which enabled the Germans to advance so close to victory in March-July 1918.

The losses of human life are staggering. 744,000 British dead, 1,600,000 wounded, close to 300,000 with no know grave because they just disappeared in the mud or explosions (believable perhaps only if you stand in the Menin Gate and consider the 54,000 inscribed names of missing soldiers in that area alone of Flanders). 18% of ex British Public School boys died, 1,157 just from Eton College alone (the single highest loss for any school), and junior officer casualties 3 times higher as a group than any other rank. Hardly a family in the country which did not suffer some form of loss.

On the domestic front Heffer describes the painfully slow transition of the country to a state of total war (for the first time in its history), and how challenging that was for the Liberal Party to achieve as it went completely against most of their values. The transformation of an economy and a country to a level of state intervention never envisioned – unprecedented levels. Hundreds of thousands of women entering the work force for the very first time. Yet, in a time of national emergency, Unions still calling on their members to strike for more and more pay (often the threat of enlistment of the strikers in the army was the only bargaining chip left for the government).

The war was eventually won not by some heroic battlefield engagement, but through exhaustion on the side of the Germans (before it happened in the UK). The blockade by the Royal Navy of Germany effectively starved them into defeat. Attrition and exhaustion.

I would mourn the loss of the great Liberal Party – it was replaced with a more hard-nosed form of politician, and the beginning of the new polarisation of conservatism against idealistic socialism (pretty much where we are still are today 100 years later). At the end though I am left considering the positives – the emancipation of women, the beginning of better health care and education, a more egalitarian future, a loss of natural deference. But what a price to have paid to achieve these positives.

Heffer captures this transition to the new 1919 UK well – and leaves us eagerly awaiting his fourth volume for the period 1920-1939.

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