The shelves are already packed with books on the First World War, and there are many more to come. But Nigel Jones’s terrific account of a nation poised between peace and war makes a strong bid for inclusion in any collection.
The book explores the pivotal year of 1914 through a variety of social, cultural and political prisms, ranging from strife on the home front – suffragettes, strikes and the Ulster crisis – to more tranquil topics of sport, dance and poetry. It presents an absorbing picture of a nation standing on a precipice, one that manages to acknowledge key figures and themes while drawing on lesser-known undercurrents and events. We are provided with a pithy distillation of the political and diplomatic challenges that Britain faced in its seemingly inexorable advance towards war. At the same time, we learn of such episodes as a fight in a public toilet between futurist Filippo Marinetti and painter Wyndham Lewis and the story of the Empress of Ireland, which sank in 1914 with the loss of more than 1,000 lives.
The range of the narrative, and the sheer diversity of the elements of society that it covers, means that the story is fragmentary: there are tantalising glimpses of characters that leave the reader wanting more. However, that is surely the point: no single study could hope to be definitive but, instead, should aim to spark enthusiasms and pique interests. Jones certainly achieves that.
The design of the book, not least the wonderful images that fill its pages, is central to its appeal. While some of the photographs are familiar – such as a struggling Mrs Pankhurst being bodily carted away from the gates of Buckingham Palace – many are not, and it is these frozen frames of a lost world that are so arresting. Who, for instance, would have expected to see Lord Balfour reclining with tennis player AF ‘Tony’ Wilding and a plate of cakes at Wimbledon in 1914?
Jones is excellent at highlighting the fissures that prefigured the defining, dividing event of the war itself. There are no reductive binary oppositions, but the tensions within prewar British society are drawn out through a consideration of the clashes between the old world and the new – not least in the contrast between the young, privileged inhabitants of the decadent world of Edwardian nightclubs and their parents, who were shocked by their offspring’s hedonism and cynicism. The book never lets us forget what was to come, with a sobering reminder that the lives of many ‘bright young things’ would end in the darkness of the battlefield.
Jones’s skilful interweaving of familiar themes with original strands throughout makes this an imaginative, insightful study of Britain in 1914.
Rachel Duffett is the author of The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2012)