How did the Great War - the first total war - affect the class structure of English society? An exhaustive answer, as Bernard Waites recognises, is probably beyond the power of any one historian. The difficulty is that class structure, or 'social differentiation', is something which, unlike crime or illegitimacy or whooping cough, defies both definition and statistical analysis. It depends on subjective attitudes, not on income or education or domicile, and is thus a most slippery concept on which to rear up an edifice of social theory. No one doubts that the Great War wrought changes in attitudes as between 'Us and Them', but many of these changes were already on the way. Dr Waites does not shy from the question: if the Archduke's driver had not made the wrong turning in Sarajevo, would the class structure of England have been much different in 1924? He notes the belief of many that 'England was about to experience unprecedented class conflict when the war broke out,' and that Ernest Bevin declared in 1914, for what it was worth, that the country was on the eve of 'one of the greatest industrial revolts the world has ever seen'. In the event, the fierce, class-rooted, industrial strife which had disfigured the early years of the century continued, intermittently, through the war, giving the impression, in the slightly bemused words of the Ministry of Labour, of 'unrest paralysed by patriotism - or, it may be, of patriotism paralysed by unrest'. There were some bad moments: in the summer of 1918, thanks to a miniature general strike involving even the London Police, the dead lay unburied in England as well as in France.
LRB 7 January 1988 | PDF Download