Street newspaper vendor - war declaredOnce war had been declared, the psychological ground rules changed. No matter the regret, no matter the stupidity the lack of principle or the risk, the fact of war altered everything. While acknowledging that Britain had nothing to gain, and that ‘some day we shall all regret it’, the Guardian’s view on 5 August 1914 reflected the complete volte-face that war imposes on a nation’s psyche. The new message they delivered bore all the hallmarks of Nelson’s call to arms. ‘Now there is nothing for Englishmen to do but to stand together and help by every means in their power to the attainment of our common object – an early and decisive victory over Germany.’ [1] Music indeed to the Secret Elite. Once war had been declared, the tipping point of public opinion did as it always has; swung immediately behind the flag of loyalty, duty and national pride, all of which become part of ‘the cause’. There was still a vibrant opposition to war, but it had little focus. Once the commitment had been sealed in blood through the death of a soldier or sailor fighting for that cause, then most of the nation would rally behind those who died.

Undoubtedly there were those who were genuinely pleased and excited at the thought of going to war. London teemed with boisterous crowds, anxious to hear the latest news. Asquith wrote somewhat uncharitably of being ‘escorted between Westminster and Downing Street surrounded by crowds of loafers and holiday-makers’ [2] and those who wanted to find out first what was to happen, needed to be close to where decisions were being made, in Westminster, Whitehall and even Buckingham Palace. [3] But initial reaction to the news of the declaration of war varied across the country. We in the twenty-first century live in a time of instant information. News ‘breaks’ across the world as a wave on the shore. Devastating, era-changing news crashes like a tsunami, swamping us, with destruction close behind. In 1914 news travelled relatively slowly in that while national newspapers were available in all major towns and cities and local newspapers distilled the main events, often amidst cattle-sales and the current price of local livestock, large pockets of remoter population heard only eventually, by word of mouth, about a war in Europe of which they had previously known nothing.

The first limited outbursts of euphoria did not last long, and were rapidly replaced at the end of August by a general feeling of ‘seeing it through’. [4] This early resignation was mirrored by a remarkable transformation in the very Liberal Press that had stoutly resisted jingoism in July. Two themes were developed to reassure the British public that the war was both necessary and justified. The first was the claim that ‘we have no quarrel with the German people.’ The Daily News of 8 August insisted that ‘it is not the German people with whom we are at war…it is the tyranny of a despotic rule, countersigned by Krupps…in this war we are engaged in fighting for the emancipation of Germany as well as for the liberties of Europe. [5]

Silhouette of soldier against sunset and gravestone cross

Worse still, the second theme developed into a concept of a ‘holy war’, an early 20th century jihad. On 7 August, 1914, a campaign began in the Liberal Daily Chronicle to glorify what was underway in Europe as ‘the war to end wars’. It resonated of Cecil Rhodes at the inception of the Secret Elite, when he talked of the creation of ‘so great a power as to hereafter render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity’. [6] The Daily Chronicle pronounced that ‘every sword that is drawn against Germany is a sword drawn for peace’ and blamed Germany for having arrested civilisation and darkened the hopes of mankind for forty years. [7] The author of this emotive justification was the writer and journalist, H G Wells.

That H.G. Wells, the prolific writer of science fiction, contemporary novels and social commentary should have emerged as the voice to soothe the troubled souls of British liberals requires examination. What circumstances promoted him from author to moral philosopher, from the recipient of harsh criticism from the Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator in 1907 to the champion of war justification in the first weeks of August 1914? He kept interesting company as a member of the Fabian Society, and more so as one of the ‘Co-efficients’ the exclusive dining club which had in its select membership such notable Secret Elite members and associates as Alfred Milner, Richard Haldane, Leo Amery, Arthur Balfour, and Sir Edward Grey. Wells nestled comfortably with the Secret Elite’s inner core. In 1912, Lord Northcliffe had asked him to write a series of articles for the Daily Mail on labour unrest and in 1914 his collection of articles and essays was published in An Englishman Looks at the World. With Northcliffe as his publisher, Milner and the Round Table members as his companions, Wells was unveiled as the reasoned voice from which the nation, especially the liberal nation, could take reassurance

 HG Wells - propagandist

Within a week of the article being printed in the Daily Chronicle, Wells had been invited to write an article for the Liberal Daily News under the banner headline, ‘The War to End Wars’, where he predicted that, ‘We will fight, if needful, until the children die of famine in our homes, though every ship we have is at the bottom of the sea. We mean to fight this war to its very finish … and we will come out of this war with out hands as clean as they are now, unstained by any dirty tricks.’ [8] Such chilling words, so early in the conflict, boded ill for truth and objectivity.

His prediction was disturbingly prescient though fundamentally flawed. Children did indeed die of famine, mainly in Germany. The fleet that was consigned to the bottom of the sea, was the Kaiser’s, and the hands of the British government, manipulated by the power above them, could hardly have been more deeply stained by the blood of innocents. Wells the great prophet of worlds to come became the great propagandist, the maker of myths with an absurd, disturbing reinvention of truth.

And this was printed in a major Liberal newspaper whose editor, A G Gardiner, had signed the manifesto issued by the British Neutrality Committee, published in the Manchester Guardian on 3 August. [9] A truly remarkable turn-around had taken place in the editorial stance in Liberal newspapers within the first few days after the declaration of war. To be fair to the Conservative press, the Times and the Daily Mail had remained consistently anti-German for a decade and adopted an unbending support for the Asquith government, for the time being. They had forecast war and cheered its outbreak.

Before the end of August, Wells wrote another article for The Nation [10] in which he conceived the notion that ‘we fight not to destroy a nation, but a nest of evil ideas’ and he challenged the Church of England to become a propagandist for peace, by which, in the logic of his twisted mind, he meant war. He found no meaning in the Christianity of a Christian who advocated pacifism, but only in the Christian who goes to war to bring about eventual peace. [11] But his coup de grace, his descent into the inferno of burning banalities, his most unforgivable distortion was the casual dismissal of Russia’s barbaric anti-Semitism.

Russian pogroms in 1905

Without any apparent embarrassment Wells wrote that ‘it is unfortunate for Russia that she has come into conspicuous conflict with the Jews. She has certainly treated them no worse than she has treated her own people’. His reinterpretation of the systematic victimisation of the Jews was unforgivable. He blithely predicted in The Nation on 22 August 1914, that ‘while Russia has the will to oppress the world, she will never have the power; when she has the power she will cease to have the will.’ Read that again, please. As a statement it is nonsensical absurdity presented as reason. What he is really saying to the public is, ‘stop agonising about Russia’s inhumanity. They’re all right, honest’.

The cathartic, born-again, justification for war against Germany that now gushed from the Liberal newspapers in those first few days, significantly assured a great many people in Britain that all would be well. As the magazine The Nation stated in all sincerity, this was a ‘perfectly good’ war. [12]. And it was what people needed to hear. ‘We would see this through’. It would be ‘the war to end wars’. ‘Civilisation’ would be saved. Germany would be saved from itself. But the process of rationalisation went further. It quickly passed from reassurance that Britain was ‘doing the right thing’, to a delusion that it was in fact involved in a holy war. From pulpits and editorial chairs, from parliament to recruitment stations, the idea that this war was a spiritual conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil was deliberately sown and spread like a new-found gospel.

So the Secret Elite worked their alchemy through H.G. Wells and others like G.K. Chesterton. He developed Well’s pro-Russian revisionism into a trite exhortation that no-one should worry whether it was right to fight with the ‘Russ against the Pruss’ because ‘the Russ was only a barbarian by accident, while the Pruss was a Barbarian by design’. [13] It was a time of madness which for these writers proved financially rewarding.

H.G. Wells lived long enough to be haunted by his own excesses. [14] In his Experiment in Autobiography, published in 1934, he eventually faced the ‘unpalatable truth’ that his ‘war for civilisation’, his ‘war to end war’ was nothing more than a consoling fantasy [15] and he acknowledged the ‘flaming actuality’ that ‘we were fighting for King and Country and they were fighting for Kaiser and Fatherland. [16] How many thousands of young men did he urge into the trenches while he, exempt from service, was free to provide what he himself called, a ‘consoling fantasy’? Though he berated himself for his ‘rash and eager confidence’ in the Foreign Office and the War Office in the early months of the war, his pro-war zeal ultimately embarrassed him and he admitted he was wrong to attack conscientious objectors and pacifists in his later books [17] But the damage was done. He had accepted Lord Northcliffe’s coin and the cost was borne by those he deluded with his grotesque fantasies.

[1] Manchester Guardian, 5 August, 1914, p. 4.
[2] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 157.
[3] Stephen Roberts, Did the British People Welcome the Declaration of War in August 1914?, History Review, 2005. issue 52.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 88.
[6] W. T. Stead, The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes, p. 59.
[7] Daily Chronicle, 7 August 1914.
[8] H. G. Wells, Daily News, 14 August 1914.
[9] Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 61.
[10] The Nation 29 August, 1914.
[11] Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 98.
[12] Ibid., p. 111.
[13] The Daily Mail, 2 November, 1914.
[14] Phillip Knightly, The First Casualty, p. 83.
[15] H. G. Wells, An Experiment in Autobiography, p.573.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., pp.580-81.