Blatchford and Thompson in wartime France
Of all the prominent figures in British socialism in the period before 1914 Blatchford was by far the most unequivocally in favour of British participation in the war. On 28 August he had predicted that ‘the time is not far distant when the papers begin to print heavy casualty lists and the meaning of war will come nearer to us.’ The German plan was ‘to make war “ with the utmost violence. “ ‘ and Britain must do the same. The war must be ‘fought to a finish.’ He rejected any ‘foolish clemency to Germany’.’ There should not be ‘any kindly willingness to stop the war while Germany is still unconquered.’
He refused the urging of old comrades and associates to continue to play a part in the socialist movement.
I have not changed my religion. I am still a Communist Socialist, as I was when I wrote ‘Merrie England,’ but one must face the facts, and it is a fact that I have done for the Movement all I could or can do. I cannot go back to it, even if I wanted to. It is too late. I am too old.
(By ‘Communist Socialist’ Blatchford would have meant it in the sense it was used in Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto of 1848. In 1914 the adoption by the Bolsheviks of the label ‘Communist’ still lay several years in the future)
By the beginning of October 1914, in spite of being ‘too old’, both he and Thompson were reporting from France. Blatchford was keen to bring the reality of war home to his readers – ‘we islanders do not know what war means.’ He went on – echoing his colleague’s comment the previous week, ‘Paris is not an island. There is nothing between Paris and the infuriated Germans but a French army and Sir John French’s contemptible little force.’ In his ‘Notes from Paris’ in the same issue, Thompson was more upbeat, reporting that according to ‘ a relative with the British cavalry, German soldiers were so worn by privations and broken in morale they are only too glad to be made prisoners.’
Many on the Left, both at the time and subsequently, were critical of Blatchford’s whole-hearted support for the war effort. Yet he cannot be accused of in anyway playing down, let alone attempting to glorify, the horrors of the war. In his ‘Paris in War Time’ front page article on 9 October he gave an account of several horrifying incidents.
He expressed considerable pride in the British troops he encountered. Yet this did not mean that he was uncritical of the British officer class. On 16 October his article on the Clarion’s front page had the title ‘British Snobs and Indian Princes. Things I have seen in France.’ What Blatchford described as ‘snobbery’ and others as ‘caddish’ we would certainly call racist.
After an army captain he met in France told him that he knew Blatchford disliked his, the captain’s, class but insisted ‘we are not all blackguards’ he was at a loss to know why he was presumed to be so hostile. He had, Blatchford insisted, ’always liked and respected British officers.’ But their one great fault was snobbery; ’They are splendid chaps, but snobs.’ He then gave an example of this. Arriving at a hotel five hours south of Paris Blatchford was told ‘with some pride’ by the hotel staff that they had an Indian prince staying there who had ‘come to fight for the Empire.’
That evening at dinner he and a friend were able to observe from a nearby table. The prince came in with a British general who managed not to speak to him or even look at him throughout the meal. The following evening he saw a group of British officers ignore him in the smoke-room. Blatchford’s, unidentified, ‘young friend’ thought ‘he had never seen anything so caddish and brutal in his life.’ And Blatchford agreed ‘He had come all the way from India at his own expense to fight our battles, and he was subjected to the most horrible snub by the officers of the army of the King to whom he was so strangely loyal.’ Blatchford’s army captain was not present. ’He had gone to the front. Had he been there he would have joined in the infliction of that bitter insult on a brave man.’
This piece resulted in praise from the oldest of the socialist weeklies in Britain, Justice. ‘Whatever some of us may have thought of certain aspects of our friend Robert Blatchford on the European war, we can all agree that he has done excellent service in calling attention to the manner in which English officers behave to Indian princes.’ The paper’s ‘Critical Chronicle’ was equally supportive. ‘Robert Blatchford has done much good service for many years, but we doubt if he ever did a better bit of work for his own country and humanity at large that by his exposure in last week’s ‘Clarion’ of the incredibly caddish behaviour of “English officers and gentlemen.’’’ The paper thought the prince’s action in coming to fight was ‘very foolish of him,’ but the officers’ rudeness was inexcusable. ‘How silly from the “Imperial” point of view, as well as how blackguardly.’
Reporting further on his ‘Trip to France,’ on 30 October.Thompson attempted to describe something of what he had seen near the front.
The cottages of ploughboys and shepherds are inhabited by troops, the farmhouses by colonels and generals. The fields are monstrous gipsy encampments, with artillery instead of hawkers’ vans. Costly motor cars without wheels are scattered along the roadside, with here and there a dead horse. The highways and the country lanes are thronged with a never-ending movement of military transports and soldiers –not soldiers like the dapper Tommies of the Horse Guards’ Parade or the shining cuirassiers of Longchamps but disorderly swarms of slouching, slovenly scarecrows, dirty as hounds returned from otter-hunting in muddy burrows, and dragging their feet like weary tramps.
‘Incidentally,’ Thompson added, ‘I myself enjoyed the adventure of being arrested by French officers as a German spy.’ Justice the following week (5 November) also reported the incident adding, ‘Fortunately there were no casualties.’
Next time. The final episode. A Shocking Edition. The Clarion on Christmas Day 1914