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The First World War: The Essential Guide to Sources in the UK National Archives

John Lee

The First World War: The Essential Guide to Sources in the UK National Archives
By Ian F. W. Beckett
(Public Record Office, 2002, £19.99

Reviewed by John Lee for the Centre for First World War Studies, University of Birmingham

The first question I would like to ask Professor Ian Beckett is why the devil didn’t he write this book some fifteen years ago when I was starting my serious research work at the PRO. He would have saved me such a lot of time and energy chasing down files and references.

This book is a masterpiece at various levels. The introductory essays and the linking narratives between chapters and sections are a model of cool, rational and authoritative discourse. It occurred to me that if they were extracted and bound up as a pamphlet they would represent the last word in scholarship on all the main issues concerning Britain’s role in the First World War. They make this tome of reference a pleasure to read in its own right.

Before I discuss the content by section, there are two further points of a practical nature deserving of praise. The index is quite excellent in its comprehensive attention to detail. The most fleeting reference to a single ship, munitions factory, individual or committee is carefully noted. I tested a couple of sections of text ‘to destruction’ and could not fault it. Whoever designed the layout of the book had the great good sense to leave two-inch wide inner margins on every page. These will rapidly fill with pencilled notes (in your own copy, of course!) on matters of interest to be followed up and with your own cross-references. We should start a campaign for wider margins for that very purpose!

There are four major sections to the book – the Higher Direction of the War; New Ways of War; The Nation in Arms; War, State and Society. After an essay introducing each of these themes there are anything from four to ten sub-sections that explore their subject by directing the reader to the relevant papers of no less than sixty-one departments and institutions. This thematic approach makes more accessible and manageable the huge series of papers such as Admiralty 1, Air Ministry 1, Home Office 45 and War Office 32, as well as making practical use possible for the first time of some series that do not yet have detailed catalogues (such as Treasury 1 and Ministry of Labour 2).

Whole books have been written discussing whether Great Britain should have engaged in the First World War at all. The introductory essay to The Higher Direction of the War has a paragraph of just seven lines concluding that this was “a necessary war” which is a model of cool, rational and, it has to be said, courageous judgement about Britain’s true national interest. The sub-section Cabinet Government and War explains the approach of the governments of the day to directing the war through various increasingly small committees. Within the various references to series of papers there are useful commentaries, such as that on page 6 directing the researcher to CAB23 and explaining what might and might not be found there and why. In the sub-section War, Strategy and International Politics there is a connecting essay linking the comprehensive coverage of all wartime political affairs to the separately treated impact of the two Russian Revolutions of 1917 that had such an alarming (for British ruling circles) effect throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The subsection Dominions and Colonies introduces into its opening essay the use of important statistical information to help us understand the total war effort; a feature that is so useful and interesting that I can see it being much-cribbed in the future! The subsection The Peace Settlements runs to nearly fourteen pages, reminding us that the war ended in a series of armistices, not surrenders, which had to be converted into peace agreements.

New Ways of War is divided into Science and War; The War on Land; The War at Sea; The War in the Air; and Absorbing the Lessons. There are very good short summaries of tactical developments during the war, and the role of science in intelligence gathering. The War at Sea sub-section breaks down in an interesting way, suggesting the relative importance of aspects of the Navy’s work in wartime – nine pages on the blockade of Germany and economic warfare, six pages on submarine warfare, six pages on fleet actions, three on air power at sea and one on the German bombardment of British coastal towns.

The treatment of the important series WO95 (the War Diaries) will be the only discordant note in this adulatory review. There is nothing to fault in the basic description of the content of this series but it is such a vital source that future researchers should be told more about it. (This reflects the interests of your reviewer -an historian of military operations – as opposed to the author – more of a ‘war and society’ man himself). Besides containing the daily diary of events for the relevant unit or formation, WO95 contains a mass of other important documentation. Chief amongst these are the narratives of operations and the after action reports, so important for the analysis of battle and of the learning process that was a constant feature of the war. The files are bursting with detailed maps, operation orders, artillery fire plans, reports on strength, training, and intelligence assessments of the enemy. It is very instructive to follow the development of operational techniques from the early, experimental stages of the war and compare them to the deadly killing machine that was the BEF in the later stages of the struggle.

The Nation in Arms covers the question of recruitment, the recording of war service (this sub-section being vital to a large contingent of PRO users researching the service of individual members of the armed services), and the treatment of casualties, veterans and their dependants, and the commemoration of the fallen. There is, of course, an excellent piece of the whole question of discipline and military justice, and a balanced appraisal of the question of executions.

War, State and Society covers in a very comprehensive way the whole question of mobilising the nation for total, industrialised war, including the growth of government control on society, finance, industry, agriculture and food supply, the role of labour and women, and the social impact of the war on various aspect of national life. We see how companies are compensated for government ‘interference’ and certain profit levels were guaranteed, to remind us that this was a thoroughly ‘capitalist’ war. Conversely, while pointing up that Britain had the worst record of any belligerent power for labour militancy, the author also reminds us that this was as nothing compared to the turbulent period 1910-1914 and that over 8,000 arbitration judgements were accepted by the workforce without protest. It is interesting to note, in a sub-section on Aliens and the Enemy Within, how certain events assumed such importance to the government. The documentation relating to the Irish rebellion in 1916, the Casement trial and subsequent troubles runs to five pages and includes papers from eighteen ministries and departments! This is a work of the highest importance, of the greatest practical value to student and researcher alike, from the pen of one of our best historians of this truly decisive period in the history of Great Britain and the world.

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