Violence and solidarity. Urban experiences of the First World War

Keynote Lecture given at the conference Cities and Wars, Instituto de História Contemporânea, Lisbon, 27 September 2012

The outbreak of the war in August 1914 heralded a critical redefinition of the role of civilians in war, as the conflict challenged conventional understanding of the relationship between the business of war and the organization of modern civil society. The experience of cities and towns across combatant nations testify to this transformation and to the subsequent emergence of contemporary belligerence. This paper will suggest that the violence of the battlefront underpinned, rather than undermined, the discourses and practices of solidarities which lay at the core of the mobilization of the home fronts. My objective is to suggest some of the ways in which we may consider the dialectical and ambivalent articulation of violence and solidarity, of participation and victimization.

Such an emphasis on both solidarity and coercion also stresses the importance of contention in the urban experience of the war. This paper will indeed argue that urban civil societies ensured, to a large extent, the success of national mobilization in WWI. It is also perhaps at that level that the contingent, ongoing, and contested nature of these mobilizations appears most clearly.

Central to the experience of military conflict, violence and coercion do not exhaust the war experience. In towns and cities across belligerent nations, solidarity, as much as violence and coercion, had defined the conflict. The history of urban mobilization must as a consequence be placed at the heart of our reflections on the social history of violence in the twentieth century.

The ‘totalizing logic’[1. John Horne, ed., State, society, and mobilization in Europe during the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3.] of the Great War blurred the boundaries between combatants and non-combatants, between ‘soldier and civilian’.[2. Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, eds., Great War, Total War. Combat and mobilization on the western front, 1914-1918 (Cambridge – New York: CUP, 2000), 8; Jean-Jacques Becker, ‘Retour sur la comparaison et réflexion sur les héritages’, in La violence de guerre, 1914-1945, ed. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau et al. (Bruxelles: Editions Complexes, 2002), 336–337.] It pitted mass armies supported by industrialized economies, and the conduct of the war first demanded the commitment of the nation’s material and technical resources to the conflict. The meaning of wartime mobilization thus shifted from its original military definition to encompass the contribution of civil society, whose resources were also expected to directly support the armed forces in the field. At the same time, the new technologies of warfare allowed armies to overcome the physical limitations that had hitherto delineated a clear demarcation between the front and the rear. The development of modern artillery, of submarine warfare and aerial bombardments, like the experience of occupation, thus challenged the cultural and legal barriers which had aimed to protect civilians from the direct impact of military offensives. In the English language, the emergence of the notion of “home front”, first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1917, merely illustrated the acceleration of an ongoing process that the Second World War was to radicalize. The Wars of German Unification and the Franco-Prussian war in particular had indeed seen the word Heimatfront gain wide currency in the newly unified Germany.[3. Alexander Seyferth, Die Heimatfront 1870/71. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im deutsch-französischen Krieg (Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag, 2007). I should like to thank my colleague Dr Nicholas Martin for his comments on this point and for bringing this reference to my attention.] In WWI Italy, fronte interno became a term of choice in interventionist and nationalist circles. In this context, the notion conjured up the existence of an internal enemy and the necessity to mobilize against them.[4. Antonio Gibelli, La Grande Guerra degli italiani (Milano: R.C.S. Libri, 1998), 174. I am grateful to Sean Brady (Trinity College, Dublin) for bringing this passage to my attention.] The outbreak of the war in August 1914 therefore heralded a critical redefinition of the role of civilians in war, as the conflict challenged conventional understanding of the relationship between the business of war and the organization of modern civil society. The experience of cities and towns across combatant nations testify to this transformation and to the subsequent emergence of contemporary belligerence.

The mobilization and victimization of the home fronts also appear as the two pillars of what Gillis and others described as a process of “militarization”[5. John R. Gillis, ed., The Militarization of the Western World (New Brunswick, N.J and London: Rutgers University Press, 1989).]. From 1914 onwards, ‘total war’ brought about the dismantling of the civilian sphere, subverted by war violence; a violence which inexorably pervaded societies and led to the dissolution of the civil-military divide.[6. Michael Geyer, ‘Gewalt und Gewalterfahrung im 20. Jahrhundert – Der Erste Weltkrieg’, in Der Tod als Maschinist : der industrialisierte Krieg, 1914-1918, ed. Rolf Spilker and Bernd Ulrich (Bramsche: Rasch, 1998), 241–257.] The notion of militarization indicates a profound change in the nature of the belligerent societies. It belies, however, the significance of the role played by civil society itself in this process, for neither militarization nor victimization encapsulates the complexity of the civilian contribution and participation to the war effort. The violence of the battlefront and the experience and fear of the invasion did of course loom large on the horizon of urban populations in 1914-1918. Yet I will suggest that it underpinned, rather than undermined, the discourses and practices of solidarities which lay at the core of the mobilization of the home fronts.

This talk largely draws on a comparative study of two medium-sized towns – Béziers in France, and Northampton in England –. In this book, I attemptto explore the dynamics of urban mobilization in wartime thanks to a critical shift in the scale of analysis. In going both beyond and below the nations, my objective is to suggest some of the ways in which we may consider the dialectical and ambivalent articulation of violence and solidarity, of participation and victimization. This proposed break with the national framework of analysis is certainly not meant to underplay the importance of the nation-state for the urban populations of Britain and France. It is nonetheless intended to supplement a historiography which has so far – notwithstanding seminal exceptions – largely neglected to combine urban and comparative analysis[7. One such exception is of course the comparative history of Paris, London and Berlin led by Jay Winter. Jay M. Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, eds., Capital cities at war: Paris, London, Berlin, 1914-1919, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Jay M. Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, eds., Capital Cities at War. Paris, London, Berlin, 1914-1919, vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).].

This approach first allows us to explore the interplay between urban identities and the cultural dynamics of wartime national mobilization.  This question emerged out of a reflection on the experience of Béziers, where the strong local identity had traditionally been seen as a challenge to the centralization process and to the national state. In June 1907, the mutiny of the local regiment had illustrated in a spectacular fashion the allegedly unreliable nature of the southern regions, whose local identity was deemed to threaten the integrity of the French Nation-State. The challenge these soldiers so dramatically issued to the military authorities underlines the problematic nature of the articulation between local and national identities in France at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, when the First World War broke out in August 1914, Béziers responded unreservedly to the call to arms. In this particular urban context, the indisputable success of national mobilization questions conventional interpretations of the process of nationalization. It also prompted a comparative study of urban and national mobilizations in Britain, France’s main ally in 1914.

Historians of the First World War have long assumed that the process of nationalization of the British and French polities had reached its apex in August 1914. In recent years, however, a string of works on France and Germany in particular have demonstrated that nation-making and centralization had not systematically entailed the gradual withering of local identities and senses of belonging[8. Jean-François Chanet, L’école républicaine et les petites patries (Paris: Aubier, 1996); Anne-Marie Thiesse, Ils apprenaient la France. L’exaltation des régions dans le discours patriotique (Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’homme, 1997); Applegate, A nation of provincials: the German idea of Heimat; Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor. Württemberg, Imperial Germany and National Memory, 1871-1918.]. Historians have demonstrated that the outbreak of war in 1914 did not lead to an eruption of nationalist enthusiasm[9. Jean-Jacques Becker, 1914 : Comment les français sont entrés dans la guerre. (Paris: FNSP, 1977); Jeffrey Verhey, The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth, and Mobilization in Germany (Cambridge: CUP, 2000); Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge: CUP, 2008).]. The conflict was nonetheless to be a protracted trial of the nations as it challenged the very fabric of the belligerent societies. To analyse the modalities of urban mobilization, I have looked into a range of practices elicited by the war effort: the raising and support of local military units, the assistance to war victims, various charitable initiatives, and the commemoration of military and patriotic service. Wartime mobilization ran across and along the boundaries of multiple social and cultural spheres. It revealed the plurality of urban identities and the complex set of concomitant senses of belonging that affected and hallmarked the commitment to the national war effort. Furthermore, this renewed attention to political cultures and to the political mobilization of local identities invites us to reconsider the operations of the State at the local level and its interactions with communal forms of organization. In particular, the specificities of the British State and its relationship with civil society led me to question the usual assumptions about the contours of the State in WWI France, and more generally about the Third Republic’s political system and its universalist political culture. Indeed, the pluralist nature of the British political and administrative system encouraged me to break with the traditional monist approach to the French state that has so far underestimated the importance of civil society in the process of social mobilization. For all the wartime growth of the state apparatus, this comparison helps me prove that, as far as the relationship between state and civil society is concerned, the war was not a zero-sum game. I will suggest that a reflection on the deployment of violence and coercion in an urban context must be placed alongside an examination of the manifestations and practices of solidarity.

This joint emphasis on solidarity and coercion must also stress the importance of contention in the urban experience of the war; for social movements and conflicts did not merely demonstrate the frailty of the consensus stipulated by the prescriptions of nationalism. In fact, urban contention constituted a critical mediation of the war experience, whereby national and infra-national identities were asserted, mobilized, and played out on the urban stage. Urban civil societies thus ensured, to a large extent, the success of national mobilization in WWI Britain and France. It is also perhaps at that level that the contingent, ongoing, and contested nature of these mobilizations appears most clearly[10. Pierre Purseigle, Mobilisation, sacrifice, et citoyenneté. Angleterre – France, 1914-1918 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2013).].

1- The “Meridional Question”: urban identities and national mobilizations in wartime

In towns and cities across the belligerent nations, the local elites reflected and shaped the social responses to the conflict. The wartime discourses and iconography produced by civic authorities, newspapers and voluntary organizations show how local elites used the main symbols of local identity to stress that victory would belong to the urban community as well as to the nation. The wartime systems of representations thus rested on a process of acculturation, on the appropriation of the national narratives through local cultural codes.

In Northampton and Béziers, the vision of the war offered to the local community fell into line with the national mobilization whose ‘totalizing logic’ enlisted the cultural, moral, and ideological commitment of each nation to fight an uncivilized enemy to its capitulation. Defeat was not merely construed in military and strategic terms but was synonymous with the end of one’s culture, identity, and way of life. The dominant discourses on the war therefore presented the conflict as a defensive one imposed on France and Britain by German aggression[11. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14-18: Retrouver la guerre (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).].

The local dimensions of the martial involvement of the population first appeared in the representation of the threat posed to the local identities. Since the war was ultimately waged to preserve everyday values, the local elite immediately resorted to some specific figures to underline the mobilization of urban communities. In Béziers, like in Northampton, the organizers of charity days turned to the main symbols of local identity, namely vine and wine, to stress that Victory would belong to the local community as well as to the Nation. In a somewhat traditional depiction of the rapacious and barbaric ‘Boche’, the enemy is defeated by Bacchus and a jolly ‘Poilu’ both sitting astride a wine barrel[12. ADH 2 R 783: Journée de l’Hérault (15 October 1916) au profit exclusif des œuvres de guerre du département, organisée par le préfet et les municipalités.].

Bacchus et le raison vainqueur, 1916

Here the opposition is made blatant between the wine-drinking southern Frenchman and the beer-drinking, grape-treading German, whom Bacchus nicknames ‘phylloxera’ after the infestation which had done so much damage to local vines. The utilization of specific local schemas of representation ensured a perfect understanding and reception of wartime propaganda.

Similar mechanisms were thus at work on both sides of the Channel. The success of the patriotic days that explicitly pandered to civic pride underlined the potency of local identities in the process of mobilization. During the war, urban communities established an order of priorities that stressed, for instance, the necessity of propping up the local economy and of supporting the towns’ traders at the expense of their national or regional rivals. A more significant example was the organization of assistance to war victims, which was not only organized at the local level but was also primarily directed at the members of the local communities. The success of the wartime mobilization rested on a set of discriminatory processes that structured the local commitment to national defence. Local solidarities and identities ultimately reinforced national resilience. When, in February 1918, the Northampton elite weighed in with the organization of a ‘Tank Week’ dedicated to war loans, the chairman of the organizing committee spelled out the call to civic pride, and conjured up a national competition with the other towns holding a ‘Tank Week’ at the same time[13. Northampton Independent, 16, 23 February and 9 March 1918].

In the First World War, the defence of the nation was commonly articulated in communitarian terms and framed in the language of urban, class, or religious solidarities[14. Pierre Purseigle, ‘Beyond and below the nations. Towards a comparative history of local communities at war’, in Uncovered fields. Perspectives in First World War studies, ed. Jenny Macleod and Pierre Purseigle (Boston – Leiden: Brill, 2004), 95–123; Stefan Goebel, ‘Forging the industrial home front in Germany: iron-nail memorials in the Ruhr’, in Uncovered Fields. Perspectives in First World War Studies, ed. Pierre Purseigle and Jenny Macleod (Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2004), 159–178; Roger Chickering, The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Purseigle, Mobilisation, sacrifice, et citoyenneté. Angleterre – France, 1914-1918.]. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of professional patriotic orators, this war of national defence was soon construed as a personal battle for the safety of one’s family and home. The very conventional nature and mundanity of national sentiment account for its resilience in the face of industrial warfare.

2- The military experience of the locality

Enrolled in mass armies, the combatants of the First World War remained, first and foremost, civilians in uniform. As a result, the solidarity between front and home front remained a problematic issue throughout the conflict. Deemed critical to the cohesion of belligerent societies by political and military leaders alike, it remains central to our current historiographical discussions[15. Benjamin Ziemann, War experiences in rural Germany, 1914-1923 (Oxford – New York: Berg, 2007).]. In Britain as well as in France, local identity enabled soldiers and civilians to mediate their experience, to conjure up solidarity. Here however, the comparison must take account of the critical difference between the systems of military recruitment in operation in France and Britain, as they determined the forms of the local mediations of the wartime national experience.

In Britain, the regimental system had been established in 1881 as a system of localized recruiting. The explicit objective of this reform was to strengthen the link between the army and civilian society, to extol a common identity and combine civic and martial pride[16. Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s army: the raising of the new armies, 1914-16 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988); Peter Simkins, ‘The Four Armies, 1914-1918’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army, ed. David Chandler and Ian F.W. Beckett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 241–262; David French, Military Identities. The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People, c. 1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).]. In Britain, the ‘Pals Battalions’ raised along the lines of pre-existing sociabilities – urban and professional in particular – enabled the local community to bring itself, albeit vicariously, to the front line. In France, conscription was part and parcel of the national Revolutionary heritage, the modern manifestation of the levée en masse, the republican concept of the nation in arms. Though the 1907 mutiny had illustrated the distance between the local populations and the military institution, it did not follow that the Meridional towns had renounced patriotism. As a matter of fact, when the war came in August 1914, the recruitment centre of Béziers registered half as many draft dodgers as the country as a whole (0.89% against 1.5%)[17. Maurin, Armée – Guerre – Société, p. 379]. Yet, the image and reputation of the Meridional soldiers proved extremely resilient throughout the war and also explain the virulence of the so-called ‘15th Army Corp polemic’.

This polemic broke out in the autumn of 1914 when, after a series of defeats, southern regiments fighting within the 15th and 16th Army Corps were accused of having fallen back under the enemy’s fire. In many instances, national newspapers invoked the ‘indolence’ of the southerners held responsible for this retreat. This polemic reactivated traditional stereotypes and the opposition between the South (Midi) and the North that were translated through publications and private correspondence alike. Problematic as a result, the local appropriation of the war experience had been made even more difficult by the relocation after the 1907 mutiny of the 17th Infantry Regiment; a unit with which the town had had a long-established relationship. This makes all the more remarkable the efforts made by the local elites and by the town council in particular to strengthen the links with the 96th Infantry Regiment which had succeeded to the 17th. These efforts culminated in 1917 when the Town Council officially proclaimed that the 96th had obtained its ‘droit de cité’, a revealing turn of phrase denoting both acceptance and citizenship[18. A.M.B. ID 104, extraordinary meeting, 26 October 1917.]

The local appropriation of the national idea in wartime France and Britain therefore followed a similar logic in both countries. One may surmise, however, that the language of civic pride had greater purchase in England than in France where the ‘social relations of sacrifice’[19. Winter and Robert, Capital cities at war, I, 10.]were also articulated in terms of a ‘blood tax’, inseparable from the revolutionary notion of ‘levée en masse’[20. John Horne, ‘“L’impôt du sang”. Republican rhetoric and industrial warfare in France, 1914-1918’, Social History 14, no. 2 (1989): 201–223.].

3- The ethics of urban mobilization

The cultures of war in 1914-18 were grounded into the moral superiority that each camp claimed to embody. Yet, the ethics of mobilization also ran deeper and helped define and regulate behaviours and social relations within the belligerent societies. Here again, the cultural dynamic of mobilization stemmed from the transformations of warfare, for the totalizing logic of the conflicts led to the emergence of specific norms of wartime social life. The mobilization of the home fronts thus prompted the emergence of new divisions, new categories within the belligerent citizenry whose respective positions were evoked in terms of duty and defined by the wartime “social relations of sacrifice”. Accordingly, the front-line soldier stood out as the main character and role model of a wartime narrative that designed the ideal civilian comportment as the daily life translation of duty, sacrifice and solidarity. The demands of industrial warfare were such that the material comfort of the home front and specifically urban populations was not merely compromised as a gesture of solidarity with the soldiers at the front; it was expected to become a casualty of the war. The material deprivations soon added to the military losses to foster a growing sense of victimization on the home fronts. The dialectical articulation of victimization and participation thus structured the perception and behaviour patterns which ultimately determined the level and form of social mobilization, as attested for instance by the reception of refugees[21. Pierre Purseigle, ‘“A wave onto our shores.” Exile and resettlement of Western Front refugees, 1914-1918’, Contemporary European History 16, no. 4 (2007): 427–444.]. More generally, as the war dragged on, a series of distinct ‘characters’, dominated by the towering figure of the soldier in arms came to embody the ethics of mobilization, creating a “language of social morality (what is felt to be ‘fair’ or ‘unjust’, acceptable or unacceptable)” which regulated “relations between social actors[22. John Horne, ‘Social identity in war: France, 1914-1918’, in Men, women and war, ed. T.G. Fraser and Keith Jeffery, Historical Studies (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993), 119–135.].” Across belligerent societies one figure, that of “profiteer”, became the paradigmatic embodiment of this language[23. Jean-Louis Robert, ‘The image of the profiteer’, in Capital Cities at War. London, Paris, Berlin, 1914-1919, ed. Jay M. Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 104–132.]. Suspicions were first likely to be attached to those who had been spared from military. but, the issue of fair access to foodstuff and other material resources lay at the core of accusations of profiteering that soon tainted and embittered urban politics.

4- Wartime politics

This exploration of the dynamics of wartime mobilization, thus far centred on the wartime logic and practices of solidarity, also suggest how such a comparative urban history may further our understanding of wartime politics. Urban politics in 1914-18 is quite an elusive object since the disruptions brought about by the war substantially modified the urban polity. The suspension of the electoral process as well as the curtailment of the public sphere by censorship, propaganda or material hardships were obvious demonstrations of wartime changes. Likewise, the conscription and recruitment of political activists had strong implications for local political life.

The study of urban civil society in England and France demonstrates the necessity to revaluate the role of contention and social conflicts. It constitutes an invitation to take issue with what one may call “the consensual view” of wartime mobilization; the surprisingly prevalent idea that wartime mobilization stemmed from the “Union Sacrée”, the “party truce”, or from a rather improbable national consensus. As a result, social conflicts are exclusively understood as a crisis; a sure sign that the mobilization was gradually unravelling in the face of the demands of industrial warfare. However, social mobilization was a more dynamic process in which social conflicts performed a critical function.

Contrary to traditional interpretations, the wartime growth of the state’s apparatus and intervention did not strip the local civil societies of their mediating role. Indeed, a closer look at local associations discloses the extent to which the war altered the social location of power and therefore shifted political conflicts into the realm of voluntary organizations. The organizations of the urban civil society were contentious spaces that partially made up for the wartime curtailment of the public sphere[24. Pierre Purseigle, ‘Les associations locales face à la Grande Guerre : Société civile et Etat de guerre. Etude comparée Angleterre – France’, in Guerres et associations, ed. Marc Frangi and Bruno Benoit (Lyon: PUL, 2003), 87–104.]. For instance, the increased collaboration of the labour movement with the urban authorities and its association with the main phases of the war effort lent a new legitimacy to a local institution which had, up to the war, been carefully shackled. The nomination as Justice of Peace in December 1916 of the secretary of the Northampton Trades’ Council was indeed celebrated and acclaimed by the labour movement as recognition of the increased socialist presence in the urban polity.

Social conflicts raise numerous questions because they translated the new kinds of political problems entailed by the war. The social relations of sacrifice took on political dimensions because the issues of recruiting and conscription, of the organization of labour, of the supply and shortages of food or coal undermined the legitimacy of authority on national and local levels alike. This was indeed the case in both societies for the 1916 dear food campaign in Northampton[25. NRO, Northampton Trades Council NTC 4-5], and the 1917-18 strikes in Béziers[26. ADH, 10 M 244-245] issued mutatis mutandis comparable political challenges. Across the battle front, the urban history of Germany has similarly highlighted the critical nature of such conflicts over the access and distribution of essential resources[27. Chickering, The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914-1918, 554, 556; Belinda Davis, Home fires burning: food, politics, and everyday life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); E.H. Tobin, ‘War and the working class: the case of Düsseldorf 1914-1918’, Central European History 18, no. 3-4 (1985): 257–298.]. Part and parcel of the process of mobilization, these conflicts enabled belligerent societies, by way of strikes and protest, to articulate the conditions of their commitment to the war effort. A continuing process of negotiation and bargaining thus manufactured popular consent to a war effort elaborated as much through struggles and conflicts as through outspoken support[28. Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Oxford – Cambridge (MA): Blackwell, 1990), 102; Charles Tilly, ed., Citizenship, identity, and social history, International review of social history. Supplement ; 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 229.].

The comparison of urban mobilization thus enriches our understanding of wartime politics. It also invites to look afresh at the impact of the wartime mobilization on conventional conceptions of citizenship and of the State. Modern British political thought has established the philosophical basis of autonomous institutions and of communitarian and local political structures or institutions. French Republicanism, on the other hand, was built upon individual – as opposed to communitarian – autonomy and on the primacy of the Nation‑State. In other words, this form of universalist Republicanism leaves little conceptual room – if any at all – for intermediary bodies and communities to play a mediating role between the individual citizen and the Nation-State. Specifically, this framework of analysis, inherited from the Third Republic’s language of politics, hampers historical investigations into the urban dimensions of citizenship.

At this point, one must again insist on the profound and significant differences in the relationship between citizenship and military service[29. Charles Tilly, ‘Citizenship, identity, and social history’, in Citizenship, identity, and social history, ed. Charles Tilly (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), 231.]. In France “universal” military service and conscription were seen as essential vehicles of modernization and nationalization; critical vectors of the political education of the masses. In Britain, as Frank Prochaska demonstrated, urban civil society was the prime site of elaboration of citizenship[30. Frank Prochaska, Schools of Citizenship. Charity and Civic Virtue (London: Civitas, 2002), 9.]. While the experience of industrialized warfare challenged gender roles and gendered conceptions of citizenship in both countries, it certainly had a more dramatic impact in Britain[31. Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s identities at war. Gender, motherhood, and politics in Britain and France during the First World War (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).]. In France no “Representation of the People Act” redefined citizenship as it did in Britain in 1918. Thanks to conscription, citizenship was less problematic in France than it was in Britain. There, post-war electoral reforms underlined the continuing challenge issued by both the working-classes and women, whose participation in the war effort had been instrumental to the Nation’s victory.

The experience of the Citizen Corps, renamed Volunteer Training Corps in 1916, perfectly illustrates, in my view, the problematic reconfigurations of British citizenship that gender historians have illuminated. These units, initially raised to defend Britain in the event of an invasion have largely been overlooked by war historians for they were military insignificant; to the point of complete irrelevance. These units were largely made up of middle and upper-middle class men, too old, unable, or – before 1916 – unwilling to join the army. Interestingly, many of these men saw themselves as leaders of the urban community and as linchpins of its wartime mobilization. Those men had never doubted their civic virtue. Yet, the nature of the conflict and the type of social mobilization required to meet the demands of industrial warfare challenged this very certainty. As serving working-class men or women who had so far been deprived of full citizenship had come to embody the commitment to national defence, these non-combatant middle-class males had to reassert their quality of citizen. The position of these stalwarts and mainstays of urban politics in the Edwardian period was unsettled. The war did not only put sexist stereotypes to the test; it also put into question these men’s political pre-eminence. The history of these Volunteer Training Corps was therefore that of a quest for recognition of their wartime service; a wartime service which fell short of the standard they had contributed to define.


5- Urban mobilization and the contours of the wartime state

The First World War dramatically reinforced the terms of the social contract to which ‘citizenship’ refers; it also underlined the central place of negotiation, bargaining, and conflict in the organization of solidarity and in the operations of the State’s coercitive apparatus. The most striking example of the complex relationship between the State and civil society in wartime is perhaps provided by the local military service tribunals set up in Britain by the Military Service Act of 1916 which established conscription[32. A comparative study may also be fruitfully extended to include an analysis of the local recruitment board set up in the United States in June 1917. See Theda Skocpol et al., ‘Patriotic partnerships: why Great Wars nourished American civic voluntarism’, in Shaped by war and trade. International influences on American political development, ed. Ira Katznelson and Shefter, Martin (Princeton – Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 152.]. These tribunals constituted an unprecedented institutional framework through which the interest of the local community, the prescriptions of nationalism, and the State’s extractive demands were to be mediated and balanced. Operated by local dignitaries selected from each quarter of the local community, these tribunals provided a site where agents of the State pursued military manpower in face of individual opposition and local economic interests. They arbitrated between the demands of the military and the interests of local communities, which were formulated in economic, moral or political terms. Representatives of civil society thus adjudicated conflicts which often reflected a wider debate over the extraction of the means of war making[33. On the articulation of war making, state making, protection, extraction, distribution and production, see Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, 97.]. The participation of civil society in the enforcement of the State’s authoritative requests may lead us to revise the very definition of the State in wartime; particularly if one conceives the State in Weberian terms as the monopoly of legitimate coercion/violence[34. It would certainly supplement the approach developed in S.J.D. Green and R.C. Whiting, The boundaries of state in modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).].

The history of the wartime state has largely and rightly focused on the national administrative structures and governmental agencies[35. Pierre Renouvin, Les formes de gouvernement de guerre. L’organisation gouvernementale française pendant la Guerre, Publication de la Dotation Carnegie pour la Paix Internationale (Paris – New Haven: PUF – Yale University Press, 1925); S. J. Hurwitz, State intervention in Great Britain. A study of Economic control and social response, 1914-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949); R. Lowe, ‘The erosion of state intervention in Britain, 1917-1918’, The Economic History Review XXXI, no. 2 (1978): 270–286; Fabienne Bock, ‘L’exubérance de l’Etat en France de 1914 à 1918’, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’Histoire, no. 3 (1984): 41–51; Anthony Rowley, ‘Nouvelle régulation ou retour à la normale ? Le cas britannique après 1918.’, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’Histoire 3 (1984): 53–68; James Cronin, ‘The crisis of state and society in Britain, 1917-22’, in Strikes, wars, and revolutions in an international perspective. Strikes waves in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ed. Leopold H. Haimson and Charles Tilly (Cambridge – Paris: CUP – MSH, 1989), 457–476; Green and Whiting, The boundaries of state in modern Britain.]. The comparative urban history of mobilization supplements this perspective with an investigation into the adaptation of public services in the exceptional circumstances of the conflict. Civil society provided many of the material or human resources so needed by the state. From strict control to flexible partnership, circumstances dictated the attitude of the State towards civil society organization. Circumstances if not universal goodwill imposed cooperation; even in France where the prefects, the local representatives of the government were traditionally reluctant to cede or share any of their prerogatives to civil society. Due to the limitations of administrative bodies disorganized by the military mobilization, the assistance to soldiers’ dependents and war victims was ensured by civil society organizations organized in each locality[36. Louis Rolland, ‘L’administration locale et la guerre. Les faits et les idées directrices’, Revue du droit public et de la science politique en France et à l’étranger, no. 1 (1915).]. The critical importance of local philanthropy had been, by 1914, long established in Britain[37. William E. H. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1899); Frank Prochaska, ‘Philanthropy’, in The Cambridge social history of Britain 1750-1950, ed. F. M. L. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 357–393; Prochaska, Schools of Citizenship. Charity and Civic Virtue.]. In France, the necessities of war and the structure of military recruitment forced a temporary redefinition of the contours of the local state.

There is no need here to discuss at length the indisputable expansion of state agency entailed by the nature of an industrial conflict waged on a global scale. Yet, urban, national, and comparative studies have demonstrated how voluntary organizations compensated for the shortcomings of the State, proving indispensable in the mobilization of the material and cultural resources of the nation, and even benefiting from the war[38. For a contemporary perspective on British voluntarism see C.F.G. Masterman, ‘The temper of the people’, The Contemporary Review, (1915), pp. 1-11; On the assistance to war orphans in France see Olivier Faron, Les enfants du deuil : Orphelins et pupilles de la nation de la Première Guerre mondiale, 1914-1941, (La Découverte: Paris, 2001); On American voluntarism, Skocpol, Karch, Munson, and Camp, ‘Patriotic partnerships: why Great Wars nourished American civic voluntarism’.]. Historians of the state have even stressed the necessity and importance of the ‘state’s ability to secure the consent of key groups in civil society’[39. Cronin, ‘The crisis of state and society in Britain, 1917-22’, 459.].

The degree to which the French state cooperated with – and indeed relied on – civil society during the war has led me to insist on the “pragmatic pluralism” demonstrated by the Third Republic in 1914-1918. The war challenged institutional and normative definition of the Republican State and vindicates the pragmatic approach to public service embraced by Léon Duguit[40. Léon Duguit offered a first iteration of his doctrine in 1901. Léon Duguit, L’Etat, le droit objectif et la loi positive [1901] (Paris: Dalloz, 2003).]. For Duguit argued that the modern State was, in the era of the Great War, better understood not as a set of coercive institution, but as a provider of public services – in Durkheimian terms, as the guarantor of social solidarity.

Concluding remarks:

The First World War had demonstrated the transformative potential of total war as the experience of urban communities across the belligerent world demonstrated. As Elie Halévy put it “the world crisis of 1914-1918 was not only a way – the war of 1914 – but also a revolution – the revolution of 1917”[41. Elie Halévy, The Era of Tyrannies. Essays on Socialism and War, ed. Fritz Stern (London: Allen Lane – The Penguin Press, 1967), 162.]. From Washington to Beijing, urban social movements challenged established political, racial, gendered and social hierarchies[42. Rana Mitter, A bitter revolution: China’s struggle with the modern world (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Susan R. Grayzel, ‘Across Battle Fronts: Gender and the Comparative Cultural History of Modern European War’, in Comparison and History. Europe in cross-national perspective, ed. Deborah Cohen and Maura O’Connor (Abingdon – New York: Routledge, 2004), 71–84; Jennifer D. Keene, ‘Protest and disability: a new look at African-American soldiers during the First World War’, in Warfare and Belligerence. Perspectives in First World War Studies, ed. Pierre Purseigle (Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2005), 177–203.]. In the eyes of these protesters, the Great War had demonstrated the need for a redefinition of the contours of their national and their urban polities. Post-conflict demobilization thus proved to be as contested a process as the wartime mobilization had been. Central to the experience of military conflict, violence and coercion do not exhaust the war experience. In towns and cities across belligerent nations, solidarity, as much as violence and coercion, had defined the conflict. The history of urban mobilization must as a consequence be placed at the heart of our reflections on the social history of violence in the twentieth century.

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