Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
21 Oct. 2019
Review by Mark Klobas, Scottsdale Community College
English Landed Society in the Great War: Defending the Realm
By Edward Bujak
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018. Pp. ix, 191. ISBN 978–1–4725–9216–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War I, Home Front Print Version

Readers with a taste for the Downton Abbey way of life can get their fix by subscribing to Country Life magazine. First published in 1897, this generously illustrated periodical features articles on the rural lifestyle of the British upper class, replete images of elaborate gardens, lavish house interiors, and the fascinating "finer things" associated with the landed society. Historian Edward Bujak (Harlaxton College) has drawn extensively on back issues of Country Life to reconstruct how the English aristocracy adapted to the demands of the Great War. Seven succinct chapters describe the services they provided the state during the war and the consequent changes to their lifestyle. We learn about the role of landowners in adapting English agriculture to the demands of the war, as well as the military service they and their employees performed.

The various expenses borne by the British landed elite in the war came at a time of increasingly disadvantageous financial and political conditions. Under the terms of Liberal Government's 1909 "People's Budget," authored by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, aristocrats saw their land revalued and the levying of a new series of taxes. This in a period when agriculture was only slowly recovering from decades of economic depression. Many landowners were forced to sell off hundreds of thousands of acres and endure the resultant wholesale erosion of a status they had held in England for centuries.

The People's Budget came on the heels of legislation that had already redefined the military role of the aristocracy. The brainchild of the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, the new law merged the cavalry-based Yeomanry with the artillery- and infantry-focused Volunteer Force into a new all-volunteer Territorial Force. At the personal request of no less august a personage than King Edward VII, the aristocracy was courted to ensure the success of the reorganization, which often required them to serve as officers and open their lands for training purposes. The intent was that, "rather than the peers being in opposition to the people they would seek to fulfil the duty or function of a landowning aristocracy and offer useful service to the nation in seeing to its security and defence" (21). Bujak demonstrates in detail how,

County by county, Country Life recorded landed society fulfilling its military function. In Worcestershire, families were "setting a splendid and shining example of patriotism." In Staffordshire: "There are very few … families which are not represented in the Services, … the Ansons, the Pagets, the Seckhams, the Littletons, the Moncktons, the Morleys and the Bridgmans—to name but a few … but the heaviest toll has been taken from the de Trafford family. All the five sons of the late Mr. Augustus de Trafford of Haselour Hall have taken or are taking part in the war." The accumulation of names and actions revealed how the "military or fighting spirit seems to run in the families. Members of families do not necessarily take to the profession of arms in time of peace, but in an emergency like the present their patriotism carries two, three, and sometimes four members of one family to the King's Standard. This has been revealed in Shropshire." (30)

Nor were enlistments from country estates limited to the "flower of the aristocracy"; servants and estate workers also served in the armed forces, often with their employer's promises of guaranteed housing for their families and resumption of their prewar employment. The estates themselves were not empty for long: the War Office repurposed many of the parks and estates as hospitals and training grounds for troops.

Yet, Bujak observes, life went on as before in many country estates, though farming and hunting activities traditionally associated with life on the estates were curtailed or adjusted to better meet the exigencies of the war: for instance, more land was devoted to the cultivation of wheat and other crops than to raising livestock. This often entailed sacrificing grounds used for game-bird shooting and fox hunting. Landowners who resisted such changes faced compulsion or ultimately threats of expropriation by a succession of governmental boards and committees. The author notes that many estate owners often tried to make a case for the wartime benefits of pheasant shoots and fox pursuits. And when donations of game birds to hospitals proved insufficient to justify shoots, they argued that continuing them and hunts would bolster the morale of officers home on leave and that fox hunting was beneficial to the breeding of horses for military service.

Unfortunately, Bujak too often accepts the landowners' arguments at face value. This is a consequence of his uncritical over-reliance on a flawed source that reflected the prejudices of its readers and was subject to wartime censorship. He seems not to have undertaken any archival research to assess the accuracy of the material published in Country Life. In particular, some conversance with estate records and relevant collections of ministerial papers in the National Archives could have lent support or nuance to his portrayal of a suffering aristocracy patriotically "carrying on" under all the wartime burdens placed upon them.

The book represents a missed opportunity. Highlighting the sacrifices of the English landed elites during the First World War is a worthy goal. But the author undermines his intent by presenting them more as they wished to be seen than as they actually were.

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