Viking, £25. Order at a discounted price from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

The Fateful Year: England 1914, By Mark Bostridge: Book review - a landscape filled with strikes, spy fever and Suffragettes

A book that assesses the state of the nation as it stood on the brink of the Great War

On thursday 8 January 1914, George Tillman, a 16-year-old apprentice, climbed into a third-class carriage of a train from Chalk Farm. While doing up his bootlace, Tillman noticed a knee under the seat. The train was stopped at Shoreditch – and the station master crawled under to find the body of a five-year-old boy, Willie Starchfield, murdered by strangulation. The discovery of his body inspired a huge police investigation that was never concluded.

Two years later, the government would bring in universal conscription for men aged over 19 and under 41. Just over a year later, the War Council would decree that the navy should launch an attack on the Dardanelles, with Constantinople as the ultimate goal.

But in early 1914, despite stand-offs with Germany and concern about rearmament, few were looking towards Europe. "Our relations with Germany are infinitely more friendly than they have been for years," David Lloyd George, the then Chancellor, told the Daily Chronicle on the first day of the year. Both countries had understood that there was "nothing to gain and everything to lose by a quarrel". The nation and its newspapers were occupied by domestic matters, murders such as those of Willie, worker strikes in Leeds and other cities, the activities of campaigners for women's suffrage – and the fraught question of Irish Home Rule.

Mark Bostridge's new book explores a country on the edge of war, conjuring a brilliant panorama of a country that still seemed Edwardian – even though the old King had died three years earlier. Bostridge is inspired by his own past, the recognition that 1914 had precipitated an "abrupt, violent break" in his mother's family. His grandfather was reported missing, presumed dead, on 1 July, the first day of the Somme.

In describing the "fateful year" Bostridge gives us familiar stories such as the white feather brigade and the Suffragettes hauled off to Holloway, and much less well known ones. In the village of Burston, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, the pupils at the local school went on strike to retain their beloved teachers at the school – who had fallen out of favour with the vicar and the Education Board. Most of the stories are concerned with England, although characters from other parts of the United Kingdom pop up, from reference to Frances Parker, the Scottish Suffragette who suffered shocking degradations during force feeding and Fergus Forbes, son of the Earl of Granard, first son of a peer to die, killed at the Battle of Mons on 23 August.

Bostrige gives particular attention to the Pankhursts and their fellow Suffragettes (although it is worth noting that modern scholarship on Emily Wilding Davison suggests that she was trying to disrupt the Derby Day race in 1913, rather than to commit suicide). He tells vividly the story of Mary Richardson, an anaemic young woman who left her home on 48 Doughty Street, entered the National Gallery on a free day and hacked at the Velázquez's The Toilet of Venus, with the declared intent of protesting the "slow murdering" of Mrs Pankhurst, on hunger strike in Holloway Prison.

"I know I travelled in a bus with two German spies today," one woman wrote in her diary. Thousands of Germans were living in England, many married, working as butchers, barbers and in service. Asquith himself had a German governess and two ministers had German chauffeurs. Stranded after the beginning of the war, Germans in Britain suffered terrible prejudice and even violence. By mid-September, Londoners had made 9,000 reports on suspicious Germans to the police. Spy fever gripped the country.

Ralph Vaughan Williams sat down to write The Lark Ascending on the cliffs near Margate. He was promptly arrested by a scout, accused of making maps for the enemy. He was fortunately released by the local police with a caution.

On Christmas Eve, England received its first bomb from the air, falling at 10.45 am on the garden of an auctioneer in Kent. As Bostridge shows in this beautifully written and detailed book, 1914 was a "fateful year" of Suffragettes, strikes, spy fever, privation, death and bombs; England was truly never the same again.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
MasterChef 2014 finalists Charley Boorman, Wayne Sleep, Sophie Thompson and Jodie Kidd

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Trade unionist Ricky Tomlinson (right), later a television actor, attends a demonstration in London, 1975
theatre
News
The three-time Emmy award winner Elaine Stritch
peopleStar of stage and screen passes away aged 89
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor