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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.

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