This book has been shaped by my childhood experiences, growing up in the 1950s. An earlier book on farmworkers in the early twentieth century owed its origin to stories about the Great War told to me by ex-servicemen.1 These suggested that patriotism, in the close-knit community where I grew up, was compatible with class consciousness and political activism. Though at that time the Second World War seemed as far away as the Crimean War, this conflict was the centre of most juvenile popular culture: comics, ‘pictures’, toy soldiers and games of army versus Germans played on the ‘rec’. We all knew what roles our parents had played in the war.
My father, Fred Mansfield (1912–2004), had a relatively quiet war. Though a pre-war Territorial in the Engineers, an old footballing injury kept him in the UK, as a gunner, exchanging fire spasmodically with German planes. Army service opened horizons beyond his home town, and furnished him with material for later soldiers’ stories. He was a servant or ‘batman’ to his battery commander. This excused him much ‘bull’ and enabled his cadging skills to thrive. (The CO’s hard-to-obtain Brylcreem, would be diluted with army issue disinfectant.) Later, he was posted to an isolated gun site overlooking Scapa Flow, where he did odd jobs for an elderly widow who ran a croft on South Ronaldsay. Despite Orkney being classed as a war zone, he brought my mother and older brother up to join him. They lived with the widow, and my father paid the rent by working on the farm. His mates covered for him, the officer turned a blind eye to any irregularities, and they were rewarded with off-the-ration eggs. With a background in the building trade, towards the end of the war, he was ‘combed-out’ of his unit. He spent months repairing bomb and shell damage in Dover, (p.xii) where he was billeted in the Napoleonic defences of the Western Heights. (These had been constructed by soldier-tradesmen 140 years before; see the section ‘Artificers and sappers’, in Chapter 3, below.) Fred also continued his promising football career, making guest appearances for a number of League clubs in the scratch wartime programme, and even playing once against the famous Stanley Matthews. Though in uniform, his working life continued in a way that would have been familiar to many soldiers throughout the previous century. This untold narrative forms the substance of this book, as the techniques of labour history are applied to the largest group of unstudied nineteenth-century workers.
At the time of writing, Britain is embarking on a massive public history jamboree to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Its overwhelming storyline is emotive, which I suspect that that the citizen soldiers I knew as a boy and who I interviewed in the 1980s, would have found distasteful. The generation-long Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, referred to here as the French Wars, were sometimes termed the ‘Great War’ in nineteenth-century histories. On a worldwide scale, others have noted that, for Britain, the mobilisation and the loss of life in this earlier ‘Great War’ was proportionately greater than in the First World War.2
Relatively little evidence of national mourning or private grief is recorded in the soldiers’ memoirs which followed the conflict. The deaths of senior officers might be recorded in cathedrals and the families of junior officers might erect monuments in parish churches, but the thousands of the rank-and-file fatalities received nothing but an unmarked grave, with families often receiving little word about their fates. Whilst contemporary civilian mortality rates were high, there is no doubt that working-class families grieved in a largely unrecorded story. This is chronicled by a radical hatter, whose father was a soldier and who was a boy during the conflict: ‘The French War was carrying desolation over a large portion of Europe, and there were few of the people even in the lonely, and sequestered valleys who had not occasion to mourn some dear relative who had fallen in the service of his country … and many a loving heart was left with an empty void which might never be filled.’ Even the unmarked graves were not always respected. Communal grave-pits of the big battles were excavated within decades, to be ground up for bone fertiliser and imported to drive the British agricultural revolution. The ‘father of the fertiliser industry’, Justus von Liebig, claimed: ‘Already in her eagerness she [England] has turned up the battlefields of Leipsic and Waterloo, and those of the Crimea.’ Such actions would have (p.xiii) been unthinkable both post 1918 and especially in the context of the current centenary.3
However, folk knowledge of momentous conflicts does persist down the years in working-class families. My father told us approvingly that Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses in the chapel of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, a boast which also caused the imprisonment in the town of a radical journeyman baker, John Cook, during the anti-Jacobin ‘White Terror’ of 1793.4 My father’s grandmother, Martha Mansfield, née Wayman (1860–1941), told him that her grandmother, as a little girl, walked from her village of Kingston into Cambridge to view the street bonfires celebrating a great victory. The occasion was recorded more officially: ‘On 7th of November, there was a general illumination on account of the battle of Trafalgar. The bells of Great St. Mary’s rang a dumb peal for Lord Nelson.’5 Family legend also remembers the name of Stephen Mansfield, who was said to have fought at Waterloo. So perhaps the combatants of the French Wars are closer to living memory than one might think, and the continuities with the citizen armies of 1914–18 are more vivid. The relative ease with which British society, and especially the working class, engaged in twentieth-century wars, may owe much to knowledge of military service in the earlier great conflicts.
Many debts to professional and amateur historians of various stripes are gratefully acknowledged here: Bob Amey, Derek Beadles, John Benson, Chris Burgess, Alan Campbell, Eddie Cass, Tim Cockitt, Len Collinson, Joe Cozens, Gavin Daly, Alex Danchev, Mark Dennis, Francis Devine, Peter Donnelly, Billy Frank, Peter Gattrell, Keith Gildart, Trevor Herbert, Craig Horner, Alun Howkins, Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Bonnie Huskins, Kevin Linch, Catriona Kennedy, Matthew McCormack, Malcolm McVicar, Janette Martin, Mairtin O’ Cathain, Bryn Owen, David Pink, Robert Poole, Iori Prothero, Martin Purdy, John Rumsby, Glenn Steppler, David Stewart, David Swift, Melanie Tebbutt, Myna Trustram and John Walton. Thanks too are offered to the staffs of various archives, libraries and museums, including John Rylands University of Manchester Library, UCLan, British (p.xiv) Library, National Army Museum, Library of the Royal United Services Institute, and Cambridgeshire and Shropshire Record Offices. A particular debt is owed to Jane Davies at the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Preston. I also thank Alison Welsby at Liverpool University Press for her great care and patience, and two anonymous readers for their helpful comments.
Above all, thanks are due to my family, especially Julia. Though Fred and Ena and most of the older generation are now dead, Bob, Robin, ‘Bob’s yer uncle’ and cousin Joan added more than they realise to my knowledge of the intricacies of the British class system.
(1) Nick Mansfield, English Farmworkers and Local Patriotism, 1900–1930 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), xi–xiii.
(2) Clive Emsley, British Society and the French Wars, 1793–1815 (London: Macmillan, 1979), 133 and 169 and Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (London: Pimlico, 1991), chap. 7.
(3) James Dawson Burn, The Autobiography of a Beggar Boy (London: Tweedie, 1855 ), 64–65. Though long suspected as an ‘urban’ myth, bone grinding is recorded as fact in Neil Oliver, Not Forgotten (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005), 42–45 and von Leibig, as cited in Edward Russell, The Fertility of the Soil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), 58.
(4) Nick Mansfield, ‘Grads and Snobs: John Brown, Town and Gown in Early Nineteenth-Century Cambridge’, History Workshop Journal, 35 (1993), 183.
(5) C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Metcalfe and Palmer, 1852), 483.