Was this day the beginning of the end? What would our tutor have said if he had been here? Would the bloody events recalled this day on the Somme have been a sign that the world would never be the same again?
Back in the 1970s, our history tutor would refer us to a book called ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’. It was an alluring title for a book, it seemed to imply that the years leading up to 1914 possessed the intrigue of a murder mystery. The years between the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 seemed somehow to assume the character of a Golden Age. The Edwardians in our imagination became people of style and panache, embracing new inventions, achieving social and economic progress, establishing themselves in increasingly remote places, and seeming to do it all in flamboyant dress and unbounded gaiety.
What was always baffling was what happened to that world. Of course, the Great War intervened and Britain was never to recover from the battering it received; but what happened to that Edwardian spirit? What happened to those whose lives were filled with colour and elegance prior to 1914? The monarch was unchanged; wealth remained in the same hands; the war took a heavy toll, but there were still enough characters to provide inspiration for Waugh and Wodehouse. What happened to the hopes that survived the Somme and the conflagrations that followed?
David Lloyd George had promised ‘homes fit for heroes’, but along with most of the other post-war aspirations, the promise was to remain unfulfilled. The Spanish influenza epidemic of the winter of 1918 and the privations brought by an economy exhausted by the war effort aggravated the pain brought by the mass slaughter. Something had died in 1914 and no Armistice celebration or post-war reconstruction plans were going to resuscitate a spirit that belonged to another age.
The strange death encompassed more than just Liberal England, it changed the national temperament. Confidence in the future was gone; the belief in some immutable law of human progress lay buried in the mud of the Somme. The history tutor might have explained these things to us in clearer terms, it would have made more comprehensible the years that followed 1918; it would have explained why the autumn gold of Edwardian times could never be recaptured, why the 1920s and 1930s were to be bleak decades.
The Somme was part of a new reality, it forced the confrontation with the grim facts of a world where innocence had been forever lost. The 97th anniversary of that awful battle is lived in a world that never rediscovered the spirit of those days of Liberal England. If 1914 marked its dying, then the Somme was a confirmation of its death.
Sometimes, I wish history were more a matter of intrigue and mystery, at least in a novel you can rewrite the story.