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28 July 2021

From the NS archive: August the Fourth

8 August 1914: Why did a declaration of war make people in a way unusually happy?

By Desmond MacCarthy

On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The New Statesman writer Desmond MacCarthy reports on the mixed mood from the streets of London on “this night of good-byes, of slow intimacies and friendships huddled into climaxes; night of sociable, equalising forebodings, night ominous to the solitary, but gay, positively gay, to the gregarious”. MacCarthy observes the strange behaviours of the city in the early hours of the morning as the “exaltation roared and romped and streamed along the streets” to ask, “Why did a declaration of war make people in a way unusually happy?” Speculatively diagnosing this as “war fever”, where the “hectic communal excitement” masks the foreboding gloom, MacCarthy draws awareness to the irony that “under the threat of common danger and of widespread suffering, narrow-minded, sparrow-minded humanity suddenly discovers how inspiring it is, after all, to be in touch with everybody, and in consequence becomes much happier than usual in spite of dread and worry”.

***

Nature, I believe, meant me to be a special reporter, only she forgot to endow me with the knack of always being on the spot to which most attention is directed. Still, sometimes the many-eyed stare is not fixed on significant scenes, only on noisy ones, and, again, sometimes so much worth noticing is going on everywhere that it does not matter much where you are. The night of 4 August was such an occasion. It does not disqualify me as a reporter that I was not in the pushing, yelling, chaffing, music-hall-ish crowds which thronged the Horse Guards or in the cheering ones outside the House of Commons. I met at two in the morning, in the far and quiet west, in a shining-clean, empty residential street, an old, eager, one-eyed vendor of papers with a Union Jack in his billycock. A tattered bill fluttered before him as he shuffled wearily and hurriedly forward. “Thrippence. Declaration of War,” he was shouting in a monotonous quinsied whisper. I stopped and bought. “It’s not in it,” he added, confidentially, pocketing the coppers, “but it’s true; God’s truth it is – I couldn’t get the latest. I was an hour and a quarter getting through the crowd.” I looked at him and felt as if I had been in that crowd myself – yes, and could describe it, too, “If Mr Disraeli was alive! ” he croaked huskily; and after this unexpected comment he lunged on again with bent knees, leaving me under the streetlamp staring at the columns of the new but already familiar heavy-leaded type.

Though the region where I parted from my friends was fairly well known to me I had lost my way. After walking about an half an hour I had come out somewhere below Holland Park. How late the buses were running! And the taxis were bizzing one after the other down the main thoroughfare, just as if it was ten o’clock. I recalled vaguely printed public injunctions about economy in petrol. Of course, of course; but economy was impossible tonight; on this night of good-byes, of slow intimacies and friendships huddled into climaxes; night of sociable, equalising forebodings, night ominous to the solitary, but gay, positively gay, to the gregarious. For under the threat of common danger and of widespread suffering, narrow-minded, sparrow-minded humanity suddenly discovers how inspiring it is, after all, to be in touch with everybody, and in consequence becomes much happier than usual in spite of dread and worry. I had noticed on my late ramblings and strayings that “good-nights” were more frequent, and that they had a different ring. People seemed to like being stopped and asked for a match or to point out the way; their eyes were more alive, less preoccupied, more conscious of one as an individual. When I joined a group round a coffee-stall to drink a cup of hot slop, I did not feel that customary embarrassment at not being suitably dressed. The silence was more friendly; some sort of barrier was down; no one asked me for money. Beside me as I drank stood one of those little, odd, undersized fly-by-nights, her grubby hands resting side by side on the oil-cloth of the counter. She looked up under her feathers and smiled. It was a different sort of smile. As I crossed, striking southward, some idea – what was it? began to peep through these impressions. Then a taxi full of people and flags whizzed by, down the now empty road. A girl in a pink jersey and a man, sitting on the half-open roof, set up a long hooting screech like a siren whistle as they passed; I felt I had sampled the patriotic enthusiasm of Piccadilly Circus without going there. What luck! If I had, how depressed I should have been. For there is nothing to equal the heart-damping sensation of being crushingly convinced by a crowd that it is only occasionally when people feel strongly that they feel like oneself.

In a road of modest villas (it was quiet and dark) I passed first one and then another waiting taxi… close on three o’clock, and in this region of prudent living! Behind the shivering acacias a door opened and a woman ran down the steps waving back to a man standing in the lighted oblong, signalling and nodding at her, agitated encouragement. In she sprang and flung herself back with that rapid preoccupied movement which seems equivalent to exclaiming “this is life”, and off she went. This hectic communal excitement we call ”war fever”, which overlays gloom forebodings – my idea had something to do with that. In some places, and at some times, it expressed itself in confused uproar and romping, in others in more intimate ways.

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I had not come up against those blatant manifestations of it, that swaggering contempt for suffering which suggests in people such an ignominious combination of cowardice, stupidity, and cruelty. The great majority loved war unless they feared too much for themselves or for the lives of those nearest them. There was exhilaration abroad tonight, though the crisis was too apocalyptic and ominous for it not to neighbour heaviness and gloom. Close beneath lay forebodings of dreadful days and a dumb resentment at the cold-blooded idiocy of diplomacy. Still, there it was a kind of happiness. Why did a declaration of war make people in a way unusually happy? Was it only love of excitement? Where exaltation roared and romped and streamed along the streets, it seemed it might be so; but where I had surprised it, in quieter eddies, there seemed to be another element involved. I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are branded together to kill their fellow men; never are they so conscious of the humanity of others as when they are out together, sharing risks, to smash the self-respect and mutilate the bodies of those who might, but for a few politicians, just as easily have been fighting alongside them, hoping with them, dying with them side by side.

Earlier in the night I had seen a party of French recruits doubling through the streets singing; everybody had hailed them as they went by. Coming towards me now under the lamps was a man in spectacles and a small straw hat. He looked Teutonic, so “Gute Nacht,” I said as we passed. He stopped for a second. “Ach Gott, Ach Gott! Mein liebe Freund!

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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