Blogs > There was no comprehension of the scale of the approaching war

01 August 2014 | by Jamie Callison

There was no comprehension of the scale of the approaching war

This is part of a series of blogs celebrating The Tablet’s new online archive, where for a limited time you can view for free every page of every issue since 1840.

One hundred years ago on Monday, Britain declared war on Germany and the First World War commenced. A generation was laid waste. Yet, The Tablet reporting of the lead-up to the declaration – operating, of course, without the benefit of hindsight – was unable to anticipate the war’s global consequences. Instead, its reports oscillate between the demands placed upon it as a Catholic journal and as a British paper.

On 4 July, the “Topic of the Day” column – the equivalent to today’s “From the editor's desk” – contained an elegiac report on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the catalyst for events that precipitated the declaration of war. In the writer’s eyes, the tragedy, first and foremost, was for “Catholic Europe”, as the prince was one on whom it had “learned to build the highest hopes”. Indeed, the act was presented as not only horrific but also, ultimately, self-defeating for the Serbian conspirators given religious links between “Catholic Europe” and the Catholic Serbs living largely “outside the [Serbian] kingdom”. The article looked ahead to the implications this would have for the Serbian kingdom in relation to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As late as 25 July, the concern for The Tablet is the “independence of Serbia” and not the potential for multinational turmoil.

This interest no doubt reflects the locus of political attention in Britain, where heated discussions accompanied agitation for Home Rule in Ireland. The fate of Ireland was clearly a major concern for a Catholic readership but a priority that The Tablet would need to handle with care when also channelling British wartime patriotism. For instance, in its commentary on the Easter Rising two years later, the journal insists on the positive impact of “‘Shamrock Day in London’, and the wonderful scenes in the streets, when the whole people was wearing the green symbol of Ireland in eager recognition of what the sister-island had done for the war,” as opposed to the “tragic farce” of the seizure by the Irish Volunteers of the Dublin General Post Office, which it deemed detrimental to the British war effort and to the Irish cause.

The “Topic of the Day” for 11 July 1914 describes the political movement towards Home Rule – a significant topic for both news and comment in The Tablet up until the issue was foreclosed by the declaration of war.

Not until 1 August – after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia and three days prior to the British declaration – was the significance of the international situation grasped. In this edition, “The Topic of the Day” column betrays not only a new confidence with regard to the webs of allegiance on mainland Europe but also a pained uncertainty as to how this relates to Britain. “If there is any confusion or perplexity abroad as to the exact position of England, it is abundantly reflected in the Press at home.” The writer blames this confusion on Britain’s decision to avoid formal “alliance[s]” with its neighbours, preferring more nebulous “understanding[s]”.

Looking back, we might, instead, hear in this new, changed tone a dawning awareness of the violence newly visible on the horizon. Neither Britain nor Catholic Europe would ever be the same again.

Jamie Callison is a PhD candidate on the Norwegian-run Modernism and Christianity research project. Having published on TS Eliot and religion, he is preparing articles on David Jones and on Evelyn Underhill and mysticism in the twentieth century. He lives in London.

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