Review of 1914 by Journalist James Cameron
In 1959 the British journalist James Cameron published his third book and one which saw a departure of sorts from his reportage work. I say of sorts because whilst the subject of his book was the First World War he wrote it very much in keeping with the style of journalistic writing he had become so well known for. The book, 1914, was published by Cassell & Company Ltd of London featuring a stark cover of red and white lettering on a gun metal background.
‘A momentous year in the life of a people who, for good or ill, were never to see their world again as they saw it then’ Cameron sets the scene of a Britain facing a year in which the very fabric of the world would be changed by the horrors of that most bloody of conflicts. Britain at least, would be forever altered, the war served as a seminal point of change in its history and whilst the following years of the war would prove far worse 1914 was, as Cameron writes; “the punctuation-mark of the twentieth century”
Cameron’s writing style punches from the pages in typical twentieth century British style as he paints a picture of a country on the up, a sparkling social scene, a neighbouring Europe alive to the sounds of Strauss, Stravinsky and Claude Debussy to the skill and grace in movement of Nijinsky on Diaghilev’s stage or to read the pages, finally, of James Joyce’s Dubliners. What lay ahead could scarcely be more different, sparked by the gunshot from Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on the 24th of June. It would prove to be the beginning of the worst of summers; “July began in a wave of overpowering heat the like of which had not been recorded for years. The farmers were already seriously alarmed: there had been no real rain since March, most of the root-crops were already ruined and the hay harvest was the lightest for years. England was spread with bare and dusty fields”
This background information which so brilliantly paints a scene is typical of Cameron and runs throughout the book, from the beginning he sets out to create a feeling of intimacy in the build up to the fighting, it is a remarkable reminder of England pre-conflict coupled with the machinations of the government and the personal effects it had on those in power; “Asquith sat writing at his desk with a pen in his hand. As she watched him, his wife recorded, she wondered: what was he thinking of? His sons? Her son was too young to fight; would they all have to fight? ‘I got up and leaned my head against his’ she said, ‘and we could not speak for tears’
As Cameron paints the scene in Britain he turns his attentions to France and the five months of fighting in 1914 in which the French lost 800,000 men, most in the Battle of the Frontiers. “France” he wrote, “Was not to recover from this for many a generation” As the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) marched on towards the Germans at the Western Front Cameron recalls their anthem of liberty: “Send for the boys of the Girl’s Brigade to set old England free: Send for my mother, my sister or my brother. But for God’s sake don’t send me” Ironically, one of the B.E.F.’s first movements of the war was one of retreat. As the initial salvo’s of the war got under way Cameron details the movements of both sides, interspersed with remarkable stories such as the case of a British Trooper, cut off from his regiment who was befriended by a local villager and, despite the serious risk to her own life concealed him near permanently in wardrobe two and a half feet broad and a foot and a half deep for almost four years.
As the war raged on so the humanitarian crisis took hold; by the end of 1914 Belgian refugees numbered almost 200,000, a million had fled their homeland since the war began with Holland taking almost half of them. Britain also took around 6,000 Russian and Polish Jews and so the debate began as to what to do with them all; “as the war solidified and lengthened it became clear that some means must be found of integrating them into the country’s economy. What could they do? The Belgians could not be given employment in fields where British were having difficulty in finding work. The trade unions were already uttering clear warnings that they would not countenance any trend to move the Belgians in at rates below the accepted pay scales” Yet despite the concerns it was clear the refugees had neither the will nor the aptitude to work in agriculture. Little has changed.
Cameron moves through the year at an unrelenting pace, by December we are treated to his account of the remarkable momentary truce on Christmas Eve as the Germans climbed out of their trenches one by one singing hymns and signalling for their enemy to join them. The B.E.F. and the French laid down their rifles and greeted the Germans, exchanging cigarettes and gifts in a line of thousands from the Channel to the Vosges. Cameron wrote: “This was the Christmas truce that the commands had refused; it was the subject of many disciplinary measures, and it was never to happen again”
As 1914 came to an end French headquarters sent a communication; ‘A l’ouest, rien à signaler’….‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ I shall finish with Cameron’s final chapter:
‘Down the long arc of wretchedness from Picardy to the mountains the men waited among the mud and the ice, the gun-limbers and the vermin. Very soon the horizons would open up again; someone in Whitehall or the Invalides would press the button again and they would climb-wearily, angrily, fearfully, gloriously-over the parapet again, and what would happen then no one could say’
1914 by James Cameron
Published by Cassell 1959
A bibliography of James Cameron the journalist can be found here