How well did civilian morale stand up to the pressures of total war and what factors were important to it? This book rejects contentions that civilian morale fell a long way short of the favourable picture presented at the time and in hundreds of books and films ever since. While acknowledging that some negative attitudes and behaviour existed—panic and defeatism, ration-cheating and black-marketeering—it argues that these involved a very small minority of the population. In fact, most people behaved well, and this should be the real measure of civilian morale, rather than the failing of the few who behaved badly. The book shows that although before the war, the official prognosis was pessimistic, measures to bolster morale were taken nevertheless, in particular with regard to protection against air raids. An examination of indicative factors concludes that moral fluctuated but was in the main good, right to the end of the war. In examining this phenomenon, due credit is accorded to government policies for the maintenance of morale, but special emphasis is given to the ‘invisible chain’ of patriotic feeling that held the nation together during its time of trial.
This book reflects how extensive the ‘negative’ features were, that is, to what extent they could be held to be typical of the people as a whole. It then reviews the totality of the civilian experience: the strains and stresses to which total war subjected the civilian population and the range and extent of its reactions to them. Next, it determines the factors that shaped or influenced the morale of the people. The reports of Home Intelligence and Mass-Observation have an important feature in common: they are explicitly concerned with civilian morale, unlike the other sources, where this matter occurs incidentally or unwittingly. They helped to show that pessimism to have been for the most part mistaken.
For a decade or more a traumatized mankind was in denial about its historic complacency towards the use of war as an instrument of policy. Pacifism became a mass movement of international dimensions. The record seemed to confirm that in future all wars would involve a significant role for the air forces of the combatants. It also suggested that not only would civilian populations become prime targets but that the targeting would be successful. The various elements of potential disaffection and dissidence constituted a significant cause for official concern in the peace-threatening years from 1935 to the actual outbreak of war in 1939. Mass-Observation found that despite the rumours of war, the recurrent international crises and the visible evidence of Air Raid Precaution (ARP), there was only low expectation that war would come soon, or ever, and widespread cynicism about government information.
The term ‘Phoney War’ was used to illustrate that no massed flights of German bombers appeared above Britain's cities to batter the citizens into submission. After the eight months of relative inactivity, there came a period of momentous events: the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, the collapse of France, the threat of invasion, the Battle of Britain. This was followed by subjecting London and several provincial cities to heavy bombing and the persistence of threat of invasion. Finally, the last phase showed the withdrawal of threat of invasion, the bombing became more patchy and intermittent and the war took on the character of a long haul to victory. Inactive character itself became a threat to popular morale during Phoney War. Fear, panic and hysteria were present among civilians subjected to bombing. Russia's involvement meant that victory was not quite so difficult to imagine.
Defeats and setbacks gave way to victories and advances on all fronts and the steady progress to victory was established. Part of the terror of the Blitz had been the fear that it was merely the prelude to invasion. When the excitement of Russia's entry into the war began to withdraw, and the news of her defeats and retreats accumulated, optimism about an early end to the war or even about victory itself receded. The issue of wartime separation is addressed in this chapter. There is a patchwork of ‘stories’ each of which discloses the private anguish of one separation but which together represent the common lot. Mass-Observation's surveys confirm that most people grumbled about shortages and loss of choice. The regime of wartime tended to criminalize many who were strangers to the courts. The final trial of the war served to confirm the broader story of wartime civilian morale.
The subject of this chapter is the efforts that the British government and its allies in the media made to promote the ‘mental factors’. These factors were: belief that victory was possible, belief in equality of sacrifices, belief in the integrity and efficiency of the leadership and belief that the war was necessary and just. The news media were not happy with the level of censorship that forced them into the disingenuous presentation of the news. The reassurance propaganda had just two basic themes: the strength and virtue of the leadership, fighting forces and popular resolve of Britain and her allies; and the inherent weaknesses that lay behind the apparently invincible might of the Axis. The theme of reassurance is prominent in the films. The propaganda films on civilian morale made some positive contribution to attitudes and behaviour.
Governments could take some comfort from the remarkable results of the test in the First World War to withstand danger and endure deprivation. Yet there was at the same time a warning in the experience: the capacity had limits. The government's solutions to reinforce and extend shelter provision are addressed. Feeding the nation was deemed as important as supplying the armed forces with the weapons of war. The food issue became a significant factor of good morale. Due to Ernest Bevin's proactive policies the working environment of factories was improved in all sorts of practical ways. The state of the nation's health is then considered. The review of the government's attempts to ‘ease the strain’ of war on the home front shows that it has concentrated on the necessities of life. Furthermore, the rational process of tobacco, alcohol, cosmetics and flowers is discussed.
Reconstruction dramatically took centre stage with the publication of the Beveridge Report in December 1942, thereafter becoming the leading issue in domestic politics and potentially a significant influence on popular commitment to the war effort. The cautious optimism generated by the Beveridge Report and the subsequent debate on reconstruction was complemented by a modest expectation that the trend would continue beyond the war. This Report proposed subsistence benefits for all within a unified system of compulsory social insurance. Home Intelligence concluded that the public remained unconvinced: ‘There is widespread suspicion of the Government's attitude to the Beveridge Plan. A great many, perhaps the majority, are convinced that it will either be shelved, mutilated, or whittled away, or else an inferior substitute put forward instead.’ It has been suggested that how people actually behaved was a consequence of their perceptions of the future.
This investigation arrived at an unequivocal conclusion: the ‘negative’ features emphasized by revisionist historians, although indisputably present, were not on such a scale as to invalidate the orthodox picture of a people who became actively committed to the project their leaders put before them, who cooperated with the drastic re-ordering of daily life that this entailed and who, on the whole, did so in a spirit of stoical endurance that did not exclude good humour. War-weariness was an inseparable part of war itself. The government did not take for granted that in war the people would acquire a heightened sense of national identity and would have confidence in victory, even when these characteristics manifested themselves at quite an early stage. Getting away from the war for most people meant defying the constraints of dark streets, fewer buses and trams and engaging in social activity of some kind.