On Good Friday 1914, London’s The Daily Telegraph carried the usual business and shipping news, followed by lengthy articles about cycling over the Easter holiday, “Hot Cross Buns: Fable and Fact”, “Fruit for Easter: Mostly Luxuries” (lamenting a lack of cheap fruit), the trial of a man accused of peddling a fraudulent cure for cancer, a report about the role of saints in the ongoing Mexican Revolution, and efforts made by the British government to install wireless communication in lighthouses.
At the cinema the sensation of the day was “the complete cinematographic diary of the great journey to the South Pole”: With Captain Scott in the Antarctic and Animal and Bird Life in the South Polar Regions.
There is no hint anywhere of the conflagration that would consume Europe just four months later. Promisingly, a leading article begins, “Good Friday dawns this year upon a Europe full of uneasiness and suicidal rivalries, and, in the case of our own country, upon a land rent with civil dissensions and the menace of social upheaval. It is not a pleasant prospect.”
The piece continues, “Europe at large, and we ourselves in particular, are passing through a grave crisis of unrest, the outcome of which is exceedingly dubious and is, perhaps, of sinister omen.”
What is this grave crisis? The Turks repressing the Armenians? The Austrians maligning Serbia? A dearth of samovars in Russia? No: it lies in the stirrings of a British Revolution. A restlessness that is “visible in our democracy, the same spirit of lawlessness and anarchy, so that might is held to be right, and an overpowering selfishness breaks down all the bonds of good feeling and concord between the classes.”
It seems that the peasants were revolting. Miners in Yorkshire, who “insisted on striking because they were not satisfied with the wages paid them under the Minimum Wage Act”; labourers in London who “have deliberately preferred to diminish their own scanty resources and plunge their kith and kin into penury rather than give way on what they consider to be a matter of principle.”
In Highgate Cemetery Karl Marx must have been turning in his grave. Friedrich Engels couldn’t. He had been cremated and his ashes scattered off Beachy Head in Sussex.
The writer of the article calls for “Toleration, charity, reasonableness – the grace of a truly civic spirit – above all, the temper of a wise self-sacrifice.” Words that might have been prophetic if they had been directed at the war clouds gathering on the horizon of Europe.
Yet, as Christopher Clark has argued in his brilliant book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, 2012), the nations were “watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” And so were the mass media, it seems.