If Britain had stayed out of the First World War and left Germany to beat France and dominate Europe, would it have been so bad?
Would it have been catastrophic to have a community of countries all bonded together on a single continent but heavily influenced by the German economy?
It’s a theory posited by eminent historian Niall Ferguson, in a BBC documentary The Pity of War, where he praises the valour of the British soldier but argues that it did not change the ultimate outcome many decades later.
Ferguson says: “Shortly after the war started one of Germany’s stated aims was a European Customs Union that was a remarkable anticipation of our own European Union.”
The July 3, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser does not explore these specific ideas – almost certainly treasonable at the time – but the economic aftermath of the war is subject to lengthy debate.
And those discussions seem remarkably current to us one hundred years later with our headlines dominated by the question marks over Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist ideals.
The 1917 debate focuses on the argument that technical education is important for the economy to allow British manufacturers to constantly evolve and stay ahead of the game but the argument says that in reality all the hard work will be worth nothing if other countries are allowed to dump cheap products in our country.
The report, which is not attributed in any way, says: “We may remind our readers of the words of Mr Chamberlain: ‘Let there be more education by all means: but if the manufacturers and farmers of this country were all of them made as wise as Solomon of old, and all the working men and labourers were as strong as Samson and as skilled as Tubal Cain, even then they could not compete with a sixty per cent hostile duty [of tariff].”
Of course, these comments are remarkably prescient for the Brexit trading debates and the 1917 story also explores further ideas around nationalisation that go to the heart of the rivalry between the Conservative and Labour parties.
The report says: “The war has given free traders a rude shock and has caused them to realise that ‘something must be done’ to enable us to meet German competition after the war.
“In their eagerness to shirk the obvious tariff remedy, they advocate better education and scientific training. These alone, they profess to believe, will enable us to hold our own.”
The report then goes on to quote a well known socialist Mr R B Suthers, who ‘pithily’ puts the case. “The Germans do not rely on education alone. They educate, but they also organise. They nationalise important and vital industries, they combine their forces, they protect their own markets and thus protected they sally forth and attack foreign markets.
“How ridiculous, then, for Free Traders to assume that education alone will enable us either to protect our markets against Germany, or to win trade against them in ‘fair competition’ abroad.”
This week’s four-page Advertiser also records the death of two more Harborians killed in action – Private Chas Carter and Private Ernest Wilford.
The 33-year-old Carter of Meadow Street, who worked at R and W H Symington before joining up at the very beginning of the war, died in a French Casualty Clearing Station from gas poisoning. And, of course, he is more than just another statistic – he leaves a widow and two young children.
The death of 23-year-old Wilford, who lived in Heygate Street, is a particularly tragic one.
The sad news was sent to his mother by one of Wilford’s two brothers who are also serving at the Front. The report of his letter says: “He was partly buried by a shell and whilst they were digging him out another one came and buried him completely and he was dead before he could be got out.”
- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.