Whatever your views on the causes and conduct of the First World War, it is impossible not to be moved by some of the stories and archive footage of 1914. When we think of that war, we tend to focus on the infantry in the trenches. It is difficult to see the relevance of the Civil Service.
Remembering civil servants who gave their lives...
But as we approach Remembrance Day, I would like to remember both the civil servants who gave their lives fighting for their country and the civil servants who – on the home front – made victory possible.
In recent weeks, the Treasury History Society has been running a competition to write a short essay on one of the civil servants honoured on the commemorative plaques around the government offices in Great George Street. Like much of the Civil Service estate, there has been a huge turnover in tenants over the years. Now these offices house HM Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs, Cabinet Office, Northern Ireland Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, UK Export Finance and the Civil Service Commission among others. At the time of the First World War, it housed the Local Government Board, the Board of Education and the Ministry of Works.
All the stories of those commemorated are moving.
Take Sergeant Charles Blackadder, a Scot born in Dublin, who came to London aged 20, and passed the Assistant Clerk Exam in 1909. He lived in West Kensington, sharing a house with 9 other civil servants. He worked in the Post Office Savings Bank and then the Local Government Board. When war broke out, he enlisted immediately at Clapham Junction in the 23rd London Regiment Battalion. He was sent to France after basic training. He was wounded at Fastubert in May 1915 but after recuperating he returned to the front. He died in 15 September 1916 attempting to take High Wood, near Amiens: the assault formed part of the Battle of the Somme and resulted in 581 British casualties.
Or Private Will Fraser, who grew up a stone-throw from Whitehall, when Westminster was rather more run down than it is today. He passed the exam into the Civil Service 9 years earlier than Charles Blackadder but also worked at the Local Government Board rising to the grade of Clerk (2nd division) in 1912. He also enlisted in 1914 and joined the Prince of Wales’ Civil Service rifles, a volunteer battalion of the London Regiment which met for drill and rifle practice at Somerset House. Will was shipped to France at the beginning of June 1916, and served for 6 months on the Western Front. History does not relate whether he regarded the December transfer of the Civil Service Rifles to Salonika in Northern Greece as a good or bad thing. He did have time to send a Christmas card to his brother: “Just a line to say that we have arrived in the land of the Epistles after a good journey...Glad to say I am alright up to present”. Sadly, the regiment was badly equipped: the bivouacs they were provided with provided little protection against the icy north wind; sanitation was poor and access to clean water limited. The Battalion suffered outbreaks of impetigo, dysentery, jaundice and nephritis. And Private Fraser succumbed to broncho-pneumonia, dying in the field hospital in February 1917. He was unmarried and had no children. A final poignant detail: his favourite toothpaste was Kolynos.
And there are many other interesting entries putting lives to the names on the memorials, which space precludes me from setting out here.
...and those who stayed who were central to the war effort
But it is not just the civil servants who died in the war we should remember. There were also the civil servants – men and women up and down the country - who stayed in the service at home and were absolutely central to the war effort.
The scale of mobilisation on the home front was unprecedented. Much of that was about providing munitions and kit to the army in the field and the Royal Navy at sea. It was also about providing food, medicine and wider logistical support. The war effort required much more state intervention, for example through food rationing or the regulation of alcohol consumption. And a more interventionist state required a bigger and more motivated civil service.
Financing the war became absolutely critical. Government spending was just £300 million in 1914. By the end of the war, it was £2.3 billion. The Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise played a great critical role in ensuring the taxes came in. But inevitably it fell to the Treasury to finance most of the war through higher borrowing. It was Britain’s ability to fund the war in contrast to Germany’s failure which largely led to the war’s end in November 1918.
Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, wrote a fascinating article in the Financial Times on the financing of the war - Remember the quiet glory of the old soldiers of Whitehall. It is well worth a read. I could not agree more with the main conclusion: “It is not often that civil servants…are described as unsung heroes. But as we remember the outbreak of the first world war, and the momentous sacrifice of those who fought and died, spare a thought too for those in Whitehall who, though far from the field of battle, fought hard for their country.”