Paul Simon reviews a flawed account of a human cog in the first world war machine
Joseph, 1917 by David Hewitt (Matador, £8.99)
AT THE outset of the imperialist disaster that was the first world war, Britain’s small regular army needed to be hugely augmented, and quickly, in the conflict with far larger German forces.
Lord Kitchener’s ubiquitous poster Your Country Needs You called for 100,000 volunteers.
Actually, over one million stepped forward in the first four months.
Men were then asked to “attest” their willingness to be called up in their turn through the Derby Scheme.
This allocated them to groups by age and marital status.
But, as the demand for fresh recruits outstripped willing supply, conscription was introduced in early 1916.
A tribunal system was established to hear the cases of men who believed their call-up should be deferred or exempted altogether.
David Hewitt’s protagonist Joseph Blackburn claimed he was one of the latter and so had already received a number of deferrals which delayed his conscription by over a year.
In frustratingly short excerpts, Blackburn is shown as a complex and totally human character, motivated neither by high anti-imperialist or pacifist ideals nor outright cowardice.
The contextual material in the book has been very carefully researched, with extensive use of fascinating tribunal minutes.
The reader learns how members of those bodies were drawn from the local great and good and their decisions considered whether the man was involved in vital work which placed him in a “reserved occupation,” or not.
Was there a difference, for example, between the man who grew potatoes on his allotment and the full-time market gardener?
Tribunals were attended by a military representative and, in Blackburn’s case, one of them made a successful appeal to the Central Tribunal in Westminster and he was forced to enlist.
This so enraged members of the local tribunal that they effectively went on strike and refused to hear any more cases for a time. So, this book works as a strategic account of a particular part of the British war machine.
It does not, though, tell the story in a particularly engaging style and so struggles to impress the reader at the vital emotional level. There are dozens of short biographies of tribunal members which in no way add to the Blackburn narrative and detract from the reader’s development of any real understanding and empathy for him.
And the author seems to struggle in managing his material as he focuses in and out of microbiographies of the “great and the good” more than he does on Blackburn himself.
As Hewitt himself writes in consecutive paragraphs: “Joseph’s appearances in the book are few and brief” and then: “Maybe, therefore, this book is not about Joseph Blackburn after all.” If the author is confused, so is the reader.
Tragically, Blackburn was killed in France just 10 weeks before the war’s end in 1918.