One of the many reasons why the First World War was such an important event in British history, is the profound impact it had on society. In addition to the tangible impacts – technological developments, medical advances, casualty figures, increasing social equality – there was a significant affect on the national psyche.
The confidence ordinary people had felt at the start of the war had gone. The respect for the old social order had also been challenged, through common suffering and hardship and also in the anger at the Establishment that had led the nation to war. On a personal level, there was also loss of faith, with many questioning the existence of a benevolent God in the face of the horrors they’d experienced.
At the start of the 20th century, Britain was a Christian nation. For centuries life had revolved around the church: People were hatched, matched, and dispatched. They kept sabbath on Sunday and relaxed at church socials during the week. The Christian churches ran many of the country’s schools, as well as supporting hospitals, charities, and social welfare.
Following the war, after a brief surge, church attendance fell. There was a sense of desolation at the scale of the sacrifice and how little had been achieved.
Janet Skeen is one of the Richmond locals who participated in The Alberts Remembrance project. The commemorations encouraged her to reflect on her own family’s experience of the war and its after-affects.
Her father, Henry Vesci Batchelor, was born in 1895 in Cookham, Berkshire. His grandfather, was a distinguished Congregational Minister and his father was a Canon in the Church of England and his upbringing was very traditional.
After school Henry studied at Oxford University and was destined for a very conventional Edwardian life. Until the outbreak of the First World War changed everything. Henry abandoned his studies and volunteered almost immediately:
After training, Henry was sent to France, Palestine, and then Egypt, by which time he’d been promoted to Acting Major, a reflection of the high casualty rates amongst officers. He survived the war, winning the Military Cross for his part in the Third Battle of Gaza in 1917.
Henry was the eldest of two brothers. His brother Meston had polio as a child and was not eligible for active service during the war. He became a teacher, later headmaster of Temple Grove school (originally in East Sheen).He also collected postcards, including many sent between Henry and the family during the war.
Meston’s life reflects the life Henry probably would have had but for the war. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Henry did not return to his old life at the end of the war, and chose to remain in the army. He was seconded to the Machine Gun Corps and sent to Waziristan and India, then part of the British Empire:
The loss of the old rhythms and certainties of life was a factor in the hedonism of the 1920s. As well as being a celebration of survival, it was a rejection of Edwardian values and ideals of an imperial age that had dragged the world into the war. Of course, not everyone embraced the trends of the Roaring Twenties, the jazz, cocktails, and relaxing of inhibitions. But this came to define the era between the wars, particularly for the wealthier classes.
Henry left the army in 1922 and returned to London to work as a barrister. He married for the first time in 1924. Henry married three times in total, having five children:
Janet was one of twins, born in 1941 during Henry’s second marriage. By that time, her father had retrained as a lawyer, partly because of deafness that was a long-term impact of the war. He continued to work in London, volunteering as an ARP warden during the Second World War.
Janet reflects on the impact of the war on her father’s generation: