The British Astronomical Association and the Great War of 1914-1918
2014 July 21
The years leading up to the First World War are sometimes depicted as a romantic golden age of long summer afternoons and garden parties, basking in a sun that never sets on the British Empire. Whilst this might be a nostalgic misperception, the majority of the population of Britain was taken by surprise by the events which rapidly unfolded during the summer of 1914.
The history books tell us that the inevitable descent of the European powers towards war started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) in Sarajevo at the end of June. The trigger for Britain’s entry into the war was Germany’s invasion of Belgium on August 4. Britain had guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality and it therefore issued an ultimatum to the German government that its troops must leave Belgium by 11 p.m. on August 4. The ultimatum was ignored and thus by the end of August 4 Britain was at war with Germany. A global calamity of unprecedented proportions soon unfolded which was to last more than four years, during which all aspects of British society were affected in one way or another.
The BAA had celebrated its 21st birthday in 1911 and by that time it had already established an international reputation for the quality of its observational work. As in the rest of British society, there were no thoughts of war at the BAA in the first part of 1914 and indeed, as we shall see, some members were caught by surprise at its outbreak whilst participating in expeditions to observe the total solar eclipse that summer. Contemporary accounts of the affairs of the Association during the Great War in the Journal and in the Memoir on the BAA’s First Fifty Years, written in the 1940s, naturally focus on the astronomical progress of the Association and its business affairs.
Few details were provided of the impact of the war on individual members, although announcements began to appear in the Journal about officers of the Association leaving for military service and these were soon followed by obituaries of members killed in action. This approach was perhaps typical of the era, when the spirit of the age was to serve King and Country, at whatever personal cost, rather than dwelling on its human consequences, which in many cases were too horrendous to consider openly. Moreover, once the war was over, people naturally wanted to forget about it, rather than reliving its horrors.
I have written this paper to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. I mainly focus on the rôle played by individual BAA members and present some of the personal stories behind their wartime activities, some deeply moving, some tragic and some uplifting. My intention is to pay tribute to the members who strove to protect our freedoms and to those who made the supreme sacrifice. It does not intend to be an exhaustive survey; given a membership in excess of 900 during much of the war, there were many who served their country beyond the public gaze, and there were doubtless many acts of heroism that have gone unrecorded. [continued….]
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