Days of Hope (1916: Joining Up – Episode 1): Directed by Ken Loach (1975)

LeftCentral Review 

This outstanding four part drama begins in 1916; it initially concentrates on Phillip Hargreaves (Nikolas Simmonds) and his wife Sarah Hargreaves (Pamela Brighton).  The opening scene takes us to the Matthews homestead, where Ben Matthews (Paul Copley) meets a soldier and neighbour (Peter Russell) on leave from Flanders; he is carrying a gun and wearing khaki. The soldier in a passing reference to the Matthews family points out “bet their making a right packet, what with the war and the price of beef and all”.  Thus the stage is set for the paradox of the Great War on the home front, as Ben warns his sister that the Police have arrived on the farm to arrest Philip, a socialist and conscientious objector. This prompts Philip and Sarah to organise their departure, while Tom Matthews (Cliff Kershaw) provides the couple with money to make good their escape to London. Sarah’s father does this, even though he is an advocate of war (later attending a pro-war meeting).  Prior to leaving Phillip and Tom debate the issue around the dinner table, allowing Philip to forward a developing socialist analysis.  Despite the views articulated by Tom in opposition, his position is clearly an ambiguous one; he is reluctant to sanction his son’s premature army call up and refuses to view his son-in-law as a coward. 

Hargreaves doesn’t escape instead attends an alternative anti-war Quaker meeting in town, to listen to the key speaker and future Labour leader George Lansbury, a decision which leads to arrest.  Filming the two meetings allows Loach to explore the war from the politics of the Left (the Christian justification for the conflict is also forensically analysed through this juxtaposition).  The film adroitly hops from the pro-war demonstration, intermittently contrasting issues aired in the pacifist meeting. This is a clever analytical ploy, a creative device which is dramatic, educational and helps explain the complexity of the situation.

One of the speakers at the pro-war demonstration is a trade union representative whose support for the conflict is based on his trade union conservatism motivated by a need to protect Britain’s “Democratic Institutions”.   As Ross McKibbin has argued, “the German invasion of Belgium converted the Labour movement to a vigorous, though not uncritical, prosecution of the war”.  Ramsay MacDonald resigned his leadership of the nascent Labour Party and was replaced by Arthur Henderson who sat in the war cabinet.  Indeed, the trade union movement according to AJP Taylor “declared an industrial truce for the duration of the war”.  Alan Bullock supports this view, “the trade union movement met the outbreak of war in an impulsive mood of patriotism.  Hundreds of thousands of working men enlisted and the Joint Board renounced the use of the union’s bargaining position power by declaring an industrial as well as political truce”.  The film manages to convey this in a dramatic, balanced and coherent manner; there is no swing to the Left in Britain during the Great War, despite the noble efforts of John MacLean, David Kirkwood, Willie Gallagher and Red Clydeside (not forgetting militancy in South Wales).  Days lost to industrial action during the war were significantly below peacetime levels.

Phillip Hargreaves is placed on trial; he is fined and ordered to join a regiment.  Sarah leaves the court with her family and they are attacked by a violent crowd.  Ben fights back and receives a beating he is also ridiculed by the crowd, a dramatic scene charged with emotion. Ben seeks refuge in a pub; nothing is stated but the drama brilliantly infers that Ben has decided to join up, aged only seventeen – the process outlined later in grim detail. Hargreaves is also now in the army and is forced to drill, he is seen refusing to obey orders, in a very upsetting scene, vividly portrayed.  He is confronted by an officer, representing the reasonable face of the British establishment, his tone fair. He suggests that Hargreaves has made his protest and should now desist.  Hargreaves is not receptive to this approach and is dispatched to Flanders, where to disobey a military order is to invite death.  And indeed, Hargreaves along with others is sentenced to death but due to political pressure the sentence is converted to imprisonment.  According to AJP Taylor about 1,500 men who refused to follow military orders were subsequently drafted into military units.  There were 42 men who found themselves in the situation of Phillip Hargreaves “they lived under this shadow for a month until personal interventions by Asquith had them brought back to England”.

The film then takes us to Ireland as Ben Matthews has been stationed there.  The scene where the young woman (Triona O`Donnell) sings, `The Bold Fenian Men` is a remarkable piece of television, loaded with pathos, incredibly moving and powerful. The context is however a little unclear but it seems the film is focussing on the later involvement of Lloyd George when Lord French is set up as a de facto military governor of Ireland.

The war for Ireland is a complex issue and the dramatisation somewhat fails to convey this.  As Foster points out, the war led to a rural boom in the production of foodstuffs and those excluded in the urban areas joined up to fight; around 200,000 Irishmen – obviously not included are those who were recruited elsewhereAccording to David Fitpatrick about 90,000 men joined the army before 1916 and in Belfast in 1915 “Catholics were actually more likely than Protestants to join the army; economics rather than religion best explain the variation”.  Conscription was threatened as late as 1918, via the Military Services Act but never introduced in Ireland.  A voluntary recruiting campaign near the end of the war resulted in 14,000 men joining the army, a remarkable figure given the vociferous counter campaign and context.

The situation in Ireland is nuanced; constitutional nationalists were motivated to protect Belgium fighting for Home Rule in the fields of Flanders. While the Unionist community did the same in order to maintain the link with Britain.  Redmond quickly encouraged the Volunteers to join up well before Carson – doing so only after Home Rule was suspended. It is impossible to locate the time scale depicted in the Irish scenes; the use of IRA graffiti in rural Ireland is weak and wouldn’t be strengthened if replaced with IRB.  An effective dramatic ploy, whilst a poor portrayal of events, even if the episode is attempting to highlight the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921).  In episode 2 we discover that Ben is back in Britain stationed in the North of England in 1921.  Furthermore, his regiment’s behaviour is reminiscent of the conduct of the Black and Tans – which appears inconsistent and makes it difficult to contextualise.

This is however truly brilliant television, intelligently dealing with a complex array of themes, while maintaining dramatic drive, it seeks to educate while never underestimating the viewer – if you get a chance to watch it then do so.

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