LSE's War: 1914 - 1918

By LSE Library

When war broke out, the London School of Economics and
Political Science (LSE) was almost twenty years old. Although
much of the driving force behind its creation came from the Fabian socialists
Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the School was meant to pursue a non-partisan
educational mission centred on teaching and (especially) research. Located initially at the
Adelphi, the School moved in 1902 to a purpose-built home: Passmore Edwards
Hall in the recently cleared slum district of Clare Market.

First LSE Hockey Team (1911)Original Source: LSE Library

In 1913-14, 1,681 students were enrolled at the School, of whom 142 came from overseas and 583 were women. From the beginning, its student population was unusually diverse. Much instruction took place between 6-9:00 p.m., and social life centred on the refectory. The School had a mixed hockey team, and amateur dramatics, terminal balls, and Epping Forest picnics punctuated the academic cycle. 

LSE Army Class 1927-1928 (1927/1928)Original Source: LSE Library

In 1907, LSE was selected as a training centre for staff officers. Some 250 officers attended between 1907 and 1914, learning accountancy, statistics, economic geography, and railway management, in a programme devised by the School’s second Director, Sir Halford Mackinder. Between 1914 and 1918, 245 officers and men of the Army Class would see active service, and several would lose their lives.  (The photograph is of the Army Class of 1929.)

Belgian Refugees Album (1913/1929)Original Source: LSE Library

After Germany invaded and occupied most of Belgium during 1914, 250,000 Belgians took refuge in Britain. At first they were welcomed enthusiastically, although later relations with the host community grew strained. Some 200 exiled Belgians and Russians attended the LSE during the conflict’s opening months. In 1918-19 hundreds of Americans, mostly returning from military service, took courses at the School, including in Law and Economics. Their appreciative letters remain in the archives. 

The Clare Market Review (1915-03)Original Source: LSE Library

Clare Market Review was the LSE student magazine. According to its editorial in December 1914, the war was ‘the most momentous struggle in which our country has ever engaged … never has her cause been more just or her conscience more pure’. Although initially student life continued relatively undisturbed, special lectures on the conflict were arranged, and funds raised for a Red Cross van to administer hot coffee behind the frontline. By the middle of the war student numbers had almost halved, and the School required a Treasury subsidy.

The School’s third Director, William Pember Reeves, was a New Zealand academic and politician, whose wife, Maud, had published a classic social study of Lambeth housewives, Round About a Pound a Week. Both were consumed with anxiety about their son, Fabian, who lost his life when flying over France in 1917. Reeves became a recluse and Maud (like other bereaved parents of her generation) sought comfort in Spiritualism. The Head Porter, Edward Dodson, also lost his son in action, and much of the running of the School devolved onto its Secretary, Christian Mactaggart. 

War Roll (1915-07-01)Original Source: LSE Library

In November 1917, the School’s Council of Management was told that ‘no matter where one goes in government offices one meets students of the School, past and present’. The statistician A. L. Bowley worked for the Ministry of Munitions, with assistance from his students; the lawyer Alexander Pearce Higgins advised the Ministry of Blockade; the cartographer Hilda Jones made military maps; and the historian Mary Stocks scoured the enemy press for information on the German economy. Women students were employed in canteens and hospitals, and in the opening months the corridors were filled with khaki uniforms (though later the volunteers went abroad). The School kept a War Roll, recording the staff and students who joined up, and their subsequent fates.    

Council of Management (1918-11-28)Original Source: LSE Library

London was raided repeatedly by Zeppelin airships in 1915-17 and by ‘Gotha’ and ‘Giant’ bombers in 1917-18. 668 Londoners were killed and 1,938 injured. Yet in contrast to the Second World War, when the LSE was relocated to Cambridge, in 1914-18 it remained in the capital. Students went out into Clare Market to see the first airship caught in searchlight beams; in February 1918 bomb fragments smashed a skylight. Students took shelter in underground library stacks, while lecturers teaching after 6:00 p.m. were insured against injury from aircraft.

Clement Attlee with George Lansbury (c. 1920)Original Source: LSE Library

The future Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (seen here with George Lansbury, whom he would replace as Labour leader), became a lecturer in sociology at the LSE in 1912. He volunteered for military service in 1914, after debating with his brother Tom, who became a conscientious objector. Attlee was 31 and at first debarred for being too old. None the less, he served in the Gallipoli campaign, was the last but one to be evacuated from Suvla Bay, and despite suffering illness and being wounded in Mesopotamia, he went on to serve in France, where he was wounded again. He rose to the rank of Major. The war marked a decisive phase in Attlee’s personal development: he grew comfortable in exercising authority and discovered a surprisingly emotional English patriotism. After it he returned briefly to the School before becoming Mayor of Stepney. 

Hugh Dalton (c. 1914-1918)Original Source: LSE Library

Hugh Dalton studied at the LSE, but was beaten by Attlee in the 1912 competition for a permanent lectureship. He retained an occasional lectureship at the School, but during the war he served in the Royal Artillery in France and Italy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant and receiving an Italian decoration for bravery after the Battle of Caporetto. He wrote a memoir of his experiences: With British Guns in Italy. After the war he returned to the LSE as a lecturer and eventually reader in Economics, while also pursuing a political career. In the 1930s he led Labour into opposition to the policy of Appeasement, and in 1945-47 he became Attlee’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

R.H. Tawney (c.1920s)Original Source: LSE Library

If Attlee and Dalton provided future leadership for the Labour Party, R.H. Tawney would become its conscience. Tawney was originally an economic historian, and a friend of William Beveridge (Director of the LSE in 1919-37), whose sister, Jeannette, Tawney married. He was appointed to the School as the Director of the Ratan Tata foundation, and spent the rest of his career at the LSE. In 1914, he was 32 and like Attlee above the normal active service age, but he too volunteered (and to serve as a private). He saw front-line duty in 1915-16, and was wounded on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In the second half of the war he returned to the School, and his most influential works appeared after the conflict, his military experience having sharpened his socialist commitment. 

Letter from R. H. Tawney (1916-06-10) by Tawney, R. H. (Richard Henry), 1880-1962Original Source: LSE Library

Tawney was an exceptionally vivid and imaginative writer, and some of his insight is apparent in his letters from the trenches to his wife. He wrote an extraordinary account of his experiences on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, ‘The Attack’, when he was wounded and lay in No Man’s Land for thirty hours, while over half his unit became casualties. ‘I suppose it’s worth it’, he reflected. The essay was published in the Westminster Gazette, and read by, among others, the next Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. 

Memorandum on War Aims (1918)Original Source: LSE Library

If Attlee, Dalton, and Tawney would help transform the Labour Party in the 1930s and 1940s, Sidney Webb was already reconstructing it during the First World War. He had resigned as Chairman of the LSE’s Court of Governors in 1910, but remained a very active Court member while joining Labour’s National Executive Committee and co-operating with the party’s wartime leader, Arthur Henderson. In 1918 Labour equipped itself with a constitution, a domestic programme (‘Labour and the New Social Order’), and a foreign policy platform. Webb was primarily responsible for ‘Clause Four’ of the constitution, advocating ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’, which was revised in 1995 under Tony Blair’s leadership. He also led in drafting the domestic programme, and he initiated studies of a post-war League of Nations, including the Labour ‘Memorandum on War Aims’. 

Beatrice and Sidney Webb (1932)Original Source: LSE Library

Beatrice had a more difficult wartime experience than did her husband. The Webbs had decided in 1912 to become more closely involved in politics, and in 1913 they founded the socialist weekly, the New Statesman. The outbreak of hostilities surprised and disorientated them, but whereas Sidney came round to supporting the war effort, Beatrice was more ambivalent. The slaughter brought her close to a nervous breakdown, and only in the second half of the conflict did she return to political activism. 

Letter from Lloyd George (1917-02-17) by Lloyd George, David, 1863-1945Original Source: LSE Library

The Webbs disliked and distrusted Lloyd George (who became Prime Minister in December 1916), but Beatrice accepted his invitation to serve on the Government’s Reconstruction Committee, set up in 1917 to map out social and economic programmes for after the war. On issues such as reorganizing Whitehall committees and reforming the Poor Law she steered the committee towards her viewpoint, but she was less successful in altering government policy. 

The Line (1920-06) by AnonymousOriginal Source: LSE Library

This poem’s author is unknown. Its disenchantment contrasts with the pro-war enthusiasm of the Clare Market Review in 1914-15, and when it was published the best-selling war poetry (such as verse by Rupert Brooke) was still patriotic. The war experience impinged less deeply on the LSE than on the older universities. When Major G. V. Ormsby, who as a student had joined up in 1914, returned in 1919, he found the dead were not referred to and had apparently been forgotten. He took the initiative in raising funds for a memorial. 

Letter from Mair to Sir William Robertson (1923) by Beveridge, Janet Beveridge, Baroness, 1876-1959Original Source: LSE Library

By the time the memorial was unveiled, the School was under changed management. William Beveridge, who replaced Pember Reeves as Director in 1919, had served during the war as a senior civil servant in the Ministries of Munitions, Labour, and Food. Unlike the Webbs, his allegiance was to the Liberals rather than Labour. Jessy Mair, who became School Secretary in 1921, and was married to Beveridge’s cousin, had a close, if ambiguous, personal relationship with the new Director.

Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1915 and 1918, spoke at the memorial’s dedication in January 1923. It carried the names of 70 dead, 45 of them killed in action. Robertson was grateful for the School’s role in officer training, yet his tone was melancholic. Despite the economic and political turbulence of post-war Britain, he felt, the war effort had not been vain: ‘no great act ever perishes with the doer of it’.

LSE War Memorial (1953)Original Source: LSE Library

The present memorial dates from 1953. By that date its predecessor had been consigned to a back corridor, and its crest and scroll were lost. Perhaps this was symbolic. Under Beveridge and Mair the LSE entered on a period of expansion, with new funding, new buildings, and new academic disciplines. The latter included international studies, as historians and social scientists strove to understand the origins of the 1914-18 conflict. None the less, the School had moved on. 

Credits: Story

Authored by Professor David Stevenson, Department of International History, LSE.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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