I am still snatching moments here and there to work my way through Richard Holmes's superb single-volume bio on Churchill. I read this passage a few days ago but I can't quite get it out of my mind:
Whatever we might say about the old ruling class of Britain, that narrow segment of which Winston himself was so much a part, it went to its death with courage. Thirty-two peerages and 35 baronetcies became extinct in 1914-20, not all as a result of the war, although some 300 peers or their eldest sons (of 1500 who served) were killed or died as a result of war service. The 1914-15 battlefields of Flanders have some cause to be regarded as the cemetry of the pre-war aristocracy. The gentry were heavily concentrated in the Territorials [part-time volunteer reservists] and, although they were specifically excluded from service abroad, in 1914 the great majority voted to go overseas and in the process suffered suffered dreadful losses: 47 heirs to peerages were killed in action before the end of the year. Double death duties levied when a father and heir died soon after each other crippled many landed estates, and 25 percent of land in England and Wales changed hands in 1918-21. Another, probably more significant, change was the decline in the particpation of the gentry in public life. With so many of the sons who traditionally stood for Parliament still serving in the armed forces, the candidates for the 1918 election tended to be older men with backgrounds in business. The character of politics changed so greatly thereafter that the squirearchy never really got back into it.
Several thoughts occur. One doesn't have to be overly sentimental to believe that their mass sacrifice scythed down the best of the best. Yes, like any group of human beings they contained their fair share of fools and poltroons but they were, I feel deeply, the marrow in the backbone of Britain. However, another thought keeps insinuating itself into my mind, perhaps, just 'perhaps', the fact that they had so conspicuously stepped forward into the front ranks of this catastrophic war might have saved us from the sort of revolution which ripped open other European societies. As Holmes stresses in his book, working conditions in Britain, both pre-war and post war, were atrocious and the relations between workers and bosses were poisonous. Of course, by and large, the landed gentry and nobility had little to do with industry, this lay in the hands of rich arrivistes whose wealth had, in effect, purchased titles. The mythical 'Lord Gradgrind' was unlikey to be able to trace his family back further than two generations! However, from 1918 onwards, around the land the war memorials were raised and the names of proles and peers were carved side by side which is precisely how they would lay in Flanders' fields where they perished.
Perhaps this voluntary slaughter of the upper classes helped to achieve the rise of a relatively moderate Labour party and kept the working classes from full scale Marxist revolution. Alas, of course, as we now know, it was a but a matter of time before the next conflagration which would lead to the demise of the middle classes - but more of that later!