The peculiarities of British militarism: The air and navy leagues in interwar Britain

Thompson, Rowan G. E. (2019) The peculiarities of British militarism: The air and navy leagues in interwar Britain. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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This thesis examines the role of the Air League of the British Empire and the Navy League – founded in 1909 and 1895 respectively – in the (re)militarisation of state and civil society in interwar Britain. More broadly, it considers the place of militarism, militarisation, and military culture at a time when internationalist counter-currents enjoyed significant resonance in British society. Both Leagues occupied a position between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and their case offers new insights into the susceptibility of British popular and political culture to militarism. The two organisations played a prominent part in national debates on militarism, internationalism, youth, modernity, and rearmament. Their activities thus allow us to re-consider familiar themes in the history of interwar Britain in a fresh and conceptually challenging way – national defence, contested notions of Britain’s national status, the impact of war on British society and politics, political activism, and the relationship between state and civil society.

This thesis draws on a wide range of sources, including minute books, private papers, memoirs, parliamentary proceedings, posters, pamphlets, government records, local and national newspapers, journals, oral testimony collections, newsreels, photographs, and satirical cartoons. The discussion is divided into two main parts. The chapters in Part A analyse the ways in which the Air League and Navy Leagues engaged with different political questions and contexts. The analysis developed shows how both Leagues promoted aerial and naval rearmament while having to negotiate the rise of issues such as disarmament, arms limitations, pacifism, collective security, and international diplomacy. The chapters in Part B detail how each League addressed civil society. Their focus on young people is traced through their educational ventures and youth organisations (the Air Defence Cadet Corps and the Sea Cadet Corps), while their targeting of mass audiences is explored through their staging of large-scale celebrations on Trafalgar Day and Empire Air Day.

With the principal exception of David Edgerton’s work, most studies of British militarism terminate in 1914. However, the outbreak of the First World War did not constitute a terminus for organised militarism, nor did it mark the end of martial values or militaristic sentiment in mainstream British political culture. Overall, this thesis contends that militaristic leagues, the type of which featured prominently in the liberal political culture of Edwardian Britain, occupied a similar, if more contested and complex, place in the associational culture of interwar Britain. It argues that institutional, cultural, and popular forms of militarism were able to continue despite the growth of internationalism, fears that society had been brutalised by the experience of the First World War, the popularity of interwar peace movements, and the widespread support for issues such as disarmament and collective security. Finally, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which the Air and Navy Leagues contributed to the military preparedness of the nation upon the outbreak of the Second World War.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Militarism, interwar Britain, political/associational culture, youth, military theatre/ceremony
Subjects: V100 History by period
V200 History by area
V300 History by topic
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Humanities
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 14 Apr 2020 09:34
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2021 18:33

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