London History Bulletin – February 9

Conscription for males aged 18-41 began on February 9th, 1916. And 17 years later, to the day, that famous debate. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

And another dose of interconnectedness.

It was on this day in 1916 –February 9th, 1916 – that military conscription of unmarried men aged between 18 and 41 began in the UK.

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, they were running out of cannon fodder. 

And then leap forward to February 9th, 1933 – and ok, it wasn’t London but it’s utterly germane to the matter at hand – on February 9th, 1933 the Oxford Union debated and passed the famous motion that “this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country.”

And that coincidence prompts three reflections between this set of ears.

  1. A few years ago – I think it must have been 2018, the centenary of the end of World War I, a couple of guides created a walk to mark the occasion. And they were stunned – dumbfounded – that no Americans joined the walk. They made enquiries. And wew told by Americans, “World War I, it’s just not a big deal for us. The big deal war for us is World War II. Well, steep learning curve moment – cultural difference – because World War I – The Great War – is a very big deal on these shores, in this green and sceptred isle.
  2. I was put in mind of an American World War II memoir I read a few years ago. The memoir was written by a man who’d been in the ranks – not an officer but an ordinary G.I. or perhaps Marine. He’d enlisted in maybe 1943 or 44 and fought in the so-called Pacific Theatre. He said, “we were told we were replacement troops.” And went on to say that on the second day of basic training they were all arrayed for morning callisthenics on a vast training field. Thousands of them. Young men in white tee-shirts and green fatigues as far as the eye could see. And he had a revelation. A moment when the truth crashed in on him. If we’re all replacement troops that means there must have been this many of my contemporaries – young men 19 and 20 years old – who are now dead. Or mutilated.” And so his education in the reality of modern warfare began.
  3. Lots of books get written about the rise of a great power. Fewer about the decline. Britain was the world’s superpower 150 years ago. Its decline can be charted. A three-stage process. Almost like a demolition job. In the last quarter of the 19th century, it lost its industrial and engineering supremacy to the United States and Germany. It lost its manpower in World War I. It lost its wealth – its money – in World War II. I well remember the shock of discovering that it was paying off its war debt to the United States well into the 21st century.  It’s an astonishing thought that millennials – some of the tax money from their first jobs – will have gone toward paying off the UK’s war debt to the United States. And there, in three stages, over a 135-year period, you have the decline of a great power. To say nothing of some pretty impressive interconnectedness.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 9th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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