Matthew C. Hendley, Organized Patriotism and the Crucible of War. Popular Imperialism in Britain, 1914-1932 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012). 376 pages.

Reviewed by James Wood (University of Victoria)

Matthew Hendley’s study of three patriotic societies follows the adaptations of each organization to the changing demands of British society, both during and after the First World War. The book focuses on the National Service League’s campaign to establish universal military training in peacetime, the League of the Empire’s efforts to encourage a range of imperial educational activities, and the hospitality-oriented Victoria League. Hendley examines the leadership, goals, and activities of these three societies and shows a replacement over time of the more jingoistic programs of the prewar era with more moderated and “domesticated” forms of imperial patriotism. This wartime transition, Hendly argues, was facilitated by the increasing participation of women in volunteer activities, combined with their growing presence in the workplace and ongoing political activism. He argues that those patriotic leagues that proved the most open to change were best able to survive beyond the war, whether due to the openness of their traditions and attitudes or a result of conscious and pragmatic choices by the organization’s leadership.

Organized Patriotism establishes clear connections between the personalities associated with each league and the adaptability displayed in its activities and educational programs. For example, Hendley compares the aristocratic and frequently inept leadership of the National Service League with the League of the Empire, concluding that the latter’s focus on education programs, curricular materials, and teacher exchanges throughout the empire held a much broader public appeal than a campaign in favour of Britain adopting peacetime conscription. The Victoria League, with its predominantly female leadership and “reasonable patriotism,” is shown to have been the most closely attuned to shifting public opinions that were a consequence of Britain’s participation in the First World War. The Victoria League was officially non-militaristic and non-political, with a focus on providing hospitality for imperial soldiers on leave in London, lectures for wounded imperial soldiers, and the production of propaganda pamphlets.

Hendley emphasizes the greater adaptability of the Victoria League and League of the Empire, as well as their ability to read the “popular mood” (p. 214), creating a gentler approach to imperial patriotism. Both societies worked to promote imperial solidarity through existing cultural institutions, an approach Hendley considers “well suited to the type of popular imperialism that would emerge after 1918.” (p. 114) In particular, Hendley argues, the Victoria League’s “purposely scaled back imperial mission” suited the tenor of postwar Britain, which was characterized by the rise of labour politics, evangelical Christianity, collectivist philosophies, and a profound distaste for militarism and patriotic excess. (p. 171)

Hendley dedicates his first chapter to an analysis of the collapse of the National Service League, showing this organization’s dramatic failure to achieve its single goal of universal military training in peacetime. Once conscription was enacted in 1916, he argues, the drive to establish compulsory military training on a model that might outlast the war quickly dissipated. In essence, National Service League failed to find ways to reinvent itself after 1916 and quickly became redundant. Hendley highlights its demise as the result of its failure to amalgamate with other closely-aligned patriotic groups or the emerging Labour movement, showing that by the end of the war, due to its lack of creativity, initiative, or ability to adapt, the National Service League “was an empty shell and a spent force” that would find little support in a society where militaristic “enthusiasms were unthinkable.” In ending his first chapter, Hendley asserts that the disappearance of this league “showed that the war had altered the landscape for organized patriotic movements.” (p. 58)

In his final chapter on the triumph of “domesticated imperialism” in postwar Britain, Hendley strives to fit these three organizations into a framework of gender analysis, contrasting the now-extinct National Service League’s “wish to create an entire nation of citizens ready to defend Britain and the Empire” (p. 223) with the more “feminine” efforts of the Victoria League and the League of the Empire, two organizations that still exist today. He attributes their survival and success to their feminine characteristics, as evidenced by their programs that centred on themes of family, home, and kinship. Hendley contrasts their “higher type of imperialism,” one that “rejected an imperialism of acquisition,” (p. 212) with the masculine and power-oriented National Service League. The latter’s program is shown to have been out of tune with the new British society that emerged out of the devastation of the First World War, although it is not entirely clear whether this owed more to its “masculine” character or was simply a consequence of enacting conscription in 1916 and the general war-weariness of British society in the 1920s, as described in chapter 1. One suspects that the simpler answer provided earlier in Hendley’s book is closer to the mark than the gender-driven argument presented in its conclusions.

Hendley’s examination of the decline of the National Service League reflects the overall pattern of his methodology and selection of sources within the book. The first three chapters act as case studies, one for each of the three patriotic organizations under study. Here the methodology is historical, drawing inspiration from works like James Greenlee’s Education and Imperial Unity 1901-1926[1] and pursuing the primary documentary evidence from each organization to reveal its support base, purposes, and activities, drawing comparisons between prewar goals to those that emerged during the war. Sources include pamphlets, minutes, correspondence, lectures, and monographs written chiefly by members of the executive.

Organized Patriotism’s fourth chapter on the postwar era departs from the traditional examination of patriotic organizations in the first three chapters by framing his work in relation to that of Alison Light, a literary historian who pointed to a “domestification of the imperial idea between the wars” and a new kind of “Englishness” that feminized the idea of nation.[2] His examination of gender, empire, war, citizenship, and race in this section draws on recent publications by Angela Woollacott, Julia Bush, Katie Pickles, Lisa Chilton, and Claire Midgley.[3] In doing so, Hendley draws connections between the League of the Empire’s teacher exchanges, with a clientele that was 95% female, and the Victoria League’s hospitality services provided for Allied soldiers, in both cases finding that “the crucible of war” had a significant impact on British society, as reflected in the demise of the National Service League and concurrent reorientation of the League of Empire and Victoria League.

By adopting this approach, Hendley’s work will appeal particularly to those interested in imperial, gender, and education studies. He correlates the emergence of feminist awareness and participation in wartime volunteer efforts with changing views of imperialism, showing the significance of popular literature and school programs in encouraging patriotic citizenship. In the postwar era, he argues, it was “The kinder, gentler patriotic efforts … [that] would have considerably more success.” (p. 66) Organized Patriotism and the Crucible of War is an informative and interesting account of the role played by three significant patriotic societies and their diverse contributions to the British war effort and the making of a new imperialism in the 1920s.


[1] See James Greenlee, Education and Imperial Unity 1901-1926 (London: Garland, 1987)

[2] See Allison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1991).

[3] Angela Woollacott, Gender and Empire (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Julia Bush, Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power (London: Leicester UP, 2000); Katie Pickles, Female Imperialism and National Identity (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002); Lisa Chilton, Agents of Empire: British Female Migration to Canada and Australia, 1860s-1930 (Toronto: UTP, 2007); and Claire Midgley, ed., Gender and Imperialism  (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998).

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