In the late 19th and early 20th century, Britain was seen as one of the strongest empires across the world; and was also spread with an imperialistic attitude which can be seen from the 20 year reign on the Conservatives which was the party of the empire. However, this imperialistic atmosphere within Britain was soon to be stopped by the questions caused as a consequence of the failure of the Boer War: What was Britain’s position in the world? The Boer war was a war which should of been over in weeks, whereas it took over three years, cost 250 million and used most of Britains’ land troops in order to be able to finish the war. During this period, there were also challenges to Britains’ economic dominance from industrializing and commercially expansive countries such as Germany and the United States – which also managed raise questions in the late 19th century regarding Britain’s ability to expand or even preserve its markets around the globe. Moreover, in the context of the mid to late 19th century, there was an agricultural and industrial depression combined with an increased rivalry with international relations in Africa, which managed to cause many people to ‘’doubt the durability of their nation’s accomplishments and its predominant position in a rapidly changing world’’. As a consequence of this, national efficiency and physical deterioration became a well debated subject in the late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, which will be the main subject of this essay, and how these anxieties concerning these issues managed to rise. In summary, national efficiency became a dominant subject within British society as other great powers within the world were starting to challenge British authority within the world; and national efficiency was the way to solve this issue by making changes within society.
The main concern which the Boer war managed to bring up was whether there was physical deterioration in the general health of the British population, as it was found, that 25-90% of would be recruits would be rejected on ill health/disability. Subsequently, it caused unfitness to be a serious issue for the empires future as the Boer war managed to raise further anxieties about how the majority of the British population was unfit to serve for their country. This would’ve created further anxiety over physical deterioration as one of Britains’ main rivals, Germany, were seen as more healthier and efficient. As a consequence of this, newspapers such as the Daily Mail agreed that ‘The drafts sent to the front during the last few months have been weak’, which may of caused further anxieties over the physical deterioration in Edwardian Britain as it managed to further raise the awareness of the current issue which was brought by the Boer War. Furthermore, there were also writers such as Sir Frederick Maurice, who was a well respected individual as he was an admired member of the wolseley ring and a respected writer, who wrote about the physical decline of the people. In his work ‘how to get men’, he highlights the fact that ⅖ of the population were below the certain standard to bear arms, and backs this up with other statistics demonstrating the diminishing size, weight and health of the would be recruits. Maurices articles were examples of what was becoming quite a fast genre of pessimistic commentary in Edwardian Britain. However, Maurice may of not managed to increase the anxieties over the physical deterioration as his work wasn’t generally accepted because in the context of the beginning of the 20th century, the only concern for the physical deterioration of the people were the state of the teeth of the applicants. On the other hand, journalists such as Arnold White who was a strident liberal imperialist and early eugenicist, famously wrote about the health on would be recruits, in his well known book ‘Efficiency and Empire’ which was seen as ‘’widely influential and reflective of the ‘concerns of many’’’. Arnold White, similar to Maurice, also focused on the rejection rate in the industrial towns, which was why he questioned whether if Britain still possessed the “racial efficiency” to be able to beat the Boers. To conclude my first paragraph, there was a pronounced effect on the anxiety over physical deterioration as a consequence of the worrying figures and the influential role of journalists and newspapers, such as Arnold White and the Daily Mail.
Another reason why there was so much anxiety over national efficiency and physical deterioration in the late Victorian and Edwardian Britain is due to the declining birthrate among ‘desirables’ and the rise of eugenic within Britain. According to Soloway, he describes Eugenics as a ‘product of social, political and cultural changes feeding upon a deeply entrenched belief in the primacy of heredity as an explanation for the human condition’. In the late 19th century, the poorest and least educated within society were continuing to have children in large numbers, whilst on the other hand, the wealthiest and the highly skilled classes were rapidly reducing the size of their families. As a consequence of this, it caused the rise of eugenics within British society due to the popular belief that society would be swamped by the genetically unfit – which links back to the question of why there may have been an increased amount of anxiety over physical deterioration and national efficiency in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Radical responses soon came during this period, such as in Arnold Whites article ‘Eugenics and national efficiency’, where he said the remedy to this problem was ‘’sterilisation of the unfit’’. The concern regarding about differential fertility started in many of the unofficial investigations undertaken in the Edwardian years As I mentioned previously, there was also declining birth rates, in 1876 the birth rate was at 36.3 per 1,000 of the population; and by the opening of the new century it was at 28.5 per 1000, which was a decline of more than 21%. This would’ve created further anxiety over national efficiency as Germany and the United States now had a higher fertility and larger populations, which was a threat to Britain’s extensive empire.
The final reason why there was so much anxiety over national efficiency and physical deterioration in the late Victorian and Edwardian Britain is due the lack of organisation within the military which caused significant change within the military . One efficiency problem within the military were the officers, as they were often criticised. One popular account in ‘Edwardian and the idea of racial decline’ suggested ‘heaps’ of officers were ‘selfish, and frequently incompetent beings’. In 1903, in the Royal Commisions’ report on the war in South Africa, they were critical of officer leadership and tactical skills; and this managed to receive a good deal of press attention which may of increased anxieties if there wasn’t sufficient leadership in the military. Furthermore, famous literature by writers such as William le Queux often criticised the efficiency of the military. For example, in the ‘Invasion of 1910 (1906)’ his work argued ‘Government, Army, Navy and Parliament had all proved rotten reeds that had left Britain unprepared militarily. Men had guns without ammunation; cavalry and artillery here without horses; engineers only half-equipped…’.This thorough argument against the military may of brought about an increased amount of anxiety as it essentially supported journalists such as Arnold White, which was that the military in the post Victorian Era wasn’t ready for the new century.
In conclusion, there were many reasons why there was an increased amount of anxiety over national efficiency and physical deterioration in the late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The first reason which I discussed in the essay was that new statistics were starting to appear regarding would-be soldiers being declined for service to fight; and that as a consequence of this it saw the rise of journalists and writers to discuss the efficiency within the military which may of caused further anxiety as it made people question whether if Britain was able to sustain its’ position in the world. Next, I argued the declining birthrate of ‘desirables’, which caused the rise of eugenics as they believed society were being filled with the ‘unfit’; and this can be linked with my first point concerning the amount of decline rate of soldiers in the Boer war which shows another reason why there was increasing anxieties. The final point I considered why there may have been an increased amount of anxieties is due to the lack of efficiency within the military, for example, the officers were often criticised due to their leadership. Overall, when considering all these points together, each one of them showed a threat to Britain’s position in the world, which is important due to the threat of rising rivals such as Germany, which relations had deteriorated since 1902. In closing, I have showed why there was so much anxiety over national efficiency and physical deterioration in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.