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Crimes of the Times

Philip GibbsPhilip Gibbs (left), noted war correspondent, writing in Realities of War in 1920 was concerned about how men who had lived through the horrors of trench warfare would adapt to the supposed normality of peacetime, civilian life:

They were subject to queer moods,tempers, fits of profound depression, alternating with a restless desire for pleasure. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening ... Our men living in holes in the earth like ape-men were taught the ancient code of the jungle law, to trap down human beasts in No Mans Land, to jump upon their bodies in the trenches, to kill quietly, silently ... It is apt to become a habit of mind. It may surge up again when there are no Germans present, but some old woman behind an open till...

And there certainly were fears, especially among the better-off members of society, and particularly as unemployment grew amongst ex-soldiers, that there would be a surge in violence and lawlessness.

The figures hardly bear that out: there were around 273 recorded crimes per 100,000 of the population in 1921 compared to 269 in 1911. But with a circulation war raging amongst popular newspapers, some of the pre-war restraints in reporting had been abandoned, and lurid headlines were the order of the day, especially where murder was concerned.

Green Bicycle MysteryCrimes of the Times aims to look at some of the most high-profile cases, giving attention to those which appeared then, or seem now, with hindsight, to have some kind of association to the events of 1914-1918.

The prime suspect in The Green Bicycle Mystery (illustration, right) was an ex-serviceman who had been demobilised suffering from shell-shock, with the murder (if murder it was) allegedly commited with a service revolver.

A very different kind of crime was committed by Horatio Bottomley - the soldier's friend. When the British government issued Victory Bonds in 1919 to help pay for the costs of the war at 5 each they were too expensive for most people, so the flamboyant MP for South Hackney set up a club to enable everyone to purchase a fifth share of a bond for 1. It was essentially a swindle and those who suffered most in the end were the returned (and now unemployed) ex-soldiers Bottomley was claiming to be helping.  

Notes: Philip Gibbs' Realities of War was published in the USA under the title Now it Can be Told; crime figures from John Stevenson, British Society 1914-45 (1984)


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Tuesday 20 December 2005