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OpenLearn Live: 1st July 2016

Updated Friday, 1st July 2016

The writer who helped create a new party that took advantage of a wartime truce. Then more free learning across the day.

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OpenLearn Live explores the world of free learning and research, and brings it home to you. This page will be updated during the day.

Yesterday, we celebrated the work of Gordon Murray, marked two decades of Dolly The Sheep and caught up with Freud

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Today's posts

The Somme: 100 years on

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history.  

Dr Annika Mombauer explains why, to understand the Somme, you have to remember Verdun, too:

The Somme needs to be understood in the context of the other big battle of 1916: Verdun. It was because of Verdun, which demanded huge numbers of French troops being deployed away from the planned Somme offensive, that for the first time the British army found itself having to take the brunt in a major offensive on the Western Front. Instead of the Allies’ planned coordinated decisive battle in which France would have taken the lead, the Battle of the Somme became instead a British battle with French support.

Read the full article: 1st July 1916

And how do the Germans view the battle? Robert Foley explains:

The ferocity and the duration of the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme surprised the German high command. The casualties suffered during the long battle forced Falkenhayn to abandon this idea of a counter-offensive. Indeed, the British attritional tactics were extremely effective at wearing down the strength of the German army and gobbled up German reserves:

Between 1 July and the battle’s end on 18 November, 90,00 German divisions served on the Somme front. During the height of fighting, German divisions could only last around 2 to 3 weeks on the front before having to withdraw to rest and refit.

However, contrary to what the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, argued at the time and some historians have argued since, the battle did not force the Germans to abandon their offensive on Verdun; the decision to slow this offensive had been taken before the Anglo-French attack. Moreover, the Germans still had a sufficient reserve of forces to send a number of divisions from the Western to the Eastern Front to face the Romanians when they entered the war in August.

Read the full article: The Somme: The German Perspective

It's my party: J B Priestley

This week, it seemed to us on Monday themes of political leadership might be to the fore. I don't think we were wrong on that. So we've been focusing each day on people who started and led their own political parties for a short period. In case you've been too busy constantly refreshing the BBC News site for the latest developments in the UK political scene, here's the people we've featured so far this week:

We're rounding out the week back in Britain, and the writer J B Priestley.

J B Priestley statue in Bradford Creative commons image Icon Tim Green under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license A statue of Priestley in Bradford

Priestley fought in the First World War, and returned to build a career as a writer and dramatist.

At the start of the Second World War, he was invited to contribute a series of short broadcasts, known as Priestley's Postscripts, to follow the radio news. These were partly descriptions of the Britain from before the outbreak of war, but also suggestions of what the nation that emerged from the war might be like. Some - including, apparently, Winston Churchill - felt that this strayed from patriotic spirit-lifting into the realms of proselytising, and worried about the effects of socialism on the airwaves. Priestley's broadcasts came to an end, although as much because he found them tiring as due to political interference.

His utopian vision for a new Britain quickly found a new outlet. Priestley joined a group calling itself the 1941 Committee, a group which met at the home of publisher Edward Hulton. Other members included Michael Foot, Tom Driberg, H G Wells and eugenics enthusiast Eva Hubback. This mixed bag of thinkers produced a manifesto which called for a greater influence of state in a planned economy:

In December 1941 the committee published a report that called for public control of the railways, mines and docks and a national wages policy. A further report in May 1942 argued for works councils and the publication of "post-war plans for the provision of full and free education, employment and a civilized standard of living for everyone."

Driberg stood in - and won - the Maldon by-election of 1942. He ran as an independent, but the 1941 Committee thinking was at the heart of his policy platform. Shortly after this success, Priestley and the other more moderate members of the committee decided to explore routes for getting more who shared their ideas into Westminster.

They made common cause with Forward March, a movement rooted in the Liberal Party and led by the MP Richard Acland. Out of this alliance came a new party, The Common Wealth Party. They had five key goals:

common ownership, vital democracy, equal opportunity, colonial freedom and world unity

Priestley was the initial chair of the group, but he only led for a few months. Acland, with the luxury of bringing a Commons seat with him when he joined, proved to be a louder voice in the party than Priestley, and his views were difficult for Priestley to accept. Not least Acland's interest in setting up "camps" for "shirkers" and opining that Hitler "has stumbled across (or has needed to make use of) a small part, or perhaps one should say one particular aspect of, what will ultimately be required of humanity."

The idea that a left-leaning politician would get themselves in a mess talking about the upside of Hitler's ideas seems, of course, unthinkable today.

Priestley stepped down as leader of the party; he was replaced by Tom Wintringham. Slowly, the writer withdrew from participation in the Common Wealth, although still offering support as it fought parliamentary seats.

The party itself did relatively well during the war years - the major parties had called a truce while the country was fighting, allowing smaller groups to stand and win seats on alternative platforms far more easily than when (military) hostilities ceased and (political) hostilities resumed. In the post-war years, the Common Wealth moved away from attempting to win parliamentary seats, and became more of a pressure group - many of the members elected to join the Labour Party to continue their Westminster campaigns. It continued until 1993.

More from OpenLearn on the Second World War

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