Staring at God: Britain in the Great War by Simon Heffer - review by Leo McKinstry

Leo McKinstry

A Sorry State

Staring at God: Britain in the Great War


Random House Books 941pp £30 order from our bookshop

In April 1917, as conflict raged across Europe, the British government reached a crucial decision. Lord Devonport, a grocery magnate taken on by Whitehall as minister of food control, imposed a ban on the manufacture of ‘fancy cakes’, a move designed to maintain supplies of vital necessities. The fact that a minister had such power was a graphic indicator of how far the state had taken control of life in Britain during the First World War, abandoning the long tradition of non-intervention.

This far-reaching change is one of the central themes of Simon Heffer’s magisterial new book, the third volume in his pioneering history of our country from the early Victorian age. This latest study has all the characteristics of the previous two, including exhaustive research, fresh insights, vast scope and caustic judgements. Staring at God is possibly the finest, most comprehensive analysis of the home front in the Great War ever produced.

As Heffer writes, Britain moved during these four years ‘from being a Gladstonian nation of laissez-faire and individual freedom to one of total war in which every man and woman became a commodity to be exploited by a government fighting for the salvation of the country’. State authority

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