In 2012, Britain has gained a bank holiday with the late-Spring bank holiday postponed and extended this weekend for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1916 the same bank holiday was abandonded completely in an effort to keep up production and win the Great War. In the end, it was clear that people needed time off and the bank holidays were restored.
In Easter 1916, General Sir Douglas Haig – newly appointed as the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders – was shocked to see troop transports cancelled to make way for civilian holiday-makers during the Easter bank holiday weekend. He wrote an angry note in his diary on April 17th:
I wonder what the future historian will write about Great Britain, whose inhabitants in a period of crisis, insist that these holiday makers should be given preference in travelling to soldiers for the seat of war.
That summer, as the BEF geared up for the biggest offensive in British military history, this situation was not to be repeated. Whether through Haig’s intervention or not, on June 1st it was announced that the Whitsun holiday (the religious predecessor to the late-May bank holiday) was to be cancelled and replaced with an extra day off in August.
When August came around, the extra bank holiday did not materialise. In fact, the August bank holiday (then held at the start of the month) was cancelled as well!
These cancellations did not completely stop holiday traffic, but they had a serious impact. The busiest day at Southend (a popular destination for Londoners) shifted from Monday to Sunday. There were more daytrippers, while those who turned up for the weekend arrived earlier since the Monday was no longer a day off.
Both the tourist trade and other work organisations were unhappy about losing their public holidays in 1916. Some organisations called for or organised extra days off in the autumn.
In 1917, the bank holidays were quietly reintroduced (or rather, the cancellations were not repeated). The changes in holiday travel in 1916 continued, along with the longer-term decline in seaside holiday trips over the war years (especially in the invasion-threatened south-east). News reports claimed that the mood was good and the amusements packed, but in reality this partly reflected a positive spin and partly the decline in resources (food, drink and entertainment) since 1914.
Nonetheless, it was clear that people needed time off to enjoy themselves. As a writer in the cinema magazine Pictures and the Picturgoer put it in 1918:
People go to the pictures to get away from the war, not because their patriotism is open to doubt, but because there is a limit to human endurance, and he who is condemned to carry a daily burden must of needs for a moment lay it aside and rest.
The same could easily be said of days off. There was a superficial advantage to losing them (especially in 1916, in the build-up to the battle that was supposed to end the war) but really, productivity needed a workforce that was rested and happy. Bank holidays played their part.
Robert Blake (ed.), The private papers of Douglas Haig, 1914-1919
My thesis: ‘Citizens at war: the experience of the Great War in Essex, 1914-1918’ (Oxford DPhil, 2011)