J B Priestley volunteered for the army in September 1914 at the age of 19 and served for four-and-a-half years. After almost a year of training in England, his regiment was sent to the front in the summer of 1915. Taken at that time, this photograph has a caption written by Priestley, which reads:

Taken summer of 1915 just before going out to the Western Front. I was then a lance corporal in the 10th battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s, an infantry regiment. I enlisted as one of Kitchener’s ‘First 100,000’ in early September 1914.

The ‘First 100,000’ refers to one of the ‘New Armies’ created by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who anticipated that the war would not be over quickly. These armies initially comprised volunteers who were encouraged to join up by a nationwide recruitment campaign. When Priestley enlisted in September 1914, he was part of the biggest surge of volunteers up to that point. Kitchener’s campaign recruited over 475,000 men between 4 August and 12 September.

This photograph of the young Priestley, with his ‘innocent pudding face’ as he called it, is a poignant image when seen in the context of the horrors of trench warfare he experienced in the years after it was taken. 

Buried alive, injured several times and partly deafened by a trench mortar, he finally left the army in March 1919. He saw himself as one of the lucky ones; within his first 18 months on the front line, almost all of his friends from his home city of Bradford who had volunteered at the same time were dead.

How did the war affect J B Priestley?

Priestley never returned to live in Bradford, and neither wrote about nor talked about the war for many years. Like many young men of his generation, he was changed forever by the First World War.

In his memoir Margin Released (1962)[1] Priestley relives the terror and injustices of his war years in the stark and haunting chapter, ‘Carry On! Carry On!’ He comments that a world ended in 1914 and another one began in 1919, ‘with a wilderness of smoke and fury’. He praised the courage of his generation, yet highlighted the pointlessness of it all. Eschewing the medals for his bravery and service for which he was eligible, he said:

I never applied for them; I was never sent them; I have never had them. Feeling that the giant locusts that had eaten my four and a half years could have them, glad to remember that never again would anybody tell me to carry on, I shrugged the shoulders of a civvy coat that was a bad fit and carried on.[2]

[1] J B Priestley, Margin Released (London: Heinemann, 1962), p. 88.

[2] Priestley, Margin Realeased, p. 140.