World War 1 has an enduring resonance to us here in Britain. Our understanding is caricatured with a mixture of mud, blood, poets & poppies. However we rarely explore the deeper cultural, historical & social meanings and paradoxes. For a humble psychologist, the ordinary soldier and culture of the time are the raw material of understanding people and events. The force of the events at the start of the 20th century in Europe ground toward certain conflict, with the old orders challenged through huge social change and revolution.
With all this political intrigue, feuding royal families and ultimately four years of terrible war put to one side, there are questions as an undercover social psychologist that remain; why did so many British men volunteer for the war, what compelled them year on year to stand in line to fight, kill and be killed for king and country? What was society doing to propel so many young men toward an uncertain future at war? These are the questions this short post will hopefully explore, to dig a little below the surface of a war that changed Britain, Europe and the World order.
2014 is the centenary of the start of World War 1 and is rightly in our collective consciousness. Moving public art installations at the Tower of London & remembrance ceremonies compound our belief that the war was pointless and a waste of a generation of young men across Europe. It is difficult to separate the emotional connection with the abattoir of the Western Front, where so many men were killed, wounded or missing in action. It is not the intention to discuss these elements here as we all have our own beliefs & perspectives on this subject. Though perhaps some insight into the early part of the 20th century may help us put the human war into context.
Invariably we can only reflect upon the war from the 2014 perspective of knowing what happened and the outcomes. We know what happened at the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli & Ypres therefore start from this perhaps one eyed view on history. Very understandable but ultimately this view will not help us understand the social & cultural underpinnings of the conflict i.e. why soldiers did their duty and went to war.
Indeed the Battle of Waterloo was closer to the soldiers and generals of the Western Front than we are to World War 1 today. So with this knowledge we are already in a different time, place and culture. Britain was (and to some still is) a class riven society – though primarily a homogeneous society. The working class were accustomed to being told what to do and the middle and upper classes were good at telling them what to do. So build a compelling case to go to war, with no 2014 24hr news, internet and a wider worldview then the need to do one’s duty and to defend Britain’s green and pleasant land was paramount. Add in unemployment, poverty and depravation of the “industrial class” in Britain, that made an heady concoction for the man looking to get out of the slums of England and do something exciting. Better still get paid for it whilst being fed and looked after. Pals brigades joined together, fought and died together as part of the collective duty and the big adventure in a different country.
The Common Tommy
For the common man the war had a number of compelling reasons for joining up as a volunteer. Firstly, a chance to express their manhood, to be tested and sometimes just to see a foreign country. Many had not been further than their own village let alone France. Huge numbers of pals & volunteers, from all walks of civilian life besieged Army recruiting centres and town halls. Such was the huge response to General Kitchener’s call, that many volunteers were enlisted and then left in limbo to await induction into the newly created army service battalions proper, when they could be housed, equipped, fed and supplied with weapons essential for their training.
By December 1914, after enormous effort, 1 million volunteers had been enlisted. Although an inevitable tapering off in the numbers of volunteers began in October 1914, it was still at a monthly level of 20,000 in early 1915. These huge numbers suggests that there was a profound sense of purpose behind the ordinary soldier to volunteer. In total 2.5 million men volunteered and 2.2 million were conscripted. From the distance of 100 years we may not understand this aspect of their society coming as we do from a more individualistic and human rights centric perspective. Their sense of duty and fighting for Britain, the Empire & more importantly their families propelled them headlong into a savage industrial war that no one could have foreseen at the time. Though ultimately something they saw through stoically to the end.
Playing on the British sense duty the propaganda machine in 1914 onward suggested the Kaiser was on his way to overrun dear old Blighty (Britain) and the Empire. After all the atrocities (some true some not) exacted on defenceless Belgium (that Britain had guaranteed neutrality) by the German troops were enough to promote the fear of invasion in Britain. Indeed the German shelling of Harlepool, Scarborough & Whitby, U-Boat attack on merchant shipping and the aerial bombing of London later on kept the propaganda machine running at full tilt. Women & families were expected to apply pressure on their men to fight & more to the point kill the enemy for them. As the war progressed past the “it will be over by Christmas” (1914) still the majority of people in Britain supported the war but attitudes began to change as time went on. Politicians have never let public opinion get in the way of war after all.
Today we understand the carnage of the Great War through the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen et al & plays/film such as “oh what a lovely war”. Some would argue that this is correct though it skews our objective and historical view of the Great War. Interestingly many poets changed as they went through the war as a result of becoming bogged down in the inevitable trench warfare. Their early poems celebrated the big adventure and the chance to express themselves in honourable collective conflict, defending the Empire from the advance of the Kaiser’s militaristic ambitions. The gentleman poets were the product of the Empire and therefore the call of duty to Britain was profound. Needless to say, these earlier poems as a narrative of war tends to get ignored.
Privates on Parade.
Whilst the poets were charting their experiences through prose, the ordinary tommy had more pressing needs in the trenches. Ensuring their daily rum ration, keeping warm, dry, a good meal, tobacco, and avoiding trench fever were all upper most in their minds. Lice were a continual bane of their lives and they enjoyed nothing better than evacuating the lice from their clothes over an open fire. Small but necessary comforts. There are many many more accounts of the pleasures of front line duty. These pleasures for private soldier could be exercised fully in the time away from battle. Soldiers would spend only 15% of their time in the firing line; the rest of the time in the reserve areas at the rear. The interesting horticultural activities amongst other aspects help to normalise their very abnormal existence.
In the latter stages of the war saw the promotion of ordinary men to officers, much to chagrin of the existing officer classes. This real meritocracy meant that the ruling class dubbed these new officers of no breeding as “temporary gentleman”. Temporary inasmuch as they had the rank but no manners or a proper education therefore not proper officers These class differences to our eyes and ears are an anathema today but then it was a real opportunity for the ordinary soldier to get on with a bit of social climbing.
Look deeper into the Great War and we can see many different outcomes and what if’s from our 100 year distance. There are always more questions than answers in most cases. From the perceived ineptitude of the generals, their tactics and the huge losses at the Somme and many other fruitless battles. Though 4.7 million British men served in the Great War with nine out of ten surviving the trenches. Sadly some with hideous facial & physical injuries and psychological scars of shell shock. These injuries saw the first tentative steps of psychological therapy & plastic surgery to good effect.
The war created countries and destroyed centuries old royal dynasties along with ushering in change in many societies both good and bad. Democracy was given a chance to flourish in the UK, though once the war was over women left the factories and men tried to go back to work. However the genie was out of the bottle for ordinary men and women in Britain, they fought and won a war at huge cost to them and did their duty.
We may need to pay the 1914-18 conflict with more understanding and forensic examination over the initial emotional response to the Great War. Thus hopefully putting the Great War into a context, teach it historically over the art of poetry and death. Thus helping us understand it properly and perhaps placing the Great War into historical context, though remembering the soldiers and what they achieved.