***Enduring the First World War

Alexander Watson (2008) Enduring the First World War

This sweeping study that takes in both the British and German experiences of the First World War on the Western Front 1914-1918 and is based on the author’s PhD thesis:

Through intimate research of original documents, not least the letters sent home by soldiers on both sides of No Man’s land, the author unpicks some of the myths relating to the war while establishing forceful arguments of how that ability to maintain moral in the British Army led to ultimate victory.

*According to Watson, it came down to men believing that they could win the war and get home unscathed, when men began to doubt this, it showed in their behaviour under fire.

In particular, Watson cites the behaviour of the British Regulars in 1914 fragmenting, retiring or surrendering compared to the BEF in 1918 remaining resilient despite Germany’s Spring Offensive.

*Watson describes the ‘flexible steadfastness’ of the British soldiers of 1918.

He also shows that the German Army, though broken in the second half of 1918, surrendered on mass in an orderly way led by junior officers, rather than simply collapsing into disarray or going on ‘covert strike’.

Watson’s subject matter makes this a book of interest for all periods of armed conflict, past and present.

What does it take for the men in an army to endure? To see it through.

Watson speaks of ‘natural human resilience’; he studies the fears, motivations and coping mechanisms of the men.

‘The nature of British Society in 1914-18 provided a bedrock of social cohesion’ wrote Peter Simkins.

In the German Army, privileges and the insensitivity of the upper-class officers was, according to Wolfgang Kruse, a problem. This compares to the patriarchal British officer, who were drawn, not just from nobility and British public schools, but also, as necessity dictated, grammar school boys and men who’d come up through a state education that had ended age 13 or 14, who as part of officer training were inculcated into the patriarchal spirit.

Fight or Flight

Watson argues that societies and armies should develop and foster resilience, but the individual is a victim to their situation and can become vulnerable to mental collapse. This comes about as a result of stress brought on, he argues, by an inability to address or cope with that most human of instincts ‘fight or flight’ – men preferred to be up and doing, in the attack, rather than having to sit through days of bombardment: though here too there were coping mechanisms, psychological helpful but making little difference to the outcome of survival, injury or death, where soldiers came to feel some control over their circumstances as they knew what shells were coming over by their sound and could respond accordingly.

*See numerous real examples from a variety of sources:

  • kept busy in and out of the line: digging, filling sandbags, drilling, route marches, cleaning equipment, dealing with lice, washing, mending, training, sports days …
  • better with others than alone: wiring, raiding, listening.
  • letters to read and write: home to family, and girlfriends
  • belief

*Watson believes that to some level men stayed together and carried on the fight for the drive, desire and even the pleasure of killing.

*Letters home differ, Watson is keen to point out, whether write to the soldier’s father, mother, brother, sister or friend.

 

Fatalities

British 723,000

French 1,398,000

German 2,037,000

By early 1917 assault tactics around flexible platoons, not only armed with rifles, but going out with grenades and light machine-guns.

German losses were far greater in a mobile war when they were out in the open:

Russia/Poland 476/1000

Western Front 182 to 3 / 1000

There was a dread of wounds to the stomach, jaw and eyes

Raw drafts were most vulnerable, not least because they had yet to develop coping mechanisms.

New Army Recruits

August 1914 : 296,923

September 1914 : 462,901

Aims and goals were a key motivator to stick with it. The ‘internalisation of organisational goals’. (Like modern best practice in business).

Motivations for volunteering were individual and complex, but would have included employment, excitement, official compulsion, social coercion and to escape their own circumstances.

  • war rapidly diminished work in the mills
  • deplorable living conditions for many

Battalions were formed within the existing Regimental framework. Battalions were the communities and tactical unites in which men fought and died.

*Supported by living comrades owing a debt to the dead and having no means of escape, men continued to fight until death or exhaustion laid them low.

Calmness, self-control and mockery.

Letters and photographs linked men to their families and home and reminded them of why they were fighting.

An officers paternalistic powers (Gary Sheffield).

German Army 52% of officers from the nobility.

*Morale; confidence in winning the war and returning home unscathed.

Regular Army 1913/14 ‘wasters and half-wits who broke down easily – the regular army 65% by October 1913 had failed to attain an education equivalent to that of an eleven year old.

Primary group bonds and an esprit de corps – 9.4 months training.

Educated, employed, fit and middle-class. The volunteer soldier (and therefore the Lewes ‘invaders’).

*Logistical services played an important part in supporting the army.

tea

rations

water

ammunition

 

Stress caused by an inability to ‘fight or flee’.

Hope, suspicion, belief and confidence of survival all helped men endure.

 

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