***Military Morale and Combat Motivation in the First World War

Military Morale and Combat Motivation in the First World War. Notes from a lecture given by Prof. Gary Sheffield WLV

Armies are more often defeated psychologically. 

Waterloo 1815 – what was de use in a battle. (16th and 18th in daylight hours)

The Immortals repulsed and the army gave up. 

How a battle is lost, rather than a battle is won.

Killing power of an explosive shell compared to a canon ball.

Genarmie – Swiss Army Philisopher

Iraqi, 1991 – hollowed out so collapsed when forces went in.

John Keegan

Battle has become progressively more difficult for humans to bear.

QQ: How was it that men endured for so long?

‘It’s as though you have your very soul in the palm of your hand’ Horizon, Egyptian Warrior, 3000

Trepidation, Lt. Fred Majdaleny. British soldier, 1944.

The idea of the empty battlefield.

Modern British Military Doctrine

Three components:

  1. Physical
  2. Conceptual
  3. Moral

Challenges to the Moral component 


‘Fight or flight’

Soldiers conditioned through training and ideology to resist the temptation to  fight rather than run away… and advance towards the danger.

  • Intensity of Stress

Somme compared to Waterloo, 10days to two weeks compared to daylight hours.

Gallipoli compared to Somme : continual compared to days.

  • Prologonation of stress.

Jules Masserman: key beliefs of sanity

Control over my own fate

Someone will help me

I will live forever

When you no longer believe any of these you will suffer severe combat stress.

  • Everyone has their breaking point.

Lord Moran – like clothes, a man can simply ware out. A bank or well of courage which can be replenished by being taken out.

Once ‘over drawn’ you get ‘shell-shock’.

British better than AEF to rotating men out.

The Combat Curve

Less cautious, more risk averse – cannot generalise about this.

Shell-shock – becoming a psychiatric casualty. WW2 ‘Combat fatigue’.

  • challenges 


98% boredom, 2% terror.

So keep your soldiers occupied.

Deprivation of sleep, food, comfort, family.

Loss of personal freedom.

Education and class. Used to it as working class working in a mine or mill. More of the same. Middle class clerk – you’ve never known it. 

War is war. x private X. One continual winge. Disillusioned memoir. REF. Burrouage.

Clausewitz ‘mood’ (transient) vs. ‘Spirit’ (to fight on)

Individual vs. Collective. Irvin L. Moral pertains to the individual(s) efforts to enhance the effectiveness of the group in accomplishing the task in hand. 

If they are too miserable to moan you’ve got a problem.

Willingness to obey orders and fight the enemy. GS?

Peaks and Troughs

Winter 1914-15

Trench conditions extremely primitive,

Little infrastructure.

Sleeping rough.

Somme 1916

Shift in change of mood.

Grim determination to see it through.


War weariness setting it.

Moral at its lowest in WW1.

War Cabinet conclusion that mood low, but moral fine.

‘If we lose this is what the Germans are going to do to us.’

With Brest-Lvost and Spring Offensive.

End of Hundred Days.

Australians had been in the line for too long.

Factors in Morale

Group loyalty, belief in the cause, stoicism, welfare support, home front, leisure like home, religion, combat motivation, Training, idealogy. 

1) Group Loyalty – primary group of 3/4 men. Can substitute for your family. Builds up to loyalty at platoon, company, brigade and regimental level – fighting for your cap badge.

2) Belief in the cause. Adrian Gregory ‘The Last Great War’ (home front). 

Fear if modest gains would be lost. Belief in Empire.

3) Stoicism. Correlli Barnett thesis.  

4) Welfare support from the army. Food, alcohol and tobacco. Tea reminded people of home.

5) Home Front/ Battle Front connections. A civilian in uniform who wants letters, local newspaper … bad news from home was really detrimental (German).

6) Replication of civilian patterns of leisure (John Fuller): horse comp, swimming comp, trips to the seaside, do their hobbies and encouraged to do so, replication of civilian patterns of leisure. If you had War and nothing else you’d all go bonkers.

7) Religion. Ref. Snape (Uni Durham).

Haig took his religion seriously with the start of the war.

Something to hang on to. What a friend we have in Jesus – former pub song, then hymn, then a tune for a trench song.

(And spirituality).

8) Combat Motivation

The specific – what gets you out of the trench.

Discipline and leadership (second lecture)

Primary groups: killing for your mates

You don’t want to let your mates down.

Peer pressure

Your behaviour could get back to your home town. 

9) Training 

To obey orders without question. Poorest used to board school drill.

The working class and public schools who had something in common, vs, the aesthete middle class who had it soft at a good home.

Train hard fight easy

10) Idealogy/religion 

No longer fighting for ‘King and Empire’

Why did Dominion soldiers come and fight?

They saw themselves as British, members of the Empire.

If the mother country went under, they would be next.

Case Studies

  • Gallipoli 

A) Underestimation of the enemy

Ottomans strong, determined, well led, high moral.

B) Lack of artillery and shortage of troops / reinforcements

Had half what they needed compared to the western front.

Extremely demoralising.

Battleships pounded hills successfully until German U-boats arrived.

Units always under strength so those left had to do more work.

Lack of strategic depth

Such a small area. Dominated by artillery.


Under fire all the time, sick all the time, no rest.


Cecil Allinson of the 6th Gurkers.

The Gallipoli gallop. 

Western Front 2.64 o.4 deaths

Gallipoli 253.94 and 6.93 death

Most are feeling ill most of the time they are there.

German Army in the Hundred Days

Diets, Ziemann : mutinies, desertion – covert strikes and shirking.

Watson : little disobedience and desertion until Oct 1918: but ‘ordered surrenders’ under officers.

Stephenson: cohesion of army: Front line refused to fight for Kaiser- cf. rear echelon revolutionary troops.

Buff 1) Mood vs spirit 2) no single common cause for lowered morale.


Control the brothels

Check the girls

Haig in favour of licensed brothels.

No empty chairs

Grandad’s old axe.

Swell of hatred built up before the war set in with war.

QQ: Indians in Mesopotamia, French.

Had been a mutiny in Singapore severely put down by executions.

Sow the seeds of undermining British India.

Building war, building cohesion, having good leadership.

Unofficial history. Slim.

French : French officers did not have the same paternal care and NCOs who replaced them were even worse.

Petain sorted it out after the mutinies


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