Morale WW1 15 Jan 2017
‘Birds, bombs, booze and bullets’ for one soldier summed up his reasons for joining the British Army in 1914. It also provides, succinctly, a starting place when considering the factors that influenced the morale of British soldiers on the Western Front and in the Middle East during the First World War.
If we imagine a Venn Diagram comprising three categories: home (the world that the men came from), the army (the world the men belonged to during the war), and the individual (their beliefs, behaviours and interests), then ‘birds, bombs, booze and bullets’ would fill the space where the world of the army and the individual overlap: this soldier will be happy so long as the army provides the means to get the job done: the ‘bullets and bombs’, and the opportunity to escape the horrors and duties of war, and his own fears are allayed and desires satisfied with ‘birds and booze’. If we imagine being able to invite this soldier, doorstepped in some later-day TV interview, to explore further his reasons for joining up beyond ‘birds, bombs, booze and bullets’, it isn’t difficult to imagine that this man, when probed would say that he is fighting to protect a lover or family back home, that he felt his world, all that it was and stood for, had been threatened by Germany’s agression, and that along with his mates he would help stop the ‘wicked Hun’ from doing to Britain the ‘frightful’ things they had done are were doing to Belgium.
The ‘Home’, ‘the Army’ and ‘the Individual’ therefore, will be how we try to categorise and explore ‘the principal factors that maintained the morale of British troops during the First World War on the Western Front and in the Middle East’. Let’s begin by listing these factors, and then attempt to decide which, when, and where, any of them could be defined as ‘principal’: i.e. which factors above all others, one could say, impacted the most on morale or were even universal, and how men behaved or changed their behaviour as a result of experiences through training, active service, fighting, or out on rest or on leave. Could we even suggest, ultimately, that it came down to one or to things? We will see.
The categories and list of factors that follows has been assembled through reading such historians and authors of the First World War as: Gary Sheffield, Spencer Jones, Alexander Waston, Peter Simkins and Bruce Cherry, as well as through reading a modest sample of diaries, letters, interviews and memoirs, such those by Pt Edwin Roe (who served on the Western Front and Mesopotamia), Cpt Walter JJ Coats, 2nd/Lt Edwin Vaughan, Pte Burage, Duff Cooper and Paul Nash and others.
First of all, let’s consider the factors relating to the British Army – the world civilian men enterred on enlistment, or had been part of before the war as a Regular or in the Territorials. This was a world largelly apart from civilan life. In relation to morale when on active service, we need to think about such factors that would affect morale as: training, discipline and leadership, as well as the Army’s control and influence over supplies and logisitcs. Are the means to wage war readily available and exploited? Is the supply of shells (type, quality and quantity) good enough? i.e. do men feel they have the means to ‘get the job done’ under different and changing conditions and circumstances? As the war developed the presence, or not, of their own aircraft, for example, was noticed – the skies empty a cause for concern. The army ‘was their world’, ‘it’ controlled the supply or provision of the basics of life – was food, water, shelter readily available and adequate if not plentiful? Was it nutricious, tasety and hot? Did water smell of petrol, was it warm and brackish? Did letters get through, between home and the various fronts? If wounded how would a man be treated? They could see how men around them were handled: knowing you had some chance of being saved or comforted rather than left to die haunted a person. Death mattered less, but how they died mattered a great dea, no one wanted a facial or stomach wound, most fancied ‘a Blighty one’ and a spell in clean sheets back homel. Did those with religious convictions and active in their practice, have their beliefs respected and accommodated, whether a Roman Catholic Irishman or a Muslim Sepoy, whether on the Western front (France or Belgium), or in the Middle East (Egypt, Suez, Palestine and Mesopotamia). In a small way, an officer who had with relgious convictions, ‘taken the pledge’ and had a supply of lemonade made a difference to his morale, just as it mattered to those who did drink, whether private or officer, that they got their rum, beer, wine, whisky or champagne.
This individual aspect of morale is the second category we need to consider. How did a person cope once they had become part of this alternative world called ‘The British Army’? Most, through training, camaraderie, belief in the war, background, some would suggest British stoicism a product of British society, would cope to the end. The neurotic and the young, who had escaped the attention of a flimsy medical examination on enlistment, were vulnerable to be spooked by events great or small, whether from periods in the front line under intense bombardment followed by ‘going over the top’ with bayonets fixed or receiving bad news from home. Lord Derby believed, as did the men, that the young, single-man would care less for their life than the older man who was married and had dependents, but as we can see morale is both an individual and a collective entity. Coping mechanisms, and the stress of active service, varied from person to person, but were greatly enhanced through camaraderie, particularly that which formed in the Company, but could even manifest itself in a pride for the Regiment. And so we see how a myriad of factors underpinnned morale and through the interplay of circumstances and the individual would, have, ideally, from the Army’s point of view, resulted in men obediently and willingly following orders in the most testing of circumstances; whether attacking a well-defended enemy line on the Somme on the Western Front or at Sun-i-Yat in the Middle East; or, ostensibly ‘on rest’ while actually filling sandbags rather than drinking and eating in an estimanet; or, trying to keep your feet dry and saved from ‘trench foot’ in a waterlogged trench near Ypres; or, bemoaning the warm water and granite-like quarter bread ratio while confined to the shade of your bivouac during the day from 10.00am to 5.00pm by the Tigris. In other words, the circumstances underwhich it was hoped that ‘the mens’ morale’ would remain steadfast varied enormously because of the person they were, as well as more prosaic factors as the time of year, even the time of day or night, their location and therefore the climate and prevailing weather, which could be equally troublesome whether the rain never stopped in northern France or there was a sandstorm in Suez. Where men failed to cope, disobedience, dissillusionment, ’go slows’, losing your dentures and other forms of melingering and excuses, or more rarely absenteeism, dissertion, self-harm or suicide could follow.
The third category under which we will ‘host’ a number of factors relating to morale will be to think about ‘home’ in its broadest sense: about Britain, for those for whom that was home and what Britain represented, but also home as a house, a street and community, a mother, father, siblings and other friends and relations, as well as home as a place of education, work and entertainment. Men fought for their home and homeland. There had been genuine invasion fears leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914 and in the first months of the ‘European war’ as news came out about ‘attrocities’ in Belgium the genuine fear was that such ‘frightfulness’ could be the lot of Kent and Sussex, the home counties, captial and beyond. These fears, and good reason to go to war, were over time fuelled by such acts as the German shelling of Scarborough, and Zeppelin air raids, as well as the sinking of the Lusitania and a multitude of shipping, let alone the executions of the likes of Nurse Cavell and Capt. Fryatt. Having a powerful reason to fight, believing it was a worthwhile endeavour and could be achieved, was a highly valuable motivating factor. Those many Indian troops, by way of contrast, fighting on the Western Front and then in the Middle East, had quite different reasons and motivations to fight: they, ostensibly, had a contract with the British Army: they fought for pay. And yet, though more prone, one would think, where ostensibly Muslims were fighting against ‘fellow Muslims’ as occured in Mespotamia, despite the extraordinarily dreadful conditions, say of the seige of Kut where even religious accommodation for non-meat eaters broke, morale remained adequate to prevent an uprising, or mutiny, mass dessertion or even surrender until commanded to do so. Though one could argue, in relation to the seige of Kut, that dehydriation and poor nutrition had left men so weakened that they had no resolve left to fight or surrender. Something here had held them together: discipline, obedience to the few officers they had left, loyalty to the British Empire even and a willingness to be led, to take and follow orders or simply the obvious, real fear, that captivity under the Turks would result in death anyway. Home for an Irishman, for a Ghurka from Nepal or miner from Durham meant quiet different things; though values, beliefs and reasons to fight were largelly shared with Dominion countries.
With 4 million British troops serving at some stage over 4 years, involving ‘every hue of mankind’, as Cherry (2016) puts it, how, and if, a factor mattered to the individual or a group would vary considerably. It ‘got under the skin’ of men to think, whether or not it was apocryphal, that the officers got the strawberry jam while they got the plum and apple; it reasured them however where a junior officer saw they had got their rations or stayed around to listen and talk to them as they had their rum. To use a 20th century expression, the ‘tipping point’ could vary from person to person; there’s a moment in the Somme Film where a wounded British soldier is smiling and gurning to the camera while German prisoners file behind him, he is bumped and temporarily loses his cool. Though wounded and ‘victorious’ being jolted by the enemy, even though a prisoner, was enough to remind him of the unpleasantness of what he had been through. The watchful eye of the sympathetic junior officer was necessary to put things right, for example, in the severe moments of an attack under heavy shellfire when faced with one of his men eager to absent himself to the rear of the line, knowing this boy, having the words and his trust, meant that 2nd/Lt Vaughan could get his man back and fighting: he invoked various forms of persuasion, but eventuall spoke of not letting his friends down, while Vaughan in turn, some six months previously, had been given a drubbing by his own CO over failing to live up to the expectations of the Regiment.
To make a simple comparison between the Western Front and the Middle East, whilst rations were a perennial ‘bug-bear’, taking a tin of bully-beef, regular fare in France and Belgium, and replacing this with ghee and chapattis understandably caused consternation amongst British troops serving in Mesopotamia. To take another example, mail, in the form of letters and parcels from home, were such a regular feature on the Western Front that they could be taken for granted, however getting next to no post at all because it was impounded for months in Mesopotamia or simply lost or stolen, highlighted the importance of this connection with home. After all, most men were fighting for their home, to protect their loved ones, and in its broader sense for ‘King and Country’, their drive to keep going being the belief, a feeling, rather than any objective or rational assessment, that they would survive (unwounded or having come through a minor Blighty-one) and go home to their family and community.
Understanding that a myriad of factors ‘underpin’ morale will allow us to give different ‘weights’ factors listed above. The problem being that a factor such as ‘accommodating religious differences’. Whilst being a gamechanger to a Sepoy fighting Turks in the Middle East, it would have had no consquence to the morale of an athiest weaver from Lancashire. , Accommodating religious differences could have mattered to a Roman Catholic (though not as much as the Sepoy and their quasi-vegan diet) providing them with a regular opportunity to confess and take part in Mass, because it bolstered their resolve, whereas plenty of men who called themselves ‘C of E’ baulked at ‘Church Parade’ putting more faith in a good luck charm or their ability, in their mind, to ‘dodge shells’ as they knew, intimately, the sound of, and the trajectory and outcome of everything the enemy flung over. Which, interestingly tells us how ‘experience’ itself was a factor than underpinned morale: to a degree, experience rather being something of a ‘bell curve’ of negative through postive and back to negative again: lacking experience, you were vulnerable, with experience you had more resolve and knowledge, but in time, let alone you succumbed to ‘shell-shock’ your ‘battery of inner strength’ would certainly be depleated: morale, to the indvidual, could wear out like a set of clothes, which is why rest away from the line was so crucial. Leave should be included as the ultimate form or rest, though it was a double-sided sword: mean looked forward to and hope for leave, but could become anxious and stressed as the day for their leave approached; similarly, as their leave came to an end they could become dispondent about returning, whilst others still, on getting leave quickly felt they didnt belong, that they missed ‘the men’ and the job they had to do – that they world they had known would never return until the war was ended.
Already some factors have begun to rise above others: key factors that relate to the army include things like training, leadership, camaraderie, discipline and supply and adequate rest and escape, while key factors relating to the individual include their background, education and religious convictions, fitness, skills levels and mental well-being. Turning to home, the reason why men fought, it mattered to be in touch, it was a form a relaxation to ‘write a cheery letter home’ and a reminder of British values, beliefs, customs and practices which were, potentially, at risk, let alone the lives of those they loved and the physical fabric of their community. It was, after all, during the First World War, that air raids over British towns, first by Zeppelin and then by aeroplane, become commonplace. Through letters, as well as the press, however much the censor could irritate by wandering too far from the truth, men’s resolve was continually re-affirmed: this is why I am fighting, this is why I am prepared to die.
Included in this mix of factors, sex mattered. The desires of millions of ‘testosterone-fuelled young men’ required an outlet. Access to women, for campanionship and sex, illicitally, or condoned by the Army, both fulfilled a compelling desire, while being a necessary component (for many, if not all) of relaxation, entertainment and escape. It is worth remembering that the Army regulated brothels, and these and other establishments were scattered across the Western Front. In the Middle East, such opportunities were limited to the ‘flesh pots’ of Cairo, letters to and from lovers and no doubt given their popularity, saucy postcards being the degree to which relief or release could be found.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the factors; let’s begin with the trinity of leadership, training and discipline. In recurring examples, the resolve of junior officers helped bolster morale, just as a lack of officers of any kind (they were dead or their numbers greatly depleated) could lead to a collapse of resolve, leading to surrender, or an ill-disciplined retirement. Training, for officers and men, inculcated discipline and order. The goal through improved fitness, skill levels and group obedience to orders allowed men to counter their or exploit their natural inclination to ‘fight or flight’, let alone overcome their Church or society taught dis-inclination, to kill. Many British Officers, especially in the first years of the war, had drawn directly from Britain’s unique public schools, and indirectly through their boarding preparatory schools: boys who had been educated in an all-male setting and become familiar and experienced with leading others, not least through the ranks and order of Officer Training Cadets. Many of these young men, the officers of the British Army, had what Lord Moran describes as ‘phlegm’, a ‘supreme imperturablity in the face of death’ (KL3408 Endure). Lt Burke, talking about the war, said that the only thing that kept men steady was “respect for your attitude”, that “you knew what you were doing” and you would “save them all if you could (KL3989 Voices). Pt Edmund Roe describes how his platoon officer always ensured that every man had drawn his ration and was satisified with them before he sat down to his own breakfast (KL5540 Roe). The best of these young offers put their men’s health and comfort before their own, saw that they were fed and billeted, listened to them as they had their rum ration and got to know their strengths and weaknesses individually. In modern terms we may think of a manager who understands the needs of the organisation and its rules, but can also judge when to turn a blind eye or respond to problems, for example Walter JJ Coates described how men on rest, fed up with a long route march, were cheered when they were encouraged to ‘slide around’ on the frozen canal. Like the ‘one minute manager’ of the late 20th century, five or six decades before, the British officer who got on with his fellow officers, and listend to his men, was rewarded by results, this could include the Medical Officer, who might be a martinet, or in this case more relaxed, ‘a thoroughly decent chap, humane, kindly and polite’. E.M.Burrage (KL334 War). In another instance, by now a stretcher-bearer, Burrage described how his CO was sympathetic to his developing trench-foot, an offense, “would try to keep him out of trouble”. (KL3811 War). Simple recognition counted enormously; an officer, who stopped to complement a man was remembered, less suprising perhaps when Howard Panton, returning from Loos in 1915, recalled being personally thanked by Sir John French (KL1727 Endure) and described it “as a tonic”. At a more prosiac level, how, when and why the British army formally awarded medals was a fillip to morale. As a modern sports coach will know, ‘recognition and reward’ maintains morale. Unlike the German Army, the British Army never diluted the value of the Military Cross or Military Medal by issuing them too generously.
Collectively, these traits and leadership behaviours were based on a brand of “paternalistic affection; special to the British Army” that Gary Sheffield described as “possibly the most important factor in determining a soldier’s attitude to his officers”. (KL3436 p.112 Endure). 2nd/Lt Edwin Vaughan came to enjoy a close relationship with his men and fellow officers, but not before he had received some harsh worders from a fellow officer. (Some Desperate Glory, 1981). In any of the theatres of war where the Britsh army fought there could be good and bad officers, however in the Middle East, with British officers leading, for the most part, men from the Indian sub-continent, there was far less ‘bonding’ of the kind described, and so less trust or respect, and so a great tendency to poor discipline. Other factors came into play in each of Egypt, Suez, Palestine and Mesopotamia which made apalling situations no better or worse than those faced on the Western Front just that little bit worse: an unfriendly, even antagonist local Arab population was in stark contrast to the attitude of the French to British soldiers in France, for example. And as already described, simply supplying men with everything from water to food, let alone ammunition and getting mail through, was problematic along the Tigris. No amount of ‘good leadership’ or discipline could compensate for near starvation and little relief, though later in the war, experience of the situation led to improvements. As Watson describes, “active service strengthened men’s will, if not their ability, to endure’. (KL 1879 p.72).
Gaining experience is seen as part of the training process; new recruits after their 9 months training benefitted by having several months ‘in a quiet spot’. Immediately on enlisting “the process of military socialisation commenced”. (KL 1625 p57 Endure). Officers too, new to the army and their posting, required time to undertand how to get the best from their men in the circumstances. Army training, overhauled in the decade before the outbreak of war, developed skills, built fitness, integrated the new soldier into the ‘army world’, while endeavouring to develop ‘primary group loyalty’ and an ‘esprit de corps. (KL4493 Endure p.149). Training in various forms continued when men were ‘out on rest’, a derisory term given than often men were faced with labourious tasks, route marches, or actually fitness and skills trainining, which would include, in time, use of newly issued gasmarks, bombs, or the Lewis gun, as well as viewing models of part of the front line they faced (on the Western Front and Mesopotamia) and practising attacks, all activities that Pt Edwin Vaughan descibes, reflecting something of the British attitude and humour, which mattered so much to morale, when practising a rush in France over fields of potatoes and root crops then men were always given an opportunity to collect produce to supplement their rations (Roe p.178) while practise attacks using a model of the Sun-I-Yat position, though including irritating spot rifle and emergency inspections, was followed by a swimming or bathing parade in the Tigris (KL 5037). Bored or scared men, lacking army or self-discipline, without adequate relief or rest, could, one at a time, seek a way out: in Messopotamia there was a extraordinary propensity for men to lose their dentures whereas in France there is some evidence to suggest that some men might risk a ‘dose of VD’. The simple answer to limiting such problems, the British army found, was to have good ‘rotation’: men spent ample time on rest, and for whatever and how many genuine compliments there were of men on rest used to fix roads, fill sandbags or go on a route march, there were increasingly likely to be watching or taking part in Regimental games (athletics, swimming, horse riding or boxing) or taking advantage of what the local town or village could offer, which would include the YMCA or Salvation Army Tent, as well as the estaminet and brothels (whether officially sanctioned or not).
The Army could directly and indirectly influence morale in many ways; not least the simple ability for an action to meet its objectives. Understandably, and in time, men came to recognise signs of an attack that had been wellplanned and where success seemed possible, and where despite their capacity and willingness to carry out orders, failure looked inevitable.
On both the Western Front and in the Middle East, the experienced soldier went through his own ‘learning curve’ just as the Army came to innovate with kit, weapons and tactics. In Messopotamia, first efforts to relieve Kut, with ‘surprise frontal’ attacks without air or artillery support had men feeling doomed; attacking across the Steenbeck during the Third Battle of Ypres, the early morning sight of 30 yards of a swampy morrase a Company were expected to attack across, with two German concrete magine-gun strong-holds facing them, yet first, second and third waves attacked as ordered, the Junior Officers, there to lead and raly their men.
In time, and dependent on accounts by men who survived these many experiences, it is possible to recognise how conditions could improve: supplies coming through to feed the guns and the men, as well as the growing presence of tanks and aeroplanes, helped men to believe that the war could be won and that they might surive it. It was when it was felt, as in March 1918 on the Western Front, that “all was lost” that morale broke. “Men were deserting wholesale, pretending to be lost” wrote Burrage (KL3331 War). Two years previously, in Mesopotamia, morale was bolstered with additional forces, greater use of artillery and new commanders and using, for example, a model of Um-el-Hannah created from photographs taken from aircraft to aid the attack, yet conditions were dreadful for the wounded, who Roe described as “starved, neglected, with blankets alive with black lice” while on the Western Front, while treated, a man might get “hot tea and biscuits” and afterwards a packet of cigarettes.
Relief from stress, even ‘release for desires’ filled the thoughts of many men. As Cherry (p286) described, “sex, in its widest incarnation, played a much larger role in the soldier’s existence …”, it was “undoubtedly a morale builder” (p.37) But relaxation or escape could be quite a personal thing: wistling a tune with a friend, singing during a march, getting drunk, or simply a cup of tea from a Salvation Army served its purpose to bolster morale. Letters played a important role, in every part of the army. Men wrote and received letters regularly, with five collections a day in much of Britain at the time a letter sent from London in the morning could arrive on the Western Front in the afternoon. Cpl Palmer (KL3612 Voices) describes how he received a letter from a girl ‘every day from the beginning of the war’. The comparision for Mesopotamia has Roe describe how having, when wounded, been sent back down the Tigris to Basra, he located a heap of post, guarded by a single man, then went back some 9 months
No conclusion, introduction too long.