…ever since the first ANZAC Day every Australian has recognised in our Army the traits that they regard as distinctively Australian – mateship and sacrifice”

General P. F. Leahy, the Chief of the Australian Army
address on the occasion of the birthday of the Australian Army, 1 March, 2006

Most of the positive myths of the war – Brooke-style patriotism, fighting a war to end wars, building a world fit for heroes to live in – got very tarnished-looking very quickly. The great positive myth that has endured, though, is that of “mateship”, bonding with one’s comrades in arms. Oh What a Lovely War bashed every other positive myth, but was a glorification of working-class solidarity. In Australia, mateship is just about the cornerstone of the national religion.

I’ve been thinking about this in connection with Patrick MacGill’s The Red Horizon, the wartime text that most eloquently paints a picture of other-ranks solidarity, based on the convivial sharing of meals, drinks and smokes, and the breaking of rules, usually for sociable reasons – leaving your post to try and get some vin rouge, absconding with a friend to try and shoot some duck for dinner (very unsuccessfully), or the sharing of a forbidden cigarette. There’s an incident where a corporal tries to enforce a No Smoking rule. The soldiers argue with him, and eventually the corporal lights up, too. Later in the book, after a battle, leave to smoke is granted. “To most of us it meant permission to smoke openly.”

There’s an incident towards the end of the book when the narrator comes across a wounded man.

Have you got any water to spare, chummy?” he asked.

We’ve been told not to give water to wounded men,” I said.

I know that,” he answered. But just a drop to rinse out my mouth. I’ve lain out between the lines all night…”

I drew the cork from my water-bottle.

Forget received wisdom and orders from above – do what your mate asks for, that’s the rule.

What MacGill glides over is the usefulness of this kind of bonding to the military authorities. The rule-breaking and subversiveness unite the men into a group with deep loyalties, strongly motivated to help each other and to fight together.

Armies that foster this attitude, though, are playing with a potent and dangerous magic. It is a loyalty to the sub-group rather than to the army as a whole, and can easily lead to unregulated inter-unit conflict.

More serious is the suggestion made by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau in his L’Enfant de L’Ennemi 1914-18: Viol, avortement, infanticide pendant la Grande Guerre. Writing about war crimes, especially rapes, committed during the war, he says:

One feels less guilty about violence when responsibility is fragmented between all the members of the group. Now the world of war, and that of the Great War especially, is a world of little knots of men, generally young or very young, who make up the actual fabric of all the armies of 1914-18. These “primary groups” as Anglo-Saxon historiography has named them, were formed especially during the war of 1914 when the individual had the feeling of not counting for anything among the masses of men that were mobilised, when the individual qualities of the soldier played a derisory role in the face of modern fire-power, and finally when the new conditions of combat gave little chance of survival to the isolated man, deprived of the help of his nearby comrades.


Reading through the depositions of victims, it is these primitive groups of “comrades” which one sees at work in gang- rapes, committed by twos, by threes, by fours, rarely more, after the summer of 1914. These are the groups which are welded together by means of the bodies of humiliated and brutalised women, become objects of solidarity and communication between soldiers. Their rapes may well be described as a privileged manifestation of “masculine connivance”; they are “rites of initiation and virility.”

He is writing especially about rapes committed by German soldiers in Belgium and Northern France in 1914-5, but I can’t help linking his words to the sexual humiliation of Iraqis by small groups of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Mateship definitely has its dark side.


  1. Posted December 1, 2006 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Fred Manning makes the point, I believe, that friendship and ‘mateship’, which he calls comradeship, are not the same thing – indeed, are in some ways in opposition to one another, because general loyalty to the group can conflict with particular loyalty to the individual (do you save your friend or the platoon?)

  2. Posted December 4, 2006 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Do you believe that mateship and comradeship are the same thing?
    Steven Ambrose examines the concept of comradeship in his book ‘Band of Brothers.’ Though his book is on the popularist side of the fence he joins a strong school of academic thought on the subject. The idea of battalion loyalty and platoon bonding has been the foundation for all western forces.
    Isn’t mateship just a different shade of this argument?

  3. Posted December 4, 2006 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    There’s a big overlap between platoon bonding (the sort of comradeship that the authorities want to foster) and “mateship”, but I see the latter as having a more anti-authoritarian ring to it – “us against the system” as much as “us against the Germans”.

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