“Few soldiers wrote the truth in letters home for fear of causing needless uneasiness,” declared Paul Fussell authoritatively in The Great War and Modern Memory. “if they did write the truth, it was excised by company officers, who censored all outgoing mail.”
Really? Jessica Meyer’s excellent new book, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, includes several pages of extracts from soldiers’ letters which graphically describe conditions at the front. Some were intended for publication in local newspapers. Officers censored the practical military details that might be of possible use to an enemy (such as which units were in a particular place at a particular time) but generally let the depictions of dangers and discomforts go back home.
The great strength of this book is that it is grounded solidly in the archives, and looks at them with fresh eyes. Jessica Meyer has read the soldiers’ letters, and has listened attentively to what they are saying. Her theme is masculinity, but the book is not about men assuming macho roles. Instead we read the letters and diaries of soldiers who are concerned about their families, or who are delighted to be able to tell their wives and mothers that since joining the army they have learnt such traditionally feminine skills as cooking and sewing. She has an acute ear for men’s uncertainty when taking on the military role. Some felt that they came through the challenge well:
I have a feeling of pride that I have stuck it all right for over 9 months, and have never been sick, or been away with a soft job. The soft jobs always go to the men who can’t stick it in the line, or who are useless there.
Others discovered awkward truths:
I had always scoffed at fellows I had met at home suffering from nerves, as, to outward appearances they always seemed quite fit. But I now know that one seems quite fit but feels perfectly bloody.
Diaries can be even more revealing than letters of men going through the process of war and not only recording their experiences but attempting to define their reaction to it, and their identity as soldiers:
One is supposed to have, as a soldier going into action, no other desire than some high-souled ambition to do or die for one’s country. Reality, I am afraid, falls far short. We go because it is right and proper that we should. But I do not think that there is one high-souled amongst us. On the contrary we are all rather bored with the job, the thought of the bally mud and water is quite sufficient to extinguish keenness… When one is tired and unwashed I think one is legitimately entitled to refuse to feel noble, if one so desires.
After the War, many men came home disabled, in body, mind or spirit. Jessica Meyer has investigated the archives of the Ministry of Pensions, and records the banal responses of bureaucracy to human tragedy. The Pensions Act of 1919 made the right to a pension statutory, but during the twenties the Ministry’s view of its job was as “primarily one of limiting state liabilities.” Men are reduced to pleading, trying to retain self-pride by insisting that they are asking for a pension only as a last resort: “ I cannot get any work. I only wish that I could do so…”
In many cases war has robbed these men of the traditional masculine role of breadwinner; they are dependent on their parents or on wives who have taken on the responsibility of earning money for the family. In the archives Jessica Meyer has found stories of marital strain and breakdowns, and increasing desperation. One man finds himself “practically penniless, and in a condition that I am worth nothing to anyone, and still less to myself.”
Self-worth is a theme that goes through the book. Some men found pride and confidence through taking on the role of soldier; from others the war took everything. Jessica Meyer follows a line of feminist scholars who have studied how the war redefined the position of women; she examines what it did to men. The soldiers whose words she records were separated from home physically, but still tied emotionally, and she shows them trying to negotiate an identity of manliness that includes the military but is still closely rooted in the domestic. This is a book that will be read with profit and pleasure by anyone interested in finding out more about how men coped with the war and its aftermath.