Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918

Order This Work Here

By Alexander Watson

Cambridge University Press, 2008

Michael S. Neiberg, Reviewer

I first became acquainted with Alexander Watson’s work at a meeting of the International Society for First World War Studies when he was still in the process of research. I remember being impressed with his conceptualization of the problem of soldier morale and endurance and thinking that his was a project to keep an eye on. Now he has completed the project and turned it into an impressive, strongly argued, and innovative book. . . 

Watson’s central question revolves around understanding why the vast majority of World War I soldiers fought for as long as they did. Although shell shock has become an emblematic condition of our memory of World War I soldiers, only about five percent of soldiers were incapacitated by a psychiatric disorder. Even if we assume that the number of such cases was vastly under-reported, the question still becomes not why men broke down in combat but why and how they endured.

The book takes a comparative approach, using primary sources from the British and German armies. Watson has mined these sources, especially those in London’s Imperial War Museum and Freiburg’s Bundesarchiv-Militärachiv, extremely well to show that there was a great deal more similarity between British and German troops than difference. The arguments of contemporaries that some mythic national character explained the endurance of men in the trenches can thus be rejected out of hand.

Instead Watson poses three hypotheses. First, he argues that the process of militarization did inculcate in men a tendency toward both obedience and unit loyalty. These traits helped men to endure the terrible conditions of the front by providing both a structure of authority from the top down and by creating links of comradeship that conditioned men’s behaviors from the bottom up. 

Second, active duty military service did not incline men to pacifism, but instead inspired them to fight harder. After some time in battle, men had scores to settle with the enemy, including avenging the deaths of comrades, a characteristic of men on both sides of the lines.

British Outpost Flanders

Third, men had a remarkable capacity to interpret their experiences in positive ways. Religion, superstition, and a variety of talismans gave men the illusion that they did indeed control their own destinies. This process of controlling one’s own disempowerment, Watson argues, was crucial. As long as men believed they retained some nominal control over their lives, they could retain a belief both in their chances of survival and in the final victory of their own side. Only when the German army lost this sense of its own empowerment did it stop fighting. By the middle of the summer of 1918 German soldiers began to see just how outmatched and outclassed they were. Only then did a sense of despair enter the ranks, leading to ever increasing numbers of men being willing to surrender.

Those interested in the social history of the war and of soldier behavior in wars more generally will find two of Watson’s arguments particularly provocative. Contrary to the belief in a German army disintegrating despite the efforts of its officers, Watson contends that German officers (especially junior officers) often facilitated the mass surrender of their troops. Conditioned to think of the welfare of their men and unwilling to see them killed to no purpose at the end of the war, officers were often the ones who arranged for the safe surrender of their men. These surrenders had nothing at all to do with politics or ideology. They were a way to ensure survival in a war that the men and their officers could see was lost. 

Originally presented in the Journal of Social History, Summer 2010

Michael S. Neiberg

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