“You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.”
– Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Suicide in the Trenches’.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the epitome of military manhood dictated that a spirit of strength and sacrifice was vital for those who were willing to serve and die for their country. In a sense, the war began as a test of the quintessential qualities of masculinity between the feuding nations of Europe. Yet this war was a conflict like no other. Ordinary men of many backgrounds were recruited on an unprecedented scale, using tactics and technology that revolutionised warfare. Consequently, the First World War had the capacity to destabilise the prevalent gender expectations surrounding men in combat.
Initially expected to be over by Christmas 1914, WWI slowly dragged on for four years, trench warfare being a fully encompassing and extremely distressing experience. The horror of near-constant bombardment and the unrelenting fear of being sent over the top meant that breakdowns among the soldiers were common. The men were confined to their trenches, rarely made ground, and were essentially immobilised during a period of total war. It was this emasculating effect of incapacity and the ineffectiveness of advancement that caused the façade of the warrior hero to slowly deconstruct as ideals of masculinity fell into question.
Little joy could be taken from their day-to-day lives away from loved ones, so to survive this experience, men drew on the close, personal relationships available to them. They found comradeship and support in one another in their all-male environment, and officers began to balance the discipline needed for victory with a sense of compassion for their men. Letters received from home could offer some relief to their pain as they were able to remain in contact with their families. For many of the younger men, reassurance sent to and from their mothers was vital. This contact with family allowed a certain retention in the stability of domestic gender roles, despite feeling a world away from home in the trenches.
War, an event that had required men to strip themselves down to their most instinctive and ruthless level, now required much more order for soldiers to survive psychologically in the trenches. It was less about strength, and more about the fortitude of character. The ‘old lie’, ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, telling of the honour to die for one’s nation, now fell into question as a new kind of warfare destabilised and deconstructed how men experienced armed conflict.