Those Cruel Wars – Part One.

A Typical Communications Trench in March. The water is not deep here as it is on the front line. It is only 18 inches. Reims-Verdun Sector, 1918. Source Julian Bryan, Creative Commons.

A Typical Communications Trench in March. ‘The water is not deep here as it is on the front line. It is only 18 inches’. Rheims-Verdun Sector, 1918. Source Julian Bryan, Creative Commons.

“Oh cursed be the cruel wars that ever they should rise / and out of merry England press many a lad likewise.”  – from the folk song High Germany.

“People and their ancestors continue to be animated by processes, habits, performances, and oratory, that are recognisably rooted in long practice.” Graham Harvey, Animism.

My grandparent’s house in South London always felt warm and welcoming.  I remember staying there, as a boy, when they still had gas lighting.  Like many working class houses in those days, the front parlour -with its aspidistra, grandfather clock, brass kettle, and full length velvet curtains- was pretty much out of bounds, a shrine we were only allowed to enter on special occasions.  In one corner there was a locked book case, almost entirely occupied by the twenty nine volume History of the Great War.  Since no-one in the family ever read a book, this sombre collection seemed to serve a ritual function, its presence both acknowledging and containing the apocalyptic events documented in its dry compacted text.

One of my grandparents’ friends was a living reminder of the realities of that conflict.  When ‘uncle Putt’ was about to visit, we boys would be reassured about him.  Putt was clearly someone they cared about.  I remember liking him, but found his very loud cheery voice a bit unnerving.  He’d come back from the First World War with one leg missing, and who knows what other injuries.  My grandparent’s concern was clearly about what he had been through, rather than his disability.  A print by the German artist, Otto Dix, who experienced the horror of trench warfare, gives an idea of what I sensed in uncle Putt some forty years after the unspeakable moment that ruptured his life.

Wounded Man Fleeing, Battle of the Somme, 1916. Otto Dix.

Wounded Man Fleeing, Battle of the Somme’, 1916. Otto Dix.

Firing the first salvo in what promises to be a full scale propaganda war over the commemorations of the outbreak of war in 1914, U.K. education minister Michael Gove has been opening our collective book case, and telling us what to think.  He recently attacked ‘left-wing myths’ that portray the conflict as ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out of touch elite’ (!).(1)  In the interests of balance, then, I offer the following line of thought, which might, at first, seem to have little to do with animist ethics.  Bear with me.

Men, Masculinities, and War.

Bob Connell, one of our most insightful writers on men and masculinities, argues that ‘violence on the largest possible scale is the purpose of the military, and no arena has been more important in the definition of hegemonic masculinity in European and American culture’.  He defines hegemonic masculinity as ‘the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy’.  A 1917 recruitment poster, for example, proclaimed that ‘the United States Army builds MEN’.(2)  The reality of industrialised warfare (since taken to its logical conclusion in the nuclear age, and today’s drone technology) often has little to do with hyper-masculinity however.

If men were the caricatured ‘predators’ of popular sociobiology, ‘hard-wired’ for homicide, military training would surely not have to put so much effort into breaking down the impulse to preserve life?  According to sociologist Tony Ashworth, during much of the First World War troops on both sides operated a ‘live and let live’ system, limiting violence by organising truces and enacting ritualised aggression -such as firing at precise target areas at such regular times that everyone knew how to avoid the shells, much to the annoyance of their respective commanders.(3)  Carnage, nevertheless, occurred on an unprecedented scale.

Men from the 55th division,

Men from the 55th West Lancashire Division, blinded by gas, await treatment at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune.  Battle of Estaires. 10/4/1918.  C.C.

In a much debated book, that came out in 1980, Klaus Theweleit deconstructed the writings of members of the freikorps militia of the 1920’s that went on to form the nucleus of the Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment, or Brownshirts), the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party.  What he found was a portrayal of the male body as an armoured entity, defended -in the Reichian sense- against sexual feeling, femininity, and communism.  These violence-prone ‘hard bodies’ gained pleasurable release in battle but were also anxious bodies, whose display of musculature both disguised and revealed fragility.  Motivated by a desire to avenge the humiliating settlement imposed on Germany after the First World War, and threatened by feminism, these men expressed fear and disgust towards ‘castrating’ women and ‘feminising’ homosexuality.(4)

Sadly, variations on this pattern of rigid masculinity are still commonly found in patriarchal cultures, where violence against women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and disabled people is endemic.

Theweleit had wanted to understand why his parents, who were ‘basically goodwilled people in whom nothing malignant could originate’, went along with fascism.  Reading this I wondered how my own parents would have fared had accident of birth located them four hundred miles to the east.  London is, after all, nearer to Köln than it is to Edinburgh.

Continued in Part 2:


(1) B.B.C. Website, News 5/1/14.

(2) R.W. Connell, Masculinities, Polity, 1995.

(3) Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918, the Live and Let Live System, Holmes and Meier, 1980.

(4) Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Polity, 1980. and interview (link).  See also: Lynne Segal, Slow Motion, Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, Virago 1997, pp115-123.


The Website ‘No Glory‘.

and The Online Otto Dix Project.


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