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Challenges To Masculinity In World War 1

Info: 2111 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 19th May 2017 in History

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In the years 1914 to 1918 half of all men between the ages of 15-49 left behind their usual lives and jobs to toil on the battlefields and war related occupations during the First World War. Of 8 million men mobilised, some 1.7 million were wounded and 722,000 killed (Bourke, 1994). Sometimes referred to as the war to end all wars 5 million men served and survived and every frontline soldier experienced loss; it made an unforgettable impact on those who lived through it (Gregory, 1994). 7% of all men between the ages of 15-49 were killed in battle (Bourke, 1996). Men who fought in the trenches had memories of living with the dead, fears of death, close escapes of death, killing and bereavement. It is no wonder men were traumatised and broke down (Gregory, 1994). In this essay, I will show how this trauma challenged the idea of a man being masculine and how this is linked to challenges of ethnicity. Masculinity for many people is what differentiates men from women or femininity (Bourke, 1996). Ethnicity is a social construction representing “the cultural values and norms which distinguish members of a given group from others” (Giddens, 2001:689). What was unbearable about modern warfare was its passivity in the midst of extreme dangers. Modern warfare was more psychologically difficult than warfare in the past because the men had to remain for days, weeks, months in a narrow trench exposed to constant dangers (Bourke, 2000).

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The trauma of world war one made society less secure, the period following the Great War is portrayed as the decline in Victorian values. The world wide economic depression meant fewer jobs and for those men who were unemployed found themselves no longer the breadwinner of the family (Bourke, 1996). Before world war one, those who were without limbs were mostly working class, for example children of the poor, adult factory workers, dock labourers and miners. However, after the war men who had been very fit had become war amputees, for example 70% war amputees were aged younger than 30 but also 10% officers (Bourke, 1996). The war affected all classes. The trauma of world war one made all men from different classes who were amputees invisible in the labour market. Labourers had no incentive to give jobs to disabled men. This became very embarrassing for soldiers; advice and help from officials such as the Heritage School at Chailey recognised that there was little they could do to ease what must have been a difficult alteration for wounded men. Crippled soldiers had to be made in to men again, because they were often reduced to being children (Bourke, 1996). The war had a dissolving effect on the class structure of Britain, although still being a class-conscious society the emotional stress of war brought males classes closer together. Before the war, not having an arm or a leg meant you were poor but because of the war all classes were affected. Going out to work was an important milestone on the road to manhood and a source of pride, there was a link between masculinity and “living wage” that required defending (Bourke, 1994). Although the majority of disabled veterans found employment, 100,000 disable ex servicemen were unemployed in 1920 (Gregory, 1994). It did not matter about your class anymore, during the war all men had to live in the trenches regardless. Those men who had suffered losing a limb during the war regardless of their class faced challenges to their masculinity because they were no longer the breadwinner of their families (Bourke, 1994).

For Irish soldiers the trauma experienced in world war one challenged their masculinity because their actions in wartime were not actually appreciated. The breakdown of Irishmen is linked to ethnicity because despite Irishmen having a reputation for being an aggressive race Irishmen, they were generally thought of as weak because pensioning authorities and the war office constantly asserted without statistical evidence that proportionally more Irishmen were driven mad in war than their English, Scottish and Welsh comrades. In Southern Ireland, the proportion of ex-servicemen receiving pensions for neurasthenia and other disabilities was said to be well above average. In an attempt to explain this prejudices started to emerge. There had been a common assumption before the war, for example according to one writer high lunacy levels in Ireland were a “legacy of mental weakness dating from the sufferings of the famine years” (Bourke, 2000: 61). Their ethnicity was legitimised with politics; Irish soldiers were stereotyped because legislation passed at the time legitimised them as being prone to mental illnesses. It was British masculinity that helped to win the war rather than Irish people. Irish people were a site for ethnicity. Such assumptions about the social and ethnic characteristics of shell-shocked men meant they received poor treatment at the casualty clearing stations and later the hospitals, assumed to be trying to malinger. Emotional Irishmen and weak privates were given progressively more painful electric shocks in an attempt to help these men (Bourke, 2000).

There was an added emotional stress for men/ex-servicemen, which challenged their masculinity because their actions in warfare were not appreciated. The neglect started the moment they stepped off the hospital ship. Pensioning officers never stopped in their attempt to prove that mentally ill men were liars and malingers. The ministry of pensions were obsessed with the problems of reducing the pension bill, for example as late as 1931 they were still warning medical officers to beware of shell-shocked men who exaggerated their symptoms so their pension would not be re-evaluated at a lower rate. Those ex-servicemen who had broken down in war were faced with a hostile attitude. Irish ex servicemen were not only outcasts for having fought for Britain, their maddened minds debarred them from participating in civil war and the war of independence in an increasingly militaristic society, which discredited their very masculinity. Returning home they found their masculinity challenged, everyone from bureaucrats at the ministry of pensions to local employers seemed to gang up against them (Bourke, 2000). Therefore, Irishmen’s masculinity was challenged because of their ethnicity that was justified with politics.

Similarly, by 1914 the vast majority of the Indian troops for the Indian army were drawn from the north and North West of the sub continent, the provinces of Punjab, the North West frontier and the independent kingdom of Nepal. The regional bias was the result of the “martial races” theory, which had influenced British recruiting strategy since the 1880s. A mixture of indigenous notions of caste and imported social Darwinism, the martial races idea had at its core the belief that some Indians were inherently more warlike than others. Very few troops were recruited from southern and eastern India because of the growing British conviction that southern and eastern Indians had become weak and powerless through “racial degeneracy”. By the time of the armistice, India had provided over 1.27 million men, including 827,000 combatants, contributing roughly one man in ten to the war effort of the British Empire (Omissi, 1999). For Indian men, there was an intense fear of shame because many troops often expressed contempt for those who ran away or deserted, or who otherwise failed their duty. “It was better to die than to fail in ones duty” (Omissi, 1999:12), for Indian soldiers’ shame could involve a loss of masculinity, given the highly gendered nature of military service. To be a coward was to be like a woman. The range of military behaviour was tightly constrained by the types of masculinity available to soldiers. The reputation of the regiment really mattered to the troops because shame like honour attached itself to the micro-identities of the regiment. In the few weeks after their arrival in France the soldier’s letters were full of hope and good cheers. The censor believed the soldiers wanted to show their loyalty to the King and to prove themselves equal to white men. Above all Indian soldiers fought to gain and preserve their “izzat” (Omissi, 1999:12), in other words their honour and reputation. It was considered glorious and honourable to die in battle. This was not just about retaining their masculinity, but also their ethnicity. They not only had to prove they were masculine, but that they were equal to British men.

War veterans were mentally and physically traumatised. Just as the outbreak of war in August 1914 drove many young men to recruiting offices because it was a sign of masculinity, this was also true of after the war. The images created to encourage young men to volunteer to go to war were posters of men who were brave and fearless; this painted a picture of what masculinity should be like. There was this idea of a “compulsory masculinity” (Barker, 1998). Therefore, when soldiers suffered from a host of new mental disease defined throughout the war, for example shell shock and war neuroses. The patients were thought simply as weak and cowardly men. Neurasthenia came to be treated as if it was a “disease of the will rather than of nerve force” (Barker, 1998:1). This made men blameworthy for their own illnesses. It appeared that mental illnesses were inherited. Men had huge pressure on them to behave a certain way in the heat of battle; the soldier “should” always confront dangers with steadfast courage because of the posters that showed this compulsory masculinity. It is obvious that these social expectations of the masculine role in war were related to shellshock. World War one was a crisis of masculinity because suffering an emotional breakdown at the time made them be seen as less of a man because there was this idea of a compulsory masculinity, they had to act in a certain masculine way. The images constructed of men going to war were very manly; coming back all traumatised was a challenge to their masculinity.

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Trench warfare itself challenged masculinity, for example many jobs and tasks men had to fulfil were tasks their mothers, wives or servants would attend to at home. Female duties such as washing, mending, cooking and nursing were all tasks women would normally attend to. Men also “mothered each other” for example they had to nurse the sick and wounded and comfort men during times of stress and ordeal. This helped men create stability, which helped the soldiers to cope with physical hardship and emotional disruption. In addition, men received and sent letters, which enabled men and women during world war one to transcend the gender-bound categories because it helped women to experience the traumas of war; it brought men and women together. The traumas of world war one, such as illnesses and generally low spirits intensified the need to receive a letter from their loved ones. The moment where men felt there lowest was when they needed the image of home the most (Dudink, Hagermann and Tosh, 2004). By writing letters in showing attentiveness to their mother or loved one, men fostered a connection with a feminine sensibility. This was a sign of their masculinity being challenged because men wanting to go home were sign of weakness, something considered to be quite feminine. The closeness of the mother-son tie was something, which men replicated in their relationships with each other at the front. Men acknowledged that the depth of the maternal attachment and mothers remained important figures in emotional relations amongst men (Dudink, Hagermann and Tosh, 2004).

Therefore to conclude, there were many challenges posed to masculinity by the experience of world war one, many men broke down during war and developed psychological illnesses such as shell shock and neurasthenia. It was considered unmanly to develop these and those who suffered from these illnesses were made blameworthy for them because they were considered hereditary. Furthermore, men who lost a limb because of the war had their masculinity challenged because if they were unemployed they were no longer the breadwinner of the family and this made them feel feminine. Irish men suffered the worst challenges to their masculinity and this is linked to ethnicity because for Irish soldiers to break down was a loss of their manhood but part of their ethnicity because politics legitimised them as prone to being mad.


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