Podcast Review: Psych Of The Great War

This podcast covered several ideas, through a panel of experts and through audience commentary. One of those subjects was what motivations would there have been for men to join up with the army at the time. Ironically, the army was a voluntary recruitment until about halfway through. Being that the British were not a largely military populace, not many had that sort of experience. So it was not something that many could return to with ease. The first month saw some enthusiasts signing up, but not many until late August, or even early September.

One speculation for this is that the men would have to get their affairs in order before signing up for the army. There were things to worry about like if their jobs would be waiting for them when they got back, would they be getting paid through the war, what would happy to their families, and so on.

Another explanation for seemingly slow recruitment numbers, at the beginning, is that the war did not seem close to home. It was not until word got back that misled many to believe that the first forces had been destroyed at the front lines was there a bit of a rush toward the recruitment offices. This seems to have awakened a need to defend one’s home, one’s family. The need to volunteer seemed more vital, and necessary, if anyone wanted a home to come back to.

They talked about a fear of the front lines, as well. The lead orator asked if there were mixed feelings about joining the army, or having to defend at the front. And, of course there were. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the war. Many thought the war was going to be expensive, as it often is, and were worried about their business. The country saw a slump in employment. Yet, the men still felt it was needed that “they do their bit.” Obviously not just men, but women serving in other roles – nurses and such as we have read throughout the semester.

One young man, of seventeen, wrote his mother asking that she write to his Sargent. If she told him how young the boy was, he would not have to serve on the front. This shows that the young man still felt it was necessary to serve but maybe not so close to where the bullets, and shells were exploding most of the time.

Speaking of letters, they talked about the use of letters and parcels a lot. It was funny how they spoke of mother’s letters not being saved as often as letter from sweet hearts. But, I loved the explanation for it. They speculated that the relationships of these young man (70% under the age of thirty) were strongest with their closest family members. This would not likely be wives, if they had them, or even girlfriends. Honestly, it was their mothers and fathers, siblings, and the like that would know them best. Why save the letters of someone you knew would always be there? Would send another letter as soon as they could? Would send you everyday items that were so important to you? Things that you had not even thought to ask for?

No, sweet hearts were every bit as depressing as they were hopeful. One man’s sweetheart, whom he had only been married to for a week before joining the fight, wrote to him about how lonely she had been. That she had taken to dancing and talking with another man. While the solider had saved the letter, because it did have little admissions of missing him and loving him and the like, he also wrote back saying how’d he take great pleasure in breaking every bone in any man’s body who even dare tried to kiss his beloved. So, these insecure relationships gave hope.. but also lead the way to anxiety.

Shell shock was given a great deal of time. It was explained that many men were unlikely to talk about their traumas from the war. That even when they tried many of the doctors, or the military personnel, judged the privates differently than they would the officers. It made more sense to them that an officer would break, mentally. He had more pressure, more responsibility, and more strain than the privates and soldiers.  Anxiety was acceptable for these men, these higher ranked individuals.

However, the privates were seen as being hysterical (a women’s emotional disorder at the time), and trying to escape their duties – even after returning home. Many of them lost their pensions for serving in the war because of how they chose to cope with the trauma (often booze, or other frowned upon dalliances). In fact, the term “shell shock” was coined by these men – not physicians or psychiatrists. They were trying to explain how their nerves had been literally shattered as a result of shells exploding nearby them.

It was talked about how women also experienced “shell shock” by trying to treat the men, before and after they came home. So many would try to pour so much of themselves in the care for these men that they did not tend to themselves. Wearing themselves so thin, while witnessing the after effects of the war on the men, led to their eventual breakdown as well.

The thing I found most interesting was the genderising of aspects in the war. The expert who spoke on this said that he was speaking from the perspective of the people during that time. However, I’m inclined to think that many people even from today would think of some of those acts as more feminine than masculine, or more maternal than paternal.

One of the examples was a letter a young man had written his mother after witnessing the death of his mate. His comrade was shot, and lay dying next to him. He cradled the man, in his arms, until he died. Afterwards he kissed him, twice, on the temple – right where he knew his own mother would have kissed him – once for the mate’s mother and once for himself. This was described as maternal.. but I kept thinking, it could have been seen as paternal.

Another interesting thing that had to do with gender, and gender roles, was how white collar jobs were being labeled as more feminine and this made those men who were employed in such roles eager to defend their masculinity by joining the military. How odd is that to think of? To prove that you are a man by defending your country? I guess that comes from a more modern perspective, that anyone can die for their country’s defense, but when WW1 was going on.. this open minded thinking probably didn’t occur to many in the same way we think of it today.

Along the lines of gender, it was also spoken about how men were brought into the domestic because of the war. They were writing home for kitchen utensils, recipes, how to get rid of lice, sewing kits, etc. Odd to think of soldiers out there essentially “playing house” but it was what they had to do for survival, and it brought bits of home to them – another aspect of survival that the experts commented on. It was impossible to bring home out to the trenches, and the war was supposed to be keeping the trenches away from home. But, if they could just bring bits and pieces back with them… it helped the men (and women in their line of duty) hold onto the hope that home was not /that/ far away.

Oh.. and lastly – the trenches. They were talked about to some extent, and one letter about the trenches made me laugh. It seems one young man was writing to his mother, endlessly, about the mud and filth that he had to endure in the trenches. So much so that she sent him soap. This made me laugh, but the expert made a good point about this.The young man wrote back asking his mother what good was soap when he had no water. And, the expert pointed out that the young man was not just saying that the gift was useless. He was saying that his mother did not, and could not, understand what life out there was like. It was not just the threat of dying but the living conditions, the rats, the lack of necessities that were pressing, and upsetting, for a person.

Random factoids – it is speculated that 8 million letters were leaving the western front on a weekly basis. – Some of the most requested items were for hygiene purposes.- Most officers would have been young, public schooled men who were use to being financially dependent on their parents – Most privates would have left school around 14 and been involved in manual labor.