Re-examining First World War Heroism

In this guest blog, Dr Jessica Meyer discusses how the understanding of heroism during the First World War have changed over time and reveals how her work with the new Massive Open Online Course in partnership with the BBC has contributed to this topic.

In his memoir of his four years’ service as a Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) stretcher bearer, George Swindell recalled his unit’s trip out to France in the company of two infantry units: ‘Some talked of the times we had had, others of what was in store for us, others in a jocular vein, spoke about going into action with stretchers at the alert, and with three cornered bandages, and pads of cotton wool, as ammunition. … Others chipped us about getting out too late the war will be over before you get to the line, and sundry other pleasantries about a lot of base wallahs [1], (in reference to us being, the R.A.M.C.).’ [2] By comparison, in 1917, Corporal W. H. Atkins published a poem in The ‘Southern’ Cross, the hospital journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital, Birmingham, which praised ‘The “stretcher-bearers” doing their bit,/ Of V.C.’s not many they score,/ Yet are earned every day in a quiet sort of way/ By the “Royal Army Medical Corps.”’ [3] In the space of two years, the perspective on the courage of the stretcher bearer as a serviceman had dramatically shifted from unheroic ‘base wallahs’ to earners of the V.C.

This shifting perspective on the work of RAMC stretcher bearers reflects wider changes in understandings of heroism as a result of the First World War. The fact that men such as Atkins could present the non-combatant labour of stretcher bearers as heroic indicates that heroic ideals were reformed by the experience of industrialized warfare, rather than, as some have argued, simply destroyed by it. While the individual man of rank and action who had been so central to 19th century ideals of the soldier hero could not survive the war unscathed, the association of ordinary soldiers, which included all those in uniform whether they bore arms or not, with heroic qualities of physical courage, endurance and self-sacrifice, most certainly did.

This refashioning of heroism in war occurred in cultures and societies across Europe, not just within the British armed forces. The ideal the individual elan would save the French nation died somewhere between Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. Germany, as a defeated nation, struggled to define a coherent vision of heroic war service in a post-war political climate where right-wing ‘stab-in-the-back’ mythology vied with left-wing anti-war sentiment for dominance of the narrative of the war.

Understandings of First World War heroism have also continued to change over time. The on-going struggles of disabled and traumatised ex-servicemen in post-war society, the rise and subsequent defeat of National Socialism, the revival of memory around the fiftieth anniversary of the war years and the development of the European project as a preventative solution to major European wars have all helped shaped perceptions of the First World War as a heroic enterprise and participants in that conflict as heroes.

These shifting perceptions of the heroic in relation to the First World War, and their representations in European culture across the twentieth century, is the subject of a Massive Open Online Course, taught by myself and four colleagues at the University of Leeds, which initially ran on the FutureLearn platform between 27th October and 14th November. It is one of four MOOCs run in partnership with the BBC around aspects of the history of the First World War. This partnership has given us, as scholars, access to an extraordinary range of images and audio and video resources for use in our lectures, discussions and activities. These resources have helped me gain new perspective on the subject of First World War heroism. As learners start to engage with both the arguments that I and my colleagues put forward and the supporting source materials, I anticipate that I, too, will learn more about this, to me, endlessly fascinating subject. Combined with the fascinating discussions generated by learner engagement with the course, I found that I, too, learned a great deal about this, to me, endlessly fascinating subject.

 

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) will be running again from 9th March, you can access details here.

[1] ‘Base wallahs’ was a derogatory term for men who served in roles behind the line which were perceived as being safer than front line combat. It was one of many terms introduced into the British armed forces by units which had served in India during the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

[2] George Swindell, In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Ts. Memoir, Wellcome Library, RAMC Muniments, RAMC 421, pp.72-4.

[3] Cpl. W. H. Atkins, ‘The R.A.M.C.’, The ‘Southern’ Cross, Vol. 2, no. 18, June 1917.

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