Tag Archives: heroism

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.

Professional Women and Unmanly Men? Care careers in the First World War

Along the lines of evacuation, wounded men encountered men and women serving in caring roles. In this guest post, Dr Jessica Meyer explores what the organisation and staffing of medical establishments in war meant for gender and gender roles.

For women, wartime medicine could, at one level, mean greater opportunity.  For doctors like Elsie Inglis, who led the Scottish Women’s Hospital, the desperate need for medical professionals at or near the front line provided the opportunity to demonstrate hard-won skills.  Doctors such as Inglis and her staff had the opportunity to prove that they were equal to their male colleagues in terms of their courage and resourcefulness as well as their skills.  For professional nurses, the war provided an even greater opportunity to lay claim to a professional identity through recognised service with both the military nursing services and the British Red Cross.  For unskilled middle class women, volunteering with the Voluntary Aid Detachments and social caregiving units such as the YMCA or train greeting committees was a socially sanctioned form of war service which took them beyond the confines of domesticity.  They could learn new skills, experience adventure, and even travel abroad.  Finally, for working class women, general service with the British Red Cross provided a form of war service that was safer, if considerably less well reimbursed, than munitions work.

Used with the permission University of Leeds Special Collections, Liddle/MUS/AW/118’
Used with the permission University of Leeds Special Collections, Liddle/MUS/AW/118’

Yet women’s experiences of medical caregiving in the war was not simply a story of female liberation and the establishment of professional female identities.  Indeed, the struggle to establish such an identity was, in some ways, severely limited by the war.  The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were not employed by the British military but served instead with allied nations, including the French, Belgian and Serbian militaries.  After the war, many continued in medicine until marriage, but without the recognition that was accorded to their male colleagues of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

For professional nurses, the war presented an opportunity and a challenge.  The service of volunteers, who were valorised not simply as nurses but as volunteer nurses, threatened military nurses’ claims to a specifically professional identity.  If nursing was something that could be done effectively voluntarily, then why accord special recognition to those who undertook it as a career?  The power of this challenge is reflected in the fact that cultural memory of First World War nursing is often dominated by the eloquent voices of VADs such Vera Brittain rather than the more restrained professionalism of military nurses.

A similar conflict can be seen in the opportunity for women to train in medical roles previously reserved for men, such as anaesthetists and pharmacists.  On the one hand this provided professional opportunities for women to gain previously unavailable expertise.  On the other hand, these roles were under the authority of the always male surgeon or hospital Commandant.  At the same time, the increasing number of women in medical care strengthened pre-existing cultural links between caregiving and femininity.  In a society where the marriage bar in most professions would exist for another half a century, this served to depress the status of medical care as much as it improved female emancipation.  It is arguable that the relatively low financial value accorded to hospital carers today can be traced in part to the rise of female dominance of hospital care during the First World War.

And what of the men engaged in caregiving roles?  For medical officers, the influx of civilian professionals served to enhance the professional identity of a service that had, before the war, struggled to define its status within the military.  The actions of men such as Noel Chavasse, one of two medical officers to win not only a VC but also a bar, helped the officer ranks of the corps lay claim to a heroic wartime identity despite being non-combatant.

Stretcher bearers similarly were able to define their work as heroic.  Forced to face the terrors of the front line and come under attack without even carrying a weapon, stretcher bearer heroism was built on the image of immense stoicism in the face of danger.  In a conflict where endurance was increasingly key to definitions of the soldier hero, their work under fire was increasingly a source of admiration for their combatant comrades.

Medical orderlies, by comparison, had a far harder struggle in defining themselves as masculine. Tent orderlies serving overseas with field ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations could and did come under shellfire.  Many also volunteered as stretcher bearers, using the role to lay claim to the qualities of endurance and self-sacrifice that attached themselves to their colleagues.  Those serving in Base and, even more so in Home hospitals, found themselves labelled as ‘Slackers in Khaki’ and mocked as the diminutive ‘orderlim’. This was an identity that orderlies never appear to have fully shaken off.  The manpower crisis meant that men were increasingly ‘combed out’ for combatant duty to be replaced by men too unfit for front line service.  These men were unable to fulfil definitions of heroism which privileged physical fitness, but having lost that fitness through war service, their masculinity was less open to direct question.

In 1919 the RAMC was recruiting for men who wished to ‘learn a useful occupation which may help you in civilian life’, recognition that such service could help men achieve the appropriate masculine identity of provider as well as that of military hero.  While caregiving may have become an increasingly feminine occupation, particularly in diluted hospitals, by the end of the war the RAMC serviceman was able to define not only his wartime but his postwar role as appropriately masculine.