Dr Alex Mayhew, a historian of the cultural, military, and social history of war and also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, talks about his research into the morale of the British soldier in the final 18 months of the Great War.
He and the host, talk about their respective perspectives on morale and motivation of the British soldier in the last two years of the war. They consider the respective importance of small group cohesion, social norms, junior leadership and ideology.
Click here Alex Mayhew for more information.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:00:17] Welcome to 'Mentioned in Dispatches', the podcast from the Western Front Association with me, Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War history group. We are dedicated to furthering the understanding of the Great War and have around 60 branches worldwide.
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It is the 8th of August 2022 and this is episode 267. On today's Dispatches podcast I talk to Dr. Alex Mayhew. Alex is a historian of the cultural, military and social history of the Great War and also a fellow of the Higher Education Academy at the London School of Economics. I spoke to Alex about his research into the morale and motivation of the British soldier during the final 18 months of the Great War. Alex spoke to me from his office in London.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:01:11] Alex, welcome back to the podcast. Before we start, can you tell us about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War?
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:01:18] Thanks for having me back. I'm a historian of the Culture of the British military, and in particular, I look at identity, morale, an English infantry regiment. I did, my PhD in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics, where I was a Fellow until recently, and now I'm in learning development. I'm currently completing my book on exactly this topic, building on my Ph.D., which is going to be published by Cambridge University Press, hopefully in 2023, so long as I submit it in the very near future, which is the intention.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:01:52] And for those people who may be wanting to get hold of that book, you may be listening to this podcast when it comes out. We are recording in mid-March, 2022.
So Alex, before we start our conversation, what is morale and how do you measure it? And over to you for that, somewhat simple.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:02:09] I think it's a very simple question and one that I think probably has as much literature surrounding it as as the First World War if you if you delve deep into military history.
I think that there are different ways to approach the question. There are inputs and outputs. So what do you do to cultivate high morale and what does it ... look like in practise? I think that if ... you take the perspective of contemporary during the First World War, they had a different idea of what morale was to historians today.
Generally speaking, you often see morale [appearing] in publications in the area of the war. Often it's referred to as 'moral' as well as morale, which gives you a sense of exactly the kind of things they're thinking about. So you often see it used in relation to ideas like life or spirit, 'esprit de corps', as well, and they frame it in a characteristically Edwardian way. Whenever you read things like infantry training in 1914, they would say that the the idea of morale is to help the soldier bear fatigue, privation and danger - 'cheerfully' importantly, it was cheerfully. That's always an important feature, especially during the First World War. And equally, it's really related to at least officers ideas of honour as well. So you want to imbue soldiers with an idea of honour, whatever might that might look like, and they tend to highlight different kinds of characteristics. So things you could look for as evidence of morale. So confidence in superiors, disregard for self, soldiers, initiative, soldier self-confidence, self-restraint, obedience of course, and also things like combat effectiveness, regimental pride, courage in battle. And I don't think you really need to look too far beyond J F C Fuller (1) to understand just how hard it is to use those definitions - to ... conduct an academic study. He said that it was a 'magical world' and that 'the apparatus of victory was impossible unless you endowed individual soldiers with morale'. The military, as one would guess it, given the moral connotations and morale at the time, generally speaking, looked to things like disciplinary apparatus, inculcating appropriate officer-man relationships, focussing on soldiers welfare, cultural pursuits, team games. All of these things existed in the Army before the First World War.
Now, I guess the problem for historians today is that we can see that that's not necessarily an appropriate analytical framework. And so historians - deployed a variety of different definitions. Alex Watson (2) as many of the listeners would have read his work, sees it as to quote indirectly 'the readiness of a soldier or group of soldiers to carry out commands issued by military leadership'.
I think that's a perfectly effective definition, especially for Alex's work. But I think Jonathan Fennel's (3) approach is more useful, at least in terms of my analysis, which is 'the willingness of an individual or group to prepare for and to engage in an action required by an authority or institution'.
Now, I think all of those are really useful, but as I mentioned earlier, morale is a series of inputs and outputs -but we often neglect the fact that there's a process going on in the middle, right within the soldier's own minds, within the soldier's unit. And so in my work, I also focus on and define morale as a result slightly differently. This process. So I suggest it's a process through which 'servicemen positively or negatively rationalise their role as soldiers and constructive members of the military'. And importantly, this is what underpinned, at least I think, underpinned their willingness to then prepare for, or engage in whatever the action dictated by the military authorities were thinking.
Let's leave it there. We've probably given your listeners quite a lot of stuff ... to think about.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:06:19] I suppose my problem is how then how do we measure it? Because it seems to be really difficult. And I know we looked at rates of disciplinary cases and sickness cases ... I've just completed a study, one unit which has listed the sick cases by day for months from February 15 to the Armistice. And so this is very, much ... list of ... when you look at we compile them on a monthly level. It's a bit like ... a heart monitor. It goes up and down all time. And then I think, well, does this indicate good or bad morale? And it's really impossible to look at that unit and say it's good morale next month because it's so consistent throughout the war. And, you know, if I was a soldier looking at that, or a commander, I can't have a clue because it's a complete lack of comparative data, which actually gives me this is as 'good or bad'. I'm ... trying to tie in with all the things that are happening and things like, for instance, protests or desertions ... or things like that. So ... even though we know that they looked at this, it seems (difficult) to judge. Morale was even then ... very challenging. And they have the same problems that we do because of the lack of data.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:07:24] I think the lack of data is a really important part. I know that, you ... and many of your listeners will know just how different, especially Regimental War diaries are in what they record, which makes the historians attempts to ... quantify morale in any meaningful way really difficult.
So I think, honestly, the true answer is it's quite crude if we're trying to measure morale, because if I was, say, like a good social scientist, like many of my colleagues at L.S.E. what I would do is, I'd get a series of variables and I'd run a regression to see what the relationship between those variables were and whether or not, for instance, sickness rate played an important part. I think the reality is ... with sickness, [that] there are so many other things that can affect it.
It could be the weather - weather's different. And we know that weather plays a hugely important role in morale as well. So it's (morale) is very low because it's cold, rather than because the soldiers have lost any innate belief in the war. Other historians have focussed on ... the output of battle as a way to try and track morale. So - victory, both inculcates high morale and surely is evidence of control. But we also know the battalions that have an ascendancy in some of the material might win a victory, even if they have lower morale than the unit that fighting - people have looked at surrendering rights as evidence of morale. Jonathan Boff (4), in particular, has highlighted the danger of doing that, because surrender is often a context specific action - tt's something that occurs in the moment. And it might be because the unit has lost its combat effectiveness. It might be because it's got low morale, but it might be just simply that it's surrounded ... and the other option is death. And I don't think that we can necessarily characterise the desire to survive as evidence of low morale. It could damage combat effectiveness, but it doesn't necessarily mean that morale is low.
So ... the reality is that it's always going to be crude. And like you said, even at the time, they weren't creating datasets which are useful for us. But I think that stems from the fact that the study of morale and the interest in soldiers' intrinsic motivations was a relatively new thing. And you see it developing through time during the war. So the reports of morale become more and more complete, and intricate, and detailed, and analytical as the war goes on. We haven't been left most of those. So that damages the historians attempts to to look.
So ... maybe this is me seeking a way out of the rather crude analysis of X plus Y equals Z. But what I've tried to do is look at the the emotional register of the soldiers, to look at the the culture of the British Army and seek patterns and links, and any correlations which speak to the things that traditionally are seen as evidence of morale and then obviously link it to events and outputs where I can.
So I look for discussions of command, anything that overlaps with discipline, ideas of military victory. And what I found at least, is that you can start to seek and see patterns in the way that soldiers construct meaning around the war. And that 'meaning around the war' often translates ... to the patterns that historians have frequently looked at. So in particular, the idea that this period, late 1917, early 1918, is a crisis point for the British Army and the British Army's morale.
You can see that, if you do more ... as if I was anthropologist, I'd call it maybe like an 'ethno-historiographical in the history of the army. So looking at the way that they constructed meaning and their culture - you can start to see why it might have been that this was a crisis moment, but saying that it's really difficult to measure that in any quantifiable way. As you are aware.
What you do see is, generally speaking, an increased incidence of things that are characteristic of low morale, so it's at this period, for instance, in a lot of regiments, if you take July 1917 to June 1918, it's in October, November, December 1917 that you see court martials, you see people being prosecuted for absence without leave. All of these things occur with greater regularity. But if I was a statistician, I would not use that term to create a quantifiable output because the data just isn't there.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:11:57] ... I think (the) next question looks at how we would quantify morale over this period ... I certainly would characterise what you said ... essentially the second half of 1917, it's maybe bumpy at best and maybe by the summer of 1918 things are better. 100 days things seem to be a lot better. That's how I would broadly characterise morale and I know we can probably argue over levels of that, but generally the army keeps fighting and it keeps functioning and there are dysfunctions within units or dysfunctions within armies. For instance ... the Fifth Army collapsed during the Spring Offensive and I think the evidence probably suggests no where are the people have suggested it is. So ... there are a number of problems, but the problems that the Russian Army suffer, that the Italians, maybe to a degree, suffer at times - the Russians certainly suffer, and certainly the French do in April, May. So we don't get any of those ... widespread mutinies or problems in that sense ... I don't know ... whether you would agree with that broad ...
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:13:04] Yes, I think I would. So the way that I wrote the final chapter in my book ... is about this period, generally speaking, July 1917 through to June 19, 1918.
I think the best way to describe morale is that it was 'in flux'. And I ... think this is one of the big issues with histories of morale more generally, is they (are) often studied ... in stasis. It's the idea that there's just one unit. We're going to look at it, not by I don't mean battalion in that instance, but morale is this this big block that we're going to analyse and it doesn't look different, depending on what - I don't know what perspective we take on it, but what you see, if you take this period, July 1917 or even from the beginning of 1917 through to the summer of 1918, is that morale is in flux and it does change over time. So early 1917.
I think this is where some of the the popular perceptions of the Somme damage your historical perceptions of morale and issues of combat effectiveness. Because early 1917, despite the winter weather, is a period of optimism in the British Army. The Somme was seen as bloody, but it was by no means futile. They saw the British Army taking strides forward. Morale definitely had changed, but early 1917 seemed to indicate that the fighting of 1916 had borne fruit and that they were starting to learn their trade and they were starting to progress. So operations on the Ancerre and in the Somme were seen as minor victories by the soldiers at the time. Then you have the German withdrawals to the Hindenburg line in February / March 1917. And what we know from a historical perspective and an objective perspective, that that was a sound strategic move on behalf of the Germans. The British saw that as evidence that they had won some pretty hard fought victories in 1916, that the Germans had been forced backwards, which arguably they had, and it seemed that they'd sapped the enemy's endurance. And even though the Germans had strategically retreated, the British still advanced. And often they saw cavalry for the first time - they entered new villages. And importantly, they also saw evidence of the German destruction that had been wrought on the area as they retreated so they'd seen poisoned wells, villages destroyed. All of this re-emphasised the need to defeat the enemy.
You even have these stories of them coming across the first evidence of German cemeteries, and I don't disrespect them. There's one story of a German cemetery which they find in a village having been destroyed within two days of the British arriving because of the the the amnesty they felt towards the state rather than individuals, I think. And then you have Arras, you have the Vimy Ridge, Messines which had problems, no doubt. And there were moments of low morale, particularly amongst Australians, and ... there were issues with the conduct of some of those battles at times. But for the most part, it suggested the battle could reap rewards for the military. And I think this idea of battle is really important, because what you see over the course of 1917, 1918 - well, up until March 1918, is a dwindling belief in the ability of battle to bring bring about the end of the war - among British troops. And Passchendaele was the key to this, really, because it's the the major campaign of 1917, as we know, for the British. And it's not one that paints a particularly positive picture of battles' ability to bring about the end of war, which is ultimately what soldiers are looking for because it's intimately related to their survival.
And so especially the first phase of the battle after 31st July at Boessinge, Langemark, the gains that were made were too modest to justify the that the pressures put upon the infantry. And we have to remember as well, the battlefield was ... churned, but the battlefield in 1917 - was a hellscape. Soldiers frequently talk about it, and it in itself is draining hope. But it's hard to paint anything as a success when the trenches you're capturing are so hard to recognise as anything other than just another part of the landscape that had been created by battle.
And those losses really, again, undermine the idea that battle is something that's going to bring about a victorious end to war. You, then, as everybody knows, have the slightly more successful bite and hold operations, which seem to indicate, okay, maybe there is some hope, but all of that is undermined again as you move into October and the poor weather returns. And I think we've already mentioned weather is an important feature of sickness. But the weather, as I'm sure your listeners are aware, in 1917, is abysmal. The rainfall in July, August and October is in some cases double that that would be expected in months preceding the war. Along or around April.
I just got the data here. It's 82 millimetres in July, 127 millimetres in September, in August and 107 millimetres in October, which is significantly more than the year before and technically more than earlier in the year. And it really saps soldiers' morale ... It's a pretty horrific place to fight.
And then you have Cambrai which again seems to indicate the battle's ability to bring about the end of the war might have ended even when you win successes the Germans seem able to take back the territory. And so you have this moment at the end of 1917 where there's war weariness on the Home Front. There's a dwindling belief that battle can bring about the end of the war. The strategic picture elsewhere looks pretty poor.
Italy, as you've already mentioned, has quite a morale with the French. You've had a crisis in morale. Russia is out of the war - for all intents and purposes, and so they go into winter for the first time feeling that the next year won't bring about victory. And that's true from generals through to privates. And it's something that really does affect their willingness to perceive of - the war as anything other than probably a 'stalemate'.
You start to see that as a common theme in soldiers letters and in censorship reports exist. But then the winter itself is one of toil and and endurance. I think that somewhat paradoxically, the fact that it's such a busy winter is they prepare for the defensive, which again damages the sense of the war. Is anything anything close to being won - might actually deflect some of their attention away from the patterns of the war. And then as you move into 1918, it's quite quickly that you start to see rumours of the ... impending German offensive circulating in the British army.
And one of the things that I argue is that ... the experience of the German offensives of the 21st of March, but also the months preceding that, when they start to hear that there are new bridges being built across the German lines, that their troops are massing for what is likely to be an offensive, suddenly it starts to re-engage the soldiers' ense that this is a necessary fight, that the war is something that needs to be won - the Germans are are an aggressor.
And then the fighting and the experience of fighting, even in retreat re-engage, is the sense the battle might actually have the ability to bring about the end of the war. It's no longer a stalemate. Even if they're retreating, they're inflicting losses on soldiers, enemy soldiers, they can see.
And there is this strange paradox, which is that the generals seem to be panicking about a military crisis, but the soldiers themselves, a unit level, see that actually that their time is going to come. That ( ) they're inflicting heavy losses and don't perceive it as such. They're are ( ) quite shocked by Haig's 'back to the war message' - that it got to that stage. And so by summer, especially when they'd they'd endured the first wave of the offensive, which I think is the point at which what I would describe as an acute crisis. And the soldiers don't collapse because of low morale. Where there are problems, it's because they're not adequately prepared. They didn't have time to train. Once they got through that, I think they come out on the other side - with the sense that actually the battles to come could bring about the end of the war. And there's a wholesale change over that period because battle suddenly has a meaning again.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:21:34] ( ) hat was really interesting ( ) looking at the geostrategic situation and how that shapes their sort of perception of things. ( ) the pattern resonates with me because I've got problems in London right from the gate after 30, there is a mutiny in the unit. And then in the latter stages of Cambrai, when they're in the counter-attack ... there's again a mutiny in the unit and there's another lot of problems in other units as well. I mean minor, minor stuff, but potentially could have got a lot worse had it not been resolved. So there is that ( ) feeling of ( ) "we're sick of this". It's not a case of war per say. It's against maybe ... it's around things like food, access to food - not being treated correctly, which might be seen as a wider miasma of problems. But then again, if supply actually keeps on fighting, why do they keep going? Because I think that opens the other idea - of ideology, group theory, leadership, patriotism and nationalism, esprit de corps. ( ) What ... are the top two factors which you think keep people going?
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:22:49] I think that there is never a sense that there should be a 'peace at any price'. ( ) So even as they have a dwindling belief in battle, the furthest they go, if they are suggesting that the war is unwinnable, is that there should be a negotiated peace. And that is a relatively brief period of time. And I think this speaks to probably what I think is the most central feature of morale, generally speaking, but also in the British Army and specifically with English troops that I study, is that there is a resilience in their belief that the war was winnable and that the war was just - and that victorious peace was the necessary vehicle for their return to civilian life if that was what they were looking towards. And so the reason that you see this this faltering morale at the end of 1917 is a dwindling - but not collapsing belief in the reality and the possibility of victorious peace. And there are a variety of reasons that they they have a resilient hopefulness for a victorious peace. And I think they it stems from their own relationship with the state. The fact that the British government, the British military had quite rightly, at points, but very successfully framed this is a 'war of defence' and that struck a chord with the soldiers and was something that generally speaking they believed and equally I think it just speaks to the innate nature of the human psyche, which is that we tend to be optimistic in those circumstances. There's a reason that humans have been able to fight wars throughout history, and there's a reason that humans engage in pretty horrific journeys when they're refugees.
It's that you're hoping that there is going to be a brighter future.
It's something that's just sparks within our psyches. And so I would say that that is is a central feature of it, and it's helped by the geostrategic situation. It's helped by the fact that March 1918 is further evidence that the Germans were fighting a war of, in effect, an offensive war and not a defensive war. It was a reminder that the war could be lost, which actually had been forgotten. It's quite easy to forget the fact that really the British haven't been on the defensive since 1914, at least on the Western Front. So, I think that there was there had been a faltering belief in the word 'defensive' just because it hadn't had to happen for so long but 1918 reinforces that.
I would also say that in the case of the the British Army or English soldiers in particular, there is something very fundamental about their relationship with the state. And I think this is the big difference, and I'm sure we'll talk about it in a little bit more detail between the British English troops, in my case, and their French counterparts and German enemies, which is what military service really means. In France and Germany it's implicitly related to their citizenship. In Britain, that's not the case. The British army is not a mirror of a democratic society. Arguably, Britain is not a democratic society in 1914-18. Suffrage is still fairly limited. Many of the soldiers that fought in the British army would have never voted, particularly in 1918. If you look at the average ages, it's in many units - the mobile age is 19. So they were too young to have voted in a general election. These aren't citizen soldiers they are 'subject soldiers', and as such, they have a much more parochial relationship with England, with Britain. Their patriotism is drawn from actually things which I think are more resilient to change than a political system.
So visions of home, their family, the town, the city, the landscapes of their county, all of these things are resilient to the machinations of the war. And as such, even as there are crises on the home front, as there are strikes, as there are issues with compulsion and conscription remains 'home' remains a sustaining entity in the way that it doesn't, particularly in the German army in 1918. And I'm not a historian of the German army, but those seem to be some of the most compelling arguments for the collapse in German morale, from my perspective, especially towards the end of the war.
And then one of the other things I would highlight: we think about compulsion and discipline as a ... very obvious stick in most cases. So field punishment number one, for instance, or the threat that you could be shot if you mutiny. So the death penalty being a key feature of British discipline during the war. But one of the key features of 'compulsion' in my mind is that it can be it can be more intrinsic in that it can be it can be faceless if you like. So in Britain, in the inter war period especially, respectability is this this cultural idea, which is fundamental.
I think I might have mentioned in the the last time I talked to you one of my favourite books about Edwardian Britain. It's called 'Round About a pound a Week'. And it's this like proto-sociological study of of London. And it's like, as then as now, one of the ideas about the working class was that they were poor because they spent all of their money on alcohol and things that were frivolous. But what Lord Pembridge, who was the author of this book discovers, is that actually they spend a disproportionate amount of their money on burial insurance because they don't want to have to lean on the community when their children die. And I think that speaks to the power of this idea of respectability. Right. But it also feeds into the British Army.
So you have character references which are implicitly related to your life after the war to help you get jobs. The soldiers are aware that they're getting ... regular feedback on their performance, that officers are getting feedback on the performance of training, for instance. And they're aware fundamentally that their performance during the war, their ability to work within what the military defines as the 'boundaries of respectability', will have a huge bearing on their lives after the war. And so I think those three things are really fundamental when it comes to the resilience of British morale during that period.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:29:25] I think I would accept all ... that you're saying. I suppose I would probably take a slightly different view, and I would probably because my team is on this subject. So I've been a bit brainwashed, but I think it's the role of the small group and how that builds. Again, reflecting, fixing a lot of the values that you've talked about that no small group has is a conduit through which these social pressures are put on people, that people conform to the general sorts of idea - ideas of value and the groups. You know, since we self-censor, they they don't generally have ... you get some groups, I think, which are very anti-patriotic or war weary, others which are very much not really pro-war, but not against the war. And there's ... these reflect broader ideas of masculinity and respectability. And ... you're doing the thing. That's right. And ... there's also human factors like. Police in units who have disproportionate influence. The fact that groups are forced together by necessity and they are functional, functional entities like the Lewes Gun or they do do a job. So there's a lots of ... camaraderie very much around that. And once the Marines, they all go their separate ways. And ... it's a temporary thing. And the people and the context very much shapes that. But I would argue that is the key thing. I think the argument that like people formed close relationships with within significant others is unusual. The idea of having a very close relationship where we we both share our hearts and we talk about life. It's not like that. Some people certainly do have that, but it's a Hodgkinson has argued ... the relationships are very much ... like in the workshop it's, it's a functional role and you have a functional that's true to your group. And again, I think that's very much class dominated as well, that lads have a very different view of work than working class lads. And because I think your paradigm is really interesting in English soldiers, I was wondering what the other effects would be.
Irish soldiers from 1916- 1918 ... many of them see their homeland on the verge of civil war and on the verge of civil war in 1912. But the idea of British suppression of the Easter Rising and some of the things that happened to the rise of Sinn Fein and actually we very few Irish units actually have disorder. That I think is really interesting. So ... the majority of the military Irishmen probably supported the war effort and they, ... they thought they would get home who laughed with them on? Yeah, easy to say. We all think it's a foregone conclusion, but I'm being summoned by the show. But in terms of that, I think ... I think your point about you have to see in the in the time you've got to look at the men in the day that they're looking at it not it's all inevitable we're going to wait is not know but I said and I think also I think what Gary Sheffield makes is about junior leadership is also important. But I also yeah, all those factors like manliness. I think again this can often as you points out, we started talking stoicism, manliness. These values ... mutate themselves ... from the Romans right the way through to Edwardian years. And they have slightly different variants of it, but also I think communication with home because I think it costs me an interesting point. He's a Napoleonic scholar and that the group is more important in in the Peninsula War in 1808 to 1814 because you don't have that connexion with home in the same way that you do with modern technology, newspapers, telegrams, letters and an literate, much more literate societies. So ... I'm looking at the levers that function well. And in terms of morale is ... think we are probably agreeing much to the same thing, that the different perspectives on that, which again makes it so fascinating.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:33:06] ... I think ... there are, like you said, as and as I mentioned earlier, before we started speaking, there were a lot of features of Edwardian Victorian society that have been highlighted as uniquely British. And that might explain why the British army, why its morale didn't suffer the same sort of crises that its allies and enemies did. But like you said, those echo through time. And I think this issue of respectability is pretty unique to its time and period. And I think your discussion of the small group and the group is really important as well because, if you think about those links for time, which are also fundamental, one of the things, and this is why I keep highlighting that speaking about English units, is that these are relatively or surprisingly, I'll say, homogeneous in their make-up. So there were strong regional contingents and often still quite strong local contingents in the units right up until the end of the war. So these people that are serving with might often at least have a familiar accent, but might very well be from the same town. And so this idea of respectability is all the more powerful if you're in a group which is going to overlap with your civilian life.
And I think that that's really essential that often officer man relationships are important as we know they are throughout military history. There is one thing that I highlight about of some relationships, which is I think for a long time we viewed other ranks through the perspective of officers, through the lens of officers. And so when we talk about officers, paternalistic duties, officers certainly felt that. But from my perspective, I don't think the other ranks necessarily saw in the same way. I think they occupy different worlds - and the things that drove other ranks on. And again, I think I mentioned this in the previous podcast I did with you, but the things that are fundamental to them are: doing a good job, walking away with a good character reference, and also the idea that the service is finite. They're the people who often talk about having 'done one's bit', although this is ... ( )
You frequently read, even in Haig's diaries, you see an old soldier who's got several wound stripes. They should ... have a cushy job. They've done that. They shouldn't be expected to serve on the front lines. And that's built into the structures. Not so much for officers, though, because their duty is infinite - in the way I think that Gary Sheffield has highlighted previously. But I think we have to be careful of imposing the officers' perspective of what they do onto the other ranks, because I'm not sure that they did really occupy the same world.
And you only really need to look as far as 'Privates We' by Frederick Manning (5) to get real insight into just how true that is, just how alien some of the officers ideas about the war are to the other ranks and to the working classes.
There is one thing, though, I think this is an interesting point about the resilience of the the small group ... is one of my arguments and we're always allowed to disagree. So maybe if we do, that would be more interesting for the listeners.
But one of the things you see in 1918, 1917 through June 1918 is just how high the casualties are in frontline units in the fifth Army in particular. So in some cases, between October 1917, May 1918, they have as many as 800 new men entering the unit. So they're almost a palpably different demographic organism by that point at the end. And I go back to that point about them being young as well, I think is really important - in 1918, because you see several reports of that indicate that these young soldiers, especially if they haven't had much training, have very high levels of morale and are very reliable if things are going their way. But once there is a German counter-offensive, often their ability to fight back collapses and their confidence collapses. And I think it's probably telling that the period at which the British Army is on its offensive and that morale seems to have rejuvenated to a degree, is also when it's filled with men, young men, pretty much boys. You have a much lower sense of risk than adults probably are less attached to the home front in terms of having dependents. I think that there is something really important there.
And the other thing we haven't really talked about, which is important - is training. And I if we talk about small groups, the reason small groups are cohesive is training helps it. But one of the things which I think has been highlighted, but not investigated enough detail, is the period up until 21st of March is characterised by a real deficiency in training. The needs to re-establish new lines - for defence in depth, lead to training being neglected in a period where it needs to be focussed on, especially if you're trying to inculcate new ideas, change your tactical doctrine. And so in between July 1917 and November 1917, I think if you look units had about an average 11, 11.3, five ish days of training per month by December 1917, March 1918, that collapsed to about seven days per month. And if you then look at the qualitative data on what they were actually training in, often they were still training in the offensive - and in offensive tactics. So it's not really any surprise that when suddenly there was a German offensive, they didn't know how to respond effectively. And I would argue that actually March 1918 is characteristic of deficiencies in training rather than deficiencies in morale. I think that that's the bigger factor in why the Fifth Army collapses, for instance, because they've had arguably the most torrid time in in the winter period because the lines they took over from the French were much less well prepared, further defensive battles that were to come.
And obviously, the training also inculcates all of these other features correlates of morale, and that is increased over the spring period and as you move into the summer. So I think the army that's fighting in and the summer of 1918 is both demographically, often quite different. It's much younger. Often it's soldiers that hadn't gone through 1917, which is a really important thing. They hadn't experienced those battles, especially in the units that suffered most in March 1918. And it's much better trained. They've adapted, again, the training regimes to fight the battles to come, which is not something they could do because of manpower issues and frankly, just lack of time in that winter period.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:39:36] Which is interesting because my evidence on my grandfather's unit is something completely different. And might they looked at some sense of service status and how much time they spent individual spend in France using numerical data which which lists their entry and exit date, assuming the vast majority of time spent with the unit. Now, by 1918, you're looking at a service of around four or 500 days on average -this is around 3000 men. So and it goes up from about 100, 250 days in 1915 up to this sort of 400 days. So I would argue the length of service and builds experience, therefore build skills. So how do we know the. Units are becoming more effective while all the raids in six division. So this looked at whether they achieved a rate achieved getting what be called an identification essentially knowledge of the opposite unit for instance. And you find in 1918 the effectiveness of raids are exponentially better than the previous two years, which was to suggest that infantry skills are exponentially better ... they have surprised they could make better. They work each other. Now, this is a very dubious ... it's a very, very specific measure and one that you can poke holes, definitely. But the only one I think you can ... look at unit's functioning and performance is better. Now whether that's related to morale is indeed another debate. But I would only probably is but also is related to the fact people have got combat service and have been through vast amounts of fighting and trench holding and they know how to operate Lewis Guns and you need a much more technically proficient army in 1918 than he didn't exactly so operating a Lewis and keeping it functioning and these groups are smaller they are much more ... you have mechanisms of surveillance of people we will have to work together. We can't just form to show how we got to the top with our rifle ... so it changes the social dynamics of units because they're much more operating machines. And look, I'm only talking about the infantry. I'm not talking about other units. And you have to accept our limitations on that. But that would be my experience in my. But then again, units are different. So my experience in this situation may be completely different from another unit. So that's why unit history is so important, though what a little ease I would apply to them completely.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:41:55] I ... don't think that. I think we're probably on a similar journey on slightly different tracks, which is, I think the idea of them becoming more efficient, especially in raids, etc., doesn't necessarily negate the idea that they just weren't prepared to fight defensive battles. Because those tactics and I think that focus on the small unit, especially after 1917, is really important, especially when it comes to fighting, as isolated units in retreat or in advance. But the thing about defence and that is in depth is it takes coordination, which is not something they have spent time or they had time to train in over the course of the winter period. And I think there's a reason why seeing units fall back on your left or your right flank then led to panic because that's not something they trade in. Whereas local retreats were an important part of defence, elastic defence in depth. But you only knew that if you'd been effectively trained to understand what the tactics really meant.
And I also wonder actually, if a lack of tactical understanding might have protected them in some way, actually, from the full, the full extent of the crisis that was unfolding in March, well, at least in March 1918, I'm not sure that they realised, probably because they didn't understand really what was going on in, in the same way as some of the narratives you see about that with the retreat to Dunkirk in 1948 characterised by confusion rather than by a sense that there's an unfolding crisis which might end up with the with the exodus of the British army from from France, which is obviously what Haig is terrified of in 1918. So I think that there are overlaps there. And perhaps they were really well prepared to fight an offensive battle, but they had to wait for that to eventually come.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:43:40] I mean, the physics mission do very well at home, right? There's a publication story of a great fight, which is by the GHQ, celebrating the defensive fighting in December 17 and then in March 18, when they're attacked from 28 March, they do very well. So defensively they are very competent. Unit is unit, but that's one unit. So I accept a lot of what a lot of the narrative you describe that is completely applicable to many other units. But why the 56 division do well? It could be them, it could be their location, it could be luck. The game is always a different story, and I think I would take the unit's approach on a broader view with both of which are valid.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:44:21] ... I agree ... I think that luck and locality are really important. I think that obviously it's a well-worn argument with 21st March 1918, but the weather does play a massive part and it causes a lot of the panic. Suddenly seeing the enemy on your flank, appearing quite close to your trenches without any real warning that they had got that close to you, was a shocking experience, especially for units that weren't necessarily as well trained or well versed in the defensive battles as they should be. But it's telling that in areas where they knew the landscape better, where they knew the trench networks better, when they knew that there were sunken roads which might allow troops to go see them, and where the fog was not as severe, they did put up a much more staunch defence than some of the units in the Fifth Army front. And so I think I think that unit perspective is really important. But as I said. I've been trying to seek the correlations which may or may not be a good thing.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:45:19] Which I think leads us to the last ... debate about this is the role of political and military authorities in supporting and sustaining morale ... what's your view of how do you think the British army as an entity becomes better at supporting soldiers and making them, I suppose, better ... competent?
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:45:37] Yeah, I think that it definitely does. And it is, with the caveat, it's easy to read retrospectively because we know that the allies emerged victorious. We know the British army didn't collapse. And that's not to say that there weren't moments in which both political and military policy nearly led to disaster. And I'm thinking particularly here about disagreements, about manpower.
I don't want to get into that historiographical debate, but the issues of manpower in 1918 and that winter and well, 1917, 1918 - are really important. And they could have created a crisis which was not which which would have led to disaster, but it didn't. I think the really important thing is in the military case, and as Aimée Fox (6) has highlighted, it does learn to adapt. It learns to learn. And so without getting into the learning curve debates and the idea there are multiple learning curves - there is a sense in which the military learns how to fight. The other thing it does, which I think is really important, is it learns to see its soldiers as more than just automatons. It moves from a perspective in which the soldiers were meant to be dominated, to one in which they had to be motivated. And 1917 is an important part of this process. I think there's a realisation that, as Haig calls it, to the morale of his army, is a delicate plant that actually it needs to be nurtured, you need to water it, you need to do all the things you need to do to keep a plant alive. Not something I'm particularly good at.
And you see at that time then the institutionalisation of a lot of the the popular culture pursuits that we know very well occur in the British Army. So it moves from a unit focussed event to something which is organised from the top down in a much more effective and efficient manner, starts in 1916. But 1917 is a really prominent place for this.
I've written elsewhere about the organisation of of vegetable shows in Le Harve during 1917, and that's part of this process. It's a realisation that actually you can start to nurture your your soldiers rather than just dominate them. But that also speaks to demand from elsewhere, right? They were meant to reduced their food intake. They needed to start growing vegetables. They need to start growing food on the Western Front because they were going to get less from from from the home front. And they also needed to become self-sufficient. This also speaks, I think, probably to the reason that soldiers started seeing the war as a much more long lasting thing. If you started to grow vegetables and farm, that doesn't suggest that they're it's a temporary event. But all of this, I think, really helps and is really successful.
That being said as well, systems of rotation are much more effective in the British army than they are in other in other militaries. And I think that also helps. It's only really in March 1918 and in the very early days of the war where you see really impossible demands being put on units.
So it's March 1918 is the only time from 1914 onwards where you see more than really two days of combat per battalion per month.
They usually cycled out quite quickly and given time to recuperate, which is really important. If we look at the government, I mean, the government is not the focus of much of my analysis, but obviously they affect the way that soldiers live their lives. And so I think the government did well to mobilise public opinion, did well to mobilise the idea of a 'Defensive War'. But I would put one criticism at the door of the government, and this isn't to say that they didn't do it with good reason, but I'm going to go back to the issue of manpower, because I think that the decision, for whatever reason, to withhold manpower from the Western Front in winter 1917/1918, created a situation in which the demands being placed on the British military ... were almost impossible to make. The combined need to extend your front and also change defensive doctrine of defence in depth. They weren't coherent. You needed more men to be able to dig trenches while also training your frontline troops to be able to respond to defensive battles in the future. And I think that that would be the major the major criticism I direct towards the government.
Otherwise, I think the interesting thing is discussions of government policy ... obviously, there's interest in the change of leaders from to Lloyd George from Asquith in 1916. But generally speaking, there is very limited discussion of government policy, which I think probably speaks to their success rate and in ensuring that well provided for, and ensuring that the manpower is sustained for the most part outside of what I was just saying. I also think it speaks to something I've already hinted at, but I think one of the unique features of English troops, at the very least, is a degree of 'political passivity' that quite passive politically.
So I think the government maybe get away with more than they would in, say, the Second World War or today in terms of their interventions, because it's not something that soldiers do very often. And that might be a nature of the source material. But I also think it speaks to a society that isn't particularly politically active at this stage. Obviously, we know that trade unionism is fairly large, but my instinct is that most trade unionists either remained within industry or returned to industry as much as they were demands or were in other arms of the armed forces and support arms, for instance, which is where you actually see in in the most part, some of the more severe instances of of ill discipline are in units where I think you probably do have larger components of politically active soldiers.
So I think that I'm probably letting the government off with more than they deserve, only because the British soldiers let them off with quite a lot - and never really engaged into too much criticism of them, unlike their superiors.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:51:40] I I can't fault anything of what you said ... There's one thing that everybody just forget, and I've forgotten it so much. And it's only Rob Thompson (7) who's told me, in fact, the British Army failed their soldiers consistently. Yes, that is. Yes, fundamental to morale ... they didn't feed them well. And food was actually a way of bonding troops together to go and steal it or whatever. But the fact that they mostly fed their their force is, I think, is probably the underpinning factor. It's not it's not sexy. It's not something ... we talk a lot about. We just see and it's it's just a framework around that. And I know it wasn't perfect food. It was pretty poor at times, but that's kept men fighting and they not had the food. That's a .... different story.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:52:24] You're absolutely right ... classically, social scientists often refer to 'Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs'- food is a really important part of that. Right. If you if you don't have food, it's hard to function both physiologically and mentally.
And I think the other thing I would say is ... there are a lot of complaints about food. And when food doesn't reach the trenches ... that's one of the first things they'll complain about. But for a lot of soldiers - the way they were fed in the military ... compared relatively favourably with the kind of food that they would have in their working class lives - especially for the the urban poor and the rural poor. They had a more consistent access to high calorific food than they might have at home. And so it's not uncommon to see, especially when they join the armed forces in the first place, a lot of references, just how much better that food is.
Officers can afford to supplement their diets and they do again. They complain when they can't, especially during winter. But those are those are really important. And I think that both the the army and the civilian government did a unbelievably good job making sure that the armed forces were well-supplied.
And I just felt I should have also mentioned that one of the other things is is obviously where soldiers were staying and living. And we know that trenches weren't a particular particularly pleasant place to be. But when they ... we also know that they didn't spend all their time there.
I would argue that soldiers were remarkably resilient, despite the paucity of the courses, the courses that they were offered. They they complained regularly about the courses. Tents obviously could keep the rain out, but they didn't do much for the cold. And they were often on arable land, which flooded so often the trenches, in the trenches, the tents were flooded and equally even after they introduced Nissen huts, Nissen huts. And this maybe even speaks to the the power of the small unit. They often lacked glass or floorboards or any of these things, because units would often take them to create fires or do whatever they might for their for their colleagues and their comrades. And so even those places weren't particularly good at keeping out the cold, even if they kept out the rain. There were lots of complaints about them. So I wondered they could have done slightly better with accommodation, but they got away with it even if they could have.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:54:39] And I think I'm talking of logistical failures. I have a hungry cat which has been bullying me a few minutes and there's going to be revolution here if I don't do it. But the point the question is, when is your book going to be published? You'll see it with Cambridge as we speak, with the date of its publication or likely publication?
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:54:57] Likely publication I'd say over a definite is 2023. So it should be there for popular if limited consumption at that stage and hopefully at a price point, which would allow at least some of your readers to be able to save up some of their pocket money for it.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:55:15] I hope they do. Alex has been fascinating and that's been really helpful for me as I'm trying to do the same thing as you with from a different angle. So I think it suit me be different hopefully. And when you cite my book in some journal, I won't hold it against you.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:55:28] I won't do that. I'm too nice. We talked about political passiveness. I'm a I'm academically passive. I'll just take things as they go and I'll celebrate successes rather than critiquing them.
Dr Tom Thorpe [00:55:37] I'll take your your take your paternalism with some deference to mine.
Dr Alex Mayhew [00:55:43] Cheers. Thank you.
J F C Fuller > https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._F._C._Fuller
Professor Alexander Watson > Enduring the Great War. Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) is a comparative and interdisciplinary investigation of German and British military resilience on the Western Front.
Dr Jonathan Fennel > Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Jonathan Boff is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. He completed his Ph.D. at King’s College London having moved to academia after a twenty-year career in international finance.
Frederick Manning 'Her Privates We'.
Dr Aimée Fox (2017) Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914–1918 Cambridge University Press,