“The reality was that modern combat took away a man’s fight or flight instinct, forcing him to endure what was coming at him. In such circumstances, courage is newly measured by someone’s willpower to endure, and everyone had a limit to their willpower.”


Scrawled onto a note to his mother, Lance Corporal Roland Mountford, a veteran of the Great War whose letters are still studied today, wrote that he had “…seen in three days more wounded, more pitiful and more horrible sights that would suffice any ordinary mortal for three lifetimes” [1].
                Wounded on the Somme in 1916 he was evacuated from the front to the Mile End Military Hospital in London. Mountford had been lucky, he had received a ‘Blighty’: a non-fatal wound that would grant him leave from the front and return to ‘Old Blighty’ – the UK.
                237 of the men he grew up with from his ‘Lads Battalion’, would not be so lucky. For Mountford the most distressing part of the battle was not his own wounding, nor the scale of death and battle he had witnessed. What affected him most was the way in which men can be mangled. He vividly remembered the gurgle of men choking on their own blood, the sight of German corpses laying shattered “…on all sides in the weird attitudes of death”. He recalled his fellow Englishmen, smashed to pieces by shell fire, laying thick on the floor of the advanced trench, the following waves having to leave the trenches from the second line due to the congestion of torn body parts ahead.
                Mountford like so many would suffer psychological damage on a level that was not understood or even recognised when the great catastrophe of the First World War erupted in Europe in 1914.

In August 1914 people from all facets of British society found themselves thrown into a new world.
                Attitudes towards gender, race, militarism, imperialism and social equality were all altered forever through the great slaughter on the Western Front 1914-1918.
                The war also would have profound changes to male identity: to ‘manliness’ amongst the blood and mud of the front; from the fiery passions of patriotism, to the endurance of combat; to the eventual reflection of the physically and mentally scarred men who returned from the war, found through their memoirs. 

So, what is meant by the term ‘manliness’?
                Writing now in the year 2019, at a time where people simply throw the insult ‘snowflake’ around on internet forums – usually incorrectly – as a term to suggest moral weakness or lack of masculinity, where social agendas now discourage gender roles and identities, the concept of manliness might appear redundant. This was not the case a century ago.
                John Tosh writes in Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain that manliness “…denoted those qualities which set out what was expected of men” [2]. These qualities however were very much determined in Britain by the time and the conditions of the period.

As the UK stands on the brink of Brexit it’s hard to imagine what it was like in 1914 when Britain was the most powerful Empire in the world. At that time men believed that certain qualities had made the building of the vast British Empire possible. By ‘men’ we are not referring to the working classes, of course, but to the social elite. Keep in mind that that was a period where our current-day class-divides and conflicts might appear trivial.

At first, Victorian manliness had been cerebral and bloodless: a lack of sex before marriage; the need to protect women; gentlemanly manners. However, in the later decades of the Victorian age, where colonial wars were frequent and papers promoted the image of the outnumbered red coats facing down hordes of African ‘savages’ [their words, not mine], manly qualities began to become more physical in nature.
                Manliness became synonymous with athleticism. Rugby for example was promoted for its character-building qualities of courage and stoical endurance, and it is no coincidence that many of the memoirs we have from the First World War reflect a public schoolboy ‘sportsman’ attitude to combat.
                I am reminded of the officer on the first day of the Somme disaster kicking a football over the trench to calm his boys down – mentally preparing them for sport rather than combat.
                It is also during this period that we get the development of the ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude towards adversity, a national character myth still popular with the Daily Mail and other promoters of the traditional conservative right.

The ‘stiff upper lip’ reflected a society which called for the emotional repression of British men.
                Men were expected to bare it all on their shoulders, to enter the mud and filth of the trenches with no word of complaint, to face death with good humour.
                Male social identity of the time took its strength from the bonding of all male clubs and associations, social hierarchy playing a great deal of importance – a kind of social Darwinism that cemented the privileged few as the authority.
                This social class aspect of Victorian manliness manifested in what we identify as chivalric virtues; a desire for the social elite to exhibit martial courage like the romantic figures of old, to meet sword with sword. It is noteworthy that this aspiration to be seen as knightly would witness huge swathes of young elites slaughtered on the Western Front as they tried to set an example and fit this ideal of courage.
                Indeed, it was not unknown for men straight out of school to find themselves in charge of a full company of hardened soldiers, such was the rate of losses in the officer classes. 

These concepts of manliness would be forever changed on the Western Front.
                Nothing could prepare a man for what awaited them in that great scar on the landscape spreading across Belgium and France. The war was a popular undertaking in 1914. After decades of colonial wars, the British had a taste for victory: the national stories of Napoleon’s defeat a hundred years earlier; the triumph of Trafalgar; the glory of the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea – all were celebrated.
                The British Empire was seen to have been forged with steel, blood, and the might and superiority of the British race. A war on the mainland was seen as an inevitably quick affair, as more recent conflicts had shown. It was, as always, to be “Over by Christmas”.

The Western Front quickly destroyed these romantic notions of warfare.
                Lance Corporal Mountford recalls that when he returned home, all that people wanted to know about was what it was like under fire, or whether he had killed any Hun.
                However, what he confided to his mother was far from the glorious image of warfare, instead telling her of his first sentry duty and how he had crouched in his trench “…in a terrible funk…” as shell fire burst all around him [3]. His fear wasn’t so much that of being hit, but rather seeing someone else mangled within shell burst.
                The ‘manliness’ men had learnt in youth was gradually torn from them as shell after shell erupted on their position.

Surviving on the Western Front required levels of mental self-control that nothing in peacetime could prepare of a man. Cynicism and black humour were rife, as men lived amongst death daily.
                Robert Graves, a veteran of the war and author of the memoir Good Bye to All That, commented that “…his emotional recording apparatus…” failed him after the Battle of Loos (1915), and that he was unable to get the images of war from his head [4]. As he lay recuperating at the end of the war shells still metaphorically burst over his bed.
                The romance of nineteenth-century warfare, of red coats and bayonets, was destroyed as the grief of lost friends constantly brought home deaths’ finality.

The levels of attrition suffered by the British Army on the Western Front were appalling. It was not uncommon for attacks to lead to 80-90% of a battalion to fall as casualties. The death of comrades was a constant reminder of one’s own vulnerability.
                Furthermore, events at home could bring their own burdens. I am reminded of Charlie May’s story, a soldier who would face his baptism-of-fire at the Somme and whose diary survived the war, which gives an insight into the burden of thinking of home. He wrote so vividly in his diary of his love for his baby daughter Pauline, only to be killed in action on the 1st July 1916 and to never be a part of her life again.

An interesting development from this vulnerability and acceptance of their mortality was the frequency in which men wrote letters home designed to comfort loved ones should they be killed in action.
                Patriotism, despite what you might expect, was common, with many men still seeing their role in ensuring Britain’s place in the world and honouring warrior ancestors. Fighting and dying with honour were frequently stated as something for family members to be proud of.
                Such attitudes on the face of it would not have been unknown during the nineteenth-century, but as the First World War raged on, gendered thinking and manliness shifted in ways that they hadn’t for centuries as the mental toll of modern warfare became clear.

Before the war began there was no such thing as shell shock – or PTSD, as we would now recognise it.
                By the time the war ended, doctors had been working for four years to try and understand what psychological damage could cause such a destruction of the core Victorian values of manliness and honour.
                The First World War was the first time that high velocity shells were employed in near-endless bombardments. The distinction between the body and mind would become blurred, medically speaking, as men’s minds failed to cope under the continuous mental stress of bombardments. Nowhere is the newness of this blurred distinction better shown than in regard to the attitudes of the High Command, who viewed shell shock victims as nothing more than cowards.
                Though there were doubtlessly examples of cowardice on the battlefield, one shudders at the thought of how many men were accused of it and shot that were actually mentally ill and suffering from complete nervous shutdown.
                The reality was that modern combat took away a man’s fight or flight instinct, forcing him to endure what was coming at him. In such circumstances, courage is newly measured by someone’s willpower to endure, and everyone had a limit to their willpower.

The historian Elaine Showalter writes that “…if the essence of manliness was not to complain, then shell shock was the body language of masculine complaint, a disguised male protest, not only against the war but against the concept of manliness itself” [5].
                In essence, the war destroyed the whole concept of heroic manly ideals.
                It wasn’t until 1915 that the perception that these men were suffering from ‘shell shock’, an entirely new mental disorder, would be recognised. The very classification of a condition in which men’s nerves were frayed – sometimes with awful physical symptoms – was gladly accepted by the British public. Those whose loved ones were sent home with ‘lost nerves’ now had a term they could use to explain it, and what’s more: it was one which didn’t question their manliness.
                The war would forever change attitudes towards the mental wellbeing of soldiers both in combat and after it. Something that is brilliantly explored by Michael Roper in The Secret Battle - Emotional Survival in the Great War.

What is clear is that by the signing of the armistice on the 11th November 1918, the whole concept of Victorian manliness had changed. If it had been those Victorian attitudes that had led the country into war in the first place, you only have to look at the memorials that can be found in every village, town and city in the United Kingdom to realise that where before a sense of national triumph had greeted victory in war, now the overwhelming feeling was one of national bereavement. Nothing before or since has had the same impact on Great Britain as the First World War. Nothing is remembered as solemnly, and no event would make such profound changes to Britain’s social structure and attitudes. 

For men like Lance Corporal Mountford, the war would continue to have an effect on them for decades after the 11th November 1918. Over 200,000 men were officially recognised as suffering with war-related nervous conditions, but the reality is it was probably far higher.
                Many men were simply never diagnosed with a war-related condition but were looked after by wives and families. Those without either were often institutionalised. Most wanted to simply put the war behind them. Many veterans were afflicted with moodiness and flashes of anger and violence towards loved ones. These psychological difficulties, not understood or even recognised before the war, would be the source of much study for decades afterwards.

When the war found its literary expression, first in the poetry written in the trenches but also later in the 1920s when memoirs such as Graves’, Sassoon’s and from so many others were published, it was a challenge to prewar concepts of courage and manliness.
                All these men had experienced fear, thoughts of cowardice, and endured. Men who could not silence the guns in their heads decades after the war would reconstruct their sense of identity by redefining the very ideals of manliness [6]. Courage would be defined as the ability to regain self-control when they were losing it. Heroic manliness, those chivalric ideals from the Victorian age, were replaced with war as duty and endurance.

This shift from heroic endeavor to heroic endurance has become the norm in modern warfare. This is an age where we may fight our battles on a smaller scale, the days of entire continents mobilising their manhood to fight and die have thankfully not been returned to since 1945.
                However this does not belittle the experience of modern warfare; the same hardships still exist, albeit now with ever more advanced technology. Mass bombardments have been replaced with ‘shock and awe’; the dropping of munitions so powerful and accurate from machines operated remotely; the horror of trench warfare replaced with the equal horror of the IED (improvised explosive device), not knowing if in the next step your life will be consumed in pain and fire.
                It is no surprise that in recent conflicts we have seen an increase in the recognition of PTSD caused by battle stress. Military studies for example show that 17% of combat veterans in the Afghanistan War have suffered from PTSD symptoms. What is clear is that many soldiers find it difficult to transition back into civilian life after enduring the stresses of modern warfare.

The endurance of sustained hardship in this definition need not be confined to that experienced on the battlefield, but also in modern civilian life. Emergency service workers for example have seen a large rise in PTSD cases in recent years due to increased pressures of working in reduced work forces. In particular, regarding traumatic incidents – those often involving violence or injury – many cases have not been dealt with by prioritising the monitoring of the mental health of those involved. In many cases these individuals have found no support network to help deal with these stresses in a structured way.
                Furthermore, enduring hardship in the home, be that from domestic violence or personal loss, can also bring on symptoms of PTSD, only this is often difficult to monitor without the individual involved seeking help.

It is therefore highly encouraged that men who feel they’re enduring hardship for prolonged periods and are suffering from high levels of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse, reach out and find support, be that from local communities, online, group-based or through individual therapy. Our understanding of PTSD has advanced a great deal in the century since the Great War. There is no need to endure this particular hardship alone.


Jack Millard, age 34, holds a Master’s degree in Military History, specialising on the topic of the British experience of the First World War.

He has spent the 12 years since graduating as a public servant, but has also found the time to direct two feature films. In his spare time he has a love for table top war-gaming, writing, film making and the consumption of fine ales.


References for further reading:

[1] Roper. M - ’The Secret Battle - Emotional Survival in the Great War’, Manchester University Press 2009. pp-243
[2] Tosh. J - ‘Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Harlow 2005. pp-2-4
[3] Fletcher. A - ‘Patriotism, the Great War and the Decline of Victorian Manliness’. The Historical Association and John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2014. pp-46-48 
[4] Graves. R - ‘Goodbye to All That’. Penguin 1960. pp-240
[5] Showalter E. ‘The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980’. London, 1987. P.172.
[6] Fletcher. A - [see above] pp-63

For those who think they are experiencing undue stress or PTSD in the UK, please look ‘here’ for advice from the NHS, and their signposts to finding assistance. Alternatively, please contact your doctor for a consultation.