The concept of masculinity – just like femininity – went through great change during the hard four years of war. If, on the one hand, the link between masculinity and soldiery become stronger because of the social discourse around patriotism, on the other, the terrible circumstances of trench warfare allowed the emergence of a different, more intense and intimate way to express friendship and emotional support among men.
It is still true today: we do think of the warrior as the perfect expression of masculinity. This was not always the case. The studies about masculinity are surprisingly recent – they only started in the late 1990s – but everything points to one fact: up to the mid-1800s, the soldierly ideal of manliness wasn’t dominant. It rather stood in competition with other masculinity notions – like that of husband, father, or son – and only towards the end of the 1800s masculinity and military life came together and became almost inseparable. Slowly, the soldier – the warrior, the fighting man – became the expression of masculinity against which men’s actions were always weighted.
By the early 1900s, right before the Great War, the idea of martial masculinity had reached its apex. The war became almost a test of manhood, defined by courage, strength and the spirit of sacrifice, an idea that was common to all European nations.
In the early phases of the war, this was the dominant ideal. Masculinity and soldiering was practically the same thing. Therefore young men were encouraged to join the army to support their nation and to show their manliness. It soon became a strong pressure, and men who couldn’t or wouldn’t join were considered effeminate, weak, cowards. For example, in Britain, the symbolic gesture of women handing out white feathers to men of military age who hadn’t joined the war effort became an act of shame and an obvious social pressure. Basically, the man who didn’t go to war was not a true man.
Besides, many young men joined precisely to show their manliness, seeking an ideal of heroic deeds that was abstract. The actuality of war soon changed these young men’s perception of heroic deeds and how they expressed masculinity, though studies have shown that war didn’t really shatter the perception of manliness but morphed it.
For these men, the ‘home front’ as a concept – home, family, emotional comfort, belonging – merged and mix with the ‘war front’ concept – danger, death, emotional shock – and created a very profound new experience that was difficult to express outside of the trenches.
Intimacy as a fight against death
Trench warfare and the slaughter of mechanised war transformed not just the ideal of the heroic warrior – the ‘old lie’ as it was often referred to in letters and diaries and later poetry and war novels – but also the ideal of masculinity.
In the trenches of WWI, the norms of tactile contact between men changed profoundly and became more intimate and intense. The omnipresent death and the fear of mutilation, the constant fire, and illness gave soldiers an emotional nakedness that invited gestures and attitudes impossible – improper? – in civilian life, and that sometimes superseded even differences of class. That emotional nakedness was the place where a wife or a mother would have been – many soldiers were teenagers or just a little older – giving comfort and care. But mothers and wives were very far away. Therefore fellow soldiers took their place. Men cured and fed their friends when ill, wrapped blankets around their shoulder in the cold nights, and huddle together as they slept.
It was a level of intimacy created by danger and deprivation that was almost impossible to explain outside of that environment. Holding hands, for example, was quite common, as was kissing or holding each other. These were all expressions of affection that became an opposition and a triumph over death. A celebration of life in a place where men lived constantly under fire, among rotting corpses of fallen comrades and in danger of becoming ill or maimed. Physical contact was an expression of the wonderful assurance of being alive.
It was a way for soldiers to fight against the depersonalisation of the industrial war. Even in a place where people died constantly, death never became granted. Holding a friend as he died, kissing him on the brow (the “mother’s kiss” as it was called) became gestures of supreme beauty, something that – among the grounding power of war – allowed these men to remain human beings.
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Masculinities
British Library – Sensuous Life in the Trenches
World War I Centenary – The Dying Kiss: Gender and Intimacy in the Trenches of World War I
I’m here finally! 🙂
Very interesting to think about, even though I’ve seen it on films how special and affectionate these relationships can become, I never gave it a second thought. I do wonder what was it like for them to lose these connections, how hard was it to integrate back to what was normal back then?
That’s a very good question, Andi.
Soldiers always had great difficulty going back to civilian life (I research that for WWII too for my 2016 challenge about Film Noir), but I think WWI soldiers had this additional diffiuculty. The relationship in the tranches were very peculiar and very difficult – I think – to recreate outside the trenches.
I wonder how much of the social pressure was intentional. Changing the idea of a masculine man was a useful tool for getting more men to fight… Many of them very young, and abandoned in their last hours. Poor kids.
The Multicolored Diary
I have the impression that the social pressiur was actually in teh opposite direction: it tried to inclcate a sense of being martial and ‘manly’. Thsi kidn of relation was something that created itself among men, spontanously, I’d say, as a way to survive, both physically, mentally and emotionally.
It is such an interesting subject.
Well, it seems I’m destined to read only evry 2nd post here and I am so glad this was one. Beatifully expressed and sensitively recorded. It is impossible to imagine how those young men felt, really… YAM xx
I totally agree. Many historian say that WWI was ‘impossible to explain’ for anyone who had not been there. The more I research it, the more I agree.
Most interesting. New to me. Fascinating post. Thanks, Sarah.
It is such an interestign subject.
You know abotu my love for Tolkien. This is exactly what he describes in The Lord of the Rings. And truly, researching WWI is giving me such insights into his work.
A lot of films about WWI feature characters pressured into enlisting because all the other guys are doing it, and it’s shameful and disgraceful to stay at home and not be a “real” man.
The first known male-male kiss in film is in Wings (1927), about WWI, between Army Air Force best friends in a very sad moment.
Oh, I’d love to see that film! I’ll have to hunt it down.
I remember that the first film depicting a male/male realtionship was also from the 1920s. I have the impression things changed in the subsequent decades. I now wonder whether the experience of a different kind of masculinity in the trenches might have made these stories more acceptable to the public, if only for a while.
And I find so fascinating that WWI changed both the idea of famininity and masculinity. I had never thought about it before.
The concept of mateship displayed on ANZAC Day in Australia was difficult to understand when I was young. There was a very good play I studied at school called “ The One Day of the Year” which really got into the need for war veterans to get together and drown their sorrows. It was a chance, for one day, to recreate the strong connections formed in the war but was not understood by those who had not been there.
I believe it. The bond form between people in the face of a death danger must be different from any other bond, and I do believe it’s hard to understand by those who never faced such danger.
Another interesting point. It reminds of the need to continuously question our assumptions and where they came from.
Very true. We are probably more alike than we are normally willing to acknowledge.
Gail M Baugniet
My genealogy research touched on the topic of soldiers suspected of inappropriate conduct who were sent to an insane asylum for treatment and/or to Alcatraz.
‘Sodomy’ (as was then called) was a prosecutable crime still in the 1920s, crazy as it might sound.
But the bond among men that was form in the trenches often didn’t come to it. It was a deep, intimate bond that often manifested in close touch but didn’t have a sexual purpose.
It’s a very complex matter and the difficulty in expaining shows how unprepared we still are to understand it.
Excellent post – fascinating, especially regarding the men in the trenches.
I agree. It’s one of my favourite posts on this challenge.
When men are facing death from many forms and no mom, sister, wife or girlfriend nearby, of course they would open up to their comrade in arms. It makes perfect sense and must have been a shock since they were brought up with the stiff upper lip thing and to show no emotion. 1917 is a great movie to show this as is Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front.
That very true. It must have been difficult, because they were thought that a man has to be a warrior and fear nothing. But on the other hand, they learned int eh tranches that’s a total lie. They learned that men are people, just like women, and we are more alike than we normally acknowledge.
It was a very important lesson. It took decades to enter the society at large – and I don’t think we’ve come back to that level of ’emotional equality’ yet, if you ask me – but it is very important that it happened.