On How Many British Soldiers Tried Not To Kill Any Germans (and vise versa)

Hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realized that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and anxious to be done with it all

Much of the media discussion concerning WW1 over the last few years has been centred on the Courts-Martial and executions of so-called ‘cowards’ from the British Infantry between 1914-1918. This debate has been focussed on getting pardons for those who were shot (often in front of their comrades) on the basis they were ‘shell-shocked’ or suffering from ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ rather than being ‘cowards’[5]. This victim-orientated narrative (there were 300 posthumous pardons issued by the state in 2006) implies that on the whole the issue of desertion and disobedience was limited to relatively isolated incidents[6]. Arguing about those who ‘refused’ the slaughter of WW1 on the basis of ‘cowardice’ or ‘mental illness’ provides both an exception to the rule (of supposed generally good discipline) and takes away the agency of soldiers, instead presenting the few miscreants as either embarrassing ‘gibbering weak-willed wrecks’ or deserving our sympathy as ‘damaged lunatics’. In contrast, very little attention has been paid to the mass of mutineers, strikers, agitators, shirkers and skulkers who were consciously and actively refusing and/or avoiding front-line combat and the war in general.

Mass refusals, disobedience, mutinies, strikes and out-right rebellion were all part of the British armed forces experience in WW1[7]These were all fairly explicit events and to a certain extent these hidden narratives are becoming part of the historical record despite the attempts of contemporary military censors and government ‘D’ notices on the press as well as the 100 year rule in suppressing military documents. Subsequent post-war collective memory loss related to dominant patriotic ideologies served to smother these events even further, but in the 1960s/70s a critical historical reappraisal of WW1 began, marked in the cultural sphere by the biting satire of the musical ‘Oh What a Lovely War’[8]. This reassessment of WW1 led to a series of historical and sociological examinations of the ‘life in the trenches’ in the succeeding decade. Some of these works provide a new and interesting angle on the subterranean (but at the same time mass) collective tactics British (and German) soldiers used for avoiding combat.

Read More From Bristol Radical History Group…

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