on 25 May 2008
The ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice falls within a period when many of the generation of grandchildren of those who fought in World War One are in positions of power and influence. We may expect a fair number of books reflecting the mixture of research with the search in our own minds for memories of grandparents and their siblings. For many of us there is added poignancy in the fact that our own children are near the age of their great-grandparents when they joined up. Knowing what we know about life at the front it is difficult for us to credit the reasons for which they enlisted. Peer pressure, a way out of drudgery, honest patriotism, boredom, or the lure of adventure - some of these now seem remote, while others will probably be with us for ever. Maybe it is our awareness of the impossibility of fully comprehending that tension between the pressure to enlist and the horror of the reality of war that lies at the centre of our fascination with this period; we challenge ourselves to understand, while knowing that we cannot.
What can new books bring to the subject which we think we all know so well? Peter Doyle's book Tommy's War carries a wealth of detailed knowledge of the material culture of the war, the material produced for and by soldiers, at home and at the front, and for and by those affected by the conflict. The breadth and diversity of the material surprises at first, but given the length of the conflict, and the amount of production and activity both personal and public that grew to support it, this material culture of war begins to make sense. The designs on Tommy's insignia were recreated as sweetheart badges, while the shells that failed to kill him became paper-knives brought home, maybe were even used to open later letters from the front. In a sense what the book presents is the way that the material culture of the First World War became self-generating, creating the context for its continuing and growing production. And as the horror and boredom of the experience of fighting largely failed to be communicated, the culture of war, material, musical, verbal and sentimental, became the communicable experience of those both at home and at the front.
The detail presented in this book is excellent, not just of the specifics of badge and uniform identity and the developments in equipment. A useful section at the beginning of the book explains how the army was organised from 1881, how the various new armies fitted into the structure of regiment, battalion and division. While some photographed documents could do with being reproduced larger, the image resolution allows close examination of text. The photographs of objects are clear and informative, and the supporting illustrations drawn from posters, cigarette cards, postcards, documents and personal photographs bring out the degree to which so much activity was focussed on the role of the troops in general and the kit and the moral support for the individual serviceman in particular. Doyle shows how objects created a need for their own support objects, not just the obvious ones such as breech-guards for machine-guns, but those that support and intensify army life, such as the small metal sleeves to protect cloth while buttons were being polished.
One winces at the itchiness of the woollen clothing (woollen flannel shirts even); Doyle notes that the kilt was "always popular with onlookers" while remarking that it had a distressing propensity to harbour lice and soak up "vast amounts of water". ID tags became "dirty and clammy", early war issue peaked caps were stiff and awkward and gave no combat protection. Yet despite the discomforts the uniforms and insignia, by virtue of their differences, were a source and marker of pride.
Is there some kind of dynamic contradiction here? The pride in these markers of belonging and distinction are set against the need to subvert as an act of declaring and maintaining individuality, seen in the angle of the cap, the plaiting of the leather cap-band or in the pattern of puttees. It is the same contradiction that characterised the British soldier as happy, provided he was allowed the opportunity to grumble. The hierarchy of rank similarly produced markers of distinction created by the soldiers themselves: officers would have silver identity tags made rather than wear the compressed card or aluminium versions issued to "other ranks"; and front line trench art was almost exclusively an activity carried out by non-officers. The more information we see, the more the individual emerges. The intended uniformity, of dress, insignia, equipment, seldom approached actual uniformity. As Richard Holmes points out in his foreword, quartermasters used a variety of means to ensure that the men of their units dressed alike, frequently not achieving the desired end. When they did, little subversions would assert the identity of the individual, at times almost imperceptibly, the subverter's primary audience being the subverter himself.
The single page glimpse of uniforms and insignia from Australia may serve as an indicator of the wealth of material culture that the countries governed by Great Britain brought to the conflict. While it is outside the scope of this book one wonders how the average Tommy, trained or accustomed to recognise friendly uniforms and insignia, would have interpreted those from other parts of the world. The experience of conflict and rule in India had a marked and lasting effect on British military uniforms; Doyle points out khaki and puttees as the most well known of these. Certainly there is scope for a study of how the insignia, uniforms, equipment and regimental structures, and activities of offence and defence from different parts of the world influenced and changed each other in the crucible of the Western Front and other theatres of war.
During the later stages of the war, the proliferation of insignia increased, to the point where it must have been difficult to keep track of what unit someone was attached to. The important thing was obviously for service personnel to be able to instantly recognise others of their units, and primarily to recognise friend from foe. How successful this would have been in the mobile campaigning envisaged by the generals right up to the armistice will never be known; perhaps it was mostly indicative of how military bureaucracy manages its business in a static situation.
This is a book I would recommend for bringing together material for the collector, the social historian, the general reader; and a thought-provoking book too, for at a time when we are being asked to support the armed forces through unpopular military campaigns it shows how a previous generation managed its experience of conflict.