We have come back hating war, disgusted with the prattle about ideals, disillusioned entirely about the struggles between nations.
Captain Will Judy, 1919
We were going to use this opportunity to explore the ambiguous role of patriotism during Remembrance Day, but the doubts and concerns regarding this have already been discussed quite nicely in other articles, for instance in Stephanie Boland’s piece for the New Statesman last November.
So instead, we thought it would be interesting to consider the patriotism of the troops themselves: what were the thoughts and feelings of those who actually fought, suffered and died in the First World War – the very soldiers for whom the first Remembrance services were held in 1919?
The outbreak of war in 1914 was enthusiastically received by many. The young particularly, who had not witnessed or experienced active service, ‘were exuberant with joy,’ signing up in thousands within the conflict’s first few days.
In Germany, ‘enthusiastic and patriotic crowds gathered on the streets of big cities in the days after the declaration of war.’ The writer and playwright Carl Zuckmayer, volunteering in 1914, remembered it as nothing but ‘a huge exhilarating adventure.’
“I couldn’t get there fast enough,” agreed Victor Packer, who joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1914. After all, “we’d been brought up on histories of the Boer War, patriotism, heroics.
“In about half a minute all that had gone.”
His experience of the realities of war was by no means unique. The squalid conditions, the daily strain of trench warfare, the nerve-shredding shelling, the frustrating lack of progress – all quickly sapped the patriotic fervour of many, though by no means all, soldiers.
As a consequence, “Patriotism was rarely known and never understood on the front line,” explained Private John McCauley, serving in the 2nd Border Regiment. “Hard, iron discipline took its place, a discipline which even meted out death if it was not rigidly observed.” For millions of mobilised men in the First World War, this was to be the case for four more years.
‘Perhaps you would like to know something of the spirit of the men out here now,’ wrote Corporal David Rowlands to his fiancée in 1918. ‘Well, the truth is every man Jack is fed up almost past bearing, and not a single one has an ounce of what we call patriotism left in him.’
The bitterness and fatigue was mirrored across No Man’s Land. ‘Almost none of the letters mentions any sense of patriotism at all’, concluded a German postal surveillance report in September 1918. ‘There seems to be a certain shame in putting a patriotic idea into words.’ Zuckmayer’s ‘exhilarating adventure’ had long since soured, and by 1917 he was contributing to the pacifist publication Die Aktion.
The purpose of the war itself came increasingly under question from servicemen. ‘Why do we need Alsace-Lorraine?’ was one of the most frequently asked questions by soldiers of the German Patriotic Instruction Programme, an organisation designed to boost the morale of soldiers and the public. ‘We do not care whether we stay German or become French,’ stated a letter intercepted by postal censorship: ‘we are now finished anyway.’
Attempts such as the Patriotic Instruction Programme failed to stem the growing resentment among German soldiers towards the nation, its leaders and symbols. First dismissed by military brass as ‘irregularities… on the part of some loose and weak people,’ such behaviour became harder to ignore as the weakness and futility of Germany’s position became increasingly apparent to troops during the final months of the war (as did the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who absconded from duty or surrendered during that time). A surveillance report from 1918 found that the number of soldiers who ‘openly wish death on the fatherland’ nearly matched those who still professed loyalty to king and country. ‘It is impossible to show pictures of the Emperor, Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the cinemas,’ stated a communication to Army Supreme Command. ‘People are booing.’
Following the Armistice of 1918 many soldiers returned home only to face unemployment, inadequate housing and unfulfilled pension claims from the military. Their resentment and disillusionment stayed with them and was visible at the earliest Remembrance ceremonies: unemployed veterans demonstrated at services throughout the 1920s, even disturbing the events at the Cenotaph in 1921.
With time, however, the war became mythologised, and it became harder for such discontent to fit the robustly patriotic image Remembrance services today project. While it is true that many soldiers on both sides remained motivated by patriotism until the Armistice, it is important to remember that many others ended up renouncing national pride, particularly towards the end of the war. For them, the ‘great holiday’ had become nothing but ‘useless murdering,’ and appeals to the nation increasingly meant little, if anything. It is also important to remember that, despite this, the vast majority of men continued to fight bravely until the end.
Captain Will Judy, the man who returned home ‘disillusioned entirely about the struggles between nations,’ seemed to predict the fate of his comrades and of Remembrance Day itself when he concluded in 1919: ‘The populace refuses to be disillusioned … Soon we will take on the pose of brave crusaders who swept the battlefields with a shout and a noble charge.’