England's broken dolls

Dismembering the Male
March 29, 1996

Joanna Bourke quotes a Dublin soldier at Passchendaele who said: "If I get out of here, I'll be a changed man." Many who did survive the First World War were changed in the most grotesque and terrible ways. Bourke has done an impressive job of researching letters, diaries and memoirs to establish just what changes were wrought in individuals and society by "The Great War for Civilisation" as it was described on the standard service medal.

Six million British men risked life and limb between 1914 and 1918. More than 41,000 had limbs amputated and 3 per cent of these lost both arms or both legs. Some might have kept their limbs but for the gung-ho attitude of doctors who were also caught up in the excitement, as one recorded, "cutting off legs and arms upon the stricken field, amidst a hail of shrapnel and machine-gun bullets".

The streets of Britain were soon filled with mutilated ex-soldiers providing a challenge for a society which had seen cripples as weak, impotent and ugly. Now there was a new breed of hero cripples, whose physical prowess had so recently been a matter of public admiration.

The Guild of the Poor Brave Things had been set up in 1894 to do charitable works for the disabled. In 1916 its name was changed to Guild of the Handicapped as it "makes more appeal to the wounded soldier". One benefit of the war was better treatment of the disabled generally, as improvements aimed at alleviating the condition of the wounded filtered through to other disabled people.

Initially such reciprocation was resisted, and a distinction was drawn between those disabled in the war who were "unnaturally abnormal" and those born with disabilities who were "naturally abnormal". A man who described himself as a "cripple from childhood" complained that the disabled ex-servicemen always got preference in the only work he could do, selling chocolates to theatre queues, and he was tempted to say he had been crippled in the war. The war wounded generally wore their medals and left off their prostheses when they went about these tasks.

The wounded were both heroic and pathetic. As a popular song had a young man saying to a young woman: "I gladly took my chance/Now my right arm's out in France, I'm one of England's Broken Dolls". Had the relationship progressed further, the lady might have had more reason for apprehension, for it was widely believed that the offspring of maimed ex-servicemen would be born minus the corresponding limb, a curious variant of Lamarckism.

Quite as terrifying was shell-shock or "neurasthenia", which in 1916 accounted for 40 per cent of the casualties in combat zones. A long debate raged over whether this was a real disease or was a form of malingering, though by 1917 it was clear that the most serious cases were in men described as being "of steady and fearless character" who had already spent many months under fire. After the Battle of the Somme one soldier confessed by letter to his fiancee that he had "sat down in the mud and cried". Some were surprised so few men went mad.

Bourke argues that just as attitudes to disability were altered by the homecoming of the war disabled, so the development of psychiatry was accelerated by the recognition that mental illness could affect the bravest and healthiest when put under intolerable stress, and was not merely a condition of "degenerates".

The effects of war on men that Bourke describes were not all bad: she finds the vast majority of servicemen did not divide women into madonnas or whores, to be the subject of spiritual longing or lust. The more usual yearnings of men at the front involved the desire to share fond love with one person. They did not flee domesticity and femininity, Bourke remarks, but "pursued these two ideals in an attempt to regain their sense of honour and a taste of contentment". Most men had no casual sex during the period of their service, perhaps more for want of opportunity than desire.

Some groups of men believed the war had shifted the balance of power between the sexes, and lobbied for a "union for men". They argued against the introduction of Swedish drills that emphasised collective activity and muscle tone, calling for a return to German drills that focused on body-building. This self-styled "men's movement" claimed that women schoolteachers in particular had had an emasculating effect on the upbringing of boys and lauded the sports master above all other teachers: "Where sports masters led, the victory is assured. Sport masters are the real, live men, men who know boy-nature, men who mix with men of other walks of life."

An inevitable reaction to this aggressive masculinity was an embracing by some men of feminine values, to the point of liberalising dress codes so men were able to wear brighter colours and loose, softer fabrics. This position found its apotheosis in the Men's Dress Reform Party after the war, promoting the value of blouses, shorts and, inevitably, the kilt.

By displaying a range of reactions to the immense horror of the war, Bourke evokes a real tenderness and understanding for the men who were pushed to breaking point and beyond, and of the society responsible for their plight. She answers questions rather than merely asking them (the usual pitfall of this genre) in a book well illustrated with contemporary photographs and sketches from men's letters and diaries.

Its readership will be in the burgeoning field of gender history, but the clarity of writing and wealth of anecdotes should also attract a more general readership, including those who are repelled by the postmodernist jargon that disfigures so much gender history. That a fine work like this can be written without such jargon is a strong indication of its superfluity.

Jad Adams is the author of a biography of Tony Benn and is researching a history of the Nehru dynasty.

Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War

Author - Joanna Bourke
ISBN - 0 948462 82 5
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95
Pages - 336

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