The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War

Peter Hart is unconvinced by the assertion that the secret to a soldier's survival was his family

September 24, 2009

In The Secret Battle, Michael Roper postulates that the relationship between a soldier at the front and his family was crucial to his emotional survival during the Great War. In particular he concentrates on the role of the mother which, in this book, is central to everything.

While it is undoubtedly true that Great War veterans seem to have fixated more on their mothers than, say, their Second World War counterparts, this is surely a fairly ordinary cultural phenomenon. The deathbed scenes Roper quotes of soldiers crying out for their mothers reflect not only what was expected at the time but also their youth. In truth, the argument seems overcooked to the exclusion of other factors that, it might be argued, deserve equal weighting. One could generate, for example, a valid thesis based on the influence of the inspirational role of the father figure. Or on the binding force exerted by comradeship - the desire not to let one's mates down, the peer pressure not to be seen as a coward and the fellowship that took them "over the top".

In my view, Roper's research base is too narrow and has been tailored to fit his preconceived conclusions: he references only a very small proportion of the huge collection of letters at the Imperial War Museum's Department of Documents; there is no reference to the museum's huge Sound Archive and he relies too much on fictional works. He also quotes from a random media interview with Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the First World War trenches, not because of any particular merit, but because it fits and he was still alive when Roper was conducting his research. At the very least, a greater exposure to oral history would have revealed the prime emotional importance of comrades to the soldier.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of revealing material amid the theorising and "emotional templates". The importance of letters and parcels from home is evident. The details of life in the trenches are fascinating, although I found amusing Roper's cheery sexism in assuming all forms of caring and administration were "mothering". The rituals of death, burial and the mechanics of informing families are also intriguing. The awful wounds, the causes and nature of shell shock and the sheer terror of war are all looked at in an enlightening fashion. In particular, I welcome the acknowledgement of the suffering undergone by families at the hands of returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. All in all, it is an interesting book which puts a case rather than convinces.

Here are edited extracts from two letters written on the same day by Private Albert Fereday and preserved by the Canadian Letters and Images Project. One is full of platitudes: "My dearest mother, at present I am in a comfortable trench about five miles from the front line, so I am as 'safe as houses'. I am only here for a few hours tho', as I am going a good way farther back to a little village where I intend to have a good rest." The other is emotionally raw, sent to a friend: "For three hours he shelled us with heavy stuff, high explosive and gas. It was hell! How I came through without a scratch I don't know. I hope I never have to go through such an ordeal again. If only everyone knew of the horrors of this war it wouldn't last another five minutes. Happily, Mother didn't know I was even in the trenches, and you are the only one I shall ever tell the little I have of the experiences of the last week." Fereday was killed in battle the next day. As to his state of mind on the eve of battle, it all depends on which letter you choose to believe.

The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War

By Michael Roper

Manchester University Press

368pp, £60.00

ISBN 9780719079184

Published 31 March 2009

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