When Johnny got his gun ... he loved killing

October 16, 1998

Stories of those haunted by going to war are well known, but Joanna Bourke has unearthed tales of men and women who found they exulted in slaughter

In 1915, the night before joining the army, Wilfred Willett held his weeping wife in bed and wondered, "Shall I ever sleep with her again? Or shall I be limbless or faceless next time? I might meet her in heaven, but in what state?" Other men worried more about their emotional capabilities. Would they prove themselves to be "men" or "cowards"? Would they be capable of "running the blade through a Hun" or would they be overwhelmed by a squeamishness that might signal their death by "cold steel"?

Combatants' diaries, their letters home, our novels and our history books are replete with shell-shocked infantrymen and saturated with bloody images of torn, putrid flesh. Yet within this gory articulation of the experience of war, there are two dimensions that make us uncomfortable. The first is that we know so much about how British soldiers died for their country - and hardly anything about how they killed for it. The second involves acknowledging that although killing another person may invoke temporary nausea, it only occasionally results in complete mental breakdown.

Most soldiers who suffered mental collapse during the first world war never killed anyone. Indeed, among those psychiatric casualties who saw battle, it was fear of dying rather than guilt over killing that precipitated their crisis. What struck most commentators was the ease with which men were able to kill. As the psychiatrist John T. MacCurdy observed in 1918: "There are millions of men, previously sober, humdrum citizens, with no observable traits of recklessness or blood thirstiness in their natureI engaged in inflicting injuries on human beings, without the repugnance they would have shown in performing similar operations on the bodies of dogs and cats."

Men unable to cope with military life were common; men unable to cope with killing, however, were an aberrant group. Surprisingly, psychiatrists recognised that more men broke down in war because they were not allowed to kill than collapsed because of the strain of killing. They argued that shell shock was frequently due to the blocking of elemental "fight or flight" responses. If soldiers could not fight and were not permitted to flee, they responded by becoming profoundly anxious - an emotion that was crippling.

When we read the letters and diaries of servicemen, the striking feature is their ability to manufacture pleasure out of situations of terror. For politicians and military strategists, war may be about the conquest of territory or the struggle to recover a sense of lost national honour, but for the soldier on active service, war is about occasional, very violent, acts.

Time and time again, in the writings of combatants, people describe how they enjoyed violence. There are the British servicemen during the first world war who recount that sticking Germans with bayonets was "gorgeously satisfying", "exultant satisfaction", "beautiful work", and "joy unspeakable".

In the words of Henry De Man: "I had thought myself more or less immune from this intoxication until, as trench mortar officer, I was given command over what is probably the most murderous instrument in modern warfareI. One dayI I secured a direct hit on an enemy encampment, saw bodies or parts of bodies go up in the air, and heard the desperate yelling of the wounded or the runaways. I had to confess to myself that it was one of the happiest moments of my life." De Man admitted that he yelled aloud "with delight" and "could have wept with joy". He asked: "What are the satisfactions of scientific research, of a successful public activity, of authority, of love, compared with this ecstatic minute?" Nor were women exempt from such emotions. Flora Sandes, the daughter of a retired vicar living in the peaceful village of Thornton Heath, volunteered her skills as a Red Cross nurse to work in Serbia during the first world war. Her transition from nurse to soldier took 18 months, but during the great retreat to Albania, Sandes finally exchanged bandages for the gun. It turned her moral world upside-down. Instead of sympathising with the wounded, she admitted to feelings of joy when the savage explosion of her bombs was followed by a "few groans and then silence" because a "tremendous hullabaloo" signalled that she had inflicted "only a few scratches, or the top of someone's fingerI taken off".

Men's status was enhanced by the number of enemy troops they were able to kill, and they were jealous if other units scored more highly. This emphasis on the number of enemy personnel slaughtered is usually assumed to be a phenomenon of the Vietnam war. It is clear, however, that the phenomenon of body counts in Vietnam is the equivalent of what was a very real goal for many combatants during the two world wars as well. The emphasis on "scores" frequently meant exaggerating the slaughter, as hinted at in the ditty composed on the front lines by Major B. W. Bond, M.C.:

"We killed the enemy by the score,

When coming up the Wady,

But when we went to count the dead

We only found one body."

Soldiers boasted about killing and multiplied the scale of their murderous zeal. There was a flourishing trade in souvenirs such as helmets, bent bayonets, and rifles for support troops to take home to bolster wild stories of killing that they had told loved ones. "How many Germans have you killed?" was asked by an irritatingly large number of people, and although some men might snap back that they had "quite enough to do to see the Germans didn't kill us", others revelled in spinning heroic yarns. Since refusal to tell such stories might throw into doubt a man's status and virility, few fathers or husbands were able to resist the temptation to conform to an active warrior ethos.

A certain amount of the pleasure that men took in killing came from the way they fanaticised themselves as heroic warriors just like those in combat books and comics, games and films. War was funny, too - witness the hilarious (yet bitter) pranks played upon the bodies of the enemy. During the first world war, men would comb the hair of corpses, shake skeleton's hands and offer cigarettes to severed heads. Souvenirs such as medals, helmets, and tassels were removed from the bodies of the enemy. Even the young poet Wilfred Owen sent his brother a blood-spattered handkerchief that he had taken from the pocket of a dead German pilot.

Souvenirs were regarded as proof that a man had seen active combat and thus had proved himself on the field of battle. George Coppard admitted that a "ghoulish curiosity" initially led him to collect souvenirs. He recalled that the Pickelhaube, or spiked helmet, was the favourite - "as the mere display of one of these when you were on leave sort of suggested that you had personally killed the original owner". Laughter not only enabled cruelty, it framed it. In the grotesque, men were able to confront and survive "the horror, the horror".

Fear, anxiety, pain: these are the familiar stories of combat. But excitement, joy and satisfaction were equally fundamental pleasures inspired by scoring a good, clean "kill". In the act of killing, if there was disillusionment, it grew out of a feeling of being in the wrong film, enacting a strange script, rather than a repudiation of murderous movies and aggressive scripts. In the words of one serviceman: "This was not our idea of fightingI. it was simply 'bloody murder'."

For most servicemen, there was no such disillusionment. They returned home, keen to return to familiar modes of human interaction and anxious to immerse themselves once again in peaceable, civilian society.

Joanna Bourke is reader in history, Birkbeck College, University of London. This piece is based on research carried out for a book titled An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th century warfare (to be published by Granta in May 1999). The research won Dr Bourke the Fraenkel prize in contemporary history in 1998.

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