Book Review: Men of War, by Jessica Meyer

Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain by Jessica Meyer, (Palgrave, 2008)

A couple of years ago I went through a phase of reading a number of First World War books all based on "bringing to life" the primary experience of soldiers, anthologising letters and memoirs into a coherent narrative labelled as being "in their own words". In the end, they became pretty dull and hugely repetitive, with the extracts continually being chosen to fit the authors' perspective and not attempting to provide a cross-section of voices. While the insights into individual soldiers' experiences were fascinating, I found these books to be lacking in analysis and I wanted to know more about the trends in soldiers' writings from the war.

Recently I was perusing the First World War shelves of the history library at uni when I came across Men of War by Jessica Meyer. I met Jessica at a conference over the summer and was keen to read her work and this book really stood out to me as an interesting concept.

It turned out to be just the thing I had been looking for for quite a while, investigating the trends and influences in soldiers' personal narratives. The chapters deal in turn with letters home, personal diaries, letters of condolence, correspondence with the Ministry of Pensions, and post-war memoirs, showing a full range of personal records of war. This layout was also really good for illustrating the nuances of the different media and comparisons between them, with letters written for family reinforcing the safety of the trenches, while personal diaries discussed the fear and horror of war in far more depth.

Much of this is to be expected. Of course a soldier would want to spare the feelings of his loved ones by reassuring them of his well-being. Similarly, letters of condolence were seen to idealise the dead and to assure their loved ones that their death had been both painless and noble. Yet Meyer's analysis delves beyond this, identifying trends of experience vs emotion and the domestic vs the military.

Frequently when reading I could relate Meyer's arguments to the personal narratives of soldiers that I have read and realised influences I had never taken notice of before. In particular, I had not previously noticed how rare discussions of home appear in soldiers' diaries (especially in comparison with their letters), yet this makes perfect sense and has helped me look at my source material in a new light.

Underpinning Meyer's survey of First World War writing is a brilliant investigation into the masculinity of British soldiers and how it was shaped by the war. The wrestle in men's minds between their civilian and military identities, their understanding of their duty and society's expectations of them is something I have often considered, but without the ability to draw effective conclusions. Meyer achieves this really well, arguing that while British culture 'valourised' soldiers for their strength and bravery, among the soldiers themselves it was the ability to endure that really set men apart as heroes, indicating a divergence between the men literally on the front line and the cultural norms of the home front.

Moreover, Meyer identifies a similar divergence in her exploration of soldiers' memoirs. She highlights the fatalism that many felt, an area which has been widely discussed in histories of soldiers' religion. Notably, Michael Snape identified the ubiquity of such sentiments in the army, stemming from an uncertain metaphyscial basis and undermining the morale of many. This trend, as Meyer explains, confronted Victorian ideals of sacrificial death that remained prevalent among the bereaved. The argument and evidence for this all make complete sense, yet I had not previously considered just how stark the divergence was between the language of the survivors and the bereaved families in rationalising and coming to terms with the loss of war.

I would highly recommend Men of War to anyone interested in soldiers' experience of the First World War and to anyone who has spent time reading personal accounts. Not only is the analysis really good, reaching really interesting conclusions, but it is also an absorbing read that I read more or less straight through, neglecting my other reading in the process.


Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with the author or publisher of this book, which I borrowed from the library. If you have a book you'd like me to review in future, please contact me via the 'About' page listed above.

No comments: