At this distance in time, and with our knowledge of the slaughterhouses that First War battlefields rapidly became, it is hard understand the universal joy with which the war’s outbreak, in August 1914, was greeted.
In Germany, patriotic fervour was so great, and so obsessively delusional, some psychiatrists regarded Mobilmachungspsychose (‘mobilisation psychosis’), as they called it, a form of mental illness.
In England, 27-year-old Rupert Brooke, a newly commissioned sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division, expressed the mood of the majority in his sonnet ‘Peace’.
In it he wrote how peace, which had stagnated into corruption, had been broken by the ‘thunderclap of war’. He rejoiced at being able to escape: ‘A world grown old and cold and weary’. One filled with ‘sick hearts that honour could not move. And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary’.
In a letter to his friend, the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, the young poet proclaimed: ‘The central purpose of my life, the aim and end of it, now, the thing God wants of me, is to get good at beating Germans.’
Young poet Rupert Brooke, who rejoiced at the outbreak of war
‘We Don’t Want to Lose You’
On music-hall stages, female vocalists told young men: ‘We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go, for your King and your Country both need you so.’
Not that young men required any such encouragement. Inspired by romantic notions of heroic combat, they queued in their hundreds of thousands to volunteer. Such was their enthusiasm that, within twenty days of Kitchener’s famous appeal, ‘Your King and Country Need You,’ being made, all the hundred thousand men deemed necessary had joined up.
In Germany, psychiatrist Robert Sommer, head of the Clinic for Nervous Disorders at Giessen University, voiced similarly patriotic sentiments in his anthem ‘I Am a German’, which included the lines: ‘The German Reich, for which our fathers died, is alive . . . We wish only to shield it from the wrath of our foes…The old spirit of ’70 is renewed . . . Hail Kaiser, Reich and Land. It unites us, the German people band’.
Barrack Brutality as Training for War
What none of the eager young volunteers, or their overly enthusiastic civilian supporters, realised, was that the methods of military training practiced at that time had originated in the 18th century and were based almost exclusively on harsh discipline amounting, at times, to outright brutality.
Prevailing philosophical notions of ‘mechanistic materialism’, led military authorities to consider men little more than machines.
Machines that could be transformed into killers by exploiting their dormant primitive instincts. The aim was to turn civilians into soldiers and soldiers into beasts by releasing their most basic and primitive urges. By these means they would produce troops who would, in the words of First War poet Siegfried Sassoon, would ‘fight like brutes’ and do ‘hideous things’ without hesitation or guilt.
New recruits – trained to obey without question and kill without compassion
Sexuality and Combat
‘There is a connection between military training and sexuality,’ argued British sexologists H.C. Fischer and Dr E.X. Dubois in their 1937 book Sexual Life During the World War: ‘The primitive urges, repressed in normal life and liberated in the barracks, are mostly of a sexual character or at any rate subconsciously tinged with the sexual factor… training for war differs very little from actual war, which arouses the various erotic urges, and particularly the primitive urge for cruelty that lies dormant in all human beings’.
In the view of these authors, the brutality which existed in many barracks was merely a preparation for the brutalities of war. Indeed, research shows, that those regiments in which barrack square discipline was enforced most brutally, even at times of great peril, fought the hardest and proved most successful.
German soldiers gunning down civilians
Booze, Bullets & Battles
The military were not, however, content to rely on drill alone. They also provided copious amounts of alcohol in the form of extremely potent rum, at up to 80% proof.
Men in the trenches received the official ration, of 2.5 fluid ounces, once a day. Because the dark fluid was so strong it made men’s eyes water when taken neat, it was usually mixed into sweetened coffee, tea or cocoa.
Before they went ‘over the top,’ soldiers were issued with a double ration. But more was often available. On one occasion, an officer gave a terrified new recruit so much rum he could hardly walk. Clambering out of the trench, the drunken youngster was shot in the face and killed instantly.
Eighty percent proof army run helped soothe the soldiers’ fears
Rum was used not only to bolster soldiers’ courage but to help them sleep, warm them up on chilly days and calm them down after a battle.
Men tasked with especially dangerous or disagreeable jobs, such as bringing back their fallen comrades mutilated, and often rotting corpses, from No Man’s Land, usually received an extra ration.
If harsh discipline and strong rum failed to drive the troops forward into hails of machine gun and rifle fire, mortar and artillery shells, there was always the threat of their own officers’ revolvers and the machine guns lined up behind them. Any soldier who tried to turn back risked being shot by his own side.
Brutality on all Sides
Brutality was by no means confined to the British Army. Indeed, the soldiers of other nations could be subjected to even harsher punishments.
A Serbian Army Order, for example, warned that: ‘Everyone who, to his own and the Army’s disgrace, retires before the enemy, mutilates himself or surrenders to the enemy, will be shot dead. In addition, all his possessions, both movable and immovable, will be confiscated in favour of the State. Further, the most Draconian measures will be taken against his family, such as the dispersion of the family and their banishment to different localities; they will be forbidden to meet or communicate with each other and will be employed for hard labour. For a family, one of whose members fails in his duty in this holy war, deserves no consideration, not even the protection of law.’
How Executed Soldiers Were Treated
While the British executed many more soldiers for cowardice than did the Prussians or the Austrians, they treated the family of such men with rather more compassion.
Men shot by their own side during a battle were included in the casualty lists and even those executed following a court martial were reported to their loved ones as having died ‘like heroes.’
In my next blog post I describe life aboard the luxury yacht Ursel which cruised Berlin’s River Spree in the early ‘thirties. On this yacht senior Nazis were plied with alcohol and drugs during orgies in which any and every kind of sexual depravity was indulged. All at the expense of their host, showbusiness celebrity Eric Jan Hanussen. A wealthy Party supporter and friend of Hitler he was also a Moravian Jew.