Monday, August 29, 2005

Comparative Cultural History (2)

One topic of abiding interest to me has been how soldiers learn. Partly about how armies teach them, but much more what they learn informally, not least before they join the army, about what it is to be a soldier and what they should expect of war. This has particular importance for the writing of military history given the things I learned at Giessen about the importance of preformation of expectation in the shaping of experience (see ACUME (2) below).
One thing that forms soldiers' expectations and experience of war is what they know about previous conflicts. In some cases, of course, they may have participated in these earlier wars, but otherwise they may have learned about them through a mixture of family participation, popular culture and more formal education.
As an example of this mix of expectation and experience, consider British soldiers in the Second World War. Most had grown up in an atmosphere where the First World War was both celebrated and mourned. As children they learned that the trenches had been terrible - but also that heroism and self-sacrifice were still possible, and that the defining experience of masculinity was soldiering. When the Second World War came, most Britons did not avoid military service. They did seek, where they could, to join 'clean' arms (the navy, the air force, anything but the PBI). Those who did end up in terrestrial combat arms continued to make use of their forefathers' experiences as a sort of emotional talisman. There's plentiful evidence of Second World War infantrymen - often those who experienced what were, by any definition, awful wars - saying to themselves "This is bad, but it's not the worst. If my father could serve for three years in Flanders, then I can stick this. At least I'm not in that war."
Sam Hynes has some useful stuff on this in The Soldiers' Tale I think - primarily about Vietnam.
What about other wars? Using some of the comparators suggested below, what formed soldiers' cultural expectations? Lots has been written about the literary basis for First World War soldiers' world view. Much less about what they had learned from fathers/older brothers/uncles/their own involvement in the Boer War or the pre-war militia or TF. With the American Civil War, I recall that many of the men who held senior command had won their spurs in the Mexican War, but the forces engaged were small relative to the American population. What were the popular 'memories' of 1812 - or the Napoleonic Wars, given the mass of European immigration at the time?
Again, new comments always welcome: I'm finding the blogging inspirational to thought, as you can tell.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Brett said...

Interesting question. One set of cultural expectations resulting from a previous war might be the idea that there would be (illicit) armed resistance from French and Belgian civilians to the German invasion in 1914. This was due in part to memories, institutional and public, of the francs-tireurs of the Franco-Prussan war. It led to unfortunate consequences indeed - the execution of over 5000 innocent, mainly Belgian civilians. John Horne and Alan Kramer's book, German Atrocities, 1914 is good on how these preconceived ideas came to be transmitted to the frontline soldiers and officers.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I should of course have thought of the Horne and Kramer book - that is an excellent example - although more at the level of institutional memory than popular culture. Indeed, it would be an interesting question to ask how the representation of francs tireurs in Germany during and after the FPW affected soldiers' behaviour.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Brett said...

I hope I didn't give the impression that I didn't think you knew exactly what I was talking about, it was mainly for the benefit of the other readers :)

You're right, H&K are much better on institutional memories rather than cultural ones than I had thought. But there is a bit (pp. 152-3) on novels about the FPW, with francs-tireurs as common stereotypes. It would certainly be interesting to know more about this!

My own studies are kind of adjacent to this question - it's partly about anticipations of the air war of the future, prior to 1939 (in Britain), but mainly from the public point of view, rather than the military. Certainly memories of the previous air war (ie Zeppelin and Gotha raids) were important, but were exaggerated many-fold when projected into the future. But anyway, I won't be looking at 1939-45, so I won't be able to judge how these anticipations affected their war service, but it's something to bear in mind.

3:36 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Absolutely no offence taken! I did indulge in a bit of self-criticism at the realisation that I hadn't thought of H&K - a top book.
Could we argue that air-war is an example of over-turned expectation? The realisation that the much-touted aerial bombardment was not as bad as they'd thought (or at least was limited in its intensity) gave great power to the 'Myth of the Blitz' - resilience, mutual aid, and so on?

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Brett said...

Hmm! It's hard for me to say how they would have reacted to the realisation that aerial bombardment wasn't as bad as predicted. It's possible that they would have thought, Is that the best you can do? and felt relieved and defiant. Or, if they thought the worst was yet to come (as some observers did), they may have remained apprehensive for the future, and drawn together for mutual aid. Or maybe they just forgot about their previous expectations altogether and just reacted to the situation at hand.

I'm sure the evidence is out there to be able to tell what happened, but unfortunately the blitz is outside my period. A quick check of the sources I do have (Gardiner's Wartime, McKay's Half the Battle) doesn't help much, they don't compare pre-existing fears with the reality as it turned out. Would be interesting to know.

4:21 PM  

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