It’s a question I’ve long asked myself: Why and how did common soldiers fight for so long in the First World War? The conditions were awful, death was all around, and there was no real hope of a “breakthrough” that might bring victory. It was simply one long hard slog to nowhere. Why not just give up? Thanks to Alexander Watson’s insightful Enduring the Great War. Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 (Cambridge, 2008) I now have a better understanding of what allowed the common infantryman to hang on. Watson convincingly explains that the remarkable endurance of soldiers was a function psychological coping mechanisms and leadership. The way the war was fought, Watson argues, was almost uniquely disempowering. In the trenches, men could neither fight nor flee. The shells rained down, and there was nothing they could do about it. They felt powerless and, as a result, anxious. To regain some semblance of control, therefore, they used religion, superstition, humor and, more than anything else, a keen understanding of the risks of life on the line to help them persevere. But these mechanisms were not enough. Leadership was also crucial. The right officer could calm men and help them hold fast. The wrong one could do neither. Both the British and Germans had good junior officiers, but Watson explains that the former had a slight edge. The final part of the book argues persuasively that the German army didn’t “melt away” in 1918 as has been thought. Rather, it was lead into captivity and defeat by officers who knew that further fighting was useless.
This is a terrific book and should be widely read. The paperback edition is coming out soon. Buy it.
Please become a fan of “New Books in History” on Facebook if you haven’t already.