Discussions of suicide must always be sensitive, even more so when constructing a historical argument around the experiences that led men to commit suicide. It is difficult to access the narratives of those who died before having a chance to reflect on their experiences, and it is outside of the scope of this essay to fully capture those voices, but it will still attempt to help illuminate the experiences that those men went through. This essay will take a cultural-socio approach to consider whether British masculinity was thrown into crisis during the First World War and will draw upon war poetry by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sasson as well as first-hand testimonies from soldiers. It argues that the conditions of war forced a shift in how men thought about their own masculinity. However, this was no intermediate and in the process of this shift some men were driven to extremes of self-inflicted wounds or suicide. It also argues that while the men fighting were able to accept this new masculinity, those back home and the state lacked the experience of war and thus failed to accept this change in the same way. This led to the mistreatment of men suffering from shellshock and miscommunication with their loved ones. Therefore, there was a crisis in the state’s interaction with personal masculinity, but not one for the soldiers.
This essay accepts the assertion of George Mosse that masculinity at the start of the First World War was an invention of modernity to give stability, reflecting in it the values of society.1 It also draws heavily upon the work of Jessica Meyer who argues that the War created space for men to negotiate a new masculinity beyond Heroic Masculinity (a masculinity focused on fighting and courage and suppression of weakness) that left them out of touch with wider society, particularly through her work on both soldiers’ and doctors’ attitudes to shellshock.2 It also tentatively engages with Michael Roper’s work on masculinity and subjectivity in First World War Veterans, most importantly his view of masculinity as a personal identity and not purely culture one, which is why this essay will draw on personal accounts as well as cultural products like poetry.3
Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘S.I.W.’, short for ‘self-inflicted wound’, likely written in 1917, explains the societal pressures that led to a young soldier, Tim, committing suicide.4 Owen appears to place the blame for Tim’s suicide on the various, competing expectations of men in war, with a clear tension between the expectation back home and the realities of static, trench warfare of the First World War. Alexander Watson argues that whilst statistically trench warfare of the time was safer than open battle it caused greater psychological damage to soldiers due to their inability to escape the situation, an idea that Owen explores.5 Owen could not have known precisely why men did commit suicide. However, he was considered a ‘sympathetic’ officer and likely had a good insight into the experiences of the other men as well as drawing on his own experiences, which suggests his poetry is well reflective of general feelings though it does not tell a personal narrative.6 As will be explored, Owen says that the pressures of masculinity imposed on men were in conflict with the realities of trench warfare which drove men to extremes of self-inflicted wounds and suicide.
The first section of S.I.W., ‘The Prologue’, focuses on the social pressures on men going to war, showing them as mainly coming from family. Fathers created pressure to perform Heroic Masculinity, ‘Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace’ suggests that men felt their honour should be of greater importance than their lives, that they need to ‘show the Hun a brave man’s face’. This tallies with Jessica Meyer’s point that prior to the First World War it was believed that the war would toughen up the men of Britain.7 This pressure was in conflict with female figures in men’s lives such as mothers, who Owen says would ‘fret’ over them ‘Until he got a nice safe wound’ suggesting that they were expected to remain safe for mothers and partners as well risk their lives for their fathers. Although it is not in the text, I bring up partners as well because both Michael Roper and Anthony Fletcher have pointed to how men tied their survival in the war to women who were waiting back home.8 Owen says that if someone committed S.I.W. thus ensuring their safety, they would be ‘vile’. This shows their sense of shame in conflict with the fear of the situation that would drive men to suicide. Notably, Owen does not mention the threat of court-martial if a man was discovered which implied the central concern was on the social stigma surrounding S.I.W. The conflict between the expected Heroic Masculinity and a more domestic masculinity focused on surviving for loved ones created internal stress on men which led to them wounding themselves. However, the material conditions of the war were also important in creating this crisis. Throughout the poem are examples of elements of trench warfare that harmed men psychologically, the clearest and emotive example is in section three, ‘The Poem’. Here Owen says the ‘reasoned crisis of his soul’ came from the ‘blind trench wall Curtained with fire, roofed with creeping fire’, which powerfully evokes the idea of being trapped in by death, an experience that was uniquely created by the conditions of artillery based trench warfare. Mosse asserted that the ‘encounter with mass death’ defined the war for soldiers, but here it would seem the risk and inescapability of death was a more powerful effect.9 Watson supports this, citing men’s insomnia and constant writing of ‘last letters’ as showing they felt as though the suffering was never ending.10 Owen suggests men were suffering a crisis from the competing expectation on men, suffering so great it led in some cases to suicide.
Siegfried Sasson’s poem ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ does help to elucidate ideas in Owen’s work around the discussion of suicide.11 Sasson’s poem is far more angry at the public who ignore the brutality of war, whilst Owen appears more mournful. The second stanza ends ‘He put a bullet through his brain. No one spoke of him again.’, the short sentences express Sasson’s anger that the suffering and suicidality in the war were wilfully ignored as people pray they will ‘never know The hell where youth and laughter go’. Owen also says ‘their people never knew’ if they committed S.I.W. but takes it a step further, saying the army was hiding the reality from civilians, ‘truthfully wrote the Mother, “Tim died smiling”’. The reframing of his death through his ‘smile’ suggests a disconnect between how civilians and soldiers understood the war. Roper argues men felt frustrated that their partners back home did not understand the realities of war, an emotion both Sasson and Owen’s poems seem to express.12 This disconnect could have helped force men to internalise their fear, as Meyer’s argues, which would have only increased the mental pressure that led to suicide.13
The second set of sources this essay draws from are soldiers’ testimonies of their experiences. Collected years after the war, they cannot include anyone who had committed suicide during the war, however, they can still show their view on the matter and their experience with S.I.W. We must also be aware that the importance of war poetry like Owen and Sasson’s means that ideas and motifs they used may have fed into popular memory and be evident in the accounts. This is partly because, as Roper says, people’s accounts of emotions have to draw upon existing conventions to convey it.14 This is not to say that they are not valuable sources, but in being aware of this we can be careful not to overstate how much the poetry reflected real experience and understand that if men were reusing ideas from war poetry then they must have found some level of truth within it. As Andre Loez argues, ultimately it may be more important to consider why people include certain elements in their narratives, rather than be concerned with whether it is accurate.15
The first testimony considered comes from Captain Graham Greenwell. Greenwell recalls how one of his privates suffered a mental break down but, despite Greenwell’s insistence that he was not fit, he was declared so by the medical officer which could not be overturned and the private shot himself later that morning.16 Greenwell highlights a sense of conflict in masculinity between the state, the medical officers, and individuals, the captain. Greenwell reflects that the incident ‘shook me very much’, due to the responsibility he felt for his men in all aspects of their lives.17 The strength of the homosocial bonds are clearly presented as stronger in this narrative than state power, as it is the state’s incorrect assessment of the private’s condition that leads to his suicide. Meyers sees a conflict between the state and soldiers in their understanding of masculinity, that soldiers could forgive victims of shellshock whilst the state condemned them as un-masculine.18 Greenwell’s account reinforces this, because he offered leniency whilst the state refused it. This also brings out the divide Owen and Sasson illustrated, between those who fought and those who did not, soldiers and medical officers (although many medical officers did see the front lines, their experience was nevertheless different to a private’s). Greenwell’s testimonies do not show that masculinity was in crisis, though, rather than for soldiers it shifted away from the state endorsed Heroic masculinity. Greenwell remarks that as well as having military responsibility, he felt in charge of ‘the domestic side of it’ but does not find this off-putting.19 To him adopting domestic responsibility seemed right within the homosocial world of war. This is supported by Roper’s argument that men redefined masculinity rather than adopt femininity itself, explaining his comfort with the situation.20 Although Greenwell’s testimony does show there was a crisis in the Heroic Masculinity of the Edwardian period, shown by the attitudes of doctors, this did not only lead to men’s deaths but also to subtle re-examinations of masculinity for many men.
Many testimonies also reflect on how the conditions of the war impacted them psychologically. The crisis of masculinity men suffered led them to self-inflicted violence in various forms, but that illustrates the crisis and does not explain the cause. One main cause of the crisis was the nature of the war itself, the stress it put soldiers under which left them unable to perform the heroic masculinity that was expected of them. Corporal Clifford Lane spoke of his desire to be wounded whilst fighting in the battle of the Somme.21 Although he did not wound himself, his longing for injure or death does allow us to examine the psychology of men who did. Lane’s account is reminiscent of Owen’s poems, ‘What I had felt under shellfire…was a wish for a wound’ echoes Owen’s line ‘misses teased the hunger of his brain’. Both quotes suggest men’s constant threat of death without any escape created a longing for their only way to escape, Lane calls getting a ‘blighty wound’ a ‘relief, saying that being wounded and infected ironically saved him. He is not clear, but he could mean that it saved him from greater psychological damage than from death. Roper cites an example of a man who’s eventual breakdown was so great because he had been trapped in the war so long, without such ‘relief’.22 Both of these accounts suggests a strange relationship between the physical and psychological in soldiers. The conditions of war meant that physical injury could improve one’s mental health and not compromise masculinity, as testimonies rarely express any shame from being wounded and out of the war. As Lane’s testimony shows, they express mainly relief. The masculinity created in the war were discontinuous, says Meyer, so a masculinity that allowed for injury and mental breaks without compromise would make sense within the conditions of the war, as well as leaving soldiers with a vastly different experience to men who had not fought.23 This does suggest Owen’s assertion that internal fears of being ‘vile’ were not universal, though no doubt it seemed important to him. One of the final sections of Lane’s testimony from near the end of the war is also useful to consider. He reflects on the American soldiers arriving to help and describes them as ‘lads whose strength hadn’t been impaired in any way’.24 ‘In any way’ is an important phrase as it suggests he was including their psychological state as part of them that was still strong. Lane is not comparing himself and British men to American men here, merely remarking that war had changed the British. They were not less masculine now but different. To the men who had survived near to the end of the war, their masculinity was not in crisis but rather had shifted to cope with the psychological strain of the war.
This essay has argued that British soldiers in the First World War experienced a shift in their ideas of masculinity due to the conditions that total war created. In the process of it shifting, men did experience personal crises that lead to death and injury, but it was when in contact with outside society and the state that there was something one might consider a wider crisis. At the beginning of the War, men largely accepted the Heroic Masculinity of the Edwardian period, but by its end many soldiers had abandoned it embracing a newer masculinity that allowed for fear and breakdown in the face of war. Whilst poetry written during the war itself might lead us to believe the outside social pressures were too much for men, first-hand accounts suggest that, particularly as the war dragged on, men were comfortable with their own fear of the war and desire to escape it. Heroic Masculinity could be seen to have failed against the conditions of total war, and this failure did lead to unnecessary deaths, it wasn’t unyielding and for individual’s identities, it did begin to shift in response and allow men to reflect on their differences to other groups without imposing a sense of inferiority. To improve our understanding of these issues in the historiography, it would be good to see more work done examining the issues of suicidality and self-inflicted wounds in personal testimonies.