University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘Man Up!’: Revisiting the trenches and reviewing First World War masculinity.

“David McCracken’s dissertation was a well-written and outstandingly researched piece of work. It conducted a rigorous interrogation of current First World War historiography and deployed a broad range of evidence, from infantrymen’s diaries and letters to memoirs and oral testimony, to evaluate how soldiers coped with life in the trenches. David put forward a multi-layered gender analysis that revealed how complex British society’s perceptions of masculine behaviour were during the conflict. It was an excellent dissertation that shed light on a crucial aspect of modern history.” – Dr Rob James, L6 Year Tutor.

I set out to explore the impact that the First World War had upon the construction of masculinity. In doing so however, it became immediately apparent that in their very nature, ‘masculinity’ and the ‘First World War’ are multifaceted beasts that are tough to tackle in ten thousand words. Although this may offer little solace to those approaching the unit, a dissertation appears as a mountain from the bottom and a mole hill from the top. What is required is a realistic study mass in which research material does not saturate detail. However, this can be tough. If you were to pick a book out at random in a dark university library, it would probably be a book about masculinity in the First World War. The topic isn’t particularly niche. To that end, I sought to approach the subject from a revisionist standpoint, critically analysing the work of historians who have gone before, whilst providing considerations as to how the topic should be approached and demonstrate the results from doing so.

Aerial photograph of the trenches near loos 1917. IWM Q60546.

My first task was to get to grips with the historiography. By year three, it came as no surprise that reading consumes a large portion of the overall project effort. Even so, at times, the overwhelming scale of the task at hand perforated my productive headspace, leaving me with little more than an empty Word document and a desire for a year three early exit. What’s more, with the extent of past research on the topic, knowing when to stop reading, when enough is enough, is difficult. The judgement rested on my grasp of key historiographical inputs. Was any additional reading adding to them, merely rehashing or worse, leading me away from what I was attempting to tackle? Once satisfied, I found that whilst social and cultural historians seek the ‘lived experience’, there was a fundamental failing in understanding the role of rank and military structure on the daily lives of soldiers during the war. At best, a distinction between a soldier and officer was made but the intricacies of rank relations was missing alongside a fair regard for the impact of existing within a chain of command. [1] How can we explore masculinity if we ignore the social and professional structures which are likely to direct the way in which men act? Fortunately, these failings are more than compensated for by military historians who revel in the detail of conflict, address the obscurities of army life and provide an insight into men’s war experiences. [2] What is needed is a combination of these two disciplines. To understand the war’s impact on masculinity we must merge military history’s concern with structure, strategy and tactics with social and cultural history’s concern with the ‘lived’ experience. It is on these lines that my dissertation developed.

Having suggested a theoretical approach, I needed to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and demonstrate how fruitful a merger can be. To do so, I focused on one military role, in one environment, in one location; the British infantrymen in the trenches on the Western Front. I put great effort into explaining my reasoning for choosing the infantry within my work. This included discussing how infantrymen were not only numerically dominant but the infantry role was arguably the epitome of hegemonic masculinity, the ‘soldier hero’, the male ideal. [3] Then it was onto the greatest and in my view, core task of a dissertation, finding, analysing and presenting the primary sources.

First World War trench warfare. Image taken from en.wikipedia.org

To extract the men’s experiences, I sought personal sources such as diaries, letters and oral testimony which would provide a sense of the ‘lived experience’. These sources mainly originated from the Imperial War Museum. Reading and listening to the stories of these men never failed to move me. I focused on examining the infantry platoon, the military composition which most soldiers existed within. Brigadiers and Generals, who have received much unwarranted historical attention, were arguably a fleeting presence in the majority of men’s lives. Private soldiers, Corporals, a Platoon Sergeant and a Platoon Commander (a Junior Officer) made up the majority of men and ranks and interacted with one another on a daily basis. This group of men’s exchanges, interactions and actions within a framework of rank and structure created what I term as a ‘man-family’. This was a system in which men supported one another by virtue of their responsibility at a certain rank, whilst simultaneously competing to show the traits of endurance and adaptability that the conditions of warfare had placed upon them. For instance, an Officer’s role as a Platoon Commander was to ensure the comfort and cleanliness of his men. [4] This is not unlike a mother within a ‘normal’ family setting. This ‘man-family’ was replicated in the trenches across the Western Front and the system, in combination with the very nature of warfare in producing new tactics (trenches for instance) and enduring poor conditions, led to adaptability and endurance becoming key markers of masculinity after the war.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of producing a dissertation. Whilst at times a blank laptop screen is all I seemed to be able to achieve, it was rewarding to hand-in such a significant piece of work. The research skills amassed during my time at university were fully utilised and there is a huge sense of satisfaction in detangling your thoughts into a somewhat coherent argument.



[1] One example of this is Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 11. In this book, Meyer appears to be apathetic towards the military hierarchy. There is little distinction of rank beyond that of an officer and soldier and ranks are often omitted from the personal narratives that have been utilised.

[2] For a particularly useful study, see David French, Military Identities: The Regimental Systems, the British Army and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge 1994), 1.

[4] Michael Roper, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in The Great War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 165.


David McCracken is a BA History student at the University of Portsmouth. His dissertation won the Robbie Gray Memorial Prize for best history dissertation. David also won the Elizabeth Prize for highest overall performance in all units throughout the final year.

, , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply