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Making sense of the western front: English infantrymen’s morale and perception of crisis during the Great War

Mayhew, Alexander (2018) Making sense of the western front: English infantrymen’s morale and perception of crisis during the Great War. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This thesis reappraises military morale during the First World War, looking at the relationship between morale and perceptions of crisis. It analyses the resilience of English infantrymen serving on the Western Front during three acute ‘crisis’ periods faced by the British Army in 1914, 1916, and 1917/1918. Through the examination of contemporary sources, it reveals how infantrymen’s long-term experiential perceptions of war and the Western Front functioned to promote resilience. Generally focussing on moments outside of combat, it argues that many combatants perceived the war itself as a prolonged chronic crisis. Adaptations deflected experiences of chronic crisis and soldiers often failed to register acute crisis and did not distinguish these phases as ones of ‘crisis’ at the time. The dissertation draws on untapped archival material, mainly using sources written during or shortly after the events being studied. It investigates the interrelationship between soldiers’ social and physical environment, and their psychological environment. Deploying theory from anthropology, sociology and social psychology, it goes further than previous work in its interdisciplinary scope. The individual chapters reflect the themes that emerged most forcefully from the primary material. The first four describe the ways in which men overcame chronic crisis, while the final chapter analyses the emergence of acute crisis. ‘Attachment’ explores how men familiarised themselves with the physical environment of the Western Front, normalised it and found meaning in it. ‘Exhaustion’ analyses the experience of winter, showing how this subsumed other concerns and changed men’s perspective on war during other seasons of the year. ‘Obligation’ reinterprets the ways in which concepts of duty influenced soldiers’ actions and interpretation of the conflict. ‘Imagination’ develops a fresh perspective on the ways in which men’s perceptions and dreams of England became a coping mechanism and furnished a justification of their suffering. ‘Hope’ argues that visions of peace proved to be sustaining and were inextricably linked to ideas of victory. The thesis offers new insights into the psychology of the soldiers of 1914-18, and the conclusion suggests that human adaptability and the ability to construe events constructively, to have goals and see clear pathways to these goals, helped men to cope with the Great War.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2018 Alexander Mayhew
Library of Congress subject classification: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
Sets: Departments > International History
Supervisor: Jones, Heather and Stevenson, David

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