Why WWI soldiers were trained to ‘enjoy battle’
Two historians have a controversial answer to how first world war soldiers endured the fighting for so long: they enjoyed killing. But does this belittle the mental trauma such men suffered?
In his diary of life in the trenches, John French recalls spending night and day ‘up to my knees in water,’ digging holes while snipers shot his friends and fleeing chemical weapons which descended ‘like a thick yellow fog.’ The stench of rot would have been overpowering, the roar of shells deafening.
Trench warfare sounds like hell to most and many wonder how soldiers tolerated these conditions for years on end. Historians Niall Ferguson and Joanna Bourke offer a controversial answer: the soldiers were able to fight for so long simply because they came to enjoy killing.
These soldiers did not start out in life as killers and new recruits were initially reluctant, but they were trained to think of the enemy as subhuman. Once they accepted this, many found killing brought ‘intense feelings of pleasure,’ and they were able to kill Germans for revenge or just for fun.
One of these men was Julian Grenfell, who recorded how ‘exciting’ it was to sneak up behind a German ‘laughing and talking’, before shooting him. Even Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote many anti-war poems, said battle was an ‘uplifting experience’.
Transforming ordinary people into killers was not just a byproduct of war but actual military policy. Reflecting on the war in 1922, a War Office enquiry into shell shock found that civilians made poor warriors and were in need of ‘hardening’: ‘Men must be trained with one purpose … to fight.’ For Ferguson, this is the real tragedy of the first world war: that it turned decent people into amoral killers.
Yet other historians counter that this misses an essential point: these men were most likely traumatised by what they experienced at a time with little understanding of mental health.
Such damaged men may have believed they enjoyed murder, but this tells us of their mental disarray rather than their natures. Better to concentrate on what these soldiers endured, rather than how their trauma manifested itself.
Some believe killing is simply part of human nature and welcome this frank discussion of a long taboo subject. Even a 1920s psychologist’s report admitted the war allowed ‘all sorts of forbidden and hidden impulses’ to be explored. We take an animalistic pleasure in fighting and we fail to understand the first world war if we try to ignore that.
Others are truly appalled by this view and believe it treats psychological trauma flippantly. It was recognised as early as 1917 that one in seven of all personnel discharged from duty was suffering from terrible neuroses. Pleasure in killing is a sign of mental trauma. It is a huge injustice to the millions deeply scarred by the war if we dismiss their suffering as a kind of secret enjoyment.
- ‘Treating soldiers as killers makes us forget how much they have been through.’ Do you agree?
- Does war bring out the brutality already within in us or does war bend us out of shape?
- Draw a picture representing how a soldier might feel after fighting in the first world war.
- Research soldiers’ experiences. Write a ‘before and after’ of the ways in which the war changed them.
Some People Say...
“If it’s natural to kill, how come men have to go into training to learn how?’Joan Baez”
What do you think?
Q & A
- But surely killing is part of being a soldier!
- While soldiers may have to kill while serving, there is a difference between shooting out of duty and killing for genuine pleasure. Many of the fighters in the first world war were forced to join up and were deeply affected by the part they had to play.
- Can anyone become a killer?
- Many believe so. In the first world war, soldiers were conditioned to kill by being taught that their enemy was not really human. The same process of dehumanisation was at work in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, where Jews were depicted as subhuman. More recently, those who have been trained to become suicide bombers but have then changed their minds say that they were brainwashed into thinking of their targets as objects rather than fellow human beings.
- While the trenches were terrible, the British army realised soldiers would quickly lose morale if they were stuck there, so the men were constantly rotated. Between battles soldiers spent around ten days each month in the trenches and were often out of them for a month at a time. If there was a big offensive, however, soldiers might spend up to seven days on the front line.
- American psychiatrist Theodore Nadelson tested the hypothesis that soldiers enjoy killing after the Vietnam War. He examined 24 men who considered themselves true killers and concluded that they were ‘ordinary men’ before enlisting.
- Shell shock
- The term used in the first world war for those with psychological trauma suffered on the battlefield. At first it was thought that falling shells themselves had an effect on these men. There are no reliable figures for the number of soldiers who suffered psychological disorders and treatment was usually ineffective.