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ELH 68.2 (2001) 469-500

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Modernism, Male Intimacy, and the Great War

Sarah Cole

I. War Discourse: Friendship and Comradeship

Now, the war, at any rate on the Western Front, was waged by Battalions, not by individuals, by bands of men who, if the spirit were right, lived in such intimacy that they became part of one another. The familiar phrase, "a happy Battalion," has a deep meaning, for it symbolises that fellowship of the trenches which was such a unique and unforgettable experience for all who ever shared in it, redeeming the sordidness and stupidity of war by a quickening of the sense of interdependence and sympathy.

--B. H. Liddell Hart, 1933 1

In these exemplary lines, a former officer and influential military historian elaborates the widely held view that during the Great War, male friendship provided the stable anchoring point for a world in crisis. Most central is the notion that fellowship redeems the "sordidness and stupidity of war," that it transforms an obscene expense of human life and material resources into a spiritual rebirth. Liddell Hart imbues the intimate relations between men with a religious ethos, transferring to comradeship the transcendence traditionally associated with Christian self-sacrifice and patriotic duty. In accordance with the dominant morality of the public schools and other such institutions, Liddell Hart privileges corporate identity over individuality, assigning the highest value to "interdependence," "sympathy," and the gradual intermingling of men who become "part of one another." Further, embedded in Liddell Hart's assumption about the positive implications of a military world organized around the male group is the belief that comradeship in war functions as the primary replacement for such traditional locales of social order as the school, the church, and the family. So self-sustaining are these "bands of men," and so mutually intertwined at the level of both body and identity, that their community seems provocatively to challenge ideological norms governing civilian conduct. Yet, Liddell Hart is careful to present the shift in institutional hierarchy as a function of the extremity of war, rather than a sign of social turbulence: [End Page 469] friendship does not so much threaten the family and civilian society as improve them, providing a moral guide-post for an implicitly inferior home culture.

Liddell Hart's image of a devastating war redeemed by the intimacy nourished among its combatants became something of a cultural commonplace during and after the war. Yet, his assertion that masculine comradeship provides the only sustaining relation in a time of moral and physical degradation appears to sweep aside tensions that ordinarily inhere in such relations--tensions involving the body, the individual's conflict with the group, the troubled relation of tradition to modernity. In what follows, I shall take seriously Liddell Hart's suggestion that male relations appeared to offer those who fought the possibility of restructuring and revaluing principles of social order. I propose that the crushing problem of male intimacy functioned to coalesce and crystallize a number of discourses surrounding masculinity and the male body in the First World War period, but that it could not ultimately resolve the contradictions inherent in the different visions of male unity that the war generated. 2

My argument about the war has two central points. First, in an analysis of masculine intimacy that works to unravel the complex knot of ideas surrounding male relations, I hope to demonstrate that comradeship did not function as the culture demanded, and that this failure generated a particularly resonant form of anger and bewilderment. In the official dogma of the war, comradeship was meant to sustain the soldier, to provide the possibility for heroic action, to redeem the horrific suffering that the war endlessly inflicted. Yet the crucial fact of the war was that it destroyed friendship. Thus the bracing imperative to organize and stabilize masculine intimacy became a futile enterprise, desperate and debilitating. It is this tragic paradox about the impossible demands for intimacy during the Great War that fueled both popular and canonical writers and continued to engage the post-war imagination. 3

Accordingly, my second overarching...


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