Drawing on a broad range of personal accounts, this is the first detailed study of siblinghood in wartime. The relative youth of the fighting men of the Great War intensified the emotional salience of sibling relationships. Long separations, trauma and bereavement tested sibling ties forged through shared childhoods, family practices, commitments and interests. We must not equate the absence of a verbal language of love with an absence of profound feelings. Quieter familial values of kindness, tolerance and unity, instilled by parents and reinforced by moral instruction, strengthened bonds between brothers and sisters. Examining the nexus of cultural and familial emotional norms, this study reveals the complex acts of mediation undertaken by siblings striving to reconcile conflicting obligations to society, the army and loved ones in families at home. Brothers enlisted and served together. Siblings witnessed departures and homecomings, shared family responsibilities, confided their anxieties and provided mutual support from a distance via letters and parcels. The strength soldier-brothers drew from each other came at an emotional cost to themselves and their comrades. The seismic casualties of the First World War proved a watershed moment in the culture of mourning and bereavement. Grief narratives reveal distinct patterns of mourning following the death of a loved sibling, suggesting a greater complexity to male grief than is often acknowledged. Surviving siblings acted as memory keepers, circumventing the anonymisation of the dead in public commemorations by restoring the particular war stories of their brothers.
Amid the horrors of trench warfare, many men derived strength and comfort from serving alongside, or in close proximity to, their brothers. Blood ties prevailed over the traditional comradeship of the fighting unit. This often improved the efficacy of soldier-brothers, increasing their bravery under fire and acting as a stabilising influence at moments of high tension. Proximity came at a price as men witnessed the woundings and deaths of siblings. The trauma of fraternal casualties shattered men’s emotional armour, sometimes bringing them to breaking point. While empathising with their predicament, men’s comrades were discomforted by brotherly grief. Letters conveyed graphic details to siblings of mechanised warfare and the strain this inflicted on their soldier-brothers. In this important way siblings supplemented the support provided by mothers, while also sharing the filial duty of shielding mothers. When men’s nerves shattered, brothers intervened to remove them to safety or to ensure that they received all due care and attention. With medical treatment varying considerably according to men’s class and financial means, sufferers welcomed any influence brought to bear by brothers. Fraternal interventions were an effective shield against complete psychic breakdown.
This chapter explores the concept and experience of ‘brotherly love’ in its historical context. A focus on military comradeship and middle-class brother–sister bonds has overshadowed fraternal relations. Many men expressed deep feelings of closeness and affection for their brothers. Quieter masculine values of kindness, unity and sympathy, instilled by parents and reinforced by moral instruction, infused brotherly practices. Within the confines of modern warfare, brothers and sisters strove to maintain their sibling ties, maintaining practical and emotional support through correspondence or, when possible, in person. Addressing the archival bias against young men of serving age, sibling letters reveal distinct patterns of brothering or sistering at a distance. Displaying the relational nature of correspondence, they reflect shared interests and concerns. Narratives of brotherly meetings show the solace of sibling bonds during wartime. Some men went to extraordinary lengths to track down and visit their siblings. Face-to-face meetings fulfilled many functions: the comfort of the touch of a fraternal handshake or embrace, the opportunity to relax and talk to a trusted confidante, and relaying reassurances to anxious family members back home.
Financial concerns and familial duty anchored men’s thoughts to familial survival. Evidence of their attitudes emerges from the hearings of the military service tribunals established to determine exemptions under the Military Services Act. Comparing men’s private letters with the public record shows the underlying anxieties over the conscription of brothers. Four factors affected deliberations concerning brothers: government policy regarding single men; the relative ignorance of the vital support single, young men made to the household economy; tribunal treatment of brothers as economic units, and the role of the military representative. Exchanges between tribunal members and claimants expose tensions between fraternal, familial and national interests. Local newspaper reports show how tribunals became an arena where men’s behaviour was criticised and praised according to specific circumstances. Although the war work of siblings hardly ever influenced the appeal process, multiple losses sustained by individual families swayed local opinion. Fraternal decisions were made with an eye to current needs and future prospects, enabling men to pick up their family business and personal affairs when the war ended. Men often adopted a pragmatic view of conscription, balancing their manly duty to their nation with their responsibilities to their loved ones.
This chapter focuses on the transitional moment of departing for war. Viewing the dynamics of volunteering and enlistment from a sibling’s perspective uncovers the emotional limits that men placed on their patriotic duties. The fear and anxiety observed and expressed by siblings of all ages realigns our understanding of heroic masculinity. Personal narratives affirm the relational nature of anxious feelings, recording concerns for the wellbeing of combatant brothers and other family members. Expressions of fatalism, excitement and familial pride accompanied departures. For men and women of all classes, adventure and militaristic glamour masked the brutal carnage of trench warfare of the First World War, offering an opportunity to escape the dreariness of domestic and work routines. Sisters, wearied by repeatedly seeing their brothers, cousins and friends depart, some never to return, developed superstitions around these partings. Retrospective reflections of this war fever provoked feelings of guilt and shame. Battle-hardened men saw no shame in warning their brothers to keep out of the conflict or to avoid the most dangerous arenas of battle. Many brothers derived comfort from serving alongside each other, an aspect of the make-up of the Pals battalions that is largely overlooked in the historiography.
The final chapter looks at the myriad ways in which siblings used material and written forms to memorialise brothers, setting this within a wider deliberation on the impact of death and grief in interwar Britain. Motivated by the need to ensure that the heroic sacrifice of their siblings was not overlooked or forgotten, they memorialised their brothers as individuals, restoring their individual achievements and qualities from the mass of war casualties. By sharing their stories they link the personal and communal memories of the war. Painful emotions crept in as siblings reflected on the loss sustained by themselves, their families and their wider communities. As such they can be regarded as an adjunct to the ‘disillusionment’ stream of memoirs. Guilt, anger, and grief infuse these accounts, at times becoming evident in a lack of composure. In the post-war decades, some siblings drew on the emerging war literature of the period, particularly its poetry and music, to express their loss. With the passing of years, these added poignancy to collective occasions, providing an emotional ‘punctum’ that pierced stoical masks. Rather than finding such open expressions of emotions discomforting, men and women derived comfort and companionship from a generational shared understanding of grief and trauma.
The dominance of the ‘soldier’s tale’ has marginalised many other wartime narratives. Fraternal stories are embedded in narratives of the Great War, informing our understanding of the network of domestic ties sustaining men, and the performance of wartime masculinities. Vital signifiers of sibling ‘love’ illustrate the breadth and depth of the support, comfort and protection provided to combatants, and the emotional labours to preserve their memory.
This chapter, with its specific focus on loss, forms the heart of this study. Focusing on the nexus of emotional codes shows men’s intricate negotiation of conflicting duties to family and nation. Brotherly loss unleashed a gamut of powerful emotions, including anger, hate and guilt. Fighting and weeping were not mutually exclusive. Men and women often registered the profundity of their loss in isolation, seeking out private spaces in their desire to hide strong and unsettling emotions. Shouldering responsibilities to families and comrades was a way of demonstrating manly love and dedication. Adherence to these codes led to grieving soldiers being treated sympathetically by their comrades and officers. Shielded by the respect and sympathy accorded to the loss of close kin, blood ties provided men with a much-needed safety valve – a permit to grieve openly. Exploring the language adopted by bereaved brothers and sisters demonstrates the difficulties they faced when trying to express their feelings while upholding normative emotional codes. Instances where siblings returned to this subject in later life allow us to trace subtle shifts over time. Surviving siblings’ determination to mark the deaths of their childhood companions emotionally and factually overcame their reluctance to expose their grief.
The introduction analyses family composition and practices in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting the importance of sibling ties in terms of longevity and pervasiveness. It complements Leonore Davidoff’s exploration of the cultural meaning of siblinghood through the paradox that military comradeship eclipsed fraternal blood ties. Recasting mundane interactions between siblings as caring or loving acts shows how their performance assists in building affectionate bonds. The presence of a dominant emotional regime in wartime has masked the complex acts of navigation undertaken by men and women balancing familial and societal obligations. Efforts put into discharging these acts were often ‘rewarded’ by the compassionate acceptance of breaches of self-control. The choices made by brothers and sisters when faced with these emotional pressure points, presents a new insight into male grief and restraint of emotions. Drawing on a wide range of source material is crucial when investigating the emotional lives of historical subjects. The great volume of personal narratives written during or after the First World War gives us a generational insight into sibling relations and emotional expression during the twentieth century. The role of memories is revealed in close analysis of the stories individuals told and retold about themselves and their siblings attests to the significance of brotherly bonds.