Brothers in arms
in Brothers in the Great War

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.

According to fraternal accounts of combat, serving alongside a brother fortified the heroic qualities of self-control and endurance. Brothers formed a separate blood unit within the military unit. Some siblings believed this made them almost invincible. For the Francis brothers, Ted explained, it supported their physical and psychological survival:

The main idea with Harry and I was keeping alive. We had no thought for practically any other people, there was only our skill and our knowledge and being aware of the danger and not feeling frightened. In every attack there was men more frightened than others, who couldn’t hold themselves, men who really had shell shock … Everyone was afraid and as a matter of fact to see people who couldn’t stand it made us a little bit more braver. We felt good they couldn’t stand this sort of thing but we could. That was the feeling that made us go on and on and on.1

The soldierly ethic of endurance, the quality so essential to fighting men, was honed and strengthened by true fraternal bonds. Yet this benefit was double edged. Anxieties aroused by the fate of brothers exposed men’s vulnerabilities. Although some fears were swiftly assuaged by men meeting up to reassure each other of their physical survival, waiting for news on the front mirrored the agony of those at home. Soldier-brothers shared an intimate and factual shorthand; there was no need for them to act as mediators of war. Bertram Evers had ‘mostly nothing to say’ to his brother Mervyn, a chaplain on the Western Front, believing his sibling to ‘know as much about it as myself’.2 Brothers acted in concert to shield families from the worst horrors, imposing an additional emotional burden both on siblings at home and on those fighting at the front. Concealing the worse aspects of trench warfare from familial audiences was almost as effective a constraint as censorship. Protecting families was a sign of manliness.3 What this meant, however, was that fighting men could crumble under the weight of providing reassurance at a distance.

Mastery of emotions was key to men’s emotional wellbeing and battlefield reputation. Detachment and the ability to desensitise themselves were useful qualities in men’s struggle against fear.4 Basil Henriques, whose older brother was the first officer of the Royal West Surrey Regiment to be killed in action, referenced the ‘curious steel-plate armour’ which continued ‘to grow round one’s head’.5 The ubiquity of fear made any failure to master emotions understandable. Combatants’ use of the words ‘nerves’, ‘nervy’ and ‘fear’ did not equate to a loss of self-control. A hierarchy of sympathy developed based on the spirit of equality. The distress exhibited by shell shock was judged sympathetically, whereas the abandonment of men via shirking or deliberate desertion of duty was not.6 In his fictionalised account, The Raid (1946), Herbert Read described how the emotional deterioration of his comrade, Lieutenant P., aroused his fear that P. would ‘bitch the show’. Acting on his concern, Read reported the ‘coward’ and P. was immediately taken off the attack. In Read’s mind, fear was a natural physical reaction, only achieving the status of cowardice when it became ‘a mental reaction’.7 By relinquishing his emotional mastery, in Read’s eyes, P. unmanned himself, posing a danger to his unit. Read had no qualms in reporting him and expressed no sympathy for his plight. Under this emotional configuration of masculine stoicism, military brotherhood was the most vital element. Analysing war narratives, we can see that sympathy was extended toward breakdowns triggered by fraternal deaths. Breaking down in these circumstances was both a common and a tolerated response. However, while fighting men understood that grieving brothers deserved compassion, the additional strain of witnessing fraternal loss made them demand the removal of this source of disquietude.

Side by side

Brothers enlisting and serving in the same sections, companies or battalions garnered resolve from acting in unison. This also applied to experiencing combat together. Even in the heat of battle, their civilian, familial identities remained intact, forming a buttress against the complete militarisation of men. Although Bob Hill found trench warfare ‘a bit punishing’, serving alongside his brother ‘eased it up a bit’.8 Richard Holmes refers to the ‘mysterious fraternity’ that men joined when entering military service. Training created a bedrock of ritual and relationships, enabling soldiers to withstand combat conditions.9 Interviewed for the BBC’s The Great War television series, Charles Carrington spoke of the mixture of hysteria and bravery facing men under shellfire. What kept him going was the group collective: ‘if they can take it, I can take it’.10 By Ted Francis’s reckoning, serving with a brother usurped this military brotherhood. In effect, the Francis brothers became a unit within a unit, countermanding the military culture by putting themselves first. Their solidarity alleviated the stresses of mechanised slaughter, making them a more formidable fighting force. Blood ties provided the mental and physical endurance to fight on without succumbing to fear.

What Roper terms the ‘softer conception’ of manliness encouraged by comradeship was pre-existing in fraternal relationships.11 Siblings gained succour from the practical comforts of serving with each other. Sharing a small dugout in a reserve trench, Francis and Sid Collings did ‘grand together’.12 Volunteering on 10 September 1914, the brothers went out to the Ypres Salient in February 1915. Later that year, after a spell of sustained fighting, Francis made his way back to their bivouac under heavy shellfire and gas. Sid, arriving earlier, had laid out their overcoats and kit in readiness. Such small acts gave sustenance to battle-weary combatants. Shortly after their arrival in Rouen, Kit and Eve Dodsworth purchased yards of cretonne and bed covers to brighten up their bare, adjacent cubicles in the VAD quarters. By bedtime, they had ‘a thoroughly comfortable and pretty room each’.13 Middle-class sisters, accustomed to inhabiting the domestic sphere and routines of their home-town, found a sense of security in serving abroad together. Part of acclimatising to their new life was a sprucing-up of their shared accommodation to make themselves at ‘home’. Munitions worker Isabella Clarke came over to Coventry from Belfast ‘for the money’, sending her widowed mother a pound and her grandmother five shillings each week. Isabella thrived on the work, ‘delighted’ by her new earning potential. Encouraged by her sibling’s example, her sister joined her in England, taking up a job as a crane driver. The companionship of an elder sibling mitigated the newness of the situation, helping her to overcome her nerves and settle into her new role.14

Physical proximity gave brothers emotional support on the battlefield. John Lucy’s vivid account of sheltering in caves while under attack evoked the nervy fidgeting of his section, trapped in semi-darkness, listening to the raging battle. Straining John’s frayed nerves further was the ‘morbid’ tallying of the deceased by one of their number. As the litany of each fresh name ‘bludgeoned his brain’, ‘a great sense of misery and loss’ possessed him. He moved over to his brother’s platoon, where his sibling’s ‘absolute calm’ and bearing steadied his discomposure, enabling his swift return to his section.15 Both Lucy brothers were lance corporals, and prompting John’s action was the potential shame of losing face in front of his men.16 Denis’s restorative presence fulfilled multiple functions. Firstly, John affirmed that his brother’s name would not appear on the recital of casualties that had so unnerved him. Secondly, Denis’s stoicism under fire had a soothing effect. Lastly, physical closeness, a restoration of normalcy amid horror, gave John the required boost to contain his emotions.

Even after death, brothers provided surviving siblings with emotional sustenance. Communion with the dead, as Rosa Bracco points out, was a narrative device in post-war novels, highlighting the ‘terrible closeness’ existing between soldiers and the threshold of the afterworld that the dead inhabited.17 Lieutenant Thomas Gillespie was killed in action on 18 October 1914 at La Bassée. Almost a year later, his brother Douglas told his father that he would soon be ‘in the thick of it’ and, due to his service longevity, most likely leading the attack. Douglas suffered no forebodings, secure in the thought that

if a man’s spirit may wander back at all, especially to the places where he is needed most, then Tom himself will be here to help me, and give me courage and resource and that cool head which will be needed most of all to make the attack a success.18

Douglas fêted the qualities of wisdom and stoicism under fire in his spiritual imagining of his sibling. Both brothers had been members of Winchester School’s OTC, volunteering when war broke out. Tom had been on active service for only two weeks before his untimely death. Wrapping his memory in the rhetoric of masculine sacrifice, Douglas’s bestowal of maturity on his younger brother through the fraternal role of protector performed the dual function of reassuring father and son.

The writer Joe Ackerley’s posthumously published memoir, My Father and Myself (1968), provides a markedly different slant on such narratives. He presented himself as an onlooker, criticising his brother’s heroism, highlighting the indifference of senior officers and, most notably, commenting on his own cowardice. Illness had delayed Peter Ackerley’s service, making him junior in rank and length of service to his younger brother. When Peter volunteered for a dangerous ‘stunt’, capturing a salient in the German lines, Joe questioned whether his brother’s longing to prove himself spurred this act of bravery. Joe watched the start of the action, observing the ‘inferno scene … as in a dream’, his writing a stark contrast to the realistic prose bracketing this section of the memoir. When enemy fire shattered his dream-like state, Joe retreated to his dugout. The news that his brother had been hit abruptly stopped the ‘slow dragging of time’. Ignoring his predicament, Joe’s senior officers turned away while Peter lay in no man’s land like ‘the merest litter left after a riotous party’. They did nothing, and neither did Ackerley. It was, he explained ‘hard luck’ if the wounded died where they lay, as ‘one did not risk other lives to seek them out and bring them in. Or one’s own.’19 Peter’s body became part of the detritus of war, treated with low-level contempt by the men who had sent him over the top. Spotlighting his brother’s foolhardiness in volunteering needlessly, Joe contrasted his battle-honed pragmatism with the callowness of Peter’s military understanding. Accepting the brutal realities of warfare, guilt stained Joe’s passivity, his fraternal discomfort volunteered through his dream-like recollection of the episode.

Brothers feared for each other’s safety. Transferred to another battalion, away from his brother, Stuart Sutcliffe consoled himself with the thought that remaining together would have led to greater anxiety. If either were wounded or killed, the other would ‘suffer deeply’.20 The incident that brought this home to Ted Francis was his brother’s narrow escape from being killed by a sniper. Distracted on sentry duty, Harry removed his ‘detested’ helmet, accidentally raising his head too high. On a day when the brothers had been only 100 yards apart, the apparent thoughtlessness with which a fellow soldier delivered the incorrect news that ‘Your kid’s had it … one straight to the head’, infuriated Ted.21 Mass casualties desensitised serving men, one death being much the same as another. Through his anger and worry, Ted’s reaction epitomised the reasons why many objected to brothers serving together. His disparagement of his ‘brainless’ comrade was a cogent sign of his fury that no quarter was given to the siblings’ ‘special’ relationship.

Intimate knowledge of the hierarchy of danger resulting from different injuries informed men’s reactions to fraternal woundings. In the first year alone, 24 per cent of officers and 17 per cent of other ranks were injured. Over 41,000 men suffered amputations.22 The categorisation of wounds determined men’s return to the battlefield. Triaging occurred at the Regimental Aid Post, where patients received labels indicating the severity of wounds. Under this system, the treatment of the wounded was a secondary consideration to the conservation of manpower.23 The valued red-and-white label denoted a ‘Blighty’ wound.24 Such wounds were grave enough to require treatment back home and acquired almost mythical status, allowing men’s removal from imminent danger with honour. ‘Extraordinary imagery’ was created around men’s hopes of getting a Blighty, even though the majority, including the multiply wounded, returned to active service.25 Percy Cearns made an eighty-mile trip to visit his brother who was recovering in hospital after being ‘hammered’ by a shell. Disappointed to have missed Fred, who had been transported home, Percy was glad that his brother would soon be with his loved ones. Fred had sustained injuries to his ribs, diaphragm, and collarbone. Three months later, Percy received the ‘blow’ that his brother, still unable to walk far or carry his kit bag, had been graded A3 (fit for active service), and railed against the unfairness of the decision.26 Fred’s experience was not atypical. Post-war analysis of casualties transferred overseas calculated that approximately 82 per cent of wounded men ultimately returned to some form of duty.27 The longed-for Blighty wound delivered a reprieve rather than an end to front-line service.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Blighty appears as a trope in sibling narratives. Catching the tail end of the Black Watch’s fatal charge at Richbourg L’Avoué, Jack Haldane came home ‘with a useful Blighty’. ‘Marvellous’ as his sister found it to have him back, the caked dirt and lice on his kilt brought home with him the realities of the firing line.28 Alfred Wagstaff’s disquiet on hearing of his brother’s wounding and transfer to a field hospital was lessened by knowing that his sibling was far away from the Somme battlefield. During a ‘big push’ a minor wound could spare men from death or severe mutilation. In this realignment of fortune induced by war, Wagstaff remarked that his brother was ‘luckier than I was … very lucky having this gash in the thigh’.29 Intertwining mutilation with more comforting images of escape and home, the Blighty was, as Paul Fussell remarks, a means of disguising the damage wrought on men’s bodies. Men’s removal to safety was tinged with bitter-sweet regret, and sadness that their brothers were unable to accompany them.30 Benjamin Whalley saw his brother fall after being shot in the thigh at Neuve Chapelle. Grabbing an opportunity to speak to him, Benjamin frankly acknowledged his appreciation of his brother’s ‘escape’, confiding, ‘I wish I were you’.31

During the Battle of the Somme, Edward Brittain suffered injuries to his left hand and right thigh. After spending three days ‘in hourly dread of a telegram’ since the start of the offensive, Vera received word that her brother was in a ward at her hospital, the 1st London General. Despite an unsympathetic matron who doubted her motives for being on another ward, Vera took daily tea with her sibling during his three-week stay. ‘It was a joy’ to have him there even if work prevented Vera from seeing much of him.32 The following year, after Vera had ‘manoeuvred’ herself to the base camp at Étaples, she was conflicted by the news that Edward’s battalion was being posted away from the Ypres Salient. ‘Half the point’ of being in France was to be permanently near her brother for the duration of their wartime lives. Vera had eagerly anticipated seeing him walk up the road one day to see her.33

In stark contrast to the benefits that brothers derived from serving in close proximity are examples of the emotional toll that this placed on fellow combatants. Deaths of siblings within the military unit pierced the stoicism of comrades, leading to open criticism of the policy permitting siblings to serve together. Something deep-rooted in the universality of these blood ties got under the skin of combatants, disturbing the cohesion of trench brotherhood. Brotherly losses were presented as a ‘higher’ loss or doubly poignant. Paradoxically, it was in these deaths that the strength of fraternal ties was lauded. The recurrence of stories involving brothers in combat shows the deeper emotional resonance that they held for witnesses, explaining their wide circulation through contemporary newspaper reports and letters, and later in men and women’s war stories. One example entered the public discourse via the wide media dissemination of the story of the Hardwidge brothers from the Rhondda valley, who reportedly died in each other’s arms (Figure 5). A perceived act of heroic sacrifice – a soldier risking his life to provide succour to his wounded sibling – made this incident newsworthy.34 Masking the violence of the brothers’ deaths was the intentionally anodyne image that they had died holding fast in a fraternal embrace. Brothers’ deaths acted as a counterweight to the depersonalisation of mass slaughter. Representing a universal bond, such deaths gave men and women attempting to make sense of the carnage a trope by which they could describe the weight of personal loss sustained on the front line. Families at home could empathise, informed by their own anxiety and grief for loved ones.

Early in the war, published memoirs contained horrifying accounts of sibling deaths. Kate Luard published her anonymous account of nursing on the Western Front in 1915.35 The daughter of a vicar, Luard was an experienced military nurse, having served for two years during the South African War. Aged forty-two in 1914, she enlisted with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. Among the incidents she related was one of a man whose brother was killed at his side under the pounding of German shells. In the heat of combat, the man carried on shooting. When his parapet was damaged, he shored it up, using his brother’s corpse to substitute for a sandbag. The dissociative effect of technological warfare displaced this most familiar of bonds. After the ‘stress was over’, and realising what he was leaning against, the man asked, ‘Who did that?’36 Introduced as ‘a true story’, this matter-of-fact narration of a harrowing event packed an emotional punch. Luard rarely commented explicitly on her views about the conflict, her objective reporting bringing home to her readers the poignant mixture of the everyday and the horrific. Written on 10 May 1915, this entry came near the end of the book, which finished before the death of Luard’s brother, Frank, at Gallipoli on 13 July 1915.

A culmination of suffering

The counterpoint to the strength that siblings derived from serving together was the toll that fraternal distress took on their comrades. ‘Brothers’, stated the writer and poet Edmund Blunden, ‘should not join the same Battalion.’ His blunt view was prompted by a ‘boy’ ‘half-crying, half-exhorting’ over the stretchered body of his near-dead brother. While recognising the comfort of a ‘known voice’ in ‘an inhumane night’, Blunden believed that the frequent enlisting of brothers together resulted in ‘a culmination of suffering’.37 There are no official statistics on sibling deaths. A list of brothers killed on the same day, maintained by The Long, Long Trail, shows almost 90 per cent (326 of 328) served in the same unit or ship.38 One unintended consequence of the promotion of the Pals regiments among volunteers was the preponderance of brothers and cousins serving alongside each other, with the attendant increased risk of multiple casualties being borne by families. This explains why so many negative comments regarding the joint service of siblings appear in narratives of the Somme offensive, where the volunteers of Kitchener’s army played such a prominent part.39 W. Gregory believed it ‘an awful damn mistake’ to have several pairs of brothers in the 18th Kings Regiment, a viewpoint that was chiefly shaped by the loss of three fraternal units in the offensive.40 Among the many dead, Arthur Wagstaff particularly remembered the legs of ‘two poor chaps’ sticking out from the mound of a fallen trench after heavy shellfire, and being struck by the realisation that they were two brothers.41 Similarly, John Johnston, serving as a machine gunner with the Rifle Brigade, recalled two sibling casualties from a Lewis Gun Team.42 One had been killed outright. The badly wounded survivor, half-conscious, kept asking for his sibling, unaware that he lay beside him.43 Fraternal pleas such as this seared themselves into men’s memories in the same way as dying men’s cries for their mothers.44 Some combatants felt a personal affinity with stricken siblings – Johnston had lost his own brother ten months before. At other times, serving men displayed a more objective empathy. Supervising a party of men clearing the battlefield, Norman Collins distinguished the ‘quite natural’ grief of those ‘very upset, very, very upset’ men picking up the bodies of their kin. His ‘role’ was to provide unobtrusive comfort by ‘a stroke on the head or a pat on the back’.45 Collins accepted blood ties as exonerating the emotional unravelling resulting from men facing the bodily ravages of a battle that had left 45 per cent of their regiment dead or wounded.46 Clearly, officers and men could be respectful of the grief occasioned by brotherly loss. As is discussed further in Chapter 5, weeping for a sibling was not automatically regarded as shameful or unmanly. Instead, these deaths offered both a respectable outlet for emotions and a chance to express regret for another’s loss.

Witnessing the distress of surviving brothers stoked combatants’ animosity towards the ‘claiming’ policy. Such episodes stretched men’s resilience. Captain J. C. Dunn, acting medical officer for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, recorded a hearsay account illustrating men’s resistance to imparting bad news to brothers. A survivor of a direct hit, Captain Walter Fox related that the ‘most awful part of the Show’ concerned a man’s request to pass word to his brother moments before he was killed. Shortly afterwards, on meeting the man’s brother, Fox could not tell him that his sibling’s body had been taken away for burial. When the man subsequently heard the news, ‘he nearly went out of his mind’.47 Fox’s intuition regarding the anonymous brother’s response partly justified his reluctance to engage. His behaviour ran counter to the usual code that rankers and officers should furnish details of combat deaths to family members. Fox evaded this ‘duty’ in order to avoid the expected fraternal anguish, which would have been an unbearable prospect for Fox in the immediate aftermath of surviving a close shave.

Men’s belief that brothers should not serve together was discussed openly. Comrades were unnerved by observing the intense trauma of anxious or grieving siblings. Private Edward Lynch recorded one memorable incident:

Paddy had gone to find his brother Jim, for whom he’s spent the last three nights searching – crawling around in no-man’s-land turning dead men over in a vain search for the brother who fell that first day … In memory still we can hear that low, pleading call, ‘Jim, Jimmy, Jimmo,’ amid the rattle of the enemy guns and rifles … Then silence as we wonder if they got him. Silence for ten minutes or so and again there would come from some other direction the pleading call. The call of brother for brother laid low days before.48

The repetitive nature of Patrick’s cries and desperate actions as he was impelled to continue searching is suggestive of psychic trauma – a reason, perhaps, why no one intervened directly to halt his futile search. Men’s unease hindered their ability to end the source of their discomfort. The heightened distress of this individual loss triggered recognition of both a universal relationship and a universal loss. Battle-hardened, Lynch had become inured to the cries of the wounded and dying. Numb to the by now familiar horrors, he could not obliterate the haunting memory of Paddy’s pitiful cries for his lost brother.

Lynch adopted the ‘morally neutral’ tone commonly used by combatants when speaking of traumatised men.49 Fraternal narratives support the view that the 28,000 shell shock cases recorded between 1914 and 1917 represented a significant underestimate of the scale of psychological trauma.50 Men, their nerves frayed by recent battle, baulked at having their brief moments of respite disturbed by the emotional unravelling of comrades. Lynch circumvented this dilemma by implicitly placing blame on those higher authorities who had created the circumstances that permitted such troubling incidents. Spectators of Paddy’s plight suffered the profound guilt experienced by many survivors of battle.51 Their solution was to blame not the individuals but the military rules that unsettled the emotional norms of the fighting unit. Experience and close comradeship made interventions easier. Sidney Rogerson, a junior officer on the Somme, refused permission for a ‘morbid’ search of Dewdrop trench. The requesting soldier, Mac, had served with Rogerson since his commission. Apart from it being ‘almost unthinkable’ that Mac would find his brother, foremost in Rogerson’s mind was the probability that the discovery of the mangled, decomposed body would leave ‘a dreadful blot’ on Mac’s memory. The depth of Mac’s grief is conveyed obliquely. It took some time for him to accept the force of Rogerson’s argument and ‘cheer up’. Rogerson then spent a great part of the morning with him.52 This short account exemplified Rogerson’s view of warfare as a compound of ‘fright and boredom, humour, comradeship, tragedy, weariness, courage and despair’.53 Comradeship informed Rogerson’s actions. He did not rely on the force of command alone, spending valuable time dissuading Mac, ensuring that his friend did not brood alone.

‘I could not have stuck it much longer’

Senses became distorted in the habitus of the trench: immobility, the enemy’s invisibility, extremes of weather and the constant battery of artillery and shells.54 Conflict-inspired fears haunted men: burial in mud or under collapsed dugouts; evisceration or dismemberment by shrapnel, or simply dying in pain.55 With corpses left unclaimed for days, ad hoc and mass graves were the antithesis of the ‘good’ Victorian death. Quite simply, bodies and minds disintegrated in this environment. Extremely relieved to see his younger brother safe and sound after the battle of Le Cateau, John Lucy felt ‘heart-ache’ about his brother ‘being in the slaughter’. His ‘foolish’ solution was to ask Denis to join his section, a request that his sibling ‘rightly’ refused.56 Lieutenant Basil Henriques suffered a nervous breakdown after the Somme, where his tank came under artillery shell. He wrote of his fatigue and loathing ‘for the sights and the noise and the ugliness and the futility of it all’. In April 1917 he returned to his company, serving as a Reconnaissance Officer at Ypres and Bapaume. Despite openly acknowledging the stresses and strains of his role, Basil appreciated his relative good fortune as compared to that of the men up the line, including his brother Julian, writing, ‘It is he to be pitied, not I’.57

Letters between brothers fulfilled many functions, and often contained graphic and evocative descriptions of combat. Alongside accounts of adrenalin-fuelled attacks and near-death experiences, men described comrades being ‘bowled over like skittles’, ground ‘soaked with blood’ and shell attacks like ‘firework displays’.58 At other times, details were hidden behind stock phrases as brothers recounted having experienced a ‘lively’ or ‘exciting’ time. Receiving letters could provoke feelings of guilt. Captain Ernest Hewish felt like a ‘worm’ sleeping soundly in his bed after receiving an interesting letter from his brother, resting after four days on the front line. Hewish, based in Herne Bay, appreciated the two brothers’ relative fortunes.59 Writing to loved ones led to an awkward juxtaposition of descriptions of warfare and home news. Shells, Arthur Rowe told his brother, ‘seem to rip everything before them’. Only after hearing them whiz overhead could you breathe again. Coming under fire was ‘very similar to a firework display’, only ‘a bit more dangerous.’ Hearing that his brother Charles, working as a clerk, was due to go on a seaside holiday with his wife and young son, he compared being in the trenches with a coconut shy: ‘You just wait till a gunman pops his head up, then you send a bullet at it.’60

Signs of war strain took a variety of forms. Fatigue was foremost in Reg Park’s mind in a surviving fragment of an undated letter. ‘I could go to sleep standing’, he wrote to his brother Tom. With the clichéd acknowledgement that he ‘mustn’t grumble’, Reg, the son of a Yorkshire farmer, accepted the unexceptional nature of his privations. Restorative rest often proved elusive even when men’s turn up the line ended. Reg concluded by asking Tom to excuse his mistakes and bad writing, as ‘my nerves are a bit on edge as we are under continuous hours shell fire even in our “rest” billets’.61 His letter conveyed the strain experienced by men under the constant barrage of artillery. Bombarded for seventy minutes, during a sixteen-day stint, 2nd Lieutenant Stanley Jones expressed similar feelings to his brother, the Reverend Gerald Jones. Stanley singled out an ‘artillery duel’ between the warring sides as ‘the worse thing’ he had ever experienced and ‘quite impossible’ to explain. The cumulative effect of shelling was beginning ‘to tell’ on his nerves.62

Fraternal admissions of stress under fire were not uncommon. In an eight-page letter written to his older brother shortly after arriving on the front line, Alf Arnold confessed to having been ‘really nervy’ twice. Under machine-gun fire for a forty-eight-hour spell, the reaction of one wounded soldier unnerved him: ‘he did not half shout and his screams together with the hail of bullets upset us not a little’.63 When open expressions of fear or anxiety could be seen as cowardly, the ability to disclose frankly such emotions must have been a welcome release. Experiencing heavy warfare gave rise to intense emotional reactions. Tom King came under sustained attack for over thirty hours during the Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917. Detailing the ‘real hell’ of this experience to his brother, Tom made plain the cumulative effect of shelling:

I could not have stuck it much longer. My nerves were beginning to give way. Officers and men were continually going out with shell shock. It was terrible + I shall never forget the ghastly sights of it all, and the stench of the dead was terrible.64

Tom’s profound anxiety was typical of many men’s response to trench warfare, where enforced immobility blocked the fight or flight instinct.65 In addition to coping with the battle’s aftermath, Tom’s concerns encompassed his brother, Jack, fighting in ‘the hottest part of the whole show’. His worries were heightened by conflicting news from home. His sister said Jack was suffering from shell shock but his parents reported that he was wounded. All Tom could do was ‘hope there’s nothing much amiss with him’, powerlessness adding to his anguish.66

Fear of censorship constrained confidences. A proclivity to sending home ‘long and newsy’ letters led to Lance Corporal Arthur Sadd being disciplined and losing his stripe.67 As a result, he told his sister, he was rather ‘fed up’.68 The strictures of censorship held fast, with Joseph Pearce adopting the umbrella phrase ‘rather an exciting time of it’ to describe his experiences.69 At times the discipline slipped. Towards the end of 1917 Joseph remained troubled by a near-death experience during his first stint in the trenches. After recounting this episode, when four comrades died, he swiftly moved on to ‘something more cheerful’.70 Particularly traumatic memories often pierced habitual patterns of reticence. Writing his memoir, Percy Cearns was informed by public accounts of the Gallipoli campaign and knew that Fred underwent the severest suffering. Fred maintained a steadfast refusal to complain either in his letters home or verbally when meeting up with Percy. Only one incident pierced this self-imposed restraint. A sergeant was shot in the head while on patrol with Fred, and died soon afterwards. Percy relayed the ‘pain’ in Fred’s voice when telling him of this. Some war traumas had to be shared with trusted confidants.

Humour or a light tone deflected familial jitters. It was undeniable, Arthur Sadd admitted to his elder sister, that trench warfare ‘was a bit tiring to the nerves’, but as long as nothing landed within ten to twelve yards, it did not ‘worry you a lot’.71 Writing to his twelve-year-old sister, Edward Chapman wrote about an early experience of shelling:

The attacking party had some bombs, which went off with a great bang, but were quite harmless. This made it very real. One went off near me, and a man I was with was hit by a tiny piece of tin. It was only a very small cut, but the funny thing was that he had been at the front for 12 months without getting a scratch!72

Chapman related his account with an age-appropriate sensitivity, taking care that his sibling was not overly alarmed by his proximity to danger. Decorating Chapman’s letters are humorous sketches. In one series entitled ‘Here are some pictures relating to the Great War!!!’, he depicted a rifle firing, with the caption ‘Bang! Oh my poor nerves!!’73

Premonitions of death invaded men’s thoughts. Lieutenant Colonel Archie James could not ‘describe the awful sights of the battlefield’ to his brother, yet went on to state that every inch of ground gained was blood soaked.74 After this, he did not pretend to look forward to going back in the line, reluctantly accepting that ‘someone has to be “food for the cannon”’.75 His main anxiety was the knowledge that he would return with a new draft of inexperienced men. Censorship, Archie explained, prevented him from furnishing further details. This was possibly an avoidance tactic, as officers wrote letters on trust.76 Men’s reasons for concealment varied, the unsettling effect of writing about violent and disturbing events being but one of them.77 Archie may have inferred that his naval officer brother did not require a detailed record in order to understand his sibling’s experiences. In March 1918 Archie was ‘too worried and busy’ to write, having been through a ‘trying time’ during which his ‘poor battalion had suffered’. The West Riding Regiment had come under heavy gassing and shelling that month, one division alone losing 3,000 men to gas poisoning.78 Despite his sparse correspondence, Archie knew that he could rely on his brother’s empathetic understanding. With his battalion engaged in a major German attack, he flagged his concerns, honed by two years’ experience of trench warfare. He would be ‘very anxious’ over the next fortnight.79 Archie used the language of fear as a coded sign to his sibling. His fears proved well founded. Five days after writing this missive, Archie was killed.

The war reporter Phillip Gibbs cast himself as an ‘onlooker’ as compared with his ‘kid’ brother, Arthur.80 Enlisted as a trooper, Arthur was awarded the Military Cross and left the army in 1919 with the rank of major. In this regard, the Gibbs brothers were not unusual in regarding war service as derailing the ‘natural’ authority vouchsafed by birth order. While lacking his reporter brother’s ‘broader vision of the business of war’, Arthur’s was ‘the greater knowledge’.81 After the Battle of Ypres, Gibbs pondered how his brother ‘faced the nerve strain’ which, as Phillip had seen first hand, broke so many men. After a nonchalant greeting, Arthur seemed ‘bright as ever’ and Phillip believed his sibling had enjoyed the ‘horrible thrills’ of battle. Arthur’s mask slipped later, when gunfire recommenced. Only then did Phillip realise the effect of constant shelling and multiple casualties on his sibling: ‘I saw that his nerve was on the edge of snapping.’ Consequently, Phillip determined to ‘rescue’ his brother by any means possible.82 In The Grey Wave (1920), Arthur reflected that his brother’s visits were a double-edged blessing, accentuating his loneliness. He yearned to accompany Phillip when he left.83 Later, Arthur described his breakdown. Wanting to go away and hide, his main fear was not death but continuing ‘in that living hell’. Eventually, Arthur asked for Phillip’s help in securing a transfer, ‘miles away from shambles and responsibility and spit and polish’.84 Phillip’s network of contacts was the ultimate source of relief for his brother. Neither brother saw any shame in optimising those spheres of influence open to them.

The stigma of shell shock weighed heavily. After serving with the RAMC at Poperinghe in 1916, Captain Bruce West began to suffer from neurasthenia.85 Even when he was removed from the battlefield, the ‘fear of fear’– the social disgrace of being labelled unmanly or a coward – stoked West’s anxieties.86 Since the emergence of the first shell shock cases in early 1915, the medical profession had voiced concerns that emotionally immature men, temperamentally unsuited to the job of soldiering, had been swept up in the rush to recruit.87 This ‘weakness’ was not cast as cowardice. The Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Manchester University, Grafton Elliot Smith, took pains to distinguish shell shock sufferers from malingerers. ‘Morally unassailable men’ were unable to continue, due to their nervous systems being ‘positively unfitted’ for war.’88 The prevalence of shell shock may have lessened the stigma of mental trauma, but this attitudinal shift was not all pervasive.89 Arriving at the 4th London General Hospital, West became ‘sensitive’ and ‘troubled’ about attendants and patients saying ‘insulting things’ about him.90 Placed on a ward by himself, overhearing such remarks made him ‘thoroughly miserable’ and he ‘finally fell crying’.91 After leaving hospital, West relinquished his commission on the grounds of ill health, a fact humiliatingly recorded in the London Gazette. His older brother, John, a fellow medical officer, advised him to take three months’ holiday followed by a year’s civil work before rejoining the army.92

West was still experiencing symptoms – ‘feeling nervy’, depression and sleeplessness – the following February.93 Later that month, he rejoined the RAMC, only to resign a week later. In April he attended a ‘pretty stiff’ medical board.94 All ‘injured’ veterans were required to attend such boards at regular intervals. Highly formal, and often conducted in an atmosphere of suspicion, the boards’ imperative was to turn men around and send them back to the front.95 At this stage, with Bruce unsure of the best course of action, his brother John stepped in, advising Bruce to write to Daniel Rambaut, the medical superintendent of St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, and ask to be taken on as a voluntary boarder. Such was his faith in his brother’s judgement that Bruce followed his advice that same day. Apart from the trust in his brother that Bruce’s swift action exhibits, arguably this cast Bruce in a passive role, reliant on his elder sibling – an example of the ‘inversion’ noted by Meyer. Instead of war turning boys into men, shell shock reverted them to boyhood.96 Drawing on his professional knowledge and networks, John ensured that his sibling avoided a fate befalling many shell shock sufferers, unable to attain ‘emotional settlement’ once discharged from hospital and returned to their family’s care.97

Many doctors treating sufferers of shell shock lacked specialist training and knowledge.98 St Andrew’s was a private facility, formerly known as the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum for the Middle and Upper Classes.99 In response to a shortage of psychiatric facilities, it agreed with the War Office to take ten certifiable officers at an agreed rate of £2 2s per week, rising to £3 3s for those officers needing constant attendance.100 With limited specialist personnel, it fell into the second tier of treatment centres identified by Peter Leese. Highest levels of treatment were limited to a handful of highly specialist hospitals: Springfield and Queen Square in London: Maghull near Liverpool and Craiglockart in Edinburgh. The experiences of patients at these top-tier facilities, made familiar through famous literary cases such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, were highly atypical.101 Most soldiers received low-cost treatments in non-specialist wards.102 Officers comprised one in six of shell shock cases. Despite the widespread perception that they received better treatment than the rank and file, the arrangement reached with St Andrew’s represented an official acknowledgement of the straitened circumstances facing officers without private means who required treatment for mental disorders.103 It is unclear from the records what financial arrangements the West brothers made with the hospital. Through his actions, John ensured that Bruce received treatment in surroundings commensurate with his class and avoided the ignominy of committal to a psychiatric hospital. Wrapped up in John’s concern for his brother’s mental health was anxiety over his brother’s, and his own, military and social standing.

Waiting anxiety

Anxiety, wrote munitions worker Peggy Hamilton, was ‘ever-present’. Along with the anguish for the fallen, it lurked ‘just below the surface, every hour of the day’.104 Preparing for bad news or ‘anticipatory mourning’ became routine, making siblings at home and overseas vulnerable to constant fear.105 Waiting, ‘an onerous and unavoidable reality’, involved a degree of effort.106 Men were acutely aware of the stresses placed on families waiting for news at home. Letters could take six days, including the time required for censorship, to arrive from the Western Front. Tension built once awareness of battles seeped back home through newspaper reports, soldiers on leave or from neighbours. The ‘harbingers’ or ‘dark angels’ of death, namely young boys delivering telegrams notifying families of casualties, ‘frightened everybody to death’.107 Raynor Taylor’s mother received ten such telegrams, nine informing the family of woundings suffered by his three siblings. The final telegram erroneously stated that Albert Taylor, who had been taken prisoner, was missing believed dead. Raynor believed that the cumulative stress of receiving these wires contributed to his mother’s death.108

Witnessing displays of parental anxiety was troubling for brothers. Men were constantly aware of familial worries, which were compounded if more than one son was on active service. It was a ‘bad accident’, Geoffrey Grigson remarked, that his elder brothers, born between the years 1891 to 1905, were all liable for military service. When his older brother was reported missing, the ‘indeterminate sentence made the agony worse’ for his father, who, like others in his situation, ‘wrote letters here and there, through Switzerland into Germany, to officers who had last seen him, to the War Office, and scanned the lists of prisoners-of-war, and kept lighted in his heart some blackening match-end of hope’.109 Paternal unease exhibited itself through these almost ritualistic searches, keeping the final confirmation of death at bay. Anxiety could be habit forming. Fraternal disquiet was framed within, and responded to, wider familial suffering. In his autobiography, the psychologist Pip Blacker recalled vividly a period of household tension after his brother went missing at Loos. He presented this as a liminal moment, a period of ‘transition or even metamorphosis, such as the insect larva undergoes when it emerges from its earthbound state to find itself dangerously poised in a new medium’.110 Blacker listed the three separate concerns dominating his thoughts at that point. Predominant among these were his fraternal and filial anxieties. Lastly, thoughts of the future challenges before him prompted him to question, ‘Would I be equal to what I knew lay ahead?’111 These tensions merged with feelings of helplessness. Leaving for France the following day, there was little that Pip could do.

On 28 June 1918, Edie Appleton was serving at No. 3 General Hospital, Le Treport when a serviceman with the New Zealanders, her brother Taff’s regiment, was brought in on a convoy. Edie was relieved to hear that Taff was most probably at Doullen, a quiet part of the line. This commenced a period of fluctuating anxiety, marking a change in the pattern of Edie’s habitual diary keeping, which rarely recorded familial or domestic news. Travelling on a transport train that December, they stopped at Liege, where a New Zealand division was stationed. Although ‘she gazed and gazed’, Edie had no luck in seeing ‘dear old Taff’. When Taff’s division was ‘in the thick of it’ at Bapaume, Edie became less steadfast, wishing ‘the whole bloody war at an end – & all the boys safely home’.112 The debilitating combination of hearing scraps of news, together with delays or absences in the mail, dented her stoicism. Edie’s was an unusual perspective – treating the recently wounded while held fast in the limbo of waiting. Her role was less passive, and her opportunities for news from different outlets were more diverse than for her family at home. Nonetheless, she experienced the same sickeningly long wait for confirmation that her beloved brother was safe from harm.

Sometimes, battle conditions prevented the provision of particulars demanded by families. High casualties meant an absence of surviving witnesses. Difficult terrain or enemy fire frustrated the timely retrieval of bodies. Card indexes keeping track of wounded men were often incorrect, due to the constant movement and reorganisation of fighting units and the scattered arenas of war.113 Alfred Hewish died of wounds at Passchendaele on 22 October 1917, aged twenty-nine. News of his death reached his family only in January 1918. Ernest tracked his emotional reactions to the unfolding of this news. Reading newspaper accounts of the ridge’s capture, ‘an epic of heroic endeavour against fearful odds’, he noted his fraternal anxiety, having not heard from Alfred ‘for quite a long time’.114 That December, Ernest was ‘disgusted’ when press reports of Alfred’s wounding appeared before the family were officially notified.115 Doubt increased with the continuing absence of news. Ernest’s growing acceptance of the likelihood of Alfred’s death appeared in his telling expectation of imminent ‘news’ from France.116 Responding to a request for further details of Alfred’s demise, Second Lieutenant Baker, an officer in Alfred’s regiment, expounded on the ‘experience gap’ between families and the conditions facing fighting men. Tracing missing men in ‘a wilderness of waterlogged shell holes’, was a complex endeavour. He appreciated that it was difficult for people at home ‘to realise the nature of an attack’ in such terrain, adding empathetically, ‘God knows no-one wishes them to realise it if they have lost their dear ones in such surroundings’.117 Baker explained the reasons for the delay to Ernest, perhaps believing him to be a safer conduit for ‘realistic’ information than his mother. High casualties in Arthur’s section rendered him reliant on hearsay for any personal recollections that might comfort his family.

False hope flourished in the absence of hard facts about missing men. Initially, there was ‘no proof’ that Captain Alfred Parker was killed in action at Ploegsteert Wood on 7 November 1914. It took two months for his company commander to confirm the ‘bad news’.118 Possibly, the circumstances of Alfred’s death during a chaotic and bloody battle gave rise to the circulation of a rumour that he was alive and a prisoner of war in Germany. An item to this effect, entitled ‘The “Dead” Officer’, appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette and was picked up by other newspapers.119 These rumours took hold to such an extent that Alfred’s widow suggested that a public denial would be the only means to lay them to rest.120 Evelyn Parker rejected this notion, as reports did not name his brother. Despite professing that there was ‘no foundation’ for the rumour, Evelyn took steps to verify his brother’s death, drawing on his connections to make further enquiries via the Swedish ambassador in Berlin and ‘in any other way possible’.121

Brothers allayed the agony of family members by imagining the fate that might have befallen men reported missing. In November 1916, Murray Round died at Beaumont Hamel. He was initially reported as ‘missing’, and his family endured a period of angst. During this time his surviving soldier-brothers attempted to rally the spirits of their family at home. Having received the ‘nasty shock’, Harold immediately contacted his Divisional HQ to try to find out more. He also advised his parents to make enquiries of the adjutant of Murray’s battalion. Having covered these practicalities, he attempted to reassure his family by considering all possible outcomes, from Murray’s capture to his death. The first point that Harold was keen to emphasise, was the Germans’ fair treatment of officer prisoners. By this means he directly addressed familial wisdom that Murray would be better of ‘out of it all’ than in their hands – a proof of the traction that tales of German barbarism held within middle-class families.122 Harold avoided neither the very real possibility that his brother was dead nor the awfulness of not knowing his fate, exhorting his family to be brave and draw on their faith for strength:

Perhaps it were better he was out of it all, but if only we could know that he is ‘out of the stress of the doing, into the peace of the done’ then we, who are left here, would & must ask for courage to go on bravely to the end as he would have wished us to go on. ‘Lift up your hearts’ & put your trust in the Lord.123

Consolation was incompatible with confronting the fact of death, for many families. Grieving was postponed while awaiting the confirmation of a loved one’s death.124 Anticipatory mourning rendered families vulnerable to dreadful imaginings of the possible fates that had befallen men. Harold proposed religious faith as a way for his family to exert control ‘over an impossible situation’.

Men strove to visit the graves or battle sites of missing brothers to relay pertinent information back to families. Former miner Harry Hill, actively engaged in fighting, could not visit the spot, only five or six miles away, where his brother Tom had been killed:

I weren’t far … I couldn’t get up in that area while all this job were on but as soon as I could I asked permission to go and they let me go and of course I didn’t do any good. They just knew he had been lost and that were it.

Harry would have wanted to reassure his mother; all four brothers joining up had been ‘a nasty smack’ for her. Unfortunately, he was unable to provide any comfort. The bodies were ‘buried higgledy piggledy’ and ‘nobody knew’ how Tom had died.125 Certainty came at a price. As was seen earlier, confirming the safe-being of brothers could involve the scrutiny of bodies. Edmund Williams surrendered during the Battle of St Quentin. He was carrying a wounded German officer along the trenches when they came across a dozen dead bodies. Williams ascribed his ability to search for his younger brother to his military discipline:

So I thought I’d better have a look and see that he’s not amongst these. If he’s amongst these then I would know for certain that he’s been killed and where he’d been killed. You see the brain, the routine was still functioning.126

When Edmund finally saw his brother again at the St Quentin hotel, where both had been taken as prisoners, his relief was palpable. Debilitated by his front-line experiences and, presumably, the strain of worrying what had happened to his brother, he had fallen asleep on the floor. On coming face to face, the brothers asked each other, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Contrasting with this outward display of heartiness, Edmund recalled succumbing to ‘a feeling of peace’. Knowing that his brother was safe beside him meant that his anxieties were over. ‘What more did we want?’127

Men placed limits on the extent to which they were able or wanted to take action to reassure their families. Receiving official confirmation of Murray Round’s death had been a long-drawn-out process, taking eight months in total. Shortly afterwards, the Round family received the devastating news that Harold had been killed by a shell. Arthur Round was unwilling to spend ‘a large part’ of his forthcoming leave tracing the graves of both Harold and Murray. Travelling in France was ‘a very tedious and slow process’ and ‘hardly worth’ the time when he received only fourteen days’ leave. Arthur’s sense of duty prevented an outright rebuffal of his family’s request, but he placed the onus on them. If it were the family’s unanimous wish, he affirmed, ‘I will of course do my best to do so’.128 His call for unanimity suggests that he would find it hard to refuse a direct parental plea, and perhaps hoped for an intervention on his behalf. The formal politeness of his tone inserts an emotional distance between their request and his refusal.

Arthur’s letter hints at the emotional fatigue that men experienced when providing reassurance while enduring the stresses of combat. He distanced himself from family anxieties, marking his rite of passage as a fighting man in need of respite. He refrained from spelling out a further reason, a belief that his search might prove futile, gleaned from witnessing too many deaths and too many bodies. His desire for some let-up from familial concerns is seen in a plea to his older sister Constance, a VAD in the Witham Auxiliary Hospital, to ‘have a heart!!’ and postpone her intended move to the Western Front. Constance’s wish to do more is countered by Arthur’s reminder of the substantial sacrifice already made by the family. Implicit in this exchange is the fraternal expectation that Constance should sublimate her ambitions – and possibly also a desire to be closer to her remaining sibling – in order to salve her brother’s anxieties.


Amid the horrors of trench warfare, brothers derived strength and comfort from serving alongside or near to each other. This increased soldierly efficacy by boosting bravery under fire and providing a stabilising influence at moments of high tension. Sisters undertaking war work together found similar benefits in entering new workplaces or environments with each other, sometimes deriving additional perks, such as sharing accommodation or being allowed to work the same shifts.

Fraternal closeness came at a price as men witnessed siblings’ woundings and deaths. Knowledge of casualty rates led to increased anxiety. Fear of dying was more debilitating than fear of killing. Transforming fear into anger was an essential doctrine of military training.129 Concerns were sated only once a brother’s safe return was ascertained. The ‘soldier’s tale’ inevitably dominates narratives of life on the firing line. Women did not risk death or participate in the activities that proved so psychologically disturbing to their brothers and other menfolk.130 Sisters serving overseas contrived to obtain placements close to their serving brothers. Their acts of patriotic service were fuelled by anxieties resulting from the cumulative loss of peers and personal knowledge of the ravages war wrought on men’s bodies and minds. The agonising hiatus between hearing of a sibling’s participation in an attack and receiving confirmation of their survival was undiminished by physical proximity. The enervating preoccupation with absent siblings refocused the emotional energy of households. Men and women on active service replicated the ever-present anxiety of those waiting at home.

Serving men criticised the rules permitting brothers to serve together. Sibling units within the military unit could be emotionally disruptive. Fraternal losses shattered men’s emotional armour, sometimes bringing them to breaking point. Empathising with their predicament, siblings’ comrades did not want to be haunted by the sights of brotherly grief. Such conflicts demonstrate the elasticity of communities of emotion. Fraternal losses aroused disquiet, but the lateral military ‘brotherhood’ remained intact. Criticism was directed upwards. Soothing this path was the cultural respect for blood ties. Notably, these narratives present a different perspective to the contained grief and desire for privacy appearing in the accounts of brotherly loss that are examined in the following chapter. The engrained values of sympathetic kindness, combined with comradeship, meant that soldier-brothers were shown remarkable compassion, as evidenced in the issuing of passes to facilitate meetings-up, leave to visit wounded or dying brothers and empathy towards men’s emotional response to the death or wounding of brothers.

When men’s nerves broke, brothers intervened to remove them to safety or to ensure that they received due care and attention. Although the stigma of shell shock lessened as the war progressed, sufferers often felt shame. With medical treatment varying considerably according to men’s class and financial means, any influence brought to bear by brothers was welcomed. Fraternal interventions to remove brothers from the strain of active service were an effective shield against complete psychic breakdown. Once again, such instances illustrate the privileging of fraternal love over national duty.

Siblings at home received graphic details of the traumas of mechanised warfare and the strain this inflicted on soldier-brothers. Scholars have highlighted the role that younger sisters played as confidants during wartime. Younger and older brothers received news, fears and experiences not shared among the wider family – a surprising oversight in the historiography. Combat narratives confirm the existence of such emotionally beneficial fraternal ties. Men divulged stresses and strains, free of the fear of being regarded as unmanly. Siblings’ reactions to being passive recipients of fraternal emoting remain largely hidden from view. Often this was accompanied by the heavy burden of shielding their wider families from the full excesses of war facing their brothers. Men on the front line did their utmost to find word about brothers missing in action, often scrutinising the dead to ascertain whether their sibling was among the number. At times, the relentless steps taken in this regard are suggestive of deep-rooted trauma. Occasionally, combatants rebelled against assuaging the waves of demands from anxious or grieving loved ones at home, requesting some much-needed respite. Self-preservation demanded that limits be placed on filial duty.


1 Francis, ‘“All Quiet on the Western Front”’.
2 Letter, 14 October 1914, Evers, Liddle WW1/GS/0532.
3 Roper, The Secret Battle, pp. 63–64.
4 Francis, The Flyer, p. 118.
5 Lt Ronald Henriques was killed on 14 September 1914, aged thirty. B. Henriques, The Indiscretions of a Warden (London, 1937), p. 123.
6 Bourke, Dismembering the Male, 78–80; J. Meyer, ‘“Gladder to Be Going out Than Afraid”: Shellshock and Heroic Masculinity in Britain, 1914–1919’, in J. MacLeod and P. Purseigle (eds), Uncovered Fields (Leiden, The Netherlands, 2004), pp. 195–196.
7 H. Read, ‘The Raid’, Annals of Innocence and Experience (London, 1946), pp. 151–152.
8 Interview, Hill, IWM 10770.
9 R. Holmes, Acts of War. The Behaviour of Men in Battle (London, 1985), pp. 31–32.
10 Charles Carrington, I Was There: The Great War Interviews (BBC, 10 March 2014).
11 Roper, The Secret Battle, p. 303.
12 Diary, 18 February 1915, F. S. Collings, IWM 77/124/1.
13 War Experiences of a V.A.D., Dodsworth, IWM 82/12/1.
14 Interview, I. Clarke, IWM 774.
16 J. Bourke, Fear. A Cultural History (London, 2005), pp. 214–215.
18 A. D. Gillespie, Letters from Flanders (London, 1916), p. 312.
19 Ackerley, My Father and Myself, pp. 64–68.
20 S. Sutcliffe, The Somme: Through the Eyes of a Foot Soldier Who Survived the Battlefield. (London: 2016), 21–22.
21 Francis, ‘“All Quiet on the Western Front”’.
22 Bourke, Dismembering the Male, p. 33.
23 Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds, p. 23.
24 The term Blighty colloquially referred to England. Its use originated with colonial troops, adopted from the Hindu word bilãyati meaning foreign land.
25 Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds, pp. 69–70.
26 Cearns, The Love of a Brother, pp. 51–52.
27 T. J. Mitchell and G. M. Smith, Medical Services. Casualties and Medical Statistics (London, 1931), pp. 19–20.
28 Mitchison, All Change Here, p. 113.
29 Interview, A. Wagstaff, IWM 17552.
31 Interview, B. Whalley, IWM 24551.
32 Brittain, Testament of Youth, pp. 277–281; Ibid., Chronicle of Youth, p. 236.
33 Ibid., Testament of Youth, p. 391.
34 Versions of this story appeared in several titles including, Daily Mirror, 24 August 1916; Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 18 August 1916; Hull Daily Mail, 2 October 1916; Portsmouth Evening News, 18 August 1916.
36 Ibid., p. 299.
37 E. Blunden, Undertones of War (London, 1928, 2000).
38 ‘Brothers Who Died in the Great War’, The Long, Long Trail, date accessed: 12 February 2017,
39 L. Macdonald, Somme (London, 1983, 2013), pp. 4–6.
40 Interview, W. Gregory, IWM 24545.
41 Interview, Wagstaff, IWM 17552.
42 The Lewis light machine gun, produced by the British Small Arms Company, required a team of men: one to fire the gun, one to change the magazine and an additional two or three men to carry spare magazines and offer protection.
43 Memoir, J. A. Johnston, IWM 02/29/1, p. 86.
44 For examples of men in extremis calling out to their mothers, see Roper, The Secret Battle, pp. 2–3.
45 van Emden, Norman Collins, p. 108.
46 Battalion diary record cited by, Ibid., p. 104.
47 J. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew 1914–1919 (London, 1938, 1987), p. 221.
49 Roper, The Secret Battle, p. 247.
50 D. Englander and J. Osborne, ‘Jack, Tommy, and Henry Dubb: The Armed Forces and the Working Class’, The Historical Journal, 21:3 (1978), p. 599.
52 S. Rogerson, Twelve Days on the Somme. A Memoir of the Trenches, 1916 (London, 1933, 2006), p. 48.
53 Ibid., p. xxxi.
54 Roper, The Secret Battle, p. 249.
55 Das, Touch and Intimacy, p. 37; J. Keegan, The Face of Battle (London, 1976), p. 264; E. J. Leed, No Man’s Land. Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 20, 123–124; Roper, The Secret Battle, pp. 255–260; A. Watson, ‘Self-Deception and Survival: Mental Coping Strategies on the Western Front, 1914–1918’, Journal of Contemporary History, 41:2 (2006), p. 256.
57 L. L. Loewe, Basil Henriques: A Portrait (London, 1976), pp. 48–49.
58 Letter, 1 November 1916, A. H. Hirst, IWM 06/30/1; Letter, 13 September 1916, F. L. Inglefield, IWM 06/56/1; Letter, 30 September 1916, T. N. James, IWM 76/86/1.
59 Diary, 9 July 1917, Hewish, IWM 02/43/1.
60 Letter, n.d., Letters from the Western Front, IWM 11/226.
61 J. R. Park, IWM 13/13/1.
62 Letter, 26 April 1915, S. Jones, Liddle WWI/GS/0869.
63 Letter, 19 August 1915, Arnold, IWM 06/54/1.
64 Letter, 22 May 1917, King, IWM 89/7/1.
65 Bourke, Fear, p. 205.
66 Letter, 22 May 1917, King, IWM 89/7/1.
67 As a result of losing his stripe, Sadd was demoted to the rank of private.
68 Letter, 26 November 1915, Sadd, IWM 96/57/1.
69 Letter, 18 April 1918, Pearce, IWM 13303.
70 Letter, n.d., Pearce, IWM 13303.
71 Letter, 16 February 1916, Sadd, IWM 96/57/1.
72 Letter, 10 March 1916, Edward Chapman, IWM 92/3/1.
73 Letter, 23 March 1916, Chapman, IWM 92/3/1.
74 Letter, 30 September 1916, James, IWM 76/86/1.
75 Letter, 4 October 1916, James, IWM 76/86/1.
76 Nine topics to be avoided were outlined in ‘Censorship Rules and Regulations for Troops in the Field’ (1916). These included location, imminent attacks, effects of hostile fire, and the physical and moral conditions of the troops. Boyden, Tommy Atkin’s Letters, p. 4.
77 Roper, The Secret Battle, pp. 65–66.
78 E. Wyrall, The History of the 62nd (West Riding) Division 1914–1919 (London, 1924), pp. 132–133.
79 Letter, 21 March 1918, James, IWM 76/86/1.
80 The war artist, William Orpen, expressed similar feelings of inadequacy when travelling with troops to France. W. Orpen, An Onlooker in France, 1917–1919 (London, 1921), pp. 21–23; R. Upstone, William Orpen. Politics, Sex and Death (London, 2005), p. 37.
81 P. Gibbs, ‘Introduction’, in A. Gibbs, The Grey Wave (London, 1920), p. x.
82 Ibid., p. xiii.
83 A. Gibbs, The Grey Wave (London, 1920), pp. 423–424.
84 Ibid., p. 536.
85 Coined in 1869 by an American neurologist, Charles Beard, the term ‘neurasthenia’ denoted nervous exhaustion. B. Shephard, A War of Nerves. Soldiers and Psychiatrists, 1914–1994 (London, 2000), pp. 9–10.
86 Francis, The Flyer, p. 107.
87 For a brief overview of contemporary medical opinion see J. Bourke, ‘Effeminacy, Ethnicity and the End of Trauma: The Sufferings of “Shell-Shocked” Men in Great Britain and Ireland, 1914–39’, Journal of Contemporary History, 35:1 (2000), p. 59; J. Meyer, ‘Separating the Men from the Boys. Masculinity and Maturity in Understandings of Shell Shock in Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 20:1 (2009), pp. 9–10.
88 G. Elliot Smith, ‘Shock and the Soldier’, The Lancet, 184:4834 (1916), p. 853.
89 In the first four months of 1916 alone, 24,000 shell-shock cases were sent back to England. M. Shapira, ‘The Psychological Study of Anxiety in the Era of the Second World War’, Twentieth Century British History, 24:1 (2013), p. 34; Shephard, A War of Nerves, p. 73.
90 Diary, 11–15 October 1916, B. A. West, IWM 537.
91 Diary, 15 October 1916, West, IWM 537.
92 Diary, 12 November 1916, West, IWM 537.
93 Diary, 17 and 18 February, West, IWM 537.
94 Diary, 20 April 1917, West, IWM 537.
96 Meyer, ‘Separating the Men from the Boys’, p. 2.
97 P. Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (New Haven, 2004), p. 174.
98 P. Leese, ‘“Why Are They Not Cured?” British Shellshock Treatment During the Great War’, in M. S. Micale and P. Lerner (eds), Traumatic Pasts (Cambridge, 2001), p. 208.
99 A. Foss and K. Trick, St. Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton: The First 150 Years (1838–1988) (Cambridge, 1989).
100 At the time the average weekly cost of a patient at St Andrew’s was £3 3s11d. Barham, Forgotten Lunatics, p. 254; Foss and Trick, St. Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, p. 213.
101 The doctor–patient relationship and treatment portrayed in these high-profile cases did not represent the work of Craiglockhart; see T. Webb, ‘“Dottyville” – Craiglockhart War Hospital and Shell-Shock Treatment in the First World War’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (2006), pp. 342–346.
102 Leese, ‘“Why Are They Not Cured?”’, pp. 213–219.
103 Barham, Forgotten Lunatics, pp. 253–254; Shephard, A War of Nerves, p. 75.
104 Hamilton, Three Years or the Duration, p. 98.
105 Acton, Grief in Wartime, p. 28.
106 Winter, Sites of Memory, p. 31.
107 Contradicting the stereotype of the boy messenger, by 1916 ‘a considerable number of girls’ were employed as a temporary war expedient. Report of the Postmaster General on the Post Office. 1915–1916 (London: 1916), p. 23.
108 Interview, R. Taylor, IWM 11113.
109 Grigson, The Crest on the Silver, pp. 73–74.
111 Ibid., pp. 37–38.
112 Cowen, A Nurse at the Front, pp. 236–238.
113 D. Campbell-Smith, Masters of the Post. The Authorized History of the Royal Mail (London, 2011), p. 229; Mitchell and Smith, Medical Services, pp. x–xi.
114 Diary, 12 November 1917, Hewish, IWM 02/43/1.
115 Diary, 10 December 1917, Hewish, IWM 02/43/1.
116 Diary, 31 December 1917, Hewish, IWM 02/43/1.
117 Letter, January 1918, Hewish, IWM 02/43/1.
118 Letter, 8 January 1915, A. E. Parker, IWM 99/22/1.
119 Pall Mall Gazette, 11 November 1915.
120 Letter, 23 November 1915, Parker, IWM 99/22/1.
121 Letter, 24 November 1915, Parker, IWM 99/22/1.
122 For an overview of attitudes to German atrocities see, Pennell, A Kingdom United, pp. 93, 126–127.
123 Letter, 27 November 1916, Collection of letters sent by four brothers, IWM 161111.
124 Acton, Grief in Wartime, p. 28.
125 Interview, H. Hall, IWM 26876.
126 Interview, E. G. Williams, IWM 10604.
127 Interview, Williams, IWM 10604.
128 Letter, 12 November 1917, Collection of letters sent by four brothers, IWM 161111.
129 Bourke, Fear, pp. 209–214; Ibid., An Intimate History of Killing. Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare (London, 1999), pp. 84–85.

Brothers in the Great War

Siblings, masculinity and emotions


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