Brotherly loss
in Brothers in the Great War

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.

I often think about my brother William – Bill. He used to hold my hand when we went to school … It broke my heart when he died. I would have liked to have died with him – but I didn’t, and here I am today.1

Interviewed in 2004, centenarian Fred Lloyd demonstrably missed the love shown him by his ‘giant’ of a brother, capturing the essence of their fraternal bond in the motif of a clasped hand. The potency of brotherly grief is found in such simple recollections, the inconsequential acts of remembered love that haunted some men. The accounts examined in this chapter confirm that many brothers are mourning the loss of not only stable figures in their lives but also their childhood companions and protectors. The youngest of sixteen, Fred was working as a potboy at ‘The Rocks’, a local estate in Uckfield, East Sussex, when war broke out. Three of his brothers joined up, two were killed in action.2 Closest in age to Fred, Bill’s death at the age of twenty-one resonated most strongly with his surviving brother. One of the last surviving Great War veterans, Fred provides a glimpse of the lifelong guilt and heartache experienced by surviving siblings.

Challenging the convention that male grief was carefully managed, fraternal narratives reveal the spectrum of responses to brothers’ deaths, rebutting the view that open displays of emotion were condemned as unacceptable. The passing of time did not obviate the urge to mark these untimely deaths.3 Anniversaries prompted painful feelings of loss, anger and guilt: veteran reunions; commemorative activities; other deaths and funerals; subsequent wars; and visual or aural reminders of the deceased.4 Even where bonds between brothers were distant, emotional responses to deaths infiltrated the intimate networks of surviving siblings as fathers, mothers, wives, workmates and friends mourned their loss.

The ways in which men and women expressed grief over fraternal deaths both shaped and were shaped by familial and societal mores. Men were expected to privilege the grief of female family members, particularly mothers, and to act as masculine role models for their younger siblings – a responsibility apparently borne willingly, with little bitterness. Rather, men’s concern and sympathy demonstrated love from afar. What remains largely undetected is the additional burden that such support placed on combatant and non-combatant brothers. As was pointed out in Chapter 3, the high proportion of male siblings serving together in the Pals and Territorial units resulted in many soldiers being close to brothers at the time of their deaths, an additional trauma forming part of their wartime experience. Others received the news indirectly by post or telegram, and siblings living at home witnessed the distress of parents and other family members.

Grief manifested itself in a variety of forms: expressed openly in the shape of tears or anger, or more obliquely through sleeplessness or loss of appetite. Reliance on written narratives means that physical signs of grief, such as a voice cracking, a face whitening or feelings of nausea, go undiscovered, although handwritten texts may provide tacit clues to men’s emotional states. A machine-gun bullet to his heart killed Ernest Burrell in March 1916. Writing to their stepmother, his brother Bill, a farm labourer, repeatedly scratched out his words, providing poignant insight into the turmoil that many experienced when consoling loved ones.

I am very sorry of poor Ernest and what you was telling me of dad it realy [sic] upsetting me … but never mind mother don’t upset yourself well I no it worry you a lot and I am please you have dad.5

His short message, lacking the literacy of letters sent by upper- and middle-class men, still carried the same themes of personal distress and concern for parents, challenging the assumption that working-class inarticulacy masked emotional reactions to loss.

Demographic trends affected men’s intimate knowledge of death. From the latter decades of the nineteenth century onwards, life expectancy increased. Improvements in public health, housing, diet, medicine, pay and working hours meant that people from all classes became less accustomed to facing sibling mortality in infancy.6 Parents, where possible, sought to protect children from illness and death by removing them to the homes of friends or relatives. In The Innocent Eye (1933), the memoir of his 1890s childhood, Herbert Read recalled being ‘sent away’ to stay with an aunt when both his baby sister and father were mortally ill.7 The effect of combat deaths on siblings has been neglected, despite the disproportionate numbers of fatalities suffered by the young. These deaths had particular salience for children and adolescents still living at home. Figures for England and Wales show that one in six men under the age of twenty were likely to be killed, and one in seven of those aged twenty to twenty-four.8 Likely reasons for this are the significant numbers of young men volunteering when war broke out. Casualties were higher in the first days, even hours, of battle as unprepared combatants faced mechanised warfare.9

School-age brothers were constantly reminded of the perils of war. Educational communities of all sizes commemorated their war dead, displaying lists and photographs of the fallen, reading out names at assembly or chapel, and bereaved boys wearing black armbands.10 Before the 1915 order forbidding the repatriation of bodies, funerals were held at some public schools. Manchester Grammar School lost 521 former pupils and teachers, 100 during the Somme offensive alone. The school magazine, Ulula, routinely performed the ‘proud but poignant’ task of recording the exploits and deaths of alumni.11 Family ties intersected with this communal mourning. Several obituaries of Old Mancunians noted that the departed serviceman was one in a succession of brothers attending the school, the death toll affecting cohorts of past and present pupils. Pickup Croft Sunday School, of St Peter’s parish, Burnley, serving a ‘difficult class’ of children from the surrounding working-class neighbourhood, suffered disproportionate losses.12 Thirty former pupils were killed, including three pairs of brothers, reflecting the numbers joining the East Lancashire Regiment from this close-knit mill community.13 Despite their physical distance from the front, schoolchildren were immersed in communal rituals of death and mourning. In 1916 the headmaster of Rugby School abandoned the practice of reading out the names of casualties, due to the depressing effect on the school population.14

A more intimate subset of the old school network is found in fraternal correspondence. Cecil Falk compiled a roll call of his former fellow pupils in St Hill’s house at Rugby: ‘Van Grysen, Hyne, Chambers have all been killed – also Judge, while Baggaway, Swift, Winner, have been wounded.’15 Writing to his brother at the end of his first year on active service, Falk’s listing of names was a more personal act of commemoration than the formal naming of the dead on Rugby’s roll of honour, and a shared reflection with his sibling on the heavy sacrifice borne by their generation. The high death toll within their immediate circle underscored the risks faced by combatants, fuelling the anxiety that Cecil felt about the imminent service of his sibling. The boundaries of these communities of mourning extended beyond the walls of each establishment, to the younger brothers and sisters who had acquired quasi-brothers vicariously via the friendships forged by their older brothers.

A brother’s emotions on hearing of a sibling’s death could be immediate, countering stereotypes of Edwardian repression. After a telephone call from his sister confirming that his beloved younger brother, Arnold, was killed on 25 May 1915, the diplomat George Vansittart recalled that ‘London suddenly seemed void’. Stopping only to secure his papers, he left his office and ‘plunged into the mutilated plane-trees of the Mall, as far as possible from light or sight, and sobbed my heart out’. Despite recognising that such behaviour would be wholly inappropriate at his brother’s memorial service, where ‘one must behave like a gentleman whose code is to hide their grief’, Vansittart questioned the function of public decorum in his observation that ‘anyhow one is alone in one’s grief’.16 Empty rituals failed to provide an outlet for the wretchedness experienced by many bereaved brothers and sisters. Vansittart’s experience highlighted two key themes emerging from other accounts of a sibling’s death in combat. The first of these is the flight to privacy, a haven where emotions could be vented freely. This sprung from a belief that exhibitions of distress would not be condoned, reinforcing the convention that masculine grief was an essentially private emotion. Second, his behaviour conveyed a knowing awareness of public codes of mourning. His professional awareness ensured that work responsibilities took precedence in the immediate aftermath. His social awareness ensured his compliance with behavioural norms. Even though men abided by these social scripts, they did not always feel obliged to conform to such conventions in private. Significantly, when writing their memoirs, often several years afterwards (Vansittart’s memoir was published in 1958), some men chose not to omit these charged emotional responses to brotherly loss.

From these two threads, we start to see the intersection of communities of mourning emerging from each combat death. At its heart is the personal expression or repression of grief, followed by interaction with immediate family members, comrades and colleagues, and finally the wider society. Fraternal narratives support Rosenwein’s concept of ‘not entirely concentric circles’ of emotional communities. Bereaved siblings exhibited their understanding of wider emotional conventions and their ability to adapt their behaviour according to the needs or demands of individual communities.17 At the nexus of personal, military, societal and familial codes of masculinity we see the multiplicity of roles performed by men: providing support to mothers and sisters; sharing their emotions with brothers or other trusted recipients; and passing on societal conventions to younger siblings. Men’s accounts expose the pitfalls of focusing on condolence letters. The communities of mourning revealed by such collections are inevitably influenced by the proprieties surrounding the mode of communication and the recipient’s gender, class or occupation. To better understand the bonds of communal mourning, it is necessary to examine the range of communities available to the bereaved, both at the time of their loss and in the days, months and years afterwards.

External signs of grief were hidden by sisters. Finding spatial privacy within the social routines of domestic life proved difficult. Attending chapel one Sunday, Ella Lethem found the prayers for the men at the front rather upsetting, reminding her of her brother Jack’s body lying on the battlefield. Managing her unpredictable emotions in public was difficult when they could overcome her ‘with such a rush’. Amid the ritual of the service, she took some solace from the fact that no one in the congregation saw her cry.18 Both Irene Rathbone, in her fictionalised account of her wartime experiences, and Vera Brittain in her memoir show breakdowns occurring in particular spaces with personal significance within the home: the former nursery shared by the Seddon siblings, and the dining-room containing a portrait of Edward Brittain.19 There, long after her family had retired to bed, in a place brimful of the musical afternoons and evenings spent with her sibling, Brittain fell to her knees, repeatedly crying out Edward’s name in the vain hope that her persistent calling would somehow bring him back.20 Familial sensitivities and conventions governed these behaviours. Both sought a refuge away from their older family relatives – Rathbone’s elderly aunt, Brittain’s parents – a spatial carapace for themselves and their loved ones.

Behaviours such as this contribute to the perception that siblings suffered a disenfranchisement of grief within their family circle. Fictional accounts allowed more scope for describing the viscerality of emotional responses. Compared with her public stony countenance, within the privacy of her bedroom, rage and grief wracked Joan Seddon’s body: her face was sodden with tears and saliva, her eyeballs becoming a ‘heaving instrument of sobs’.21 In solitude, Joan was unable to maintain the physical effort of stoicism. A useful comparison is found in Francis Brett Young’s My Brother Jonathan (1928). In this work the Black Country novelist introduces us to the Daker brothers, Harold and Jonathan. After receiving news of his younger brother’s death, Jonathan takes refuge in his bedroom. There, feelings of guilt at having reproached his brother for failing to spend his last leave at the family home compound his grief. The bed shudders beneath him as he is convulsed by uncontrollable violent muscular contractions. His emotional response feels alien to his adult self; he has not behaved in this way since he was a child.22 Although the novel has some autobiographical overtones, Brett Young, the son of a doctor, served with the RAMC. The oppositional fraternal bond was not replicated in his real-life relationship with his brother, Eric. The Brett Young siblings collaborated on early novels, and Eric survived the war. Of interest is the treatment of emotions within these two fictional accounts, both of which display an embodied response that is rarely conveyed explicitly in diaries, letters or memoirs.

Grieving families

Familial communities of emotion reflect the web of relationships within each domestic circle. Grief was shaped and moulded by family expectations. ‘God help me to help them all,’ was Ella Lethem’s plea on hearing of her brother’s death. In the hierarchy of grief encompassing her mother, father and John’s widow, she saw her grief through a supportive lens.23 Men were acutely aware of their consolatory duties. Male expressions of grief are rarely the locus of historical study,24 and this bias is exacerbated in First World War studies, due to the privileging of maternal grief, mirroring the previous historiographical focus on maternal love and toil.25 A number of factors have contributed to this. Mass conscription and high death tolls made it politically expedient to showcase ‘equality of sacrifice’,26 leading to the showcasing of women’s vicarious service to the nation via the suffering of their sons.27 The public profile and status of mourning women, especially mothers, remained strong in the war’s aftermath. Men’s absence due to work commitments exaggerated the bias resulting from women’s highly visible presence at commemoration services.28 A focus on condolence letters, centred on mothers, perpetuates a vertical bias, consolidating their privileged status and relegating menfolk and children to a supportive role.29 This emphasis overstates the generic conventions, and consequently the recipients of written condolences, in determining the radius of support networks.

Condolences were shaped by letter-writing conventions, the relationship between recipient and sender, and the personal experience of the sender. Edith Payne was the eldest of seven – six sisters and one brother, Albert, killed in action on 8 August 1917. Living in the family home with her parents and two sisters, Edith, aged thirty-nine, was a primary school teacher, a profession which she shared with Albert. He had married Elizabeth Ager in 1915 and their daughter was born the following year. The condolence letters sent to Edith came from family friends and relatives, many of whom had lost a son, husband or brother themselves, and their feelings of personal loss infiltrated their expressions of condolence. As her cousin wrote:

I can quite understand how you all feel, having such a short time ago gone through the same great sorrow myself. Why our brothers and husbands are taken away from us in this great war God alone knows.30

These letters, grounded in the shared experience of home-front grief and mourning, referred to the ‘hardship’ of losing so many ‘useful lives’, the suffering of ‘very many’, and ‘these awful times & so terribly cruel’. At this stage of the war, rather than expounding on Albert’s personal qualities and sacrifice, the focus reflected on a shared understanding of loss.

Viewing familial grief from a lateral perspective provides a much-needed counterweight to this dominant discourse of female grief. French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that the family group was diminished after the death of a member. In response, individual members seek each other out to reassemble as a unit.31 In wartime, the desire to reassemble was impeded by distance, the seeking out occurring partially by correspondence. A sibling’s-eye view shows how individual families managed societal and kinship norms of mutual support and appropriate mourning behaviours. ‘Terribly cut up’ after receiving a postcard from his sister telling him of his brother’s death, Mowbray Meades wrote to his wife. Isolated from his family, Meades outlined his perspective of the relational web of familial grief. Acknowledging the upset of his father, mother and sister Hettie, he singled out his mother as being inconsolable. Confined to correspondence, he had been unable to say much when replying to the news. Finally, he ended by asking his wife to ‘be very careful’ when breaking the news to their five-year-old daughter.32 Meades illustrates how condolence at a distance operated within specific families. Siblings rather than parents were routinely tasked with breaking the news of deaths. Whether this was designed to protect parents or in recognition that inter-generational communication was more appropriate is a matter of speculation. While the strain that writing condolences placed on rankers and officers has been noted by Roper, less attention has been paid to soldier-brothers’ multiple roles as combatants, bereaved and consolers.33 Broadening our understanding of the communities of support offered to and by all family members counteracts the inevitable privileging of the maternal role.

Roper spotlights the phenomenal practical and emotional efforts made by mothers of fighting men, underpinning his ground-breaking argument that the ‘emotional survival’ of soldiers depended, in part, on such dedication. Filial support proffered to bereaved mothers offers a counterweight to this conceptualisation. Amid their own profound loss, men of all classes were expected to privilege the intense grief of mothers. Writing to his mother after the birth and death of her baby daughter on the same day, Bim Tennant, regretting his absence, put forward his younger brother Stephen as the ‘son of comfort, a son of consolation’.34 Although scholarly attention has been paid to the extent to which combatants hid graphic accounts of warfare from mothers, the strain of fulfilling this consolatory duty can be fully understood only by an equal focus on lateral and vertical planes of support. The daughter of a Northumbrian blacksmith, Annie Blaystock recounted the physical and emotional toll on her mother after her brother was killed on his return to the front, following a period of convalescence. The ‘awful blow’ caused her mother to ‘let herself go’, losing weight to the extent that the family feared they might lose her too. This heart-rending maternal reaction dwarfed the grief of other family members: ‘I think that was the hardest thing that ever happened to mother. And all of us, we were all terribly upset.’35 A comparable tendency is seen in the familial correspondence of the Baines family following the deaths of Jack and Jock. A letter from their sister Keenie first considered their mother’s suffering in light of the ‘terrible blow’, before recognising ‘the terrible losses for us all’. Subsequent letters highlight their mother’s ‘brave’ or ‘admirable’ fortitude while simultaneously seeking out sources of comfort for her.36 Bundled into the ‘and all’ of the family, sibling loss appears almost as an afterthought, a footnote to maternal trauma.

Male family members reinforced the expectation that the grief of mothers took precedence. Conscientious objector Percy Wall was the second-eldest of six children. His working-class parents, Tom and Charlotte, active socialists, supported his stance and campaigned on his behalf.37 After telling Percy of the death of his older brother, Dick, a sergeant-major in the Shropshire Light Infantry, his father made plain his expectation that his son should ‘bear up’ as best he could, following the ‘brave’ example of his mother, sister and brothers.38 Tom’s exhortation to try ‘for their sakes’ acknowledged the strain that he was placing on his son. At the time, Percy was serving his second sentence of hard labour in Walton prison, Liverpool. His father was reluctantly fulfilling an earlier promise not to withhold any bad news concerning Dick. Hard labour was a harsh regimen; men struggled with isolation, the first month of the sentence being spent in solitary confinement. Thereafter a strict rule of silence was imposed. Letters to and from home, the lifeblood of emotional support, were rationed. This punishment was cyclical. Having completed their sentence, conscripted men were returned to barracks, where their continued refusal to obey orders led to a further court martial and imprisonment. These consecutive sentences took a considerable mental and physical toll on them.39 In his unpublished memoir, Hour at Eve, Percy confessed to brooding alone in his cell after receiving the news.40 His physical separation from his family hardened his belief that he could better express his full feelings by ‘one good grip of the hand’ with his father, or by embracing his mother and siblings.41 The additional stress on his already weakened state led to his refusal to participate in post-Armistice protests organised by his fellow conscientious objector inmates, fearing that further nervous strain would result in a breakdown.

Replying to Tom’s letter, Percy masked his wretchedness, directly addressing any concerns – even echoing his father’s phrasing – in his earnest reassurances that he would not add to his family’s anguish. He made his mother, Charlotte, the central focus of his condolences, taking special care to assure his ‘dear, dear mother’ of his efforts to alleviate her despair:

I cannot make up your loss but I can and will when I come, be more, much more to you than I ever was ... Not because I am suffering anything here. Please don’t think that ... But to be to you all were it possible, two sons or brothers.

In a second letter, written a fortnight later, Percy again devoted a large section to his mother, worrying about the detrimental effect of the news on her health and comforting her with the prospect of his return home. Then the entire family would rally round to ensure that she did not ‘suffer a moment’s sorrow in future that it is within our power to prevent’.42

Percy’s ready acceptance of his father’s strictures challenges psychological findings that sibling trauma might be doubled by the absence of parental support and attention.43 Societal and familial failure to recognise fraternal loss resulted in a ‘disenfranchisement’ of grief.44 Rather than being burdened by familial obligation, Percy gained succour in the strengthening of their bond by a ‘mutual clinging closer, a sharing of joys and sorrows’.45 This staunchly pacifist family could not draw on the rhetoric of heroic sacrifice as a consolatory device. Instead, Percy relied on family unity, believing that their shared suffering could break down the barrier of physical separation. By stressing their concordance, Percy underscored the lack of discord arising from the Wall brothers’ opposing stances. Notably, in his memoir, the privileging of maternal loss is omitted. Here he concluded that both parents, along with his sister and brothers, and by implication he himself, had ‘lost their eldest son in a cause in which they did not believe, in a service that was anathema to them’. In this reformulation of his response to Dick’s death, Percy linked it closer to his pacifist protest against the war and the heavy sacrifice made by the families of conscientious objectors.

Mapping the support networks within families shows how the specificity of individual bonds bolstered or strained emotional obligations. Some bereaved brothers divulged intimate responses to their loss to siblings, such correspondence being explicitly kept from their parents. The Raws family migrated to South Australia from Manchester in 1895. The youngest brothers, Goldy (Robert Goldstone) and Alec (John Alexander), served with the Australian Imperial Force. On 28 July 1916, Goldy was reported missing. The following day, regrettably too late to see his brother, Alec joined his brother’s Battalion. His correspondence in the succeeding days shows the complex interweaving of lateral and vertical planes of familial support. Despite providing graphic details of the Pozières offensive to his mother, Alec baulked at confirming his brother’s likely death when writing to his parents.46 Skirting away from this task, his initial strategy was to proffer his parents the most hopeful prognosis, that their son was wounded. To his sister, he spelt out likelier outcomes based on the limited information that he had gathered: their brother was dead, taken prisoner, or had suffered a head wound likely to blind him.47 Eventually, he was obliged to dissuade his father of any ‘foolish hope’. The strain of transmitting this message caused him to write ‘coldly and without emotion’. Alec used his combat experience as emotional cover; ‘circumstances’ made it ‘impossible to give way’ to grief. He confided his war strain and anger to his older brother Lennon, the recipient of his admission that Goldy’s death was ‘a far greater shock to me than I had thought possible … probably due to nerves’.48 This letter is infused with rage as Alec bitterly lays the blame for Goldy’s ‘murder’ at the feet of ‘the incompetence, callousness, and personal vanity’ of those in authority. Even within the safe space of his brother’s discretion, he finds it necessary to contextualise his reaction: recent experience of battle has weakened his usual resolve. Alec’s manipulation of his war work as an explanatory mechanism tailored to specific recipients indicates the intricate emotional manoeuvrings performed by bereaved brothers. Within the confessional of sibling correspondence, he could isolate his concern for his parents while expressing his worries and grief.

Examples of the deep grief experienced by fathers have been portrayed as aberrations, with scant evidence that displays of male grief were not socially sanctioned.49 Where male loss has been the focus of attention, a more nuanced picture emerges. Valerie Sanders' study of elite Victorian fatherhood shows bereaved fathers freely interrogating their loss in private letters and diaries.50 Cumulatively, accounts of male outpourings of grief indicate a certain level of public compassion for, and levels of acceptance of, masculine emotional expression. Pat Campbell believed that his father, John, ‘suffered most’ after Percy’s death:

It was said of an English king that he never smiled again after the loss of his son, and though this would not have been literally true of my father, yet during the rest of his life there was probably not a single day on which he was unaware of Percy. His grief was all the greater because he believed that he had not appreciated him during his lifetime and had not always been fair to him.51

Like many fathers, John went to great efforts to establish a precise timeline leading up to Percy’s death. As a newly minted officer, Percy was thrust into difficult combat conditions. Muddled reports show that at some point Percy became separated from his battalion. Piecing together fragmentary, contradictory and often inconclusive information regarding Percy’s decisions, movements and death, John was hampered by a paucity of survivors and his son’s short period of service. Based on his own combat experience, Pat commented on the impossibility of this task. In light of this, he was surprised ‘that my father found out so much’. This ‘memory work’ was steeped in grief. When John, a mathematician and fellow of Hertford College, died suddenly in October 1924, just ten years after his son, his obituaries referred to the ‘terrible blow’ of Percy’s death, the anxiety caused by his having two other serving sons and his subsequent loss of interest in practising his profession for almost six years. Given the conflicting demands placed upon grieving men within their immediate families, men sought comfort from other networks. Friendships forged through professional links were fertile sources of emotional support for bereaved fathers.52 Christopher Addison, who served in the coalition government under both Asquith and Lloyd George, recounted a ‘sad’ discussion with his colleague Andrew Bonar Law, who had just learned of the death of his oldest son in Palestine.53 Older serving men might have access to such networks, but many young volunteers and conscripts knew of no professional life outside of school or university. What men’s narratives reveal in their stead are glimpses of soldierly compassion.

Flight to privacy

During combat, men demanded emotional stoicism from comrades. Fear, grief or anxiety distracted men, jeopardising their safety. Outside the battlefield, men more readily commiserated with losses experienced by others. Few narratives relate any stigma being attached to manifestations of grief. Among men habituated to dealing with the casualties of war, bereaved brothers found themselves treated with empathetic consideration or what Lance Corporal John Lucy termed ‘deeds of rough kindness’.54 As was seen in Chapter 3, witnessing fraternal grief troubled serving men. Nonetheless, they overcame their discomfort out of fellow feeling for their bereaved comrades. Thanking his mother for passing on messages of sympathy, Joe Evans also noted that his pals in the trenches had also been ‘very sorry’. These considerations helped him ‘a great deal’ to bear his sorrow.55 For James Burns, it was the momentary clasp of a comrade’s hand that provided consolation, a deep yet silent expression of sympathy he never forgot.56

Despite these acts of solicitude, some men’s immediate response to hearing of the death of a loved one was a strong desire to flee to a place of seclusion where they could express their misery out of sight of comrades or work colleagues. When a stray bullet killed his older brother, Herbert Read’s grief was ‘too violent to tolerate sympathy or consolation’. Blinded by tears, he fled from his garrison headquarters to the seclusion of a nearby park.57 In his diary, Siegfried Sassoon wrote of ‘escaping’ to woods where ‘grief had its way with me’.58 Reacting here to the death of his close friend and lover, Lieutenant David Thomas, Sassoon later merged the emotions he felt over this loss with the death of Hamo four months earlier. The American psychologist and gerontologist Robert Kastenbaum coined the term ‘bereavement overload’ to explain how individuals confronting multiple losses in rapid succession struggle to accommodate their feelings.59 For men faced with so many deaths, compartmentalising grief was hard; the emotional boundaries between deaths of brothers, friends and comrades became blurred. Strategies to contain emotions proved ineffective. Men were caught in a ‘powerful double bind’. Military efficiency depended on combatants’ ability to form intimate bonds with their comrades, making them emotionally vulnerable to combat deaths.60 Joanna Bourke and Sarah Cole both ascribe the reluctance to form close wartime friendships to men’s desire to guard against such vulnerability,61 a coping mechanism that was dissipated by news of a brother’s death.

We can only surmise about men’s urgent need to draw a veil over their emotions. Undoubtedly, this was prompted by a compulsion to hide conspicuous outbursts of grief. Sobbing, a violent version of weeping, was a clear breach of the stiff upper lip.62 The drive to find a refuge where emotions could be given free rein may have been a physical response to loss. Gesa Stedman’s analysis of emotion metaphors shows how agitation and movement can be a means of verbalising the body. Constructing their response as a drive to escape scrutiny provided bereaved brothers with a means to bridge the gap between what they felt and what they could express.63 Credibly, such behaviour was rooted in childhood practices. Privacy would have been a valued commodity in the ultra-masculine environment of public schools or the cramped living conditions of many working-class households.64 Pupils at elite schools gained autonomy and a sense of security when granted the privilege of personal space.65 Children growing up in or near the countryside instinctively ‘nest’ in quiet rural spaces to reflect or mull things over.66 J-M. Strange notes the gendered choice of space when expressing feelings. One emotional discussion between a working-class father and son took place outside, away from the domestic realm – the pair returning home only after the father had composed himself.67 Status conferred a measure of privacy. A colleague informed Sir Lennon Raws, Chairman of the Australian Metal Exchange, of Alec’s death, a mere six weeks after Goldy was reported missing. Stunned by the news, Raws asked to be left alone. After contacting his brother-in-law and sister, he burst into tears. Like Percy Wall, Lennon later took comfort in ‘the beautifully sacred times’ emerging from the assembly of his grieving family, his married sister Helen returning to the family home from Victoria. Together once more, the three remaining siblings and their parents were united by ‘a common bond … too often frayed and broken by the friction of ordinary life’.68

Men may have been inhibited by the anticipated reaction of people around them, or, like Herbert Read, immune from their sympathy.69 Officers and rankers alike discharged the unwelcome duty of formulating messages of condolence to bereaved parents. This experience likely coloured their attitudes towards receiving consolatory words from comrades. Mindful of their environs, men were conscious of the burden that witnessing their distress placed on comrades, colleagues, and family members.

Narratives are often silent as to the precise form of men’s grief. Rifleman James Johnston, a former government official, died of pneumonia on 20 May 1915. Shot twice at Fromelles, he suffered from exposure after being left in the open for two days. During a rest period, his brother John received the official notification of his sibling’s demise. Deflecting his feelings of anxiety for his ‘missing’ brother in a double negative, John was ‘not unprepared’ for the news. Writing nine years later, he remembered the flashbulb moment ‘as if it was yesterday’, hinting at his reaction by the comment, ‘fortunately I was alone’.70 Through such silences, grieving men impel us to fill the emotional gaps in their memoirs.

For some siblings, the demands of everyday life constrained expressions of grief. Cecil Burch learned of his brother Raymond’s death when preparing for his School Certificate Examination in practical mathematics. Recording that he ‘had no time to feel’, Cecil continued with the job at hand. This was no unfeeling task. Raymond had passed his love of mechanics to his sibling. In Cecil’s mind, the examination embodied the ‘mechanics of [Raymond’s] own life’. His ‘grief and love’ for his lost brother remained with him until his death in 1983.71 Domestic obligations provided an emotional focus for grieving sisters. When her mother took to bed, ill with grief, Ella Lethem believed it fortunate that responsibility for housework left her with ‘scarcely’ time to think.72 The ‘mechanical habit of work’ was an essential distraction from troubling emotions.73 Ella’s fiancé, Douglas Crockatt, noticed her labours on behalf of her family. The following February she looked tired and needed ‘taking care of’.74 Previously Crockatt had told Ella, in his absence, to visit his mother. On their first meeting Ella was thankful to release her pent-up emotions; a previous breakdown had been stalled when her father had begged her not to cry on seeing the proofs of photographs of her brother that had been taken before his death.75

Siegfried Sassoon wrote to his mother, nicknamed Ash, after learning of Hamo’s death at Gallipoli. Initially ill prepared to offer her comfort, he resorted to rhetorical stoicism, asserting, ‘I can’t write anything. We must keep our chins up, that’s all.’ A few days later, still numb from shock, Sassoon adhered to the convention that required both son and mother to carry on as normal:

Now you have got over the worst of it, and you must be a brave Ash and proud of what everyone will say about him. I am lucky to be here where I have to keep on as if nothing was wrong, but I long to be with you ... Everything I write seems futile. My brain won’t work. God bless you, my dearest, for all you have done and all you have endured for us.76

Implicit in Sassoon’s letter is his recognition that his mother’s grief, without the distraction of ‘work’, would be harder to bear. In lieu of this, he stressed his mother’s continuing maternal responsibilities as a reason to stay strong: ‘You still have got Michael [his younger brother] to live for, and he would be absolutely alone in the world without you.’ He presented the discipline of stoicism as an emotional prop supporting them both through their bereavement. Sassoon’s protectiveness of his mother continued after the war, becoming the catalyst for the breach of his friendship with Robert Graves. Sassoon objected strongly to the satirical portrayal of Ash in Goodbye to All That. Grave’s depiction of Ash’s attempts to reach Hamo via the spiritualist practice of automatic writing was ‘one of the most hurtful things’ he had seen in print.77 Sassoon succeeded in getting the offending section removed, but his relationship with Graves never recovered.

Languages of loss

Brothers took solace in successfully repressing their instinctive response to a sibling’s death. Upholding codes of self-restraint boosted men’s sense of duty and manhood; combat conditions necessitated their adoption by fighting men. On 30 September 1915, Francis and Sidney Collings came under heavy fire at Ypres. A shell hit their trench, burying Francis, a head wound leaving him dazed. At the earliest opportunity, he asked his sergeant major if Sid was dead. The affirmative reply was brusque. Francis was told to ‘Take it like a soldier’ – an example of the pragmatic limits of empathy during battle. Compensating for this military severity was Francis’ belief that Sid’s presence accompanied him throughout his uncomfortable journey to the nearest dressing station, his brother’s ‘voice’ soothing away discomfort. Copying out his diary two years later, Francis elaborated on the after-effects of Sid’s death:

The memory of it all is deep printed on my memory especially 30 September 1915 when I parted for a while from my beloved brother. He was a true christian [sic] and highly esteemed by all who knew him. To me he will always be 21 yrs. And cut off for the purpose of stamping the hand of militarism and lifting this world nearer Peace and Love.78

The majority of Collings’ journal entries, written in a tiny commercial diary, were concise and factual, recording his tasks, rest periods, references to Sid, attendance at services and the weather. His adoption of sacrificial ‘high diction’ supports the contention that use of such rhetoric was not restricted to the classically educated elite.79 As a devout Anglican, Collings found some consolation in traditional ideals of Christian manliness and the belief that they would be reunited in the afterlife. Collings was not alone in taking consolation in the thought that his brother inhabited an intermediate state, an orthodoxy that gained currency among the church-going population during the war years.80 Constrained by the language of sacrifice, Francis singled out Sid’s death on the cusp of manhood for its personal significance.

War narratives are populated by factual accounts of brothers’ deaths. In A Soldier from the War Returning (1964), an expanded version of his 1929 memoir, A Subaltern’s War, Charles Carrington made a passing comment on his brother’s death in a passage depicting the Somme battleground:

Right and left ran the ridge from Delville Wood to High Wood (where my brother, Christopher, had been killed in October), from High Wood to Pozières, from Pozières to the hill above Thiepval, the watershed which had been the original objective for 1st July, the starting point from which we were to exploit the victory that was never won.81

Carrington was one of the interviewees informing the BBC TV series, The Great War, marking the conflict’s fiftieth anniversary. This was patently a period of reflection for him. In his preface to the 1964 edition of A Subaltern’s War, Carrington rejected a narrow categorisation of his work as one of disillusionment. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he had been an underage volunteer, enlisting at the age of seventeen. His combat experiences as a junior officer ran the spectrum of enjoying life in ‘cushy’ trenches to coming perilously close to breaking down at Passchendaele. Reviewing his earlier writings as an ‘old’ survivor, Carrington reasoned that, having entered the war with open eyes, nothing had happened that he had not bargained for.82 This perspective is reflected in his contraction of Christopher’s death to one of a series of facts that, along with the terrain, formed his record of a failed campaign. His language mirrored that of official, regimental and battalion histories, utilising the vocabulary of military deaths. Men were reported missing, wounded or killed in action. Factual terminology replaced the consolatory euphemisms of death and dying associated with the Victorian ‘good death’. By inserting the fact of Christopher’s demise, Carrington completed his personal war story in unsentimental fashion, neither glorifying nor vilifying the loss of his brother.

The writer John Buchan was too ill to serve in 1914. Alongside the memorials he wrote for friends, he compiled a history of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in tribute to his younger brother Alastair.83 All casualties, including Alastair’s death at Arras in April 1917, were recorded faithfully. The only indication that the death of this one officer might have greater significance for the author is Buchan’s footnote: ‘“A most charming and gallant young officer,” Mr Winston Churchill wrote – “simple, conscientious, and much liked by his comrades.”’84 The convention of restraint meant that this briefest of mentions served as Buchan’s epitaph to his brother. What both these examples show is that, even when confined by the constraints of writing factual accounts, the desire to mark the death of a sibling was irresistible. Failure to express emotions must not be equated with coldness or an unfeeling nature.85 Men derived pride from their self-control, believing that this was the appropriate way to honour fraternal deaths. Exerting control bolstered men’s status and underlined the depth of their sorrow. Unencumbered by the language of ‘high diction’, such accounts made a clear link between soldiering and death.

Emotions could be buried by embracing the rhetoric of youthful manly sacrifice. Siegfried and Hamo Sassoon regarded enlisting as their duty. Hamo’s death from mortal wounds at Gallipoli reinforced Sassoon’s resolve to follow his sibling’s example.86 Choosing not to record his response to his brother’s death in a conventional diary entry, Sassoon wrote a short poem entitled ‘Brothers’. This verse shows the influence of Rupert Brooke with its idealistic spirit of ‘Happy Warriorism’.87 The symbolism of romanticised sacrifice displaced any personal emotion, as Sassoon wrote:

Your lot is with the ghosts of soldiers dead,

And I am with the fighters in the field;

But in the gloom I see your laurelled head,

And through your victory mine will be revealed.88

Sassoon’s use of the phrase ‘laurelled head’, the classical symbol of military victory and honour, owes a clear debt to A. E. Housman’s poem ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’.89 The inspiration for Housman’s touching elegy is commonly held to be Adalbert Jackson, who died at the age of twenty-nine in November 1892, although a likelier subject, Archie Burnett convincingly argues, was Adalbert’s older brother and Housman’s ‘greatest friend’, Moses.90 Housman’s invocation of the laurel, with its association with youth and male perfection, can be seen as a ‘gift of love’.91 The evergreen laurel, like the poem, and like our memories of the lauded athlete, will not wither in death.

Sassoon had accrued neither the language nor the experience to fully express his emotions. Writing to literary critic Michael Thorpe in 1966, he pronounced his wartime self as ‘immature, impulsive, irrational and bewildered’, stating that he did not uncover his real voice until 1924.92 Like many of his class and education when searching for declarations of grief, the familiar rhetoric of patriotic sacrifice asserted itself. Lacking appropriate alternatives, he resorted to cliché and the inspiration of a poet he admired greatly.93 Housman’s haunting image of everlasting youth cut down in its prime resonates throughout the poem. Sassoon’s words become a loving gift to Hamo, one that ensures his brother will not be forgotten. The distancing of grief is emphasised by Sassoon’s use of the universal and impersonal ‘Brothers’ as the poem’s title. This dedication remained unchanged in its published form during the war years.94 Thirty years later, in his Collected Poems (1947), Sassoon reaffirmed his kinship bond by renaming his elegy ‘To My Brother’.95 Michael Thorn believes Sassoon to have been less concerned, when compiling this edition, with literary excellence than with a desire ‘to render a true picture of his varied responses to war’.96 Sassoon’s three-volume account of his experiences, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (1937), presented his fictionalised persona as an only child, sidestepping the need to address his sibling’s death.97 Essentially a private person, Sassoon regarded his poetry as ‘his real biography’, an authentic record,98 erasing Hamo from this ‘true’ version of his war story would have been a significant omission. Sassoon’s desire to amend the poem’s subject from the universal to the particular, his lost sibling, further personalised his poetic record of the conflict. By this smallest of gestures he reinstated his flawed poem as a personal memorial to Hamo.

‘Black hate’

Fraternal deaths frequently aroused anger. Rage is often associated with masculinity, yet gendering emotions results in an over-simplification of men’s responses. Grief comprises a range of feelings, including anger, and men’s narratives may simply have been spotlighting one facet of its expression.99 Nineteen-year-old David Potts, the youngest son of a London-based commercial traveller, died of diphtheria at Limberg Main Hospital, Germany, five months after his capture at Gavrelle, near Arras. The news hit his two elder brothers hard, and the end of the war saw a resurgence of bitterness. The Armistice fell on David’s birthday. Writing to his mother the following day, Leonard Potts declared that the ‘wretched business’ made his blood boil, arousing a desire ‘to kill every Hun prisoner’, especially officers.100 Maintaining a level of ‘brotherhood’ with his fellow rankers, the knowledge that his sibling would not return home festered in his mind. Anger, rather than grief, revealed his feelings to his grieving mother.

Local and national commemorations sparked anger focused on particular themes: the diversion of funds away from returning veterans and war widows, and a distaste for the glorification of war that was associated with the ceremonial. Local historians have speculated that lingering feelings of bitterness towards the needless sacrifice of loved ones led to a silent boycott, resulting in the absence of some names from memorials. One such instance occurred in Kelvedon, Essex. In 1919, the organising committee determined to commission a memorial cross. When the provisional roll of honour was publicised, the landlord of the White Hart public house, Vincent Gisby, wrote requesting the removal of his siblings’ names.101 Somewhat ill advisedly, the committee ignored this request. Vincent refused to change his mind. Eventually, a local family donated £75 to cover the cost of reinscribing the memorial without the disputed names.102

Sometimes fury and frustration boiled over into physical violence. John Lucy’s aggressive reaction following the death of his brother Denis sprung from an accumulation of factors. The brothers’ sections had been charged with capturing a German platoon. In the chaotic aftermath, John was incorrectly informed that Denis had been wounded. His loss was compounded by the knowledge that, for days, his sibling’s body had lain 300 yards away. In his post-combat state, John recorded feeling ‘fatigued, fed-up and moody’, dreaming of his dead sibling and reading letters from home ‘in misery’.103 After this period of brooding, on meeting the sole survivor of Denis’s section, John went for him ‘bald-headed’. Triggering this aggression was John’s accusation of cowardice, rooted in a belief that the man had abandoned his brother.104 Once the unlikelihood of Denis’s escape from sustained fire had sunk in, Lucy regretted his outburst, accepting that his blame was misplaced. Notably, John failed to acknowledge one other potential source of his rage – his brother’s impetuousness. At the outset of the manoeuvre, John had been alarmed at Denis’s unnecessary risk taking. Panicking, he had shouted out a warning, exhorting Denis to ‘take care’. This shameful breach of stoicism had caused him to blush. John does not link this episode directly to his subsequent anger, directing his pent-up emotions instead towards a stranger.

More commonly, anger was directed at the enemy. Sassoon channelled his grief for lost comrades and Hamo into hatred for the Germans. The catalyst was the death of his beloved friend David ‘Tommy’ Thomas. Seemingly against his nature, his rage spurred him to action:

I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they shot Tommy I would gladly stick a bayonet into a German by daylight. Someone told me a year ago that love, sorrow, and hate were things I had never known (things which every good poet should know!). Now I’ve known love for Bobbie [Hanmer] and Tommy, and grief for Hamo and Tommy, and hate has come also, and the lust to kill.105

Some commentators have disregarded the significance of Hamo’s inclusion in this litany of names.106 Sassoon’s precise phrasing marks out distinct phases of his grief. Such ‘name-tallying’ or enumeration of deaths fulfilled a desire for accuracy.107 Each name signified a specific relationship, their recital a telling example of the cumulative effect of deaths on serving men. Sassoon’s response challenges our view of the distancing technique used as a protective shield. Deaths of brothers, lovers and close friends pierced these barriers, each death adding to the emotional burden experienced by survivors. Men in combat were well able to distinguish between the camaraderie of the fighting unit and the affection or love felt towards a brother or true friend.108 A diary entry written three days later reveals further evidence of Sassoon’s turmoil, his need to avenge the deaths of his brother and friends linked to a careless disregard for his future. Alongside his lust for revenge, we can read frustration at Sassoon’s helplessness. A hot-headed disregard for personal safety, coupled with chafing against enforced inaction, emerged in his stated wish to ‘smash someone’s skull; I want to have a scrap and get out of the war for a bit or for ever’.109 This vengeful desire tipped over into recklessness, earning Sassoon the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ by his men; his fellow officers wondered whether he possessed a death wish – a question that Sassoon felt unable to answer.110

Angry outbursts show how unprepared young soldiers were against the maelstrom of emotions accompanying combat. At this stage of his service, Sassoon appears unable to separate ideals of duty and sacrifice from the grief and anger he experienced. It is instructive to compare his response to Hamo’s death with his later poem ‘Lamentations’, published in Counter-Attack (1918). The narrator comes across a grieving brother watched over by a patient sergeant. The two men are unable to intervene as the man ‘howled and beat his chest / And, all because his brother had gone west’. The ranker’s ‘rampant grief’ is exposed as he ‘moaned, shouted, sobbed and choked’. The poem ends with the narrator’s stated belief that ‘such men have lost all patriotic feeling’.111 Critics have interpreted this final statement in various ways: as a condemnation of excessive grief; as an ironic deflection of Sassoon’s grief for Hamo; and as a distancing technique.112 The poem is based on an incident at the infantry base camp in Rouen in February 1917. Having been diagnosed with ‘trench fever’ the previous August, Sassoon had reported there for action after convalescing in England. According to his account in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), he came across a man weeping uncontrollably in the guardroom. Detained for assault, the ranker had just heard of his brother’s death. In the words of the attending sergeant, the man had taken the news to heart more than most, his reaction bordering on hysteria: ‘arf crazy, ’e’s been, tearing his clothes off and cursing the war and the Fritzes. Almost like a shell shock case ’e seems.’113

Literary biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson argues that by weighting the poem’s perspective in favour of the middle-class narrator, Sassoon underscored the insensitivity of the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality and the empty rhetoric of ‘high diction’.114 Such interpretations underestimate the level of grief felt by Sassoon for Hamo. Over twenty years separate Sassoon’s acts of writing ‘Lamentations’ and recording the incident in his memoirs. In this context, the closing line can be read as a reflection on his experience of, and reaction to, a fraternal loss. Unlike the stricken man he stumbled across, Sassoon vented his grief in private, his words implying a similar loss of control. The poem’s conclusion may thus suggest deeper sympathy for a grieving sibling, both men realising the emptiness of sacrifice made in the name of patriotism. This reading is given further weight by Sassoon’s choice of title. The Old Testament book of Lamentations comprises a collection of poetic laments for the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.115 Biblical scholar Adele Berlin submits that it represents both an expression of and a memorial to the suffering and grief associated with this calamitous event.116 In addition to the profound grief signified by his title, Sassoon’s use of the plural invokes a similar series of vehement responses to the carnage witnessed by soldier-brothers.

George Vansittart found it difficult to overcome feelings of bitterness towards the Germans. His rage, like his grief, failed to abate. In 1928, a tour of the cemetery where his brother Arnold was buried reawakened feelings of anger.117 For Vansittart, the endless rows of graves emphasised the futility of combatant deaths. Viewing these in respectfully tended cemeteries ‘stifled’ forgiveness.118 Vansittart’s emotions conflicted with his Christian faith and his diplomatic duty. Government policy at the time favoured appeasement, a strategy he knew had failed, but requiring him to remain circumspect in his feelings. Vansittart remained within the mainstream of the political elite and, as such, his memoir does not fall within the disillusionment canon. By juxtaposing his loss against the conventions of religion, society and government, he shows the discomfort experienced by members of the establishment in reconciling their emotional and professional lives. Irene Rathbone presents outbursts of anger as atypical, contextualising them within the wartime emotional economy. On hearing her gentle friend, Barbara, express a wish to see more howitzer guns, hoping that they will kill millions of Germans, Joan Seddons is surprised. Analysing this response, she concludes that, with ‘two brothers and a fiancé fighting, and a brother-in-law wounded and missing’, it was no wonder that her friend felt that way. Reflecting on the warcraft of the Germans, Joan concurs with this expression of ‘undiluted patriotism’. Later in the novel, Joan shivers at the ‘black’ hatred for the enemy expressed by her friend, Jack, following the death of a close comrade. Personal loss has brought home the horrors of war to her loving friend in a way that no other experience has.119

The passing of time did not dissipate the bitterness arising from sibling deaths in combat, particularly when the surviving brother believed the death had been avoidable. A British shell killed Nickell Dorgan on 31 August 1917. The circumstances of his enlistment made his loss especially hard to bear for his eldest brother, Jack. Like their father, all three Dorgan brothers worked at the Ashington colliery in Northumberland. Responding to a significant fall in production, the government acted to stem the shortfall of labour. Notices were posted at collieries reminding men of the vital importance of coal production to the war effort. Despite this local publicity, Nickell’s act of enlistment was propelled by an accusation of cowardice: the receipt of a white feather in the morning post.120 Pale with emotion, Nickell immediately left the family home and volunteered for the Durham Light Infantry. This was the last time Jack saw his sibling alive. Family shame prevented Jack from confronting the young girl thought to have sent the feather anonymously. Years later, when Jack was responsible for engineering apprenticeships at a company based in York, he was approached indirectly and asked if he would offer a placement to the woman’s son. His response revealed his long-standing resentment: ‘Knowing who I was talking to I turned them down flat. Didn’t tell them why, never mentioned the white feather, but turned them down flat.’121 Emotional restraint governed Jack’s response. Unable to openly express his anger at the woman’s wartime actions, he nonetheless exacted subtle revenge.


Distance of time did not dilute the discomfort aroused by contemporary emotions. Personal accounts reveal the ambivalence that men felt about these outpourings. Some appear to have been active conspirators in maintaining societal standards regarding the manly expression of grief. Unable to deny the emotional truth expressed in their accounts, men later downplayed overly passionate responses as immature or self-indulgent. Writing in 1933, Herbert Read acknowledged that the war had induced him to write about emotional situations.122 Before witnessing the ‘terrible fragility of life’ at the front, Read had suffered the loss of his parents and a sister, his mother dying unexpectedly just before his enlistment in December 1914. From an early age he had experienced the potent entwinement of moral teachings and communal enjoyment of sentimentality.123 Growing up, he was exposed to highly sentimentalised narratives of death. The Victorian practice of reading aloud works intended to produce a ‘weeping effect’ acclimatised the young to still high mortality rates.124 One of the books that his mother regularly read to him was the evangelical text, Little Meg’s Children (1868).125 Tears were not discouraged; Read and his brothers wept freely when the death of Little Meg’s mother was recounted with ‘grim pathos’.126

Notwithstanding these experiences and interests, Read exhibited discomfort when confronted with his contemporaneous reaction to the news of his brother Charles’s death: namely, a poem written on the same day in which he had sought to ‘expel’ his feelings. Read reviewed this work after the outbreak of the Second World War, during the process of editing and extending his 1933 childhood autobiography.127 While he was happy to reproduce some of the poem’s lines, others were, to his eyes, ‘angry and resentful and vainly consolatory … too raw’ for publication. Read had published his fraternal lament, Auguries of Life and Death, privately in 1919, the same year as his collection of war poetry, Naked Warriors.128 By this means he ring-fenced the recipients of his innermost thoughts. Read was well practised in exploring his intimate past, and it is telling that these private musings remained too painful to be exposed to wider public view. He later developed a keen interest in psychoanalysis, not only through reading, among others, the works of Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but also by exploring how it could be used to further literary criticism.129 Read confided his reluctance to face his wartime traumas to the Swiss critic H. W. Hausermann in 1937. While he admitted that he would have benefitted from undergoing analysis in the 1920s, caution held him back, fearing that wading ‘too deep’ into unknown waters would result in his ‘drowning’.130 Earlier, in 1933, Read had feared unleashing emotions contained since the end of the war. Re-reading his observations proved an unwelcome reminder of the ferocity of the turmoil experienced by his younger self.

Experiences such as those of Read and Sassoon highlight the difficulty men faced when attempting to communicate their feelings of loss. Even these young poets and memoirists, comfortable with literary conventions and expressing themselves via the written word, lacked the requisite language or found themselves disarmed by the emotions they evoked. The two men came from diverse backgrounds. Sassoon, the son of a financier, educated at public school and Cambridge, was a typical member of the elite officer class. Read, the son of a Yorkshire tenant farmer, continued his education at evening classes after leaving school at sixteen. An unexpected legacy from his uncle provided him with the opportunity to study law and economics at Leeds University. Sassoon’s immediate default on the death of Hamo was to fall back on the elegiac conventions of patriotic sacrifice, language that he rejected as the war progressed.131 Read evidently found the necessary language to express the depth of his loss but later appeared trapped by the fear or distaste that his earlier emotions provoked in him. Both these literary young men faltered in finding the appropriate words to express their grief.


Personal narratives reveal that brotherly loss unleashed powerful emotions. Fighting and weeping were not mutually exclusive activities. Men’s adherence to codes of manly behaviour and their desire for emotional privacy meant that strong and unsettling feelings often remained hidden from public view. Men’s awareness of the correct time and place to grieve ensured that emotions did not interfere adversely with the job of warfare, nor their family obligations. Shouldering emotional responsibilities to families and comrades was their way of showing manly love and dedication. Sisters shared a comparable desire for privacy, the seeking out of places at work or within domestic households. Blood ties appear to have offered siblings a safety valve, shielding them through the respect and sympathy accorded to the loss of close kin. Under prescribed conditions, brothers could grieve openly for brothers, and adherence to these codes led to the sympathetic treatment of grieving men by comrades and officers.

Anger provided a means to express one facet of grief, ranging from hot-headed violence to colder acts of revenge. Expressions of loneliness are a common trope in narratives of brotherly loss. Sibling grief is often underestimated, sublimated by the anguish felt by bereaved parents, especially mothers, or masked by the cultural weight of stoicism. Ideals of family unity provided some relief. Reaching out to grieving family members and the reassembly of the family under emotional pressure were acts of filial and fraternal love performed willingly to compensate for physical absences. Intra-generational bonds and an understanding of grief at the peer level of siblings, cousins and friends forged a separate plane of communal mourning and support. The burden of assuaging familial anxieties exposed tensions within families. While Harold Round believed that his mother bore the ‘hardest task’ of sitting and waiting for news, he also acknowledged the emotional toll on himself. What he found hardest of all, he confessed, was ‘writing words of comfort to poor mum’.132 To reduce their trauma, some men and women placed limits on their efforts to reassure their families at home.

But sometimes grief proved too strong an emotion to be contained successfully – it spilt out in both private and, later, published memoirs. Carol Acton considers the ‘linguistic war’ between the consolatory language of grief and mourning and the ‘Old Lie’ of patriotic sacrifice.133 Finding the language to express grief was hard for men and women of all classes. The greater literacy of the elite and their knowledge of literary traditions did not ease this most painful of tasks. Revisiting earlier writings, men and women were discomforted by the reawakening of raw emotions. Ambivalent about their emotional outpourings, many siblings determined to mark the deaths of their childhood companions emotionally as well as factually, overcoming any reluctance to expose their grief.


1 ‘Fred Lloyd’, M. Arthur, Last Post (London, 2005), p. 117.
2 Thomas Lloyd died of wounds on 2 October 1917, aged thirty-one. Bill Lloyd was killed on 23 August 1918, aged twenty-one.
3 S. Bank and M. D. Kahn, The Sibling Bond (New York, 1982), p. 271.
4 J. H. Harvey et al., ‘Fifty Years of Grief: Accounts and Reported Psychological Reactions of Normandy Invasion Veterans’, Journal of Narrative and Life History, 5:4 (1995), pp. 322–333.
5 Spelling and grammar as original. Letter, n.d., W. Burrell, IWM 02/15/1.
6 The impact of declining mortality rates on parents’ experiences of death should be tempered by the fact that infant mortality rates, especially among working-class families, remained high in the 1880s and 1890s. Cannadine, ‘War and Death’, p. 193; R. Mitchison, British Population Change since 1860 (London, 1966), pp. 49–50; Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty, p. 230; A. Gregory, The Silence of Memory. Armistice Day 1919–1946 (Oxford, 1994), p. 22; Roper, The Secret Battle, p. 89.
7 H. Read, The Innocent Eye (Otley, 1933), p. 59.
8 The weighting of casualties towards younger servicemen is born out by Winter’s analysis. One in seventy men aged forty-five to forty-nine was killed, the average across all ages was one in eight. Winter, ‘Britain’s “Lost Generation”’, pp. 450–451.
9 A. Prost, ‘War Losses’, 1914–1918 Online, date accessed: 8 October 2014,
10 Seldon and Walsh, Public Schools and the Great War, pp. 88–90.
11 Ulula, XLVI:343 (1918), p. 121.
12 Board of Educators Report, February 1913; Diocesan Report, 2 May 1913, Pickup Croft School, Lancashire Archives, SMBY/32.
13 Five of the brothers listed on the memorial served with the East Lancs. P. C. School. Unveiling of the War Memorial in the School on Saturday, 16th September, 1922, at 3.0 P.M. (Burnley, 1922).
14 Seldon and Walsh, Public Schools and the Great War, p. 90.
15 Letter, 27 December 1916, Falk, IWM 06/74/1.
16 R. Vansittart, The Mist Procession. The Autobiography of Lord Vansittart (London, 1958), pp. 145–146.
17 Rosenwein, Emotional Communities, p. 24.
18 Diary, 3 March 1918, Lethem, Liddle WW1/DF/074.
19 Rathbone, We That Were Young, pp. 416–418.
20 The Brittains commissioned Graham Glen to paint Edward’s portrait after he had been wounded and awarded the Military Cross. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 438.
21 Rathbone, We That Were Young, p. 418.
22 F. Brett Young, My Brother Jonathan (London, 1928), pp. 480–481.
23 Diary, 6 November 1917, Lethem, Liddle WW1/DF/074.
24 Joy Damousi’s case study of a community focusing on a grieving father remains a rare exploration of the gendered expression of wartime loss. Damousi, The Labour of Loss, pp. 46–64.
25 Strange, ‘Fatherhood Providing and Attachment’, p. 1009.
26 Gregory, The Last Great War, pp. 112–113; Gullace, ‘The Blood of Our Sons’, p. 2.
27 Acton, Grief in Wartime; N. Loraux, Mothers in Mourning (New York, 1998), pp. 36–37.
28 Gregory, The Silence of Memory, pp. 32–33; A. King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain. The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 20–21; S. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War. Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999), pp. 227–228.
29 Jay Winter’s path-breaking cultural study of communities of the bereaved adopted the notion of ‘fictive kinship’ to explore the supportive bonds formed between grieving families and the wider community supporting them. Winter, Sites of Memory, p. 50.
30 Letter, 30 August 1917, A. C. Payne, Liddle WW1/GA/DBC/67.
31 E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (London, 1915, 1976), pp. 296–297.
32 Letter, 13 July 1916, M. Meades, IWM 01/53/1.
33 Roper, The Secret Battle, pp. 210–214.
34 P. Glenconner, Edward Wyndham Tennant: A Memoir by His Mother (London, 1919), p. 34.
35 FLWE 2000/200.
36 Letter, 4 August 1916, in Scarisbrick, My Dear Ralph, pp. 44–45.
37 Both were involved with the Aberdare branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship.
38 Letter, 6 October 1918, Wall, IWM 86/53/1.
39 Boulton, Objection Overruled, p. 220.
40 Percy Wall, ‘Hour at Eve’, Burnett Library of Working Class Autobiographies 3.186.
41 Letter, 9 October 1918, Wall, IWM 86/53/1.
42 Letter, 17 October 1918, Wall, IWM 86/53/1.
43 Kempson, ‘Memory Keepers’, p. 739.
44 K. J. Doka (ed.), Disenfranchised Grief. Recognising Hidden Sorrow (Lexington, MA, 1989).
45 Letter, 9 October 1918, Wall, IWM 86/53/1.
46 Alec writes ‘freely’, stating, ‘For why should you not know?’. Letter to Mary Raws, cited in M. Young and B. Gammage (eds), Hail and Farewell. Letters from Two Brothers Killed in France in 1916 (Kenthurst, NSW, 1995), pp. 149–152.
47 He describes his sister as his ‘kindred spirit’. Letter to Helen McBride, cited in Ibid., p. 146.
48 Letter, 19 August 1916, cited in Ibid., pp. 155–156.
49 Examples of high-profile fathers originally appeared in David Cannadine’s study of wartime grief. Cannadine, ‘War and Death’, p. 214; Roper, The Secret Battle, p. 219.
50 V. Sanders, The Tragi-Comedy of Victorian Fatherhood (Cambridge, 2009).
51 Campbell, IWM 73/37/1.
52 Sanders, The Tragi-Comedy of Victorian Fatherhood, p. 151.
53 C. Addison, Four and a Half Years. A Personal Diary from June 1914 to January 1919 (London, 1939), p. 425.
55 Letter, 16 December 1917, J. O. Evans, IWM 3280.
56 Memoir, Burns, Liddle WW1/GS/0241, pp. 41–42.
57 H. Read, Annals of Innocence and Experience (London, 1940), p. 148.
58 R. Hart-Davis (ed.), Siegfried Sassoon Diaries 1915–1918 (London, 1983), pp. 44–45.
59 Originally applied to those experiencing multiple losses in later life, the term was also adopted during the Aids pandemic. R. Kastenbaum, ‘Death and Bereavement in Later Life’, in A. Kutscher (ed.), Death and Bereavement (Springfield, IL, 1969), p. 51; R. A. Neimeyer and J. Holland, ‘Bereavement Overload’, Encyclopedia of Human Development (London, 2006), pp. 266–267.
60 Das, Touch and Intimacy, p. 111.
61 Bourke, Dismembering the Male, p. 144; Cole, Modernism, p. 139.
62 Vingerhoets, Why Only Humans Weep, p. 131.
64 See, for example, descriptions of life at Eton school in J. A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School. The Emergence and Consolidation of the Educational Ideology (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 43–44.
65 J. Hamlett, ‘Space and Emotional Experience in Victorian and Edwardian English Public School Dormitories’, in S. Olsen (ed.), Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History (London, 2015), p. 21.
66 J. Griffiths, Kith. The Riddle of Childscape (London, 2013), pp. 251–252.
67 Strange, ‘Fatherhood Providing, and Attachment’, p. 1021.
68 Lines written by Lennon Raws, cited in Young and Gammage, Hail and Farewell, p. 172.
69 Vingerhoets, Why Only Humans Weep, p. 97.
70 The term ‘flashbulb memory’ was coined by Brown and Kulik to describe a vivid memory of an episode of great personal and emotional significance. Memoir, Johnston, IWM 02/29/1, pp. 25–26; R. Brown and J. Kulik, ‘Flashbulb Memories’, Cognition 5 (1977), pp. 73–91.
71 T. E. Allibone, ‘Cecil Reginald Burch. 12 May 1901–19 July 1983’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 30 (1984), p. 6.
72 Diary, 7 December 1917, Lethem, Liddle WW1/DF/074.
73 Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 276.
74 Diary, 11 February 1918, D. Crockatt, Liddle WW1/GS/0395.
75 Letter to mother, 14 December 1917, Crockatt, Liddle WW1/GS/0395; Diary, 7 December 1917, Lethem, Liddle WW1/DF/074.
76 Cited in M. Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon. A Biography (London, 2005), pp. 72–73.
77 A copy of Edmund Blunden’s proof copy of ‘Goodbye to All That’, heavily annotated by himself and Sassoon, is held in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon, pp. 346–347.
78 Collings, IWM 77/124/1.
79 A. Watson and P. Porter, ‘Bereaved and Aggrieved: Combat Motivation and the Ideology of Sacrifice in the First World War’, Historical Research, 83:219 (2010), p. 153.
80 M. Snape, ‘Civilians, Soldiers and Perceptions of the Afterlife in Britain during the First World War’, Studies in Church History, 45 (2009), pp. 371–403.
81 Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, p. 127; C. Edmonds [pseud. Carrington], A Subaltern’s War: Being a Memoir of the Great War from the Point of View of a Romantic Young Man (London, 1929).
82 C. Carrington, A Subaltern’s War (London, 1964), pp. 11–12.
85 Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty, pp. 270–271.
86 3 December 1915, in Hart-Davis (ed.), Sassoon Diaries, p. 22.
87 M. Thorpe, Siegfried Sassoon. A Critical Study (London, 1966), p. 15.
88 The poem was written approximately six weeks after Hamo’s death on 1 November 1915. Diary entry, 18 December 1915, Sassoon, p. 27.
89 This poem appeared in the collection ‘A Shropshire Lad’, included in the list of books Sassoon took with him to France. P. Campbell, Siegfried Sassoon. A Study of the War Poetry (Jefferson, NC, 1999), pp. 66–67; XIX, A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad (London, 1896).
90 Housman’s love for Moses Jackson was unrequited, the poem written around the time of Jackson’s marriage in December 1899. Housman’s youngest brother, George, died in the South African War. A. Burnett (ed.), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford, 1987), pp. xlix, 333.
91 C. Efrati, The Road of Danger, Guilt, and Shame. The Lonely Way of A. E. Housman (London, 2002), p. 106.
92 S. Sassoon, Letters to a Critic (Nettlestead, 1976), pp. 13–14.
93 Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty, p. 269.
94 The poem was published three times under this title in 1916 and 1917. S. Sassoon, ‘Brothers’, Saturday Review, 121:3148 (1916); Ibid., Morning-Glory (London, 1916); Ibid., The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems (London, 1917).
95 Ibid., Collected Poems (London, 1947); Hart-Davis (ed.), Sassoon Diaries, p. 27.
96 Sassoon omitted this poem from a special edition of his war poems published in 1919. Thorpe, Siegfried Sassoon, p. 263. S. Sassoon, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (London, 1919).
97 The three volumes comprising the Sherston trilogy, Siegfried Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (London, 1937) are: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (London, 1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (London, 1930, 1985), Sherston’s Progress (London, 1936).
98 Sassoon made this comment to his friend and spiritual mentor, Dame Felicitas Corrigan, towards the end of his life. Cited by Campbell, Siegfried Sassoon, p. 83.
99 Anger is a recognised phase in the five-stages-of-grief model proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It is widely accepted that grief rarely follows linear patterns, and the emotions comprising grief are not easily delineated. E. Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York, 1969).
100 Letter, 12 November 1918, Gordon Potts, IWM 94/23/1.
101 J. Colquhoun, The Making of the Kelvedon War Memorial and the Mystery of the Missing Names (Kelvedon, 2011).
102 Although the official record is silent on Gilby’s motivation, his adamance on this matter is ascribed by one of his descendants as arising from his dissatisfaction with the government’s treatment of veterans. Private correspondence.
103 Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum, pp. 177–192.
104 Ibid., pp. 206–207.
105 Robert ‘Bobbie’ Hanmer was another of Sassoon’s close friends. 1 April 1916, in Hart-Davis (ed.), Sassoon Diaries, p. 52.
106 For example, Adrian Ceasar omits any mention of Hamo. A. Caesar, Taking It Like a Man. Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets – Brooke, Sassoon, Owen, Graves (Manchester, 1993), p. 77; R. Hemmings, Modern Nostalgia. Siegfried Sassoon, Trauma and the Second World War (Edinburgh, 2008), p. 40; P. Parker, The Old Lie. The Great War and the Public School Ethos (London, 1987), p. 238.
107 McLoughlin, Authoring War, p. 56.
108 Although Sassoon was infatuated by David Thomas, the men were not lovers, Caesar, Taking It Like a Man, pp. 74–75; J. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon. The Making of a War Poet (London, 1998), pp. 197–197.
109 4 April 1916, in Hart-Davis (ed.), Sassoon Diaries, pp. 52–53.
110 11 April 1916, in Ibid., p. 54; Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, p. 90.
111 Sassoon, Collected Poems, p. 76.
112 D. Hipp, The Poetry of Shell Shock. Wartime Trauma and Healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon (London, 2005), p. 189; A. Lane, An Adequate Response. The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon (Detroit, 1972), p. 111; Thorpe, Siegfried Sassoon, p. 22.
113 Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, pp. 118–119.
114 Moorcroft Wilson, Sassoon, p. 323.
115 Christian images and concepts are used frequently in Sassoon’s war poetry. Being raised as an Anglican, Sassoon’s education would also have immersed him in the canon of literature that included the King James Bible. T. Bogacz, ‘“A Tyranny of Words”: Language, Poetry, and Antimodernism in England in the First World War’, Journal of Modern History, 58:3 (1986), p. 652; Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, pp. 157–169; Moorcroft Wilson, Sassoon, pp. 193–194.
116 A. Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (London, 2002), p. 1.
117 Second Lieutenant Arnold Vansittart is buried at Brandhoek Military Cemetery, Belgium.
118 Vansittart, The Mist Procession, p. 366.
119 Rathbone, We That Were Young, pp. 70, 123–124.
120 This symbol of cowardice was handed out by women to shame men into fulfilling their manly duty. N. F. Gullace, ‘White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War’, Journal of British Studies, 36:2 (1997), pp. 178–206.
121 Interview, J. W. Dorgan, IWM 9253.
122 Read, Annals, p. 145.
123 For an overview of sentimental fiction’s emotional power, see, N. Bown, ‘Crying over Little Nell’, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 19:4 (2007), pp. 1–13.
124 Dixon, Weeping Britannia, pp. 155–159.
125 H. Stretton, Little Meg’s Children (London, 1868).
126 Read, Annals, pp. 52–53.
127 Read included these musings in a chapter entitled ‘The Impact of War’, Ibid., Annals, pp. 139–159.
128 ‘Auguries of Life and Death’ does not appear in his collection of poetry, Naked Warriors’ (1919), nor in his Collected Poems (1946). Ibid., Annals, pp. 148–149; Ibid., Auguries of Life and Death: Written in Memory of Charles Read, Lieutenant of the Yorkshire Regiment, Born April 24th 1897, Killed in Action at Beaurevoir in France, October 5th 1918 (1919).
129 Ibid., ‘Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism’, The Criterion, III:10 (1925).
130 Letter to H. W. Hausermann, 6 August 1937, quoted in, J. King, The Last Modern. A Life of Herbert Read (New York, 1990), p. 80.
131 Ted Bogacz reviews the ‘commonplace’ argument that war poets like Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were able to encompass the realities of war in their writing only after rejecting the inflated language of ‘high diction’: Bogacz, ‘“A Tyranny of Words”’, pp. 644–645.
132 Letter, 27 November 1916, Collection of letters sent by four brothers, IWM 161111.
133 Acton, ‘Writing and Waiting’, p. 80.

Brothers in the Great War

Siblings, masculinity and emotions


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