in Brothers in the Great War

The dominance of the ‘soldier’s tale’ has marginalised many other wartime narratives. Fraternal stories are embedded in narratives of the Great War, informing our understanding of the network of domestic ties sustaining men, and the performance of wartime masculinities. Vital signifiers of sibling ‘love’ illustrate the breadth and depth of the support, comfort and protection provided to combatants, and the emotional labours to preserve their memory.

Brothers appear as an ‘absent present’ in the historiography of war. Possibly the very prevalence of fraternal relationships has made them largely invisible, ‘hidden’ in plain sight. Despite insightful studies dedicated to sibling relationships, there are surprising omissions in histories of families, masculinities and wartime. Privileging the lateral ties of the ‘brotherhood of the trenches’ has led to the presence and significance of real-life brothers being overlooked. The all-embracing concept of military comradeship obscured not only differences in class, ethnicity and religion but also the fact that many brothers served alongside or in close proximity to their siblings. The predominance of the ‘soldier’s tale’ is an inversion of the tendency of women’s narratives to foreground their roles as sisters and lovers, pushing war work to the periphery.1 By bringing ‘blood’ brotherhood to the forefront, Brothers in the Great War has widened our perception of wartime and domestic masculinities.

The growing interest in the history of emotions has invoked ‘an emotional turn’.2 Concepts such as William Reddy’s ‘emotional regimes’ and Barbara Rosenwein’s ‘communities of emotion’ provide a useful framework when considering the public and private discourses influencing emotional behaviours and expressions. Too often their theories of emotion are considered in the abstract or as separate analytical tools. As this study has demonstrated, playing close attention to the intersections of differing emotional codes reveals the complex acts of navigation undertaken by men and women in responding to the demands of specific situations and valued relationships. The fluidity of Rosenwein’s notion of overlapping concentric circles explains how, in times of particularly strong emotional regimes (such as wartime), family values mediated the dominant regimes of patriotic sacrifice and emotional control. Closer scrutiny of communities of emotion shows that a gendered reading of these groups masks the multiplicity of roles that individual members play in both supporting and being supported by each other. Applying a lateral perspective highlights the role of siblings and generational peers in guiding men and women through the intersections of divergent communities.

Deep affection for siblings is a common motif in personal narratives. Brothers in the Great War complements the growing scholarship on fatherhood and romantic love by drawing attention to this neglected aspect of men’s emotional development. Brothers present a different masculine role model to younger brothers than fathers do for their sons.3 The absence of an explicit verbal language of love to represent affectionate sibling relationships must not be equated with an absence of profound feelings.4

The engrained family culture of ‘felt’ values instilled by parents and reinforced by moral instruction strengthened sibling ties. These emphasised kindness, tolerance and unity within domestic relationships – a counterweight to the more rigorous model of manly behaviour espoused by muscular Christianity. Leonore Davidoff usefully cautions us not to dismiss the power of normative expectations. We too often underestimate the cultural force of familial emotional codes and values.5 Men’s accounts strongly suggest that these should be given equal consideration when considering the emotional shifts in society arising from wartime emotional economies. Men’s attitudes to military exemptions and their battle-hardened advice to their brothers to avoid military service demonstrate this nuanced weighting of duty to sibling, family and state.

Wartime sources provide a unique insight into these fraternal relationships at the tail end of the ‘long family’. For men and women growing up in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, large families were the norm. Most children grew up alongside siblings. Within these sprawling families, a number of factors determined sibling power dynamics including, age, birth order and personality. Cultural representations of children focus on their quality of epitomising childhood. Scholarly attention has shown the dividends of examining their lifelong bonds. The emotional, practical and financial preoccupations of families continued long into adulthood, ebbing and flowing depending on needs and circumstances. Despite the steady contraction of family size, the bonds of siblinghood sustained continuities in men’s domestic lives, informing our understanding of the emotional lives of British people in the early twentieth century.

Examining family practices helps us to understand how people ‘do’ family relationships in their regular, everyday activities.6 The late Victorian period was characterised by heavily gendered roles, especially in middle-class families. Focusing on men and women’s roles as spouses and parents rather than as siblings presents a skewed account of the lives of working-class families. Experiential evidence moves us away from these prescriptions, in particular the categorisation of ‘caring’ roles as feminine and of ‘breadwinning’ as an emblem of manliness. This study’s emphasis on family practices has shown a potential missing element in the explanation for inter-generational changes in parenting practice that an over-reliance on expert and popular discourses cannot fully explain. Commonalities in familial values and sibling practices explain why siblings of different classes and genders expressed their bonds in remarkably similar ways.

Brothers in the Great War has called for a realignment of our understanding of wartime masculinities. Although the myth of the ‘rush to colours’ by eager volunteers has been challenged, retrospective histories of gender published during the centenary of the First World War perpetuate the gendered expectation that ‘real’ men fight wars.7 In contrast, the sibling’s-eye view of younger brothers demonstrates the underlying trepidation that men experienced before departing for war. Siblings were quick to caution their brothers to ‘keep out’ of it if possible, or at least to avoid the worse arenas of combat. With so many men, and presumably their dependants, seeing little shame in not fighting, due to their weighty domestic and business responsibilities, a revised image of the non-combatant male begins to emerge. The scarcity of first-hand accounts from non-combatants has clouded our understanding of non-martial masculinity during wartime. This often presents a polarised view of ‘true’ masculinity embodied in the image of the ‘soldier-hero’, versus ‘unmanly’ conscientious objectors, malingerers and profiteers.8 An over-reliance on elite narratives has exacerbated this: financially secure families had less call to depend on the vital contribution made to household coffers by young adults.

Growing up, men routinely performed caring tasks for younger siblings. Categorising these mundane tasks as ‘acts of devotion’ expands our appreciation of how their performance forged bonds between brothers and sisters. With its social and cultural focus on brother-brother ties, Brothers in the Great War has examined the social and emotional connections bonding male siblings during wartime. Caring and breadwinning duties intertwined and shifted over time. Daily occupations were not merely a means of surviving ‘but also a way of relating and valuing’.9 Family bonds may be more tender or intense because economic relations are critical to mutual survival.10 Working-class men and women straddled the fine line between breadwinning and dependency in the years between leaving school at fourteen and being officially recognised as adults at twenty-one. Many poorer households were heavily reliant on the additional source of income that they represented. Family good was placed ahead of personal gratification or individual desires and was an engrained value helping to explain why, when faced with conscription, ordinary men strove to maintain these responsibilities, exercising a calculative choice to claim an exemption on domestic grounds. Single men supporting dependent parents and siblings questioned the fairness of their wellbeing and financial security being sacrificed to the military imperative. Brothers and sisters were expected to pool business and familial obligations to free one or more for service. Fraternal decisions were made with an eye to the future, ensuring that returning veterans could pick up their business and personal affairs when the war ended.

Emotional economies of wartime grief have been the subject of much analysis. The seismic casualties of the Great War proved a watershed moment in the culture of mourning and bereavement. Male and sibling grief is often underestimated, sublimated as it was by the anguish felt by bereaved parents, or masked under the cultural weight of stoicism. If, as Jalland suggests, men’s defences could not survive the deaths of their closest friends, what does this say about sibling deaths?11 By demonstrating the prevalence of fraternal loss in men’s wartime narratives, Brothers in the Great War has called into question the full extent of our understanding of the emergence of a regime of emotional repression during the Second World War. Fraternal support has been subsumed by the centrality of the maternal role as family gatekeeper. By focusing on siblinghood, this study has added to the growing body of evidence advocating for the primacy of domestic ties in the lives of fighting men.12 Reliance on the indisputable fact that mothers were the main recipients of letters sent home by soldiers on the front has had a reductive effect on interpretations of the range of support offered by siblings. Collections of sustained fraternal correspondence testify to the distinctiveness of these relationships within the family unit. At times, brothers and sisters were the recipients of highly emotional or graphic confidences. In this important way they supplemented the support provided by mothers while at the same time sharing the filial duty of shielding their mothers.

Filial support to bereaved mothers provides an alternative perspective to Roper’s conceptualisation that the ‘emotional survival’ of soldiers depended in part on the phenomenal practical and emotional efforts made by their mothers. The strain on young men and women of the privileging of maternal loss has not been fully explored. A full understanding of this emotional burden demands an equal focus on lateral and vertical planes of support. Ted Hughes’s description of his soldier-brother as an ‘absent God’ provides a highly evocative image of the all-consuming absence of fighting men within family life.13 This study has observed a similar intensification of brother–brother bonds to that found between middle-class sisters and their brothers, a significant indication of their emotional ties. Generally, broadening our understanding of the communities of support offered to and by individual family members to combatants counteracts the inevitable privileging of the maternal role.

Fragmented discourses of grief reveal patterns of emotional behaviours following the loss of a loved sibling. Each trope suggests a greater complexity to male wartime grief than has previously been acknowledged. Apart from highlighting the loneliness of this experience for many young serving men, accounts demonstrate the level of compassion offered to bereaved siblings by their comrades. Acts of compassionate kindness were both a response to men’s efforts to abide by combatant codes of stoicism and recognition of the emotional pull of blood ties. Witnesses to fraternal loss found it a disquieting experience, prompting calls for a prohibition on brothers serving together. The inherent respect of soldiers for blood ties clashed with the necessary emotional hardening of fighting men in the face of mounting casualties.

Within men’s narratives, we see a subversion of codes of silence. Men wrote publicly about the depth of their loss in the following months, years and decades. Silence can be construed as a ‘language of memory, a powerful conveyer of meaning’. Yet ‘silence-breakers’ perform a vital role by breaching family boundaries so as to inform later generations of the personal ravages of war.14 Some fraternal acts of memory keeping deliberately sought to place intimate loss in the public sphere.

Public memories of the Great War often drown out private, more intimate memories. The scale of casualties is almost unimaginable to comprehend. Bodies of dead soldiers became ‘official’ property, buried alongside their comrades in military cemeteries. Individual names became subsumed in the mass of losses. This anonymisation process explains siblings’ compulsion to mark the particular war stories and sacrifice of brothers, salvaging individual stories from the incomprehension of mass slaughter. Scrutiny of acts of grieving demonstrates that men and women often registered the profundity of their loss in isolation. When including these deeply personal expressions of grief in their public memoirs, men were not necessarily challenging those societal and martial values in wide circulation in wartime society. Abiding by these emotional norms was an affirmation of their masculinity and a way of restating the values central to their former lives. While imbuing their life stories with these public standards, they were impelled to record their particular losses – a marker of the depth of intimate bonds. Undertaking this responsibility required a degree of ‘emotion work’ as men attempted to locate the war within their own life stories and those of their siblings and wider families. Through these complex acts of interpretative labour, men performed a final act of devotion for their brothers.

Care must be taken not to present an over-sanitised view of sibling ties. Conflict was an unexceptional part of siblinghood, oftentimes transitory but with the capacity to descend into complete breaches.15 Naturally, there will be less archival material when relationships were distant or marked by disdain or acrimony. Alex King remarks on the ‘fundamental assumption’ informing commemorative acts: that the dead should be respected and what they did in the war should be valued.16 This assumption feeds into the reluctance to speak ill of the dead and the tendency to eulogise their qualities. Men would have been mindful of the sensibilities of a specific audience, namely their parents, surviving siblings and close friends. Reflecting on their childhoods, most men and women reported that they had got on well with their siblings. Parental strictures promoting unity appear to have been largely effective in establishing close sibling bonds. The main reasons offered for strongly negative relationships were a ‘breach’ of family and societal values. If brothers were bullies, or drank too much, or did not pull their weight as breadwinners, they were subject to more direct criticism. Even here, caution must be exercised. Testimonies offered conflicting evidence as men reflected on childhood memories and impressions from the distance of age. Tempering the more eulogistic sibling portraits are examples of men trying to write honestly or fairly about their brothers, not masking character flaws, nor their dislike for each other. Restoring the particular personality of the individual by presenting a ‘true’ portrait can be seen as a further attempt to preserve that individual’s memory.

The dominance of the ‘soldier’s tale’ has marginalised many other wartime narratives. Fraternal stories are also embedded in narratives of the Great War, informing our understanding of the network of domestic ties sustaining men and of the performance of wartime masculinities. These vital signifiers of sibling ‘love’ illustrate the breadth and depth of the support, comfort and protection provided to combatants, and the emotional labours to preserve their memory.


1 J. Marcus, ‘Afterward’, We That Were Young (New York, 1989), pp. 472–473.
2 Plamper, ‘The History of Emotions’, p. 237.
3 Connell, Masculinities, p. 122.
4 Strange, Fatherhood and the British Working Class, pp. 15–16.
5 Davidoff, Thicker than Water, p. 252.
7 Grayzel and Proctor, Gender and the Great War, p. 5.
8 Bibbings, Telling Tales about Men; Dawson, Soldier Heroes.
9 E. P. Thompson, ‘Happy Families: Review of Lawrence Stone, the Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800’, New Society, 8 September (1977), p. 501.
10 Medick and Sabean, ‘Interest and Emotion in Family and Kinship Studies’, p. 27.
11 P. Jalland. ‘Bereavement and Mourning (Great Britain)’, 1914–1918 Online (2014), date accessed: 25 September 2015, encyclopedia.1914–
12 Bourke, Dismembering the Male; Meyer, Men of War; Roper, The Secret Battle.
13 Reid, Letters of Ted Hughes, p. 699; K. Kennedy, ‘“A Tribute to My Brother”’; Woollacott, ‘Sisters and Brothers in Arms.’
14 Winter, War Beyond Words, pp. 201–202.
15 Atkins, We Grew Up Together, pp. 163–166; Bank and Kahn, The Sibling Bond, p. 102; Davidoff, Thicker than Water, p. 254; Harris, Siblinghood and Social Relations in Georgian England.

Brothers in the Great War

Siblings, masculinity and emotions


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