The concept of masculinity – just like femininity – went through great change during the hard four years of war. If, on the one hand, the link between masculinity and soldiery become stronger because of the social discourse around patriotism, on the other, the terrible circumstances of trench warfare allowed the emergence of a different, more intense and intimate way to express friendship and emotional support among men.
It is still true today: we do think of the warrior as the perfect expression of masculinity. This was not always the case. The studies about masculinity are surprisingly recent – they only started in the late 1990s – but everything points to one fact: up to the mid-1800s, the soldierly ideal of manliness wasn’t dominant. It rather stood in competition with other masculinity notions – like that of husband, father, or son – and only towards the end of the 1800s masculinity and military life came together and became almost inseparable. Slowly, the soldier – the warrior, the fighting man – became the expression of masculinity against which men’s actions were always weighted.
By the early 1900s, right before the Great War, the idea of martial masculinity had reached its apex. The war became almost a test of manhood, defined by courage, strength and the spirit of sacrifice, an idea that was common to all European nations.
In the early phases of the war, this was the dominant ideal. Masculinity and soldiering was practically the same thing. Therefore young men were encouraged to join the army to support their nation and to show their manliness. It soon became a strong pressure, and men who couldn’t or wouldn’t join were considered effeminate, weak, cowards. For example, in Britain, the symbolic gesture of women handing out white feathers to men of military age who hadn’t joined the war effort became an act of shame and an obvious social pressure. Basically, the man who didn’t go to war was not a true man.
Besides, many young men joined precisely to show their manliness, seeking an ideal of heroic deeds that was abstract. The actuality of war soon changed these young men’s perception of heroic deeds and how they expressed masculinity, though studies have shown that war didn’t really shatter the perception of manliness but morphed it.
For these men, the ‘home front’ as a concept – home, family, emotional comfort, belonging – merged and mix with the ‘war front’ concept – danger, death, emotional shock – and created a very profound new experience that was difficult to express outside of the trenches.Homoeroticism (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) the terrible circumstances of trench warfare allowed the emergence of a different, more intense and intimate way to express friendship and emotional suppoert among men #WWI #masculinity Click To Tweet
Intimacy as a fight against death
Trench warfare and the slaughter of mechanised war transformed not just the ideal of the heroic warrior – the ‘old lie’ as it was often referred to in letters and diaries and later poetry and war novels – but also the ideal of masculinity.
In the trenches of WWI, the norms of tactile contact between men changed profoundly and became more intimate and intense. The omnipresent death and the fear of mutilation, the constant fire, and illness gave soldiers an emotional nakedness that invited gestures and attitudes impossible – improper? – in civilian life, and that sometimes superseded even differences of class. That emotional nakedness was the place where a wife or a mother would have been – many soldiers were teenagers or just a little older – giving comfort and care. But mothers and wives were very far away. Therefore fellow soldiers took their place. Men cured and fed their friends when ill, wrapped blankets around their shoulder in the cold nights, and huddle together as they slept.
It was a level of intimacy created by danger and deprivation that was almost impossible to explain outside of that environment. Holding hands, for example, was quite common, as was kissing or holding each other. These were all expressions of affection that became an opposition and a triumph over death. A celebration of life in a place where men lived constantly under fire, among rotting corpses of fallen comrades and in danger of becoming ill or maimed. Physical contact was an expression of the wonderful assurance of being alive.
It was a way for soldiers to fight against the depersonalisation of the industrial war. Even in a place where people died constantly, death never became granted. Holding a friend as he died, kissing him on the brow (the “mother’s kiss” as it was called) became gestures of supreme beauty, something that – among the grounding power of war – allowed these men to remain human beings.
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Masculinities
British Library – Sensuous Life in the Trenches
World War I Centenary – The Dying Kiss: Gender and Intimacy in the Trenches of World War I