a1 University of Essex
This article is concerned with the longing for home of British soldiers during the First World War. What, it asks, can such longings reveal about the psychological impact of trench warfare? Historians have differed in the significance that they ascribe to domestic attachments. Some argue that a ‘cultural chasm’ developed between the fronts, producing anger and disillusionment among soldiers which would surface fully fledged after the war, while others assert the continuing vitality of the links with home. Evidence for both these perceptions can be found in the letters written by British soldiers to their families. The functions of nostalgia could range from reassurance or momentary relief from boredom and impersonal army routines, through flight from intolerable anxiety, to survival through the power of love. Although animated by solitude, nostalgia provided a means of communication with loved ones. Its emotional tones varied according to the soldier's age and the nature of his attachments to home. The young soldier's reminiscences of home conveyed, not just the comforting past, but the hateful present. Nostalgia, being rooted in early memories of care, could be a potent vehicle for arousing the anxieties of loved ones, especially mothers. Among married men, the desire to return to wives and children could provide a powerful motivation for survival. This analysis suggests a different and more varied account of the genesis of the ‘disillusionment story’ of the war than is put forward in some recent studies. Among men of the ‘war generation’ particularly, disillusionment was not only a post-war construction, an artefact of cultural memory, but a powerful legacy of the emotional experience of the war itself.
(Online publication May 11 2011)
* I would like to thank the following people for giving me permission to quote from family correspondence: D. Anderton for the papers of E. H. Anderton; W. A. C. Baker for the papers of A. C. Baker; M. Brown for the papers of S. E. Brown; E. Buckeridge for the papers of E. G. Buckeridge; G. Hinson for the papers of W. C. Christopher; the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum for the papers of J. A. C. Clarke; S. Roome for the papers of T. Corless; B. Botting for the papers of H. L. Davis; D. Lynch for the papers of H. P. Jarvis; J. Keeling for the papers of A. Gibbs; W. Spray for the papers of J. W. Hickson; Leeds University Library for the papers of A. Hooper, K. Hooper and L. Hooper; D. Hubbard for the papers of A. H. Hubbard; T. Leland for the papers of H. J. C. Leland; Leeds University Library for the papers of I. McLeod; S. Brotherton for the papers of S. B. Smith; J. Timson for the papers of W. Munton; and A. Urwick for the papers of L. Urwick.