I am currently supposed to be writing an article on the politics of voluntary medical services in wartime but keep on being distracted by thoughts about age and class in relation to wartime masculinity.
‘Indeed, to the end of his life the Dean never really understood what work it meant to run a house, a college, or a camp efficiently. All through his life meals appeared, rooms were cleaned, beds were made, clothes were washed and mended, and he took this for granted.’ (P. Pare and D. Harris, Eric Milner-White 1884-1963, A Memoir (London, 1965) quoted in E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Palgrave, 2011).)
Milner-White served as an army chaplain during the war, hence Madigan’s interest in him, but the point he is making about the class background of the majority of Anglican chaplains (public school and university educated, middle to upper class social millieu) and the sense of entitlement that this bred applies equally to a great number of other men who served in combatant roles during the war, as Madigan himself notes. The idea that these men might not have known how to run a camp, because that sort of organizational work was something that others did, is quite a startling one. It is forcing me to ask who had the sort of organizational and logistics skills to make the army function in wartime (I am starting to believe the old soldiers’ theory that the NCOs really did run everything) and to return to Ross McKibbin’s endlessly fascinating discussion of the stratification of social class in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998) for a reminder of the complexities of the British class system in the first half of the twentieth century. It is easy to talk about the ‘middle classes’ and assume that we know what we mean by that (usually ourselves) but applying that label historically takes some careful thought, something I will admit I haven’t been taking enough care with recently. I tend to focus on continuities in my work, ways in which social and cultural assumptions have not changed that much over time despite all the great historical event of the last hundred or so years, or at least have developed from a common base that remains recognizable today. It is very healthy to be reminded that some things have changed enormously and that getting to grips with why those changes occurred and what the implications might be is part of my job.
And then this morning I received an e-mail from my colleague asking if I could recommend any studies on the experiences of middle-aged men during the war. And I can’t. Age was a hugely important aspect of the recruitment process in Britain during the war and had profound influence on ideas of appropriate service and, consequently, masculinity during the war years. (It was also hugely influential in ideas about shell shock, something I am exploring for a paper I hope to give at a conference in the spring.) Yet, while underage volunteerism has been discussed fairly extensively in the literature, I can think of no study of those too old to serve. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of over-aged men who volunteered, and many did serve in non-combatant roles (including those being studied by my colleague who contributed to the logistics effort). But there is no systematic academic analysis that I can think of. If anyone can suggest any, I would be profoundly grateful as this is something that I am going to have to look into in more depth, if only because I suspect a number of the orderlies and ambulance drivers I am studying fit into this category.
And, after that digression, I return to the politics of the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Friends Ambulance Unit.