Combat Motivation During the First World War

By Craig Stewart-Hunter
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

This paper considers the combat motivations of British men during the First World War; why did men fight, and once in the trenches, continue to figh? The paper focuses on British forces, due to the amount of available material regarding Britain and their continued recruitment and combat activity during the , as well as briefly examining how propaganda might have influenced the minds of the male population into fighting in this conflict. This is done by examining historian’s arguments as to why these men continued to fight and how propaganda drove these men to volunteer and once in the trenches participate in combat. Many historians have gathered numerous accounts of positive propaganda and why men continued to fight in the trenches, by examining these accounts, an argument is constructed regarding the positive reasons involving patriotism, the government and press, but also the reasons why men continued to fight, as after all to fight in the trenches one would need a reason or a just cause to go to war. “War is a compound of a paradoxical trinity: the governments for which it was an instrument of policy; the military for whom it was an exercise of a skill; and the people as a whole, the extent of whose involvement determined the intensity with which the war would be waged.”1

The First World War (1914-1918) has come to be seen as the death of human reason with an enormous loss of life on all participating sides. There are a number of factors that gave rise to the conflict, all of which have been discussed by numerous historians. These include the assignation of a duke, the numerous military pacts between the major imperial European countries and the industrial and military expansion of numerous countries2. All these and more factors contributed to the outbreak of war.

To examine combat motivation it would be prudent to examine although briefly the reason for volunteering to participate in combat. These reasons could range from Patriotism to propaganda, to not even wanting too “miss out”, it would take more than the allocated words to just discuss these in depth, so touching on these ideas briefly, will give us a good base to expand on the idea of combat motivation. Gary Messinger 3, in his introduction to his book, comments on how we perceive propaganda commenting on such imagines as the Nazis, speeches by Lenin and the home front propaganda, such as “Keep Mum”, all of which are what we now perceive as propaganda. These images and speeches show how propaganda came of age during the later part of the Twentieth century. This though is not the case. During the pre war period of the First World War, Messinger explains that the British Government had already in place a small department involved in positive propaganda with the out break of war this department was to expand to involve numerous peers, writers, intelligentsia and artists with the likes of Novelist John Buchan4, Lord Bryce5 and Lord Beaverbrook6 being actively involved. The idea was to feed the general population positive propaganda at home, support the war effort and keep the men in the trenches. Propaganda during the outbreak of the war would evolve into various reports from the front such as the Bryce report7, films and images, all of which are meant to invoke patriotism and extend the already strong jingoistic values that Britain already had. “British society in 1914 was strongly jingoistic”8. This wave of patriotic propaganda throughout the war would help keep the country and its army motivated. Propaganda therefore could be seen as the main reason for the uptake of arms by these men. The propaganda developed in Britain during the run up to the war and during it, is positive, and designed to “Promote acceptance and support from citizens”9, rather than the propaganda designed to incite and change to the structure of the country.10 Add into this mixing bowl of fervent patriotic propaganda a religious tint, by instilling that god was on the side of the British, all these ingredients would bolster the cause to stay and fight once at the front, as after all throughout history this concept of having god on your side to fight the ungodly, made your cause noble and reinforced the justification to fight11. The male population were now reading reports which included the Bryce report, which listed the atrocities that the Germans had carried out during their advance through Belgium, along with a continual bombardment of imagines and newspaper reports of the great struggle abroad. These images included films and posters, two of the most famous; depict the lady of the house and a maid watching as soldiers march past the window with the caption reading “Women of Britain Say Go”12. The other is the famous recruiting poster with Kitchener pointing saying “Britons want you Join your country’s Army”13 All these and more were meant to rouse the fighting spirit in men and cajole the male population into volunteering for the war. Did this work though for the army and its recruitment? At this point in history jingoism and “King and Country” sentiment played on the minds of many young men who would be led by “The pied piper of patriotism into an Imperialist war”14 The call to arms did lead to large numbers joining, and by the 22nd of August over 100,000 men enlisted, which was for many, down to war enthusiasm, the other majority of volunteers would join due to economic climate in England.15 The prospect of a regular income, adventure and the rumour that the war would be over by Christmas would led to many enlisting, in fact over 1 million men by the end of 1914, and by the end of 1915 the army stood at over 2.5 million men, the Government and the army feared though that this mass volunteering would come to an end and in1916 the government introduced conscription taking the army to 3.8 million.16

The question to which we must now address is why these men continued to fight in the trenches, as we have seen propaganda and national jingoism instilled within these men led many to enlisted, but what kept them fighting. On examining various articles and books written by numerous Historians there seems to be one common thread that holds true throughout the argument; discipline and the fear of being shot for desertion in the face of the enemy. 6 Million British Troops served and fought during the First World War17. Cowardice and desertion were seen as a serious threat to the code of moral behaviour by the army. Throughout the period of the war, 3,080 men were condemned to death by military court martial, out of this 18 were executed for cowardice and 266 for desertion. Cowardice and desertion therefore doesn’t account for a large part of military executions. Compared with the actual number of troops who served in the war this amount is a very small percentage.18 “Heroism was valued and the stiff upper lip was the cultural norm in the UK”19. I feel then that the will to continue the fight was down to training, where bonds of friendship were formed and also the time spent at the front within a group of men.

Soldiers when training to kill, would form bonds these strong bonds of friendship, which would extend onto the battlefield where men relied on each other for not just physical support, but also moral support, failure to fight would not only jeopardise themselves, but also their friends. These groups of friends formed in training, once at the front would all fight because the group fought.20 Fighting would therefore mean the survival of yourself, your friends and the group. “One of the simplest truths of war, that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going…… is the near presence or presumed presence of a comrade” 21 .Simon Wessely argues that the ideology and perhaps jingoism when men got to the trenches would disappear, they fought because they were part of a tight knit group that was self sustaining. Men looked after each other. Not pulling your weight and killing, would end with your death or a friend’s death22. In Edgar Jones article he uses accounts and letters from the First World War, where at first recruits had a resistance to killing, this could be overcome by training and being placed at the front to kill 23, leading to men “adoring war”24 many of the accounts Jones uses are from letters and diaries of men in the trenches, and give a good insight as to why these men stayed and fought stating that in many accounts men were happy in battle “I had to confess to myself that it was one of the happiest moments of my life”25.Men also found that “My memories of life in the trenches…is the comradeship that grew up between us”26 .The First World War was in the words of Jones become “Impersonal” which is why it would seem that men would be willing to fight, as they were not actually facing the men they killed.27

In concluding, past conflicts involving British troops one conjures up the scene of long lines of red coated soldiers with rifles pointing towards the enemy only yards away and firing. Making it more personal way of killing. We know though that the First World War was not a personal war for men and as Jones noted it was impersonal. Britain was using all its persuasive powers in propaganda to put pressure on the men of the country to fight. All would lead to the mass enlistment of men. What kept the men fighting though is another matter. We have seen military discipline was harsh if you deserted or failed to follow orders. The fact though that stands prevalent throughout the conflict, are the bonds created by the men themselves and the will to fight for survival, the survival of friends and the group. This small unit cohesion or comradeship can all be seen as sources of morale and combat motivation. In this brief overview of combat motivation the one thing therefore that holds the men in place to fight, is not patriotism or King and country, but the will to survive, some historians arguments of patriotism fall short as these sentiments would evaporate when confronted with shell fire and death on arrival at the front line and the strong will to survive took over.


1.) Clausewitz, C Von “On War” Trans M Howard, (Princeton 1976) P 89.

2.) French, D . “Allies, Rivals and Enemies: British Strategy and War Aims during the First World War”. in Turner J(ed) “Britain and the First World War” ( London 1988) . p22-30.

3.) Messinger, G, “ British Propaganda and the state in the First World War”. (Manchester University Press 1992)

4.) Messinger, G, “British”. pp85-98.

5.) Messinger, G, “British”. pp71-84.

6.) Messinger, G, “British”. pp122-143.

7.) Messinger, G, “British”.p72-75

8.) Marwick , A, “The Deluge: British society and the First World War” (London 1973) P 339

9.) Silverstein,B. “Toward a Science of PropagandaPolitical Physiology, Vol.8, No1,(Mar ,1987),pp 49-59.

10.) Silverstein,B “Toward a Science of Propaganda” P 49.

11.) Wilkinson, A. “The Church of England and the First World War” ( Southampton,1978) p12-15

12.) Wilkinson, A. “The Church” p94

13.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Kitchener_Wants_You. (Accessed 31.10.09)

14.) Gregory, A “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment”. In Braydon, G.(ed) “Evidence, history, and the Great War : Historians and the impact of 1914-18” (London 2003) p67-69.

15.) Gregory, A “British War” p79-80.

16.) Dewey, P “The New Warfare and Economic Mobilization”. In Turner J (ed) “Britain and the First World War” ( London 1988) . p74-76.

17.) Martin, G , “ Atlas of World War I” (Oxford University Press 1994) p12.

18.) French, D , “Discipline and the Death Penalty in the British Army in the War against Germany during the Second World War”. Journal of Contemporary History. Vol 33, No 4 ( Oct, 1988). P531-532.

19.) Jones, E“The Psychology of Killing: The Combat Experience of British Soldiers during the First World War”. Journal of Contemporary History. Vol 41 No2 P 234.

20.) Wessely, S “ Twentieth –Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown”. Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 41, No 2, ( 2006) p 276.

21.) Marshall, S.L.A, “Men Against Fire. The Problem of Battle Command in Future War” ( New York 1947) p 42.

22.) Wessely, S “ Twentieth –Century” p283.

23.) Jones, E , “The Psychology of Killing”. p229

24.) Jones, E. “The Psychology of Killing” p 233

25.) Jones, E. “The Psychology of Killing” p 233

26.) Jones, E. “The Psychology of Killing”p245

27.) Jones, E. “The Psychology of Killing”. P237.

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