"Sticking to a Hateful Task": Resilience, Humour, and British Understandings of Combatant Courage, 1914-1918

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In the years that immediately preceded the outbreak of the First World War, a willingness to die, and die well, in pursuit of a noble objective was lauded as the ultimate act of courage by a diverse range of commentators across the United Kingdom. The story of the deaths of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1911 inspired effusive references to medieval chivalry and Christian sacrifice, and seemed to offer welcome proof that an ancient form of British courage was still very much alive in the twentieth century. This article explores British conceptions of combatant courage during the First World War as understood by the civilian population on the home front and the junior officers and men who bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front. Drawing on often overlooked sources that shed light on troop culture, it argues that while neither group rejected the pre-war paradigm, each embraced a conception of courage that was informed by its own distinctive needs and experiences. Chivalry and dignified self-sacrifice resonated strongly with civilians who suffered unprecedented levels of bereavement and understood their nation’s role in the war as righteous and just. For the soldiers who served in the front lines of an attritional trench war in which personal agency was greatly reduced, a robust rejection of victimhood and an emphasis on perseverance, articulately expressed through humour, became the new ideal of courage.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-98
Number of pages23
JournalWar in History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013

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