The Nation in Arms: Myth or reality?

In the First World War, many soldiers did not fight in a spirit of patriotism, but the war did prove a crucible for nationhood and nationalism.
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If the purpose of battle, and war, is to break the enemy’s will to continue resistance, then at what point, and under what conditions, do protagonists break? How can some belligerent personnel sustain even very heavy casualties and keep fighting, and why is it that territory, and particular locations, inspire acts of incredible sacrifice?

On October 22, 1914, during the First World War, one German attack just south of the Belgian town of Ypres was held by Allied forces only with the greatest difficulty. Many casualties had been caused by German artillery fire in a very short period. Rudimentary trenches were flattened by the density and power of the shelling, and reinforcing troops were forced to lie out in the open to repel a German infantry assault. At one point, a machine gun team, placed in a prominent farmhouse overlooking the now devastated front line, took a direct hit and all were killed instantly. The nearby defending company, about 100 strong, was entirely overrun and wiped out. A similar fate befell the adjoining company. Here, one man left alive and unwounded, a junior non-commissioned officer, realising he was the only survivor, shot himself to prevent his capture. In the next sector, one young man, having killed five Germans in hand-to-hand fighting, and who broke his bayonet in this intense close quarter action, snatched up a German officer’s sword and accounted for more of his enemy: he was later found alive, but only just, with six wounds.

Such incidents were all too typical of the Western Front during the First World War. Yet it is the identity of the defending troops which is so intriguing. The NCO who had shot himself in desperation to avoid capture was Jemadar Kapur Singh, and the man who seized the officer’s sword was Havildar Gagna: two men from the sub-continent of India, fighting in a Belgian field, drawn from an Asian regiment who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the British Empire.

The ‘Nation in Arms’ is often thought now to have been a concept that led thousands of willing young men to unnecessary deaths on the battlefields of Europe, the Middle East and Africa during the First World War. Indeed, the systems of nationalism and imperialism that harnessed the manpower of a generation have been condemned both at the time and since for the vast slaughter of that conflict. The enigma is how political ideas of common identity and territoriality could have produced a war of such intense lethality and savagery. How is it that these two systems of government, exclusive in nature yet intended to generate civil cohesion, can just as equally motivate men and women to fight to the death, even across the boundaries of identity which might otherwise define them? Why is it that these polities collide with such passion, and yet sustain their populations through all manner of pain, hardship and loss in an enduring way? And to what extent did the belligerence and sacrifice represent a unique or universal conception of territoriality and cohesion in these two systems?

The First World War is a clear illustration of the contradictions and value of nations and empires in armed conflict. As the war extended in duration, it was noticeable that differences appeared in the perspectives of front-line soldiers and the civilians behind the lines. While political leaders exhorted their populations to make great efforts, and sacrifices, for the nation or the empire, many soldiers exhibited a derisory attitude towards such platitudes. Robert Graves, a British officer who compiled an honest memoir of the war in Goodbye to All That (1929), claimed that patriotism had no place in the trenches and was considered fit only for ‘civilians and prisoners’. And yet, despite this division of views, many soldiers retained a quiet faith in the idea that their cause was just and they would not betray their state, even when expressing such sentiments was thought inappropriate. Equally, there was rather more doubt on the civilian side than usually acknowledged. Indeed, resistance to the war was generated by those at home, and the revolutions that broke the war effort of Germany and Russia were led by the civilians, not the soldiers.

War has always been used by nation states, empires and political movements to justify ideas, sometimes long after the event. The Europeans referred to colonial wars as the means to explain the rationale of empire as part of a ‘civilising mission’. Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister of the 1890s, noted that colonial campaigns in Africa and Asia were the ‘surf that marked the advancing tide of civilisation’. The colonial conflicts were used in the same period by both imperialists and opposing nationalists to argue that their cause had been just because of the savagery of their adversaries.

Yet these wars also produced forms of anti-nationalism as well as critics of imperialism. The First World War was remarkable for popularising Bolshevism, although other experiments, such as the Spartacist rising, the Khilafat movement and pan-Arabism failed. In Turkey, the aftermath of the First World War produced new impetus for exclusive nationalist ideology on the ruins of the more inclusive Ottomanism, and this model of secular nationalism, led by a reforming charismatic leader, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, inspired many others across the Middle East and beyond. President Woodrow Wilson, in his advocacy of peace in 1917–18, argued that national self-determination would end wars, an idea that nationalists across the world embraced with enthusiasm, despite the assertion being made without any evidence to support it. The purpose of nationalism and imperialism was to popularise the notion of a cohesive, and therefore strong polity. Strength would ensure its resilience in the face of both internal and external threats.

In the first flush of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, there were many millions of Europeans who embraced the opportunity to serve their nation, their empire and their own personal interests, often blending them and adding further justification through notions of self-defence, territorial integrity and religious protection. Across the globe, many thousands of men in imperial armies saw no contradiction in serving seemingly distant or alien polities, and transferred their allegiance, often with limited conditions, from the local to the metropolitan, and did so with relative ease. Recent migrants from Britain to Australia and New Zealand, for example, were eager to demonstrate their loyalty by enlisting as volunteers into imperial formations that would serve in Egypt, Palestine, Gallipoli and France. Empires and nations therefore acted as vessels for the transmission of men, cognitively, emotionally and physically, from peacetime to the zones of conflict. Once through training or in combat theatres, new layers of allegiance, cohesion and identity were forged or developed, some of which evoked idealised notions of the past, or obedience to military and social discipline, but most of which were also situated in pragmatic demands for local cooperation and survival.

If ideology mattered, so too did geography. The threat to hearth, homeland and empire was invoked on both sides of the First World War. German writers emphasised the future threat to the integrity of Germany, while the military leadership conceived of new colonial possessions on the ruins of Russia and in the Middle East. These ideas were designed to popularise the war effort, and keep the people committed to imperial or national defence.

Moreover, territory, the ground itself, became the subject of intense military effort. Even relatively small territorial features became the arenas of considerable sacrifice, including Verdun, Gallipoli and Ypres. In other words, the situation was more nuanced than the orthodoxies conveyed about the war today. In much of the literature, nations and empires were part of the iconography, along with upper-class leadership, that was held responsible after the conflict for prejudice, vast numbers of casualties, defeat and betrayal. But the reality was far more complex and varied, and, indeed, more deeply rooted in a sense of place and territoriality than usually acknowledged.

In the fighting, where the protection of the earth was essential given the lethality of modern weapon systems and the absence of effective means of crossing ground against an entrenched enemy, even minor features in the landscape acquired considerable significance. These were rendered into the lexicon of the soldiers’ lives and nation, and thus domesticated and sacralised at the same time. Trenches were given names of streets or provinces from home; national and imperial titles were conferred on hills, strongpoints and redoubts. This transformation of the alien into the familiar was critical under the conditions the men faced.

In the book Tommy Goes to War, by Malcolm Brown, it is recorded that Tom MacDonald of the 9th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, wrote in August 1916 from his position in a shattered, formerly forested area above Ypres: ‘The woods had changed hands by repeated German counter attacks and shelling, and it had been difficult to bury the dead. The trees were criss-cross, with shattered, splintered limbs, and the stench was awful, and we could hardly put a pick in the ground or shovel [without which] we would strike a buried body and clothing. The ground was pock-marked with shell holes everywhere and in one place we found a whole machine gun team buried by shell fire.’

The same book also quotes a description of the ruins of Ypres itself by Major RS Cockburn of the 10th Royal Rifle Corps: ‘Leaning miserably over all [was] the gaunt, maimed cathedral tower and Cloth Hall, left to be as great a mockery of civilisation as the world will ever see. I suppose that men will flock to see the ghastly remains of the city [after the war]. Let them walk with reverent and humble step.’

Many sites where the fighting had taken place were scenes of devastation. Several settlements along the Western Front were not rebuilt, but generally there were immediate efforts to commence reconstruction. Battlefields were cleared of debris and ordnance, and burial parties, mainly made up of veterans, reinterred and consolidated grave sites. Winston Churchill was not alone in desiring that Ypres, the Belgian city which had been the focal point of fighting for the British Army throughout the war and which had been almost flattened by the conflict, should remain a ruin. He believed that it would stand as a memorial to the sacrifice of tens of thousands of Britons and their Commonwealth partners. A 1920s guidebook to the area noted the words of Lt Col Beckles Wilson thus: ‘There is not a single half-acre in Ypres that is not sacred. Their [British soldiers’] blood has drenched its cloisters and its cellars.’

There was also a desire to see wooden prefabricated kiosks, selling souvenirs and teas to battlefield pilgrims and tourists, removed, because their gaudy and overtly commercial presence represented an affront to the sacralised site. The Belgians disagreed and were eager to restore their city to its functional status quo ante bellum. The Cloth Hall and cathedral were thus rebuilt, and the town around them. The British nevertheless constructed a memorial gate on the Menin Road, completed in 1927, which recorded the names of over 54,000 men who were missing in the Ypres Salient, their bodies never having been recovered. When it was opened, by Field Marshal Lord Plumer, the commander of II Army which had fought in the Ypres Salient, the poignant announcement was made to the families that, while this was a memorial to the missing, ‘they are no longer missing; they are here’. The memorial pillars are inscribed with each individual’s name, rank and unit, and, alongside the British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealanders, they include a number of Indian soldiers, including those lost in that desperate action in 1914 south of the city. At Tyne Cot cemetery, just a few miles outside of Ypres to the east, another memorial wall records a further 22,000 missing men’s names. These memorials stood among dozens of Imperial War Graves cemeteries, with each grave marking the identity, unit and nationality of the dead.

For France, Verdun took on iconic national status as the memorial of the war. In the brutal fighting, an estimated 150,000 Frenchmen were killed with a disputed number wounded, but certainly not less than 200,000. The majority of these were the victims of artillery fire, who perished at certain landmarks: Fort Vaux, Douaumont and the aptly chillingly named hilltop of Le Mort Homme. The landscape was permanently scarred and even 100 years on there are still areas designated zones rouges, prohibited sites where lethal and unstable ordnance is too dangerous to clear. At the Douaumont Ossuary, a vast mausoleum with memorials to the dead and the missing, there are apertures to view the collected skeletal remains of thousands of unidentified men. Yet, Verdun, while overwhelmingly a symbol of sacrifice and loss, is also a self-consciously national memorial. The Tranchée des Baïonettes, where allegedly a group of soldiers was buried alive as they marched along a trench, leaving only their rifle muzzles and bayonets protruding from the soil, is a symbol that this territory was and remains quintessentially part of France. General Pétain’s famous injunction to his troops at the crisis of the battle – ‘ils ne passeront pas‘ – resonates still: it captures French values of determination and defiance, a sentiment all the more important for a nation that, in 1870 and again in 1940, was overrun and defeated. At Notre Dame de Lorette, above the battlefield of Artois, an eternal flame burns to symbolise the enduring nature of la patrie.

Canada acquired sites from the French government that were granted in perpetuity to preserve the memorials, and sometimes even the battlefield itself. Hill 62 outside Ypres was one of them. The shell-pocked fields of Vimy Ridge in Artois and Beaumont-Hamel in Picardie are others, and are considered critical to Canadian national identity because, the guides state, it was here that self-consciousness as Canadians was forged in the operations at these locations. The case is slightly problematic at Beaumont-Hamel since Newfoundland, whose regiment suffered very heavy losses there in 1916, was not part of Canada until 1949. But the use of the historical events to present a case for national identity is strongly felt and keenly advocated.

The situation at Gallipoli is similar. While Australians have made the site of the fighting at Anzac Cove a cause célèbre of national identity, in recent years Turkish Islamists have challenged not only the presence of Christian memorials on the peninsula but also the hagiographic accounts of the Turkish commander, Mustafa Kemal. According to secularists, it was Mustafa Kemal who turned the tide of the battle there on April 25, 1915, when he ordered his troops to make the ultimate sacrifice to stem the invasion by the Allies. Galvanising his men, actually in defence of the Ottoman Empire at the time but subsequently memorialised as a Turkish national achievement, Kemal was immortalised as ‘Atatürk’. Islamists seek to denigrate or remove Kemal from their narratives, arguing instead that the only explanation for the defeat of the Allies was divine intervention. Secular Turks are appalled at this overtly religious agenda, since they have long held to the tradition that, inspired by Islam but motivated by a sense of Turkish identity, the ordinary Mehmetçiks (soldiers) were the ones who held the Allies at bay.

The allegiance of the troops at Gallipoli is actually far more complex than most of the memorialised narratives propagated by national sentiment today. Australians who enlisted in 1914–15 as volunteers thought of themselves as British or Imperial British, with no sense of contradiction. Many of the New Zealanders who served were recent migrants from Britain. The largest contingent on the Allied side was British, not Australian or New Zealander, and many Australian visitors are surprised to learn that there were, in fact, more Indian soldiers on the peninsula than Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand forces) during the campaign. The British, not the Australians, suffered the heaviest casualties of the fighting there. Equally, Turkish accounts find the presence of non-Turkish troops in the fighting on their side problematic. ‘National’ identity was not recorded in recruitment by the Ottoman imperial authorities, but there is some suggestion that Arabs recruited from Syria fought in fairly significant numbers at Gallipoli. The campaign was not a Turkish national victory, but an Ottoman one that has been expropriated by Turkey for understandable reasons. In this, the Australians and Turks have something in common: a feeling that this action, more than any other, created a national self-consciousness forged through sacrifice.

At the time of the war, the most common reference points of identity were national, regional and regimental, but all identification was in layers, each one being defined to some extent in distinction to others. Regular soldiers of the British Army regarded themselves as superior to Territorials, Reservists and conscripts, but identified themselves by sub-unit and county or regimental affiliations. In Britain in 1914, where the tradition of voluntary military service was strong, the desire to join up alongside civilian workmates and friends from the same community was given official support and led to the formation of ‘Pals Battalions’. To ensure continuity of connection to existing military territorial affiliations, these units had both unofficial local names and official county names, creating, for example, unofficially, the ‘Leeds Pals’ (officially, the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment); ‘Durham Pals’ (18th Durham Light Infantry) and the ‘Grimsby Chums’ (10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment). The heavy casualties suffered by these cohesive units, which had a profoundly depressing effect on their local communities, led to the use of official titles of regiments and corps and, when conscription was introduced in 1916, the wide distribution of personnel across a variety of units. On war memorials in many towns and villages, there is a great variety of county titles reflecting this effort to spread the cost of the war.

The war challenged and fragmented not only local and national distinctiveness, but also imperial identity and fealty. National or sub-national allegiance, ethnic affiliation and ideological commitment acted as alternatives when the pressures of war broke down faith in the existing system. Hence, national groups in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the Ottoman Empire, or the Russian Empire, established themselves amid the ruins of defeat. Czech and Polish units of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires respectively, emerged from the conflict with a proud combat record and a distinct national identity. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were broken up. Among the victorious imperial powers too, new doubts were sown and dissenting movements emerged. There was serious unrest in Egypt and the Punjab in 1919, in Mesopotamia in 1920 and in Ireland, which challenged Britain’s imperial authority. In all these cases, save southern Ireland, these uprisings were suppressed, but a precedent had been set and new movements of liberation would follow. The First World War therefore exposed both the resilience and the weaknesses of these particular forms of political organisation.

The First World War produced more exclusive forms of nationalism, harnessing ethnically homogeneous protests, in Germany, in Italy and in Turkey. These struggled with redefining national identity through both traditional and ultra-modernist ideas. The Fascists of Italy were inspired by Vorticism and nostalgia for Roman greatness; the Nazis were appalled by left-wing, internationalist and decadent culture, but reached for an atavistic vision of an authentic, pre-modern Germania; the Turks sought a new future through a reformed language, political identity, and centralised leadership.

War, and loss, did not expunge nationalist and imperial support. It is true that, in liberal societies, there were considerable doubts about fighting for one’s country after the heavy casualties of the First World War. Indeed, the political Left argued that, given the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism, which was manifest in its ‘late stage’ of development as imperialism, there was good reason for optimism: they believed the only war they’d have to fight was a class war. But the Nazis, the Italian Fascists, the Japanese and Stalin’s Soviet regime all promoted war, not least for its ‘beneficial’ effect in forging cohesiveness in society. As a result, the conflicts they launched led to an even more catastrophic death toll in the Second World War.

Nations and empires are inclusive, collective entities that form men cognitively, emotionally and physically. These effects were not limited to single ethnic groups, and soldiers from across Africa and Asia, recruited by Europeans, served on the Western Front. French Senegalese, for example, fought on the Chemin des Dames in 1917 during General Nivelle’s Champagne offensive. Their attacks were held up by German gunfire and despite every effort to resume their assault, they were cut to pieces. Gurkhas from Nepal fought at Neuve Chapelle in British service with rather more success, but they found the wintry conditions of the trenches a challenging experience compared with the climate they were used to.

What enabled these men to sustain their efforts was not limited to a blind faith in remote concepts of nation and empire. In tough training, and subsequently in combat, new layers of identity, allegiance and cohesion were created. Individuals and groups expressed a strong desire not to let their comrades down. Military service itself generates resilience through a new identity and through the iconography of sacrifice, or pride in collective effort. Thus, soldiers fight for each other, but find rationale and justification in fighting for a ‘higher cause’, namely the honour, interest and protection of homeland.

Nations and empires in war, especially the First World War, are nevertheless full of contradictions and paradox, like Indian soldiers fighting to the last man for the honour of the British Empire in a Belgian field. They did so, adjacent to a city, the ruins of which were regarded as a national sacred site not by Belgians, but by foreigners, from Britain. These were all memorialised together, and are still remembered with pride, long after the British Empire faded away into the pages of history.

This essay originally appeared under the title Territoriality and Sacrifice for Nation and Empire in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, 2017.

Rob Johnson

Dr Rob Johnson is the Director of the Changing Character of War Centre (CCW) at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. CCW is funded by the Ax:Son Johnson Foundation and carries out research into strategy, operations, new technologies and the conduct of war. Dr Johnson is a former army officer, and has extensive experience of conflicts and their analysis. He has published a number of books, including Lawrence of Arabia on War, which was the winner of the Military History of the Year Award in 2021. His most recent publications include: The Conduct of War (2021) and World Information War (2021). He is currently working on strategic decision making in the two world wars.

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