Reporting what happened in World War One won’t make a difference unless we also take time to reflect, writes Glen Poole.
I spotted a fascinating article in my local newspaper this week, revealing how the paper had done it’s bit for the war effort in 1914 by shaming its male readers into signing up.
The article interested me for two reasons. Firstly it added to my understanding of the great web of social pressure that pushed men into the “protect and provide” mode of masculinity a century ago. In particular, it highlighted the role that employers played in pressurising their young male staff to die for king and country, a factor I hadn’t previously considered.
Secondly, it provided evidence of the way local newspapers shamed their male readers into sacrificing their lives and it did so with no sense of guilt, regret or reflection. In a section dedicated to showing today’s readers what the local media was talking about 100 years ago, the paper proudly declared:
“Sussex men were being castigated for any unwillingness to sign up……The Argus reported an appeal for the Sussex battalion of Lord Kitchener’s expeditionary force of 100,000 men was short of soldiers. Our reporter said the response from the county had not been sufficient, that our men were “lagging behind” and were in danger of reflecting badly on the honour of Sussex.”
Taking pride in shaming men
That’s right, the newspaper told its young male readers that they were bringing shame on their county by failing to join the slaughter of the First World War and appealed to all local men under 30 to enlist.
Furthermore, the paper gave its backing to local companies who were openly dismissing young male workers who failed to put themselves in line to kill and be killed, describing the businesses who sacked these young men as “patriotic employers”.
The paper gave the example of a local tailor who responded to the initial article “by questioning why shop assistants and clerks with “no outlook” were hanging around the streets after hours rather than enlisting”. Taking the matter into his own hands, the tailor told the paper that he “approached two assistants in his employment who were under 30 and left them under no illusions that he would have no need for their service unless they attempted to enlist”.
And that was it. No reflection, no regret, no shame (or justification even) for the newspaper’s role in shaming its young male readers into overcoming the most base, individual, human instinct—to survive—and to sacrifice their potential futures to the horrors of industrial warfare in the name of the greater good.
The silence is deafening
Unwritten, between the casual lines of nostalgia that mark the violent deaths of young men in their millions one hundred years ago, is a huge, collective, silent shrug that whispers “what else could we do?”
It’s understandable. How can any individual make sense of the mass killing of global war? But this little question, the simple, childlike question “Why?” is so overwhelmingly ponderous, there is a danger we will avoid it altogether and simply report the centenary of World War One without reflection.
I don’t pretend to have the answer to this question. When I reflect on World War One, I simply count my blessings that I wasn’t born a man at a time when I would be required to either fight for my country or face the consequences of objection. I don’t have an answer to the question “Why?” but I will keep asking this question throughout the centenary of World War One.
Maybe the conscientious objectors in my local area didn’t dare to go to war, but they did dare to question it and when they asked themselves “Why?” they should enlist for the Sussex Battalion, they could come up with no acceptable answer.
As we look back on 1914 and consider the experiences of the men and boys who faced the fears of fighting (and the men and boys who faced the shame of not fighting), we owe it to each and every one of them to keep asking the question: “Why? Why? Why?”
—Photo credit: Flickr/Jenny Downing
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