Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research seminar review: World War Two enlistment and the Great War

Posted on 13/11/2013 by


Joel Morley from Queen Mary University of London kicked off the Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research seminar series of this academic year with a seminar looking at World War Two enlistment in the context of the “Great War”.

Morley used 93 oral histories from the Imperial War Museum collection and 35 of his own interviews to explore motivations around enlistment and men’s representations of “masculinity.”

He began by saying that historians “should not assume all these youngsters were looking back to the Great War, which was for many of them beyond living memory”.

He found that men whose fathers had served in the Great War often wanted them to choose a “safe service” rather than avoid war. One interviewee’s father wanted his son to follow him into the Royal Engineers while another was urged not to be a sniper. Interestingly, those interviewees whose fathers had died in the Great War were not necessarily put off fighting in the next war.

Films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, which depicted the Great War, also shaped men’s “attitude to service and service choice. But this was cited less than the influence of veterans”, said Morley.  The Biggles books and the film Dawn Patrol were influential in creating an interest in aviation. Men also talked about being put off joining the army when looking at pictures of the Great War battlefields in encyclopaedias.

Men also talked about their reasons for enlistment in terms of asserting their masculinity – although they rarely stated it as such.  “Male roles of protector and the aggressor were staunchly defended,” said Morley.

Those not in uniform were often considered “inferior men” and conscientious objectors were “cowards”. One man said: “I’m no hero but I’m not a coward either.” Men in reserved occupations were subject to less hostility and referred to as “jammy bastards”. However, those who entered reserved occupations after the outbreak of war were not so well regarded.

“The military uniform was a clear signal of intent and a symbol of masculinity in war time. Military service was a crucial element of wartime masculinity,” said Morley, adding that for those who did not serve the Home Guard was a way of protecting their “threatened masculinity”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly men associated uniform, particularly that of the Royal Air Force, with sexual allure. One interviewee said the uniform made him feel he was “it”.

Morley also reflected on the use of archival interviews: he said that using an archive “significantly expanded” his research within a manageable timeframe and gave access to narratives from a more diverse group of people. The Imperial War Museum archive included interviews of older servicemen born before and during the Great War.

“Using archived oral history involves different practical considerations – it’s more difficult to discern the effect of intersubjectivity,” said Morley. And being unable to seek clarification or expansion on a point is an “inherent frustration” of using the archive. He was also able to access the museum’s oral history collections remotely – an example he hoped other archives would follow.

  • The next OHS/IHR seminar will be led by Robert Gildea from the University of Oxford and its title is: “Europe’s 1968: The use of life histories.” For more information click here