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Response to Review no. 533

I would like to thank Jessica Meyer for her measured, rigorous and constructive review. Particularly valuable is her suggestion that more comparative work on the Imperial dimension of the war would provide greater insight into postwar nationalism and national identity. However, as I suggested in my introduction, given that the impact of the war in the Imperial context has received relatively little attention, we should perhaps be cautious about undertaking comparative work until a more substantial body of case studies has emerged (p. 5). Nevertheless, I feel that the comparisons I did offer – particularly the impact of the war on Australian national identity – were useful (pp. 5–6, 14, 138–9).

Jessica raises a number of issues which I would like to discuss further. Firstly, she suggests I have rather uncritically accepted the work of Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert (1) to substantiate my contention that representations of white masculine superiority were eroded in relation to black masculine identities. In relation to this issue, Jessica also argues that I have given excessive weight to literary accounts of the war, such as those of Robert Graves and Vera Brittain. She accepts that my reading of gender discourse is successful in relation to competing masculinities in the British Empire but is too simplistic in relation to gender relations on the home front. Obviously, there is a relationship between the two, but I feel greater discussion of gender relations at home would have shifted the focus away from the discussion of race and masculinity that I was endeavouring to rescue from the margins.

Laurinda Stryker’s and Jessica’s own work (2) do provide some very important new insights into the experience and treatment of shell shock with implications for our understanding of wartime masculinity. While Stryker has not uncovered new sources, she nevertheless provides some important new interpretations that do indeed persuade us to re-examine some of Showalter’s findings.

However, Stryker draws on a relatively small and selective literature and too readily and uncritically rehearses the self-perceptions of wartime psychiatrists, particularly in relation to the efficacy and validity of their treatment methods. It is slightly disturbing to find a contemporary historian explaining away electric shock treatment as a valid form of suggestive therapy, while doubting the strongly disciplinarian element much of this kind of treatment embodied. (3) Stryker seems to imply that because wartime psychiatrists did not refer to a crisis of masculinity then perhaps there was not one. This of course overlooks the possibility of a broader politics of representation, either in the context of gender on the home front or empire.

Jessica Meyer’s work on wartime psychiatry underlines a widespread perception among practitioners that many soldiers had lost a sense of self-control, a pivotal ideal of white masculinity, especially in the Imperial context. She offers compelling evidence that white masculinity was redefined, particularly in terms of comradeship and the ability to endure suffering, qualities that did not depend on a bodily perfection or complete self-control, nor entirely on masculine expectations set by the military hierarchy. However, I did not find evidence that these new articulations of masculinity favourably influenced Imperial subjects keen to emphasise their potential for self-government. This is highlighted by one of my comparative examples which showed how Dominion troops believed it was they, rather than the British Tommy, who carried many of the decisive engagements on the Western Front, claiming they possessed the superior character and physique of frontiersmen (pp. 14–5).

In this context, Jessica has suggested that by focusing on masculine bodily performance I present a simple ‘juxtaposition of black health and white weakness’. She provides a useful alternative reading of the quote by Alfred Horner (p. 102) but one which is not dissimilar to some of the literary representations of crucified or martyred youth of which she appears quite critical. (4) Furthermore, Jessica appears to have overlooked my next paragraph in which I clearly state that black soldiers were not automatically imbued with power by the sight of failing white masculinity (p. 103). Many were clearly traumatised by their wartime encounters as my own case studies indicate (see, for example, p. 84–5).

Nevertheless, the symbolic enhancing of black masculinity remained, even if this often rested on existing caricatures of the black subject and alongside more negative stereotypes. The physique of exercising black soldiers could be a source for reverie and admiration, for example, while a purported lack of discipline would simultaneously used to deride. If there is a tendency to emphasise bodily performance in my study, this reflects the over-representation of the black body in Imperial discourse, which tended, but not exclusively so, to set the terms in which competing masculinities were framed. My discussions around the impact of mental dysfunction during the war show that Imperial discourse was also as preoccupied as ever to assert white rationality over purported black irrationality. While my analysis of the black intellectuals Frederick Tomlinson and J. Edmestone Barnes indicates how the assumptions of Imperial thought, around both body and mind, were challenged when visions of black rationality were cast against the irrationality and wartime barbarism of white civilisation (pp. 45–7)

While briefly citing Showalter, I have presented clear evidence from my own research of the deep concerns held by the military establishment around the general morale and psychological temperament of many British soldiers. These examples provide both concrete and symbolic examples of how wartime experiences eroded white masculine ideals (pp. 13–28). More significantly, I argued that the ‘crisis of masculinity’ during WW1 was linked to earlier disquiet around white masculinity evident during the Crimean War, Indian Mutiny and Morant Bay Rebellion (p. 8). This was not only linked to psychological interpretations, but also to racial degeneration associated with urban development and industrialisation, as well as the effects of affluence on the moral fibre of the middle classes (pp. 15–6). In other words, the experiences of WWI need to be placed in the broader context of gender identities, both in the imperial and metropolitan context – an implicit recognition that masculinity is always in a state of flux and renegotiation, heightened in this case by the testing circumstances presented by war (p. 8–9).

I therefore showed how the wartime crisis of masculinity was represented in my case study colony, Jamaica, using sources that could hardly be described as literary. Newspapers and official documents provide many examples of colonial officials and military officers who displayed symptoms similar to shell shock due to wartime Imperial pressures well away from the front line (pp. 25–8). Many soldiers also presented shell shock symptoms before they even left for the front. Significantly, both Laurinda Stryker’s and Jessica Meyer’s studies leave one with the impression shell shock was a condition restricted to frontline troops. (5) Had this been the case, military psychiatrists would have had a more straightforward task presenting shell shock as a condition of the emotionally fragile man to modern warfare, rather than a series of complex response to masculine expectation.

The biggest indication of the heightened anxiety around white masculine identity and performance was to be found in the increasing antagonism towards the small black British population and black servicemen. This routinely revolved around sexualised anxiety and competition and was evident in the outbreaks of racial unrest from 1917 until the early 1920s (pp. 116–17, 141). It was also present in official reports concerning the containment of rebellious and disaffected black troops (pp. 132, 144). Of course this had very real implications for gender relations in the metropole, which, while not the main focus of this study, were clearly implicated in the racial unrest during and after the war.

To return to the issue of literary sources, I should point out that Graves was not cited in relation to the shortcomings of white masculinity, but rather in relation to racial attitudes in the British Army. I cited one short passage from Brittain to illustrate the sense of despair at time of the 1918 German Spring Offensive of 1918, noting how this was coloured by her fragile state of mind brought about by nursing mutilated and traumatised British soldiers. This can hardly be considered to over reply on literary sources.

Jessica has elsewhere acknowledged the usefulness of fictional accounts of the war in reconstructing feminine and masculine identities during the war. (5) This can only be successful if the literature of the war is considered in the broadest terms, without privileging what James Campbell has described as the ‘trench lyric’; the canon that has provided the dominant images of a liminal and doomed male generation, which until relatively recently dominated academic investigation. (7) Furthermore, in my own work l have endeavoured not to impose what I see as an arbitrary line between literary and non-literary sources. I have drawn on a published memoirs and novels, unpublished accounts, and letters and poems in Jamaican newspapers and very brief soldiers’ testimonies – sources that capture a diversity of views, perceptions and experiences across the spectrum of race, class, gender and sexuality.

A further issue Jessica Meyer raises is that I did not convincingly demonstrate black troops were treated any differently from their white counterparts in some circumstances. She disputes, for example, my claim that the notorious Field Punishment No. 1 was particularly repugnant to black soldiers due to its very obvious links to punishments meted out during slavery. I did in fact point out that FP No. 1 was universally loathed in the British Army and referred to the apologist defence of the practice by Lloyd George (pp. 127–8).

In terms of the mental health experience of black soldiers, I openly conceded that there was not always an indication of discriminatory treatment in case notes, but I also showed how mental health provision was used to suppress threats to military order presented by black soldiers. In Marseilles, black soldiers were imprisoned under mental health regulations, even though a noted practitioner, Henry Yellowlees claimed they showed no signs of morbidity. Significantly, they were only regarded as irrational in their opposition to white authority (pp. 123–4). Of course, there was an overlap in the discursive designations applied to the white working-class and black colonial subjects, a point I make in both the context of mental health (p. 28) and more generally (pp. 103–4), but there are also significant differences once weighed against the broader pattern of racial discrimination that I detail at length. Indeed, the military authorities deployed a specific discursive category; the designation ‘native troops’, historically applied to the West India Regiment, was subsequently informally applied to the British West Indies Regiment for much of the war (p. 82, 123, 135).

This designation ensured the exclusion of black troops from the same medical and social facilities granted to white troops, resulted in lower pay and in the terms of punishment for black troops which often exceeded those permitted by the army’s own regulations. Black troops were automatically seen as unfit for frontline service, whereas among white troops this was seen as either a punishment or marker of inferior physique and mental constitution. Black troops were also barred from commissioned rank.

Even without taking this litany into account, it is important to remember the perceptions of the black troops themselves. There is ample evidence that they felt discriminated against in terms of pay, service conditions and discipline, sufficiently so for this to have a lasting impact on Jamaican political life. Time and again we are reminded that their sacrifices had not sufficiently been recognised at demobilisation or thereafter, unlike, for example, members of the Australian contingents whose sacrifices became enshrined in emerging nationhood (p. 5–6, 14). This was manifested in the 1938 labour unrest in which former soldiers such as St. William Grant were so prominent (p. 1–2, 152,168).

Ultimately, it is about how imperial subjects viewed the situation, rather than what more abstract notions of masculinity we might latterly discern, that are more significant in this context. As Sergeant Charles Johnson complained to the Moyne Commission in 1939, white middle- and upper-class Jamaicans remained at home while black Jamaicans volunteered for the front, ‘we the lower class … do their share … for they would not go they afraid to die (p. 169).

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  1. Sandra M. Gilbert ‘Soldier’s Heart: Literary men, literary women and the Great War’ in Behind the Lines: Gender and Two World Wars, ed. M. R. Higonnet and Jane Jenson (New Haven: New Haven, Conn., 1987); Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1800–1980 (1987). Back to (1)
  2. L. Stryker, ‘Mental cases: British shellshock – politics of interpretation’ in Back to (2)
  3. Stryker, pp. 161–2 (and see my pp. 23–4 regarding the use of ether and cigarette burns). Back to (3)
  4. For examples see James Campbell, ‘Combat gnosticism: the ideology of First World War poetry criticism’, New Literary History, 30 (1999), 212. Back to (4)
  5. See Meyer, ‘Gladder to be going out than afraid’, pp. 203, 207. Stryker states, for example ‘the trenches … contrasted starkly with the masculinist expectations of recruits, and faced with the material realities of the front, men broke down in record numbers’ (Stryker, p. 155). Back to (5)
  6. ‘”Not Septimus Now”: wives of disabled veterans and cultural memory of the First World War in Britain’, Women’s History Review, 13.1 (2004), 120. Back to (6)
  7. Campbell, 204. Back to (7)