How to be a soldier

The examination of the mediation of soldiering by soldiers to civilians has been a large part of this project – the question ‘what is it like?’ was recognised as one of the most frequent, and most unanswerable, questions of the war. Yet there were many people ready to offer advice on how to be a soldier, and occasionally such advice was offered in published texts to both civilian and recruit simultaneously. In War-Time Tips – for soldiers and civilians (1915) there is much to enjoy and read with profit, from daft suggestions and sporting metaphors to sensible advice based on experience.

 

Most pertinent is when the book has to deal with combat, with killing and avoiding being killed. This is the ‘serious business’, for which the bayonet must be kept in good condition, and not used as ‘a wood chopper or tin opener’ (but NB the common slang term ‘tin opener’ for bayonet’; curiously, shaving is also ‘a big business’). The seriousness is dealt with not so much in the words but in the pictures: a person standing upright would probably be hit’ by shellfire – the drawing shows a blast affecting the upper part of a man’s body – while two German soldiers are hit in the head or thrown forwards by rifle-fire – here ‘some of the men may rest while their comrades are firing’. All the more surprising is the matter of fact approach to the turnover of men in the description of the ‘“splinter-proof” trench’.

 

WTT46

 

WTT65

WTT63

The occasional use of ‘potted’ for ‘shot’ is a selection of word that would both refer to the normalisation of shooting people for the experienced soldier, and avoid deterring the potential recruit, though the angle of the thrown back head in the image indicates a more serious fate than is indicated by the words. Elsewhere the enemy is ‘”spotted” and “potted”‘.

 

WTT55

 

We might expect such a book to include useful ideas, and so it does: ‘To stop puttees from slipping down, give them a twist when about half-way up the leg’ (I always wondered why they didn’t always slip down); ‘When you get a new uniform, take all the buttons off and sew them on afresh. Uniform buttons are, as a rule, very insecurely sewn on’; ‘Learn the length of your foot, and the distance you can ‘span’ with your little finger and thumb. Then you will be able to measure things without a rule’; wax shoes ‘as soon as you take them off after wearing them in the rain. The ‘pores’ of the leather are then opened’; ‘In the case of an air-raid, get down into the basement or cellar immediately. Don’t come out in the street to “see the fun”’. And there are utterly useless tips: ‘Cultivate a “sweet tooth”. Sugar is very nourishing to the muscles, and it is very digestible. Incidentally it does not spoil the teeth’; ‘If you “catch” some lice from another person, rub your head well with turpentine, paraffin, benzene, or petrol. Any of these oils or spirits will kill lice’. Seriously, application of these to the skin will help kill the person too.

 

As might be expected there are rules of engagement (‘The Rules of War’) that are not so far from the rules of sports, as played in the more expensive schools of the time:

 

‘If, by any chance, your company or detachment should be forced to surrender, you must not discard your arms and slip away. It is against the rules.’

 

‘it is not “etiquette” for a soldier to try to shoot the commander of a force unless he unnecessarily exposes himself to fire. It is quite permissible to try to take him prisoner, however.’

 

‘When endeavouring to approach the enemy, you may use any trick to get past his sentries except one. If you are challenged, you must not answer “Friend”’. (Was language difference thought about here?)

 

While these may seem quaint, rules of engagement matter, and indicate a kind of quid pro quo that would give some peace of mind to all:

 

‘Should you be attacked by surprise, you may snatch up any kind of knife or club with which to fight the enemy. A saw, however, is said to cause “unnecessary suffering” and may not be used.’

 

‘A soldier may not “play possum”, that is, pretend he is dead or wounded so as to take the enemy at a disadvantage. If this were allowed, and advancing enemy would probably bayonet all prostrate men, to guard against surprises.”

 

Books of tips that incorporated lists of rules of engagement must have reassured some, though their context of practicality, honesty and decency was so at odds with the random death and maiming of artillery and trench warfare. Face to face combat offered little of the reassurance implicit in sets of rules, especially after 1915 and the introduction of gas and later liquid fire. How often do we find complaints of ‘unfair fighting’, abuse of white flags and gestures of surrender, and equally the outraged retribution hidden in the words ‘no prisoners were taken that day’. The book is silent on the question of whether it was ‘against the rules’ to kill prisoners in the face of a counter-attack, to attack a post using Red Cross signage as a cover for snipers, or to shoot at the horses of charging cavalry. But the unspeakable reality of war was, as it was so often described, not something that could be put into words.

 

 

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