A Brotherhood of Soldiers? Concepts of Comradeship 1914–1938

Whether we watch movies, read novels, play video games, look at paintings, or listen to podcasts about the First World War, we encounter expressions of what we consider to be the comradeship of the trenches. The idea of the soldiers holding fast together through all hardships, living together, and loving each other like brothers, even dying for one another, has become a central part of the collective memory of the ‘Great War’.1 The social relationship we are shown in these media representations is most often that of best friends. By defining the relationship between soldiers in this way, media productions are creating relatability for non-military users as well as avoiding the rather less clearly defined term ‘comradeship’. The most recent example of this is the film 1917 directed by Sam Mendes, which tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of two soldier friends on a special mission. What it does not show is the daily lives the soldiers had to lead with those they did not consider to be their friends, for whom they did not feel sympathy, or were just not emotionally close to. Those people they called ‘comrades’ and this relationship is almost entirely absent from cultural representations of the war. Media productions therefore replace the social relationship of comradeship with the concept of friendship in our cultural memory of the Great War because they only show one kind of relationship at the front.

Considering the prominence of soldiers’ friendships in popular media, it is surprising how little the soldiers themselves had to say about their fellow soldiers when they wrote in their diaries or sent letters to their families. When they did write about other soldiers, they distinguished clearly between those they considered friends and those they thought of as comrades.2 This contradiction inspired the key question which I address in my Ph.D. project: what was comradeship to First World War soldiers? I will draw on methodological approaches developed by figureheads of emotional history such as Monique Scheer and Barbara Rosenwein in trying to understand what emotions, norms, and practices were crucial for navigating the soldiers’ daily social lives on the frontlines.3

What emotions concerning their comrades did soldiers communicate to their families in letters from the Western Front? How did they experience and define comradeship in the trenches, and how did they distinguish it from friendship? Who was considered a comrade and what parameters could lead to exclusion from a group of comrades—for example, gender, class, race, or military rank? Were their experiences and emotions congruent with the expectations of civil society regarding comradely feelings and behaviour? Was the families’ idea of comradeship the same as those of the soldiers, or did they differ? Among the sources I draw upon in order to answer these questions are letters, diaries, novels, and newspapers produced during the war, many of which I was able to consult in the Berkshire Record Office, the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum, and the Surrey History Centre.

Some of these findings are extraordinary and the existence of these documents alone is evidence of the emotional connection that soldiers felt with their comrades, even after the war. One example from a soldier’s personal document is a scrapbook dating from 1922, which contains memorabilia such as newspaper cuttings about his former unit, letters, orders, and documents relating to farewell dinners, as can be seen in the pictures below.

In addition to civil society and soldiers themselves, I cannot ignore the armed forces, and I am interested in examining ideas of comradeship promoted by this institution. What was considered correct behaviour towards fellow soldiers? How were such norms taught to the men, what emotions were they connected with, and for what ends were they used? In this context, valuable insights are promised by sources such as military codes of conduct, handbooks written by members of the military, and recruiting posters, several of which I was able to locate in English archives and the British Library.

Beyond the varying ideas, norms, emotions, and expectations surrounding comradeship during the war, the initial contradiction comes into focus again. Why has comradeship become so prominent in the remembrance of the war, when it appears to have been of comparably slight importance during the war? It seems as if the idea of comradeship gained importance at some point between the soldiers’ experience in the trenches and our current way of remembering it. And indeed, when I examined sources from the twenty-four years after the war, I found a sharp rise in the promotion of various ideas of comradeship. It is not simply that veterans recalled comradeship more clearly in their memoirs, it was also remembered more emotionally and charged with a meaning it did not have in the records written during the war.4

Other groups also started to curate the notion of comradeship. In the publications of veteran’s organizations— an extensive array of which is held by the British Library—comradeship is used in many editorials as an argument to support political claims and socio-political ideas, to persuade veterans to bring the organizations’ programmes to the attention of the public, and to put them on to the political agenda.

On official occasions, comradeship was evoked to justify the ways of mourning and remembering that developed in the post-war years and to confer responsibilities such as to rebuild a better society and care for the dependents of the dead on surviving soldiers.5 Taking this responsibility seriously as a way of honouring their fallen comrades was the expectation that society placed on the veterans by repeating over and over that this was the honorouable thing to do, and praising those individuals who behaved accordingly.6 Here also, the application of comradeship for political agendas can be detected. By prescribing specific sets of emotions and evoking them, particular behaviours were socially favoured. In this view, the responsibility of caring did not end with the soldiers’ military service. However, this does not mean that the veterans themselves felt forced to act or feel in this way. Many truly felt the responsibility they were supposed to feel and regarded it as the right thing to do, without having the impression that they were being pressured to feel in that way. On the other hand, many memoirs suggest that veterans lost touch with any former comrades and did not join veterans’ organizations without feeling guilty about not helping or keeping in touch. Therefore, the desired behaviour which veterans’ organizations and politicians promoted aligned with the true beliefs of some former soldiers, but failed to be internalized by others.

Article from a veteran’s magazine reporting emotionally from a commemoration event. National Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (ed.), The Bulletin, 14. August 1919, 4. British Library, London, P.P.4050.cm.

My progress so far notwithstanding, many sources remain to be examined before I can come to a more complete understanding of the existing and developing concepts of comradeship promoted by different groups to achieve various aims, which changed in the years between 1914 and 1938. One such body of sources is the Imperial War Museum’s collection of (propaganda) films, which can provide insights into the image of comradeship that political institutions wanted to present to the public. Along with a number of films made by civilian producers after the war, they contributed to the formation of a coherent narrative about the war which prominently featured the theme of comradeship. The same is true of novels, regardless of whether they were written by veterans or by civilians, and of newspapers, which will give insights into discourses, competing ideas about emotions and practices, and changing narratives about comradeship.

The memoirs I have already analysed provide evidence for the existence of a public discourse about comradeship. In the late 1920s, a discussion arose questioning the ‘reality’ of the comradeship of the trenches. Veterans appear to use their writings to present their side of the truth to the public and thereby interact with the non-combatant part of society in creating a coherent narrative of the war. An example of this can be seen in these two very different remembrances concerning the closeness and relationship the soldiers supposedly felt towards each other:

Two million men can never be . . . a band of brothers—you have to know a brother first.6

[A]s far as I could see the only redeeming feature of a war was the process of levelling out all of the social and snobbish status which had existed in 1914. If only this understanding and comradeship between men from the cloth cap and white collar [sic] brigades would continue after the guns had ceased to fire what a much better place the world would be for all concerned.7

These statements again hint at the different views of what comradeship was supposed to be. It was a highly subjective way of experiencing social relations at the front and therefore could not—and still cannot—be clearly defined. This gave post-war society the opportunity to use the concept of comradeship as a symbol that could be charged with various interpretations depending on the current needs of the person or group using it. Thus it not only enabled different interest groups to communicate political agendas, but also to establish and comprehend emotional relationships and make sense of the past by evoking the image of a positive common feeling.

One example of this is how the notion of comradeship was used by veterans as a way of taking part in the overall narrative of loss and the performance of mourning which developed as the main form of remembering the war in the immediate post-war period.8 Many of the publications of veterans’ organizations feature articles about remembrance days and services in honour of the fallen. By defining fellow soldiers as beloved comrades who had become brothers, veterans could participate in the mourning and their right to feel bereaved was accepted by the families of the dead as equal to their own.9

Looking at these initial results from the sources I read during my research in British archives, I was able to draft a working hypothesis about comradeship and its role in the remembrance of the First World War in British history. Comradeship emerged as one of the main aspects of the narrative of collective remembrance because it could present a positive emotional point of reference—in fact, the only positive aspect of the war that could be remembered at all. Moreover, it was an emotional concept closely connected with friendship, which made the experience of the soldiers more relatable for those who had not participated in the war as soldiers. In this way, comradeship was a vehicle of a further emotional understanding between veterans and civil society, both of whom were desperate to promote political aims and to confer a sense of purpose and of positive consequences on the experience of senselessness generated by the violence of First World War.


The featured image shows the cover of the veteran’s scrapbook held by the National Army Museum, London, 9511.314. Photograph reproduced with permission

  1. See Aleida Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit (Munich, 2006), 23–6; available in English as Shadows of Trauma: Memory and the Politics of Postwar Identity, trans. Sarah Clift (New York, 2016). []
  2. The definition of ‘comradeship’ changed from individual to individual. For some, it related more closely to colleagues, for others to friends, but it was never quite the same as friendship. []
  3. See Monique Scheer, ‘Emotionspraktiken: Wie man über das Tun an die Gefühle herankommt’, in: Matthias Beitl and Ingo Schneider (eds.), Emotional Turn?! Europäisch ethnologische Zugänge zu Gefühlen und Gefühlswelten (Vienna, 2016), 1–22; Barbara Rosenwein, ‘Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions’, in Passions in Context 1 (2010), 2–32. []
  4. The project has already shown that a significant change in the idea of comradeship took place from 1914 to 1938. It can be assumed that this change happened when a new generation, which was brought up with tales of the comradeship of the Great War, experienced it for themselves in the Second World War. Since I consider this a turning point when the memory of comradeship was no longer that of the First World War alone, I have decided to limit my research to the period before the Second World War. []
  5. Imperial War Museum, London, LBY [K] 8827, 128th Field Company R.E. Association, Account of the Fourth Reunion 1937/1938, King’s speech at the Royal Review of Ex-Servicemen on the 27 June 193; British Library, London, National Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, The Bulletin, 23 Oct. 1919, 8. []
  6. Charles E. Montague, Disenchantment (London, 1929; first pub. 1922), 31–4. [] []
  7. Surrey History Centre, Woking, QRWS/30/HAWKI/1, Wilfrid Edgar Hawkins, Memoirs, 45. []
  8. See Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge, 2008), 249–53, 257; Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (London, 1998), 21–2, 45, 173, 181, 217–18. []
  9. British Library, London, P.P.4050.cm, National Federation of Discharged Soldiers, The Bulletin, 11 Sept. 1919, 4. []

Published by

Chantal Bsdurrek

She is a Researcher at Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf where she works on comradeship in the First World War, the history of emotions, and the reception and representation of history in popular media.

One thought on “A Brotherhood of Soldiers? Concepts of Comradeship 1914–1938”

  1. Dear Chantal Bsdurrek,
    I read this text about your research into comradeship and soldiers with interest. You might find soldiers’ personal war time photo albums of interest to your research. The narrative created by the photographs and captions can tell us a lot about a soldiers’ experience of war. Soldiers from many nations participating in the FWW compiled them.
    Janina Struk: Author of ‘Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War’. ( IB Tauris London, New York, 2011)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search