Review of Alexander
Watson, Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse
in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918. Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008. Pp xv, 288. ISBN 978-0-521-88101-2.
Watson has made a significant and compelling addition to the
scholarship of the First World War. After ninety plus years of
nationally-based (and thus blinkered) historiography, in the last
decade we have begun to enjoy the fruits of comparative history.
Indeed, there is no surer way to shatter long-held myths than through
the simple comparison of similar elements of individual nations'
experiences. Here, by analyzing a myriad of sources, Watson reveals
the many ways in which the soldiers of the British and German armies
"held out" for four long years, and simultaneously shows us how
similar these men ultimately were. Enduring the Great War
enhances our understanding of the cultures of consent in 1914-18
that allowed such a war to continue and strengthens the growing
consensus that it is misguided to treat the lower-rank soldiers of
World War I as mere victims. To a certain extent, most of them
"believed" in what they were doing.
currently the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Fellow,
Clare Hall, Cambridge, does not, however, follow his Oxford supervisor
Niall Ferguson in characterizing the soldiers as both "believing" and
"enjoying" what they did. Although an ardent believer in the
overwhelming level of consent versus resistance in both armies, Watson
early disavows Ferguson's statement that many soldiers "simply took
pleasure in killing," as well as Joanna Bourke's similar conclusions
with regard to face-to-face killing, and the French "war culture"
school's insistence on a deep soldier hatred for the enemy (6-7).
The vast majority of killing was anonymous, and duty and comradeship
must clearly have outweighed any homicidal instincts in the soldiers'
successfully lays out his argument in a chapter-by-chapter analysis of
the different resiliency strategies practiced by the soldiers of both
armies. In Chapter 1, "War of Endurance," he indicates just how
rarely bayonets, grenades, and close-quarters rifle fire killed the
enemy, as opposed to decidedly non-face-to-face sniper fire,
machinegun strafing, and, of course, the biggest killer of all, random
and impersonal shelling. Indeed, in an environment of relentless
artillery fire, life and death were so "uncontrollable" that Watson
discusses early on the psychic trauma so prevalent in this war. Fully
five percent of all soldiers were "officially" psychiatric casualties,
but, of course, the "real" number was much higher. Watson consistently
references contemporary psychological accounts to explain and analyze
this phenomenon, recognizing the danger of dating his work by citing
only up-to-the-minute, twenty-first century literature. After all, it
was already understood at the time, and has been reaffirmed ever
since, that the less human beings control their surroundings, the more
helpless (and prone to psychological breakdown) they become. Since all
the training in the world could not ward off random shells from
soldiers huddled in dugouts through hours of continuous bombardment,
the war naturally inflicted massive psychic trauma.
2, "Why Men Fought: Combat Motivation in the Trenches," Watson
discusses comradeship as a major protection against psychic breakdown.
Stressing the "existence" and strength of comradeship sends Watson
straight into the teeth of one of the main historiographical battles
of the First World War, particularly among German historians. For
maintaining that soldiers believed in comradeship (a "positive" aspect
of war) flies in the face of the hegemonic emplotment of the war as
tragedy, a narrative solidly in place since the late 1920s (even
though a seminal work of this tragic canon, All Quiet on the
Western Front , is rife with comradeship). In the 1990s,
mainly through the work of Benjamin Ziemann, the prevailing argument
was that the so-called "comradeship" of 1914-18 never existed and was
instead merely a postwar (right wing) construction of a united
soldiery fighting and defined against a backstabbing home front. It
was further argued that any real comradely connection between soldiers
was virtually impossible during a war in which casualties physically
prevented long-term, deep friendships.
Indeed, Ziemann, along with Wolfgang Kruse, strongly pushed an image
of a resentful, embittered, and even revolutionary army of soldiers as
In the last ten years, the key to overturning this concept of an army
of "resisters" has been comparative history. By comparing German and
British soldiers' letters, Aribert Reimann found much evidence of
consent in both armies.
Further, Klaus Latzel, in comparing First and Second World War
letters, again found the language of consent in those of German
soldiers of 1914-18.
Watson's work further cements this new trend, and he argues that
comradeship was larger than close personal friendship, extending
even beyond death with the ritualistic memorialization of fallen
comrades and the promise that their sacrifice would not be in vain.
Additionally, he detects strong evidence of obedience and
conservatism across social classes in both the British and German
"Self-Deception and Survival: Mental Coping Strategies,"
soldiers' constant resort to humor, religion, and fatalism. Crucially,
though, and returning to the arguments of Chapter 1, Watson does not
discover much "hatred of the enemy," at least outside of those moments
just before and after an attack. He thus takes a "culture of consent"
position, but does not concur with Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker
that such a "war culture" requires that soldiers deeply hate the enemy
and desire to kill them.
most important contribution to existing research is his broadening of
this comradeship theme beyond the rank and file in Chapter 4, "Junior Leadership: Command, Cohesion and Combat
Motivation." It has long been accepted wisdom that British junior
officers were paternalistic and loved by their men, while German
officers were standoffish and hated. Watson, however, restricts the
German stereotype to the men's opinion of high-ranking officers well behind
the lines, and contends that junior officers, the ones who went
over the top with their troops, were every bit as paternalistic and
thus admired as their British counterparts. Eventually, though,
strains between the men and even lower-ranking officers arose from the
insufferable hunger that Watson claims caused the German collapse in
1918. As the effects of the Allied Blockade took hold both at home
and at the front, the discrepancy between the meager rations of the
enlisted men and the healthier portions enjoyed by officers became too
glaring to ignore.
final chapters--5: "Morale and Military Endurance," and 6: "The German
Collapse in 1918: Strike, Mutiny or an Ordered Surrender?"--show that
German material disadvantages, unmistakable from the time of the
Somme, became the main contextual difference in the lives of German
and British soldiers. As opposed to the "resistance" argument of
Wilhelm Deist, specifically that the Collapse of 1918 was a "covert
Watson concludes that junior officers, in the face of Spanish Flu,
huge losses post-Operation Michael, and dwindling food and material,
organized "ordered surrenders" up and down the line. Key to this
thesis is the fact that in those final months the ratio of German
officers to lower ranks among those captured (1 to 38) was almost
exactly that of the German army as a whole. Unlike their British
counterparts, well-supplied and reinforced by a million Americans,
German officers and men experienced no rest and refit, and saw no
other way out:
Exhaustion and disillusionment
did not result in the disintegration of the Germany army by a process
of protest and revolt but rather caused its demise by sponsoring a
gradual decline in its combat efficiency.... As has been argued, until
October disobedience and desertion remained at a relatively low level.
Indeed, judging from British intelligence reports, the number of
mutinies taking place in combat units may actually have declined from
a high point in mid-summer 1918. The beginning of the Allied
counteroffensive not only increased the level of fatigue on the German
side of the lines, making protest against the war impossible, but it
also made it unnecessary. Rather than attempting to alleviate or
escape the strain of war by active disobedience, many combat troops
saw their salvation in passively awaiting an enemy advance and then
giving themselves up without resistance (215).
Watson has made a major contribution to First World War
historiography, bolstering current "culture of consent" arguments as
well as offering new twists. Although the book is a revised doctoral
thesis with a rather specialized focus for a specific audience, it is
well written and accessible to both advanced undergraduate and
graduate students in military history courses.
The University of Windsor
 Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (NY:
Basic Books, 1999); Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of
Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare
(NY: Basic Books, 1999); Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette
Becker, 14-18: Understanding the First World War, tr. C.
Temerson (NY: Hill and Wang, 2002 [orig. 2000]).
 War Experiences in Rural
Germany, 1914-1923, tr. A. Skinner (NY: Berg, 2007 [orig.
1997]). See also, Peter Knoch, ed., Kriegsalltag: Die
Rekonstruktion des Kriegsalltags als Aufgabe der historischen
Forschung und der Friedenserziehung (Stuttgart: Metzler,
 Bernd Ulrich and Benjamin Ziemann, edd.,
Frontalltag im Ersten Weltkrieg: Wahn und Wirklichkeit: Quellen
und Dokumente (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1994); Wolfgang Kruse,
"Krieg und Klassenheer: Zur Revolutionierung der deutschen Armee
im Ersten Weltkrieg," Geschichte und Gesellschaft 22 (1996)
 Der Große Krieg der
Sprachen: Untersuchungen zur historischen Semantik in Deutschland
und England zur Zeit des Ersten Weltkriegs (Essen: Klartext,
Kriegserlebnis--Kriegserfahrung 1939-1945 (Paderborn:
 See "The Military Collapse of the
German Empire: The Reality Behind the Stab-in-the-Back Myth," tr.
E.J. Feuchtwanger, War in History 3 (1996) 186-207.