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Remembered Today:

Will the like of Kitchener's army ever be seen again?


Katie Elizabeth Stewart
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Here's an interesting concept: if the political climate was right, if social order was ever jeopardised the way it was in 1914-18, and if there was a massive call to arms to defend the society we know, how many of today's youth would enlist?

It was a thought that struck me when I was sitting in the park watching a group of lads (c.18-25) smoking near the war memorial (which, in Castle Park, Penrith is grafitied with a great black spray paint heart), and I began trying to picture them all in uniform! I wonder, would we all watch them and talk of 'golden boys' marching off to their armageddon? As Kate Clanchy, former British Red Cross poet put it, would they disappear down Owen's 'close-darkening lanes'? Or will they remain forever exclusively Owen and the First World War soldiers' 'close-darkening lanes'.

Imagine an army made of today's youths:

How big would it be?

What social 'type' of person would enlist?

What age and gender would it be open to?

Would there be conscription?

And above all, would we talk of the 'greater love' and camaraderie between them???

Just a thought!!

Cheers,

Katie

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I think the answer is that the youth of today would enlist.

However tempted we are to look back to history with rose-tinted classes there is very little difference in the behaviour of youth of today to that recorded throughout history. I am currently reading a very interesting book by Gilda O'Neill on victorian crime and poverty in the East end of London which offers a direct parrallel between today and then and you would be very surprised at the similarities.

So if there is very little difference between the youth of today and the youth of then it holds that people would react in a similar way, all other things being equal.

What would be interesting is how the modern "youth" could cope with the privations of war. There have been arguments over the years that the officer class commented more on the squalors faced in war because they were less exposed to squalors in society. It is suggested that the average soldier in 1914 from a poor backgorund wouldnt have found trench life so far removed from normal life at home or at work in fact in some cases they would have felt better off.

Given that most of todays younger generation come from a more affluent society, where thay have been (wrongly in my view) protected from risk, suggests they may not be so able to cope in a similar theatre of war to that on the Western Front.

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I do not believe that the youth of today are lacking moral strength or bravery. If you can convince them of the rightness of the cause, I believe they will rally to its support. That said, I suppose we should remember that the High Command of today would not have any use for a mass conscript army. Today's soldier is highly trained and highly motivated. There is a reason that we do not have conscription, we have no use for conscripts.

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It's just so odd, and difficult to get my head around, when I think of the quiet ones that skulk at the back, the clever ones who always argue in debates, the ones who listen to rock music and the ones who screech their cars around town in the formative hours, all thrown in together into a great melting pot. Sure, they'll have had their stereotypes in the time of the First World War, but I can well imagine each social 'group' would have come into contact far less.

Possibly, a lot of them would enlist because they would have nothing better to do. Some might view it as an oppurtunity to have great adventures the like of which they would never experiance in civilian life, with their best friends alongside them. Very few of them would be genuinely patriotic, I think. And propoganda would not rouse them. It is probably a product of the media - the youth of today are well-informed, and might have at least some notion of what they were signing up to.

In an era when poverty is certainly not the normal state of things for the majority of us, I think you are right about soldiers struggling to adjust to their surroundings. It would be entirely unprecedented, and they would, I think, be shocked. Perhaps the circumstances would then force them together, but I am not so sure myself. Would we see 24-year-old platoon commanders feeling as though every one of their fifty or so men was a son? I have my doubts. Perhaps it is looking back into history in 'rose-tinted classes', but I tend to think of young men today as rather less sentimental than they have been (perhaps that's just a product of my personal experiances!!!)

Katie

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I do not believe that the youth of today are lacking moral strength or bravery. If you can convince them of the rightness of the cause, I believe they will rally to its support. That said, I suppose we should remember that the High Command of today would not have any use for a mass conscript army. Today's soldier is highly trained and highly motivated. There is a reason that we do not have conscription, we have no use for conscripts.

It was totally hypothetical - but yes, soldiers are motivated. That said, by what? Most of them I've talked to haven't admitted to being patriotic!

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Katie

This is one of those "what ifs" that just is never going to happen. War is now about technology and about relatively small numbers of highly trained service personnel. There will never be another mass call to arms in the way there was for my grandfather's and father's generations.

But let's just examine recruitment during WW1 to see how the popular concepts of mass numbers of volunteers stand up. Without doubt, there was massive enthusiasm during August 1914 - men rushed to top up their local territorial units or to join the newly formed service battalions. But, in my part of the world, it had dramatically slowed by the end of the month. Something "new" was needed - the "Pals" idea.

And, in the early part of September, there was antoher rush to join up. But this had also tailed off by the end of the month. Initial battalions of the Manchester Pals were raised within days; later ones took weeks. Conscription was inevitable. It's forerunner was the Derby scheme, followed by full conscription by 1916.

Britain didnt make the same mistake twice. When my father's generation went to fight in 1939/1940, they were all conscripted.

As to modern young men and women who might relish the opportunity to volunteer, you ask what "type" they might be. I would suggest that you consider the people you know personally, who have chosen the services as a career, and you will have your answer.

John

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Obviously, I realise there never would be an awful contradictory industrialised/primitive style war today, as there was then - I was thinking more along the lines of, supposing today's youth could be put back in time ninety years, but with all their modern day experiences, what if they were dropped into the same situation?

It sounds absolutely awful - but most of the ones I know who chose the services did so for no better reason than that they didn't know what else to do with themselves! However, I have encountered some on this forum, and they seem to be different. I'm not sure about comradeship in today's army, and I never really talked to one of them about it. But I would be interested to.

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The majority of WW1 recruits were not teenagers. They were in their twenties and thirties. Subalterns tended to be younger on average than the men they commanded. They were ex-public schoolboys and university students in the 18 to 22 bracket. My grandfather was 32, married with 3 surviving children. Unemployed at the time, in the words of my Gran, he joined up to give her a steady wage for three or four months. After which, he expected to be home and on the dole again. He was in ' the first hundred thousand'. My other Granda didn't want to go, he was conscripted. He was 37 years of age, married with seven surviving children. It took a poet's vision to see the serried ranks of men like my grandads as golden haired youths.

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The effect of Kitchener's 1915 army was to ensure that the most enthusiastic and motivated were committed to battle relatively untrained for the new warfare and before appropriate tactics had been learnt. The effect was that many who could have been the leaders to be were killed or wounded before they could fill that role. This left the later conscript army lacking much of what could have been its motivating force. It took the British Army another two years to recover. A more organised and general conscription would have avoided this terrible wastage.

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The majority of WW1 recruits were not teenagers. They were in their twenties and thirties. Subalterns tended to be younger on average than the men they commanded. They were ex-public schoolboys and university students in the 18 to 22 bracket. My grandfather was 32, married with 3 surviving children. Unemployed at the time, in the words of my Gran, he joined up to give her a steady wage for three or four months. After which, he expected to be home and on the dole again. He was in ' the first hundred thousand'. My other Granda didn't want to go, he was conscripted. He was 37 years of age, married with seven surviving children. It took a poet's vision to see the serried ranks of men like my grandads as golden haired youths.

I take your point! It's actually not so difficult to envisage more mature men going off to war as it is those of my age. They seem more principled, somehow, and even if they do not want to do it, I rather expect they would be more likely just to grit their teeth and get on with it.

And sorry to keep referring to poetry, but E.A. Mackintosh said he was an Officer with 50 sons. I know he was of the background mentioned by you above, could superior class have made him feel like a father-figure?

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The effect of Kitchener's 1915 army was to ensure that the most enthusiastic and motivated were committed to battle relatively untrained for the new warfare and before appropriate tactics had been learnt. The effect was that many who could have been the leaders to be were killed or wounded before they could fill that role. This left the later conscript army lacking much of what could have been its motivating force. It took the British Army another two years to recover. A more organised and general conscription would have avoided this terrible wastage.

It was a government cock-up rather than callousness? (by that I mean trying to get them in before they knew the score on purpose, so it wouldn't prejudice future recruiting)

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I take your point! It's actually not so difficult to envisage more mature men going off to war as it is those of my age. They seem more principled, somehow, and even if they do not want to do it, I rather expect they would be more likely just to grit their teeth and get on with it.

And sorry to keep referring to poetry, but E.A. Mackintosh said he was an Officer with 50 sons. I know he was of the background mentioned by you above, could superior class have made him feel like a father-figure?

He would have been indoctrinated by his class, his education and the example of other officers. He was entirely responsible for his men. No father expects instant unquestioning obedience from his children as a subaltern did from his men. In return, he would look after his men to the best of his ability. That was the ideal and when it actually transpired the mutual loyalty and sacrifice was unsurpassed. Something that is not documented but would have occurred. If one of his men got into serious trouble such that he had to appear in front of the CO. ( The last step before a court martial), the subaltern himself would be held responsible by his CO and might well get a dressing down from him or the Adjutant. He should not have let it happen. When the time came for the attack, he led from the front. He went over in the first wave.

There was an expectation at Loos, that the New Army men would not be so ' sticky' as regulars. It was the pious hope that this would compensate for their lack of training and experience. That is another debate however.

You don't have to apologize for quoting poetry to me. Poets have their own truths which need telling. I may be one of the few people you will ' meet' who got into trouble for hiding behind a stack of bricks on a building site to read Shelley.

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The mass armies of the twentieth century were designed to win wars through attrition, their high numbers meant that they were able to inflict and incur high numbers of casualties. Today Britain relies on a professional force of fighting soldiers for the simple reason that the wars of today are fought, certainly by Britain through reliance on technology (Gulf War) or on the professional cadre of troops (Falklands, and recent examples). In a struggle against a terrorist insurgency a mass army might be useful, but it also a cumbersome and blunt instrument, often ill trained for the prupose in hand and, like some huge blind giant, shedding large amounts of blood as it finds its way. A professional army is far more flexible in this respect. Moreover the existence of nuclear weapons by several world powers, including the UK means that governments are moe likely to employ them than risk twentieth century style wars of attrition. Although these are unlikely given the low intensity, guerrilla nature of combat operations recently.

Of course large scale conventional wars still happen, for instance the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War when mass armies were employed and huge casualties inflicted and incurred. In this instance neither side had the technolgical superiority (nuclear weapons) to break the deadlock.

As for Kitchener's Army- tremendous mistakes were made, but this was the first time for decades that a major European power built a mass army from what was effectively a tiny colonial gendarmere. The French, Austrians, Russians and Germans relied on conscription.

Jon

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It was a government cock-up rather than callousness? (by that I mean trying to get them in before they knew the score on purpose, so it wouldn't prejudice future recruiting)

Inexperience and a certain libitarianism, not conspiency- Britain had never had a mass army before and the prevailing concept had always been of a small professional army augmented by volunteering in time of need. This stemmed from the experience of a military dictatorship (Cromwell) and a wish not to repeat it. Various atempts to raise the possibility of some form of national service, as on the Continent, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had always been firmly rejected in Parliament

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I was thinking more along the lines of, supposing today's youth could be put back in time ninety years, but with all their modern day experiences, what if they were dropped into the same situation?

It'd be different but I don't believe human nature and our ability to cope will have changed much over the years. People generally find themselves much better able to deal with "stuff" than they thought thye would

I reckon modern generations are more questioning and less subservient to "how it is" than that generation. I regard that as a good thing, but it possibly would make us worse soldiers in that situation. We are also much more used to the creature comforts of life and I think folk would find the hardships of the trenches very harsh. We are also much less used to danger or to early or sudden death in our daily lives.

But such is ever progress.

John

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He would have been indoctrinated by his class, his education and the example of other officers. He was entirely responsible for his men. No father expects instant unquestioning obedience from his children as a subaltern did from his men. In return, he would look after his men to the best of his ability. That was the ideal and when it actually transpired the mutual loyalty and sacrifice was unsurpassed. Something that is not documented but would have occurred. If one of his men got into serious trouble such that he had to appear in front of the CO. ( The last step before a court martial), the subaltern himself would be held responsible by his CO and might well get a dressing down from him or the Adjutant. He should not have let it happen. When the time came for the attack, he led from the front. He went over in the first wave.

There was an expectation at Loos, that the New Army men would not be so ' sticky' as regulars. It was the pious hope that this would compensate for their lack of training and experience. That is another debate however.

You don't have to apologize for quoting poetry to me. Poets have their own truths which need telling. I may be one of the few people you will ' meet' who got into trouble for hiding behind a stack of bricks on a building site to read Shelley.

:D I'm a little puzzled as to why it was necessary to hide! Was it because they disapproved of Shelley, or because of being in a building site?!

To digress away from the original thread a bit, your point about subulterns getting a 'dressing down' from the CO. I'm confused, because I thought Subulterns themselves actually had the power to Court Martial one of their platoon? I think there's a thread on Court Martials and their procedures here somewhere, so perhaps there'll be something on there?

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It'd be different but I don't believe human nature and our ability to cope will have changed much over the years. People generally find themselves much better able to deal with "stuff" than they thought thye would

I reckon modern generations are more questioning and less subservient to "how it is" than that generation. I regard that as a good thing, but it possibly would make us worse soldiers in that situation. We are also much more used to the creature comforts of life and I think folk would find the hardships of the trenches very harsh. We are also much less used to danger or to early or sudden death in our daily lives.

But such is ever progress.

John

Absolutely. The infant mortality rate was much higher, and there were far more diseases extant that we have now managed to eliminate in Britain. It was a pointless thread to start - but hey, it's been interesting enough!

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Will the like of Kitchener's army ever be seen again?

I sincerely hope not, Katie. Truly I do......

That aside, the advent of weapons of mass destruction - such a telling phrase- has made mass armies more and more obsolete. Armies are now specialist and the front line of fighting has moved right on our own doorstep- the general public. We are now in the firing trench and we haven't had to move a muscle to get there.....

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The mass armies of the twentieth century were designed to win wars through attrition, their high numbers meant that they were able to inflict and incur high numbers of casualties. Today Britain relies on a professional force of fighting soldiers for the simple reason that the wars of today are fought, certainly by Britain through reliance on technology (Gulf War) or on the professional cadre of troops (Falklands, and recent examples). In a struggle against a terrorist insurgency a mass army might be useful, but it also a cumbersome and blunt instrument, often ill trained for the prupose in hand and, like some huge blind giant, shedding large amounts of blood as it finds its way. A professional army is far more flexible in this respect. Moreover the existence of nuclear weapons by several world powers, including the UK means that governments are moe likely to employ them than risk twentieth century style wars of attrition. Although these are unlikely given the low intensity, guerrilla nature of combat operations recently.

Of course large scale conventional wars still happen, for instance the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War when mass armies were employed and huge casualties inflicted and incurred. In this instance neither side had the technolgical superiority (nuclear weapons) to break the deadlock.

As for Kitchener's Army- tremendous mistakes were made, but this was the first time for decades that a major European power built a mass army from what was effectively a tiny colonial gendarmere. The French, Austrians, Russians and Germans relied on conscription.

Jon

I think the First World War was the most dangerous of all wars that have been, because it marked a period of transition. Whilst it was becoming increasingly industrialised, with the Germans' gas and our tanks, the Lewis gun etc, there was still something almost mediaeval about it. You still had soldiers grappling hand to hand with bayonets, a very rudimentary form of fighting that has ceased to be common today. As for the analogy of 'a huge blind giant, shedding large amounts of blood as it finds its way', I think that could not be more fitting, and I really would like to coin it for my own literary purposes!

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Will the like of Kitchener's army ever be seen again?

I sincerely hope not, Katie. Truly I do......

That aside, the advent of weapons of mass destruction - such a telling phrase- has made mass armies more and more obsolete. Armies are now specialist and the front line of fighting has moved right on our own doorstep- the general public. We are now in the firing trench and we haven't had to move a muscle to get there.....

But the question that arises there is, which is worse? If we live in dread of Kitchener's army ever being seen again, yet at the same time, deplore the present state of things?

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A mass army could be reduced to a mass of corpses or ash in a heartbeat. It's not the sort of dread you may think.

As I said we are all in the firing trench now

So, we close our eyes and pray our bit of front line trench remains in a live and let live system....

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In an era when poverty is certainly not the normal state of things for the majority of us, I think you are right about soldiers struggling to adjust to their surroundings. It would be entirely unprecedented, and they would, I think, be shocked. Perhaps the circumstances would then force them together, but I am not so sure myself. Would we see 24-year-old platoon commanders feeling as though every one of their fifty or so men was a son? I have my doubts. Perhaps it is looking back into history in 'rose-tinted classes', but I tend to think of young men today as rather less sentimental than they have been (perhaps that's just a product of my personal experiances!!!)

Katie

Katie,

I know this is a 'what if' question, but I think that today's youth would certainly enlist in droves, for all the same reasons every generation before has done.

As to platoon commanders as 'fathers' - on day one of enlistment perhaps not, but by the time training has finsihed the recruits have been moulded into a single, disciplined force living together and reliant on one another. It changes things. And more so after combat.

As to enduring hardship - then no, I think today's generation would not be so well equipped, but as mentioned above, the human condition is adapatable.

Ian

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Hi Katie

Interesting thread. Like Ian says I know this is a 'what if' question. A large part of the people in Britain today come from other counties, evan second generation do not share British values, and would not fight for us, in fact we could face a civil war one day (feel free mods to delete this post, as I know I could be steping over the line with this post).

Annette

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I had to hide because I was employed to fill dumper trucks with concrete, not to read poetry. Any officer, commissioned or non-commissioned could put a man on a charge which would, after the due process, end in a man being sent for trial at court martial. Depending on circumstances, a man appearing on a charge might be seen as his immediate officer having failed. It is very difficult to explain without a long list of examples. A quick example off the top of my head. If a man appeared in front of the CO for repeated drunkenness, he might be sentenced to 3 months imprisonment in a military prison. The subaltern might well be interrogated as to why the man was able to get drunk so often as to face such charges. An experienced subaltern would have devolved that duty to his CSM who in turn would have informed his junior NCOs that he did not want to see that man on orders again. The man would never been allowed to get drunk. The army philosophy is that not only will you get into trouble for breaking regulations, so will your superiors for letting you. When trench foot was a problem, the men were informed that getting trench foot would be an offence. The Company and platoon commanders were ordered to inspect the men's feet and see that the men took the required steps. If a man did get trench foot , not only was he risking being charged , so was his subaltern.

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