Some final thoughts

Why did men volunteer for the New Armies in 1914?   The explanations offered in the literature include the appeal to patriotism, a sense of adventure, the ‘demonstration effect’ of friends joining up, the opportunity to serve with ‘pals’, fear of the charge of cowardice, dissatisfaction with life at home or at work, the call of duty and obligation.  None of these motives excludes the others.  We should expect that the decision to volunteer would be a complex matter involving a number of these elements.

Nowhere do the three Goodchild brothers who responded to Kitchener’s appeal give an account of their decision to enlist.  We do not even know whether they discussed it amongst themselves before George went first, in August 1914.  Arthur was more inclined than the others to express his thoughts on the war: “we must all do our best for the honour of country” (28 Oct 14), and “If we don’t go and fight the Germans out there we shall have to do it here” (8 July 15), though he may well have been rationalising ─ even justifying to himself ─ rather than explaining his decision.   The circumstances of his enlisting do suggest that it may have been an impulsive action to become a soldier, following the example of his two older brothers.

The letters of the brothers express a love and affection for their family, their home, their village, and most explicitly in the case of Arthur their country.  What they felt no affection for was their status as agricultural labourers.  (It is no surprise that although the three brothers who survived the war lived the rest of their lives in Grundisburgh or neighbouring villages, two found employment in the Ipswich engineering industries and the third developed his own building business.) Farm work was arduous, ill-paid and insecure.  Their treatment by farmers and farm managers on whom they depended for a job was arbitrary and abusive.  When the war began the agricultural wage in England was just half the wage earned in industry, and the wage of agricultural labourers in Suffolk was among the lowest of such workers in the country.  This gap reflected the lack of alternative employment opportunities in Suffolk, with 43 per cent of employed males in the county working on farms in 1901 (Newby, pp. 35-7).  Trade union membership was very restricted among such workers.  Hence the Goodchild brothers may well have felt that in enlisting they had little to lose.  In Winter’s view, “Good wages and a secure job were therefore the first priority for most manual labourers.  Deficiencies in both areas seem to have been the chief propellant into Kitchener’s armies of working men … the permutations and nuances of their motives were many.  In the end all they had in common was their total ignorance of the rigours which lay ahead” (pp. 34, 36).

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Those rigours were very severe for all fighting men during 1914-18.  Morale in the British army in the war, especially in comparison with other armies both allied and enemy, has been much studied in the war literature.  The fact that it never fell dangerously low in the British army may be attributed to sticks (discipline) and carrots (sports, entertainments, leave, rotation between front line and rear), reinforced by loyalty to the group (battalion, company, platoon, section) (Ferguson, pp. 339-66, Holmes, Part VI).  The morale of soldiers is significant because of its effect on the willingness and effectiveness of men in the front line of the army.  The Goodchild letters may suggest that there is another aspect of morale which is peculiar to volunteers.  Conscripted soldiers are in the army because the government orders them to be there.  Other than conscientious objection they have no choice in the matter.  They must put up with whatever comes their way.  Morale is high or low, but they bear no personal responsibility for their situation.  Professional soldiers have elected to join the army as a career choice.  They do not court danger, but accept it as potentially part of the job description.  Volunteer soldiers, on the other hand, are civilians acting as temporary soldiers who have by their own decision put themselves in harm’s way.  It is only reasonable to suppose that for many there may come a point at which, privately, they regret the decision.

In 1914 as we have seen there were many pressures on men to volunteer, and no-one foresaw the duration of the war, the scale of the slaughter and destruction, or the appalling physical conditions in which the fighting took place.   But once in the trenches what was previously unimaginable became all too real.   Ned tried to reassure his mother that “I quite expected this before we came” (16 Oct 15).  But writing to George a month later there was no need to pretend.  “I wonder us three have got through as far as we have.  In these storms of shot and shell, people in England who have never been out here will never realise what it’s like, they can read papers till their eyes drop out, if they never experience it.”

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It seems to me inevitable that at some stage these brave young men must have looked back on their decision to answer Kitchener’s call and questioned the wisdom of what they did.   Ned sadly had little time or opportunity to do so.  Arthur was burdened from the beginning by his deafness, one result of which was that he served in four separate battalions and seemed to find difficulty in establishing friendships in each new unit after he left 9/Suffolk.  For George, the turning point was his return to England as a casualty, with time to reflect from his hospital bed.  By the time he left hospital the idea of volunteer soldiers had in any case disappeared with the introduction of conscription. Thereafter George defied the army which wanted to return him to the trenches by insisting and demonstrating that his injuries had left him unfit for active service abroad.  Bearing in mind that 2.25 million British wounded were repatriated for treatment, and 1.5 million of those were patched up and sent back for further service in France (including, unbelievably, one Private Bell, whose right foot was said to have been blown off at the first battle of Ypres in 1914 [Winter p. 197]), George showed enormous determination for which his family now, as did his family then, has reason to be grateful.  Almost 12 per cent of all British soldiers were killed in the war, and logically the casualty rate must have been greatest amongst those who saw the longest active service.  The chances that George might endure two more years of war in the front line and yet emerge unscathed were remote indeed.

The village green, church and war memorial today

The village green, church and war memorial today, Courtesy of The Post Office, Grundisburgh