Reason in Madness
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come.
I think no permanent change of importance has been made by
the War in the character, customs and habits of the people.
I'm going back to Blighty, which
I left to strafe the 'Un;
I've fought in bloody battles,
and I've 'ad a 'eap of fun;
But now me flipper's busted,
and I think me dooty's done,
And I'll kiss me gel in Blighty in the mawnin'.
Christmas card verse,
British Red Cross Society, 1917
THEIRS WAS NOT TO REASON WHY
Schoolteachers, coal miners, bank clerks, poultry farmers; gentry, urban middle class,
laborers, and peasantry—in the midst of the fury, what kept them in the trenches? What
sustained them on the edge of no man's land, that strip of territory which death ruled with an
iron fist? What made them go over the top, in long rows that, despite the noise, terrain,
terror, and confusion, remained remarkably orderly? What sustained them in constant
confrontation with death or its symbols, in attack and counterattack; in defense or on fatigues or
on marches; in summer and winter; in the fire line, in support, in reserve, at rest, and, perhaps the
supreme test, on leave?
We are talking here not of professional armies but of mass armies, of volunteers and conscripts,
such as the world had not seen before, and we are talking not about military systems in which
obedience was achieved by the knout or the noose or the bed of Procrustes. Desertion was still
punishable by death, and courts-martial were active in this war, but the incidence of
insubordination and sedition was minuscule in relation to the numbers of men under arms and in
view of the conditions they had to brave. The question of what kept men going in this hell of the
Western Front is central to an understanding of the war and its significance.
What becomes clear from the diaries and letters of front soldiers is that in front-line service,
particularly in action but in routine duty as well, the senses become so dulled by the myriad
Eksteins, “Reason in Madness”: Page 1 of 15