The First World War soldier and his contemporary image in Britain

Helen B. McCartney*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


The image of the First World War soldier as a cowed victim, caught in the grip of a meaningless, industrialized war, is one that has become entrenched in the British popular imagination. It was not, however, the image that dominated public discussion of the soldier between 1914 and 1918. This article seeks to examine how the portrayal of the soldier changed during and after the First World War and proposes that the victimized soldier motif has been reinforced today by the coalescence of three trends. The first is the growth of the family history industry that encourages an individualized and empathetic approach to the First World War. The second trend is concerned with an increasing public interest in psychological reactions to war. Since the Vietnam War, there has been a growing expectation that soldiers will be psychologically damaged by wartime experience. This has influenced the public perception of the First World War soldier, affecting, in particular, the discussion surrounding those executed for military crimes during the conflict. Finally, the article argues that long-term changes in British attitudes to the use of force, coupled with the experience of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also coloured the way in which the First World War is portrayed. A range of interest groups have cast the contemporary British soldier as a victim in recent years and the article argues that the explicit linking of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with the First World War has reinforced this victim image for each conflict.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-315
Number of pages17
Journal International Affairs (London)
Issue number2
Early online date14 Mar 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014




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