Gender

The place of gender in the encounters and exchanges between people during the First World War must be understood in its intersections with other categories, including race and class. The First World War could be seen as period of masculinities in crisis, as the strength of nations and empire was tested in the physical assessment of male bodies in competition. Equally, the roles of women changed radically because of the war’s breadth, at home or behind the frontlines. The unprecedented scale of mobilisation across Europe, as well as in its colonies, created new spaces for encounter that brought differently gendered groups into contact: a provocation for new intimacies and relationships on a personal level, and a cause for anxiety and fear in broader public and official discourses.

The global nature of the First World War would unavoidably juxtapose domestic concerns about the strength of the nation with the physical condition of the races of empire, ally, and belligerent. The dependence of both national strength and imperial order upon European masculinities and clear hierarchies, including theories of martial races, was challenged by the demands of manpower. For Britain, the begrudging mobilisation of non-white colonial troops to fight in Europe meant that that white British masculinity was threatened not only by its conflict with Germany or exposure of fragile flesh to industrial weaponry but also reconfigured in competition with its Indian, West Indian, and Maori allies. Furthermore, masculinities became entangled with combatant/non-combatant identity as well as specificities of race: French soldiers often admired and empathised with their Senegalese fellow-combatants but resented Chinese or Vietnamese farm and industrial workers who worked and lived away from the front.

The spaces of war saw, too, the reconceptualisation of masculinity as there developed a new language of intimacy among men and the admiration for the male body in combat or at play. Empathy occasionally was edged with eros: men admired each other’s bodies as they bathed together, across race and class, as when Australians swam alongside Jamaican troops in the Suez Canal. Letters and diaries, alongside photographs and sketches, of observing troops bathing or playing sports, reveal not only this newfound sense of intimacy and frisson but a shared feeling of vulnerability as well of the ‘too too solid’ flesh. In a letter from Mesopotamia, the Indian doctor Kalyan Mukherjee notes how a young English officer, mortally wounded, tried to kiss his feet after he poured some water into his mouth; in his memoir, Pierre La Mazière, who served first in the infantry at Champagne and then as a nurse in Dardanelle, recalls 'cradling' a wounded black soldier and telling him that he is 'handsome' whereupon the latter 'gave me a lovely smile, stretched his hands, and kissed me'. Heartbreaking in their poignancy, these were also flashpoints in the making and unmaking and remaking of masculinities. Eros, vulnerability, maternity, pity, and tenderness were often combined, defying the rigid boundaries of gender and sexuality. Same-sex liaisons were uncommon but not absent: the English novelist E. M. Forster had his first sexual encounter while working as a nurse in Alexandria, with a soldier, before finding his Egyptian boyfriend Mohammed el Adl.

For women, the war offered new opportunities for their role, status, and agency. For those active in war service including nurses, the war offered new opportunities to overcome gender restrictions, not only in access to masculine sites close to the battlefield, but in the travel necessitated by the war. Nurses from Australia and New Zealand explored the pyramids and Sphinx of Egypt, just as their male counterparts did. In hospitals across the frontlines, white nurses cared for black patients: in France, Canadian Alison Mullineaux bathed the eyes of Senegalese men who had been gassed; in Sussex, West Indian men dedicated poetry to their English Nurse Burton. For women who remained at home near the battlefront, as in Ypres, the movement of so many troops around the world resulted in new forms of encounter, as men were billeted in their homes, or came on leave to their cities and towns. Indians troops referred to the women with whom they billeted as their 'French mothers', while their actual mothers back at home - in remote villages in the Punjab - desperately waited for their son's return from a war they failed to understand or endorse.

While gender and race relations became fluid in the topsy-turvy world of the frontline, the official discourses around them tightened. The vocabulary of miscegenation – métissage – took on a particular emphasis in the context of war, potentially threatening to the 'health' and 'prestige' of the white nations and to the ways in which empires had been ordered. Anxiety about miscegenation led to a policing of the encounters between European women and non-white troops, as official bodies attempted to segregate and control their movements: one of the ugliest examples is the fence that was put up around the Brighton Pavilion Hospital where the injured Indian soldiers were being cared for. The threat of contamination of masculine bodies through sex and sexual disease was particularly associated with Egypt and its envisioning as a dangerous, immoral, and diseased space. Equally, the young white women of Britain and the attention they paid to the colonial troops, both white and non-white, known as ‘khaki-fever’ – a perceived ‘unfeminine’ behaviour – was seen as threatening in the potential spread of disease and damaging to the role of motherhood, which would be so essential in the post-war years.

Women at home, far from the front, felt the war in the new economic demands placed upon them to sustain their families. Descriptions of women working in fields and on farms included those from Britain, France, Palestine, and the Punjab. The new roles war enforced upon women influenced women’s social movements and political organisations. New associations emerged both to support the men at the front, but also in pacifist groups. An international meeting of anti-war socialist women met in Berne, Switzerland in February 1915. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded in 1915, initiated by a group of Dutch women, following a large women’s peace congress at The Hague in late April 1915. By 1921, it had twenty-two national sections, advocating for international loyalty above traditional nationalist notions of citizenship. However, most active members of the international groups tended to be elite, white Christian women with substantial resources, overwhelmingly from North America and Western Europe; exclusions of class, race, religion and nationality remained.

Santanu Das & Anna Maguire