Book Review – The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War by Michael Roper (Manchester University Press, 2009)

A few years ago, I attended the Women’s History Network annual conference of 2008 (on the topic of Gender and Generation: Women and Life-Cycles). It stands out in my memory as the most moving, stimulating and exciting conference I have ever been to. What I remember most is the feeling that everyone there was somehow on the same page – doing the same type of history, thinking the same thoughts, working within the same frameworks. I came away feeling energised and excited – and part of a wider community of scholars. It wasn’t the first major conference I had been to (I was then in the second year of my PhD studies), but it was by far the one that left me the most inspired, a feeling which remains today.

One of the papers that really sticks in my memory from that conference was Michael Roper’s talk on the history of emotion in WWI. His paper was unutterably moving. As Roper moved through his material on young men’s connections with, and love for, their mothers, despite being separated by the gulfs of distance and experience, a tearful audience was moved with him. His short narrative of his own personal journey through the material, and how he had allowed himself (as an historian and as a person) the emotional connections with that material that I think we sometimes try and deny ourselves, was particularly inspiring to me as I came to the realisation that being emotionally connected to historical research is not something we should necessarily be pushing aside (in the name of objectivity), but something we should be exploring, examining and embracing.

So too with Roper’s latest book, The Secret Battle: emotional survival in the Great War. I defy anyone to read the first few pages without experiencing a profound sense of emotional connection. This is a book about the emotions, and it tugs at them well, but it is also primarily a book about connections: connections across space (between soldiers in the trenches and their families at home); connections across time (in linking soldiers wartime experiences with both their late Victorian and Edwardian upbringings, and their post-war experiences);  the disconnections between people who experienced war differently; and ultimately the reconnections that occurred after the war was over. Thus ‘home and trenches were structurally connected and inter-dependent’ (p. 6) even if we must also recognise the ‘mis-understandings, tensions and sometimes outright hostility which could flare up between soldiers and their loved ones’ (p. 11). It was, meanwhile, ‘the upbringing of the “war generation” [which] provided their resources for survival in the war’ (p. 11) and women upon whom damaged veterans relied to reintegrate them into a civilian society which they often only remembered as children (given the fact that 40% of the fighting force were under twenty-four – p. 5).   

Methodologically it is a book situated firmly in the realm of psycho-analysis, not as a way of producing a ‘pyscho-history’ (p. 25) of the war, but as a means through which to ‘place the emotional experience of the war within a cultural context… and to track that longer emotional  impact of the war into peacetimes and civilian life’ (p. 26). To the uninitiated (among whom I include myself) this can at times grate, but it is an approach that really comes into its own in later chapters, particularly Chapter Six, ‘Nameless dread’. This is the most psychological of the book’s chapters, dealing with issues of ‘regression’ (whereby soldiers regressed to a mental state of boyhood) and ‘containing’ (whereby the mother ‘contains’ and neutralises the newborn’s  fears and anxieties), or lack thereof. When soldiers ‘regressed’ to a child-like state on the front, they had no mother there to contain their fears, leading to the oft-felt and repeated sensation of ‘nameless dread’ suffered by soldiers in the trenches.

Fears of evisceration were particularly acute, Roper argues, due to the sense in which the baby, after birth, ‘feels that he is in danger “of falling to pieces or liquefying…”’ (p. 254). Mothers assuage this fear through holding the baby against her skin, thus ‘reinforc[ing] its sense of physical boundaries, a process that, in turn, allows it to recognise that it has an internal psychic space’ (p. 254). The falling apart of bodies occasioned by shell wounds was thus psychically disruptive on a deeply profound level, and goes some way to explaining the deep trauma caused by persistent shelling. In not confronting the emotional aspect of the First World War, argues Roper, historians are engaging in their own psychic concealment – ‘faced with scenes of psychic dissolution, it is safer for the historian to stay in the realms of the rational’ (p. 266). ‘If the emotional history of the war is to be about more than cultural conventions, historians need… to take seriously the sensation of “nameless dread”; in the process, not locking away the pain of the past, but trying to digest and contain it (p. 266).

This book is a clarion call to all historians to take emotion (and psycho-analysis) seriously in our historical endeavours. While I am not entirely sure I would call myself converted to the dictates of historical psycho-analysis, this book does convince that when done well it has much to add to our (emotional) interpretations and understandings of the past. And if nothing else Michael Roper has reminded me once again (three years after first hearing him speak back in Glasgow), that an emotional history can be emotional, and that the desire to reach for historical objectivity is not necessarily a methodology we should even be reaching for (let alone failing to reach).

– Emily Manktelow

A full review of Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War can be found under our new Book Review Tab at the top of the page, and by following the link.

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2 Responses to Book Review – The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War by Michael Roper (Manchester University Press, 2009)

  1. perkinsy says:

    Thank you for this helpful review. It convinced me to buy the book and I have not been disappointed!

  2. Pingback: We’re Baaaack… in Sydney! | Stumbling Through the Past

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