Less than ten years ago, the words `gender history' were interchangeable with `women's history'. Not any more. Thanks to the efforts of a wide range of scholars engaged in mapping out a distinctive narrative concerning masculinity, `gender' has become a much more complex, interactive concept. indeed, the new `invisible actors' in history are revealed to be men. Much of the early work on masculinity focused on institutions such as public schools and boys' organisations. Historians also turned to an examination of manliness in the context of literature, the empire, liberalism, religion, sexuality and domesticity.
Within this historiography, there is considerable diversity about what defines `masculinity'. For many writers, `masculine' is simply what men `are': it is what differentiates them from women. How men came to `be manly' is only rarely regarded as unproblematical (it is part of men's `nature'). More commonly, it is assumed to be the product of socialisation. Other historians have been stimulated by the work of Michel Foucault in which he attempted to demonstrate how human interactions are constructed through particular genealogies and systems of knowledge. This knowledge produces networks of power. Voluntaristic individuals are replaced by socially constructed subjects. Inspiration for much of the best work on masculinity has come from feminist and gay theory. By using the plural `masculinities', these scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which any gender analysis must take into account the power of certain men over other men, and the way pleasure is engendered.
Within this field of work, men's bodies have a special place. Despite Roy Porter's comment that the male body remains `pitiably ignored' by historians, this too is changing. The idea that the biological body is itself subjected to construction has been particularly powerful. It is within a socially constructed `frame' that bodies live, are imagined, and die. Furthermore, there is no inevitable association between the male body and the masculinity. Historical representations and individual embodiment often become confused. Anatomy may not be destiny, but the belief that it is moulds most lives.
It remains true, however, that what we do know about men's bodies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain remains superficial. Men's bodies were endowed with signs and declarations of age, generation, class and ethnicity. The ragged bodies of the poor are contrasted with the heroic frames of miners who, in turn, draw attention to the effete gestures of the aristocracy. That working-class boys were lighter, leaner and in poorer health than their middle-class contemporaries is well known: that they were less liable to be circumcised also comes as no surprise. Although the empassioned attempts of Elite groups within society to mould the bodies of their successors have been extensively studied, we know remarkably little about the gestures, play and carriage of the mass of boys and men.
This neglect is not due to any sense amongst historians that the way men experienced and imagined their manliness was in any way unproblematical. The century prior to the Great War has been portrayed as one in which men struggled to assert their `reason' over the disruptions of industrialisation and related social and spatial upheavals. Given that the historiography tends to focus on elite men, it is not surprising that the public school is considered to be the site within which manly virtues were inculcated. Most famously, `muscular Christianity' with its stress on aggressive spirituality and physical prowess was a powerful agency. The extent to which these traits were stimulated within state schools needs to be debated. We know that the state explicitly attempted to teach boys what they considered to be appropriate gender roles in, for example, manual training classes which became a compulsory part of the curriculum for elementary, school boys in 1909. Although these classes were intended both to prepare boys for manual trades and for masculine domestic duties, by the first decade of the twentieth century the second intention was dominant.
For twentieth-century historians, the First World War provides us with a potentially interesting locale to test assumptions about divergent masculinities, men's bodies, and cultural change. In Britain, more than five million men were active participants in this war. Furthermore, most of those who fought were not professional servicemen. When war was first declared, they were mainly enthusiastic volunteers, eager to `do their bit' while they had the chance. From 1916, they were conscripted men, often ambivalent about their newly-assumed roles and generally unprepared for the realities of modern, mechanised warfare.
Thanks to archival collections scattered throughout Britain, but primarily concentrated in the Imperial War Museum in London, we have access to a vast number of private letters and diaries written by men of the 'Other Ranks'. Unlike much published material, these sources expose the intimate lives of an exceptionally broad range of men. Furthermore, they enable us to engage in a form of analysis rarely exploited by historians: that is, the casual' sketches and doodlings of men who lack any artistic pretensions. Even art historians have been remarkably slow to colonise this field, but social and cultural historians are being encouraged to do so by eminent scholars such as Raphael Samuel and Jay Winter, as well as by innovative presses such as Reaktion Books which publishes a series devoted to new ways of using visual images in history.
Concentrating on these texts does alter perceptions of what is important about men's bodies. For instance, the absence of the image of the body as a machine may surprise scholars of the Great War who have been influenced by Eric J. Leeds' argument that the war exposed the brutal alliance between industrial disciplines in civilian life and alienation in the trenches. Although the horror of mechanical efficiency in war can be seen in the jottings of the war poets and in the fragmented images in Futurist art, the thousands of men whose written words and crude sketches can be examined in archival collections such as the one in the imperial War Museum reveal few such images.
Another example of the way these sources may influence our analysis of men's bodies refers to the male physique. in art, there are three distinctive traditions of representation: the adolescent softness of Narcissus, the firm gracefulness of Apollo, and the muscularity of Heracles. However, when the shape of the male body is discussed in private writings, such language is absent precisely because it is not the tradition into which men tended to describe their own bodies, and the bodies of their friends. Certainly, we can find these traditions mentioned in some of the popular manuals for boys (such as Health and Strength), but once attention has been drawn to the other languages used to describe men's bodies (the more homely representations), one is alerted to the comparative rarity of artistic and literary traditions.
What do such sources tell us about the impact of the Great War on masculinity and men's bodies? Undeniably, many men regarded themselves as having been transformed by their encounter with warfare: many echoed the words of John M. Connor when he wrote in his diary for November 21st, 1914:
seeing your pals blown into bits, it makes a new man fellow in
spirit, moral & character ... it will make many changed man 
tell you, better men in every respect this war will [all sic].
The decisive impact of the Great War on men's bodies can be seen most clearly by looking at the war-maimed. Irrevocably re-moulded by their experiences, these men struggled to create new lives that challenged their status as physically disabled. Even men who were spared disfigurement found that military life enabled them to experiment with different masculine aesthetics. These were often linked to socio-economic class. For instance, in a diary entry in October 1918, Ralph Scott marvelled over the way the war had altered the appearance of his hands:
I looked at my great murderous maulers and wondered idly
how they had evolved from the sensitive manicured fingers that
used to pen theses on `Colloidal Fuel' and The Theory of Heat
Distribution in Cylinder Walls'. And I found the comparison
The war did not only change the bodies of soldiers, sailors and airmen. The return of war-mutilated servicemen radically transformed the lives of all disabled people in Britain. The wartime aesthetics of the male body spread into civilian society after the war.
Historians have not always agreed that the war transformed men and society. Systematic analysis about the impact of war was first undertaken by Arthur Marwick and the resilience of the debate is due in part to his contention that wartime experiences are crucial if historians are to understand British society and culture between 1918 and 1939. Not everyone agrees. Paul Fussell's study The Great War in Modern Memory (1975) represents a trend that concentrates more on the effect of the war on population trends and social policy, political values, female employment and status, and cultural ideas.
Recently, Dr Jay M. Winter has published his startlingly original work entitled Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The Great War in European Cultural History (1995). Through an analysis of film, art, poetry, and a disarmingly broad range of published and unpublished primary material, he argues against Fussell's contention that the Great War stimulated a cultural revolution. According to Winter, people responded to the war by looking backwards rather than forwards in time.
It is possible to argue that while men's experiences of warfare altered their perceptions of the male body, their responses may not have been wholly, consistently, or even particularly novel. Sometimes they were. Many of the war disabled searched for new ways of interpreting the devastation wrought upon their flesh. In addition, a distinction needs to be made between attitudes and material provisions. Although medically and technologically the experience of all disabled people was fundamentally changed by the war, within a short time public assumptions about the war-maimed came to be identical to those of the wider population of disabled people prior to 1914. The same was true in the case of men suspected of evading their duties. Malingering was not a product of the war, but the wartime crises concerning the extent of such behaviour resulted in a dramatic increase in the techniques used to expose, punish and treat suspects in civilian society after 1918.
Furthermore, emphasising that wartime experiences subtly shifted concepts of masculinity does not require adherence to the disillusionment thesis. Indeed, the idea that the war induced widespread feelings of betrayal and alienation is difficult to sustain once we turn away from the classic works of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves and Virginia Woolf. The `unknown' men whose letters and diaries fill the Imperial War Museum were more likely to view their surprising survival as a lucky and joyous opportunity to create a sphere of comfortable domesticity than as a chance to reflect on their social alienation and despair.
Bitterness was one response to wartime experiences: and it was a response that few could afford to maintain for long periods, or were willing to maintain in the face of renewed hope for happiness. indeed, the most striking thing about the private diaries and letters of men at war is the extent to which they continued to be engrossed in the day-to-day domestic lives of their families and friends. Contrary to the work of Klaus Theweleit, wartime experiences did not inevitably brutalise these men. The desire to forget the horrors of war was the dominant urge and, despite the understandable emphasis of medical historians on `shell shock', the vast majority of servicemen did not need recourse to professionals to regain a sense of sanity: the comfort of their kin and companions was sufficient.
Male sexuality during the Great War is another area of historiographical controversy. For many writers, there is a relationship between war and homo-eroticism. To some extent this is true: soldiers spoke without hesitation of their love for their comrades. This language was not exclusively a legacy of public schools: men who had little education drew from other pre-war traditions (such as pub culture, sporting clubs and the scouts) to express similar sentiments. Despite this language, wartime experiences proved too traumatic to develop new forms of male intimacy. So-called male bonding was limited and contingent on a huge range of factors, fracturing along lines of personality, age, ethnicity, class and military unit.
The letters, diaries and informal sketches discussed here provide historians with a vast range of untapped evidence - and not solely concerned with warfare. We have no way of knowing how men interacted with infants: but we can read the advice they gave in letters written to their children. Their halting declarations of love and desire are the nearest the historian is likely to get to pillow talk. A comparison of letters men wrote to their mothers with those they wrote to their fathers or siblings can reveal a great deal about familial structures of power and affection. Sketches of sentimental love, mutilation and aggression can speak for the preoccupations of a generation of men.…