Emotional Blackmail: British Women 1914- 15

European men were overjoyed when war broke out in August 1914. Jingoistic newspapers and politicians didn’t lie when they said that they thought that the war would be over by Christmas: they really believed it. As a consequence there was a mad rush to enlist. A million British men enlisted in four months; motivated by patriotism, adventure, boredom and peer group identity. But the war wasn’t over by Christmas and the barbaric reality of trench warfare became well known. Volunteering became unattractive. Propaganda, using emotional blackmail, was created e.g. posters saying, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” More insidious was direct emotional blackmail by women in public places. By late 1915 this was being more than countered by the emotional blackmail of mothers trying to protect their sons from themselves.

Governments had no inkling just how popular the war would be and ironically the Order of the White Feather was incorporated immediately. Its purpose was giving white feathers to non- military men shaming them into enlisting. Young women paraded sanctimonious patriotism by forcing white feathers onto civilians. Naturally many men were in ‘civvies’ because their work was essential to the war effort. Explanations were denounced as suspicious evasions (and some were) but huge emotional friction was inflicted. Nonetheless recruitment fell throughout 1915 as casualties mounted. It became abundantly clear that a critical recruitment ‘tipping point’ was imminent. Attrition based tactics were literally consuming men and the epithet ‘cannon fodder’ came into general use as a shorthand for carnage. (The 1915 eight month Dardenelles Campaign, in faraway Turkey, was a fiasco demonstrating this point.) Emotional blackmail failed because being ashamed was the lesser of two evils.

Meanwhile in the world of unintended consequences Pals regiments were developed: these regiments recruited solely from tightly drawn areas. The concept was brilliant. A regiment from a single locality meant all the men shared a cultural identity and would already be bonded. The unintended consequence was that when battles turned into bloodbaths whole neighbourhoods faced collective tragedy. For example the seven Manchester Pals regiments raised 10,000 men but suffered 4776 casualties. All 4776 men came from a densely populated area and many grieving families knew each other. Fiercely protective mothers sisters and female relatives saw the carnage and grief in their communities and used their emotional ascendency to prevent their sons from enlisting. These women knew what grieving and loss meant and wanted none of it. Emotional blackmail turned into a double- edged sword. The Pals regiments exacerbated the emotional magnitude of horrendous battlefield losses.

Cynical emotional blackmail by the British government and sanctimonious women struck a cord in the early days of the war becoming a catalyst in creating a volunteer army. However, they were in effect pushing on an open door.British men wanted to enlist and did in their hundred of thousands. Scepticism coupled with huge losses hitting tightly based communities meant that domestic emotional blackmail successfully reduced the number of volunteers during 1915. This in turn led to the most dramatic piece of legislation in the twentieth century: the Military Service Act 1916. For the first time British men were forced into the armed services and into lethal combat. This act changed the relationship between state and citizen forever.


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4 Responses to Emotional Blackmail: British Women 1914- 15

  1. Kurt says:

    Heya! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 4!
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  2. Sandra orton says:

    Another excellent article,thank you

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