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Houlbrook wove this enduring form of idealised masculinity into the long history of soldier sexuality, focusing on the Guardsman as an emblem of British national identity and militarised masculinity, but crucially, also as an object of queer desire.
To be sure, many historians now regard gender and war as ‘inevitably intertwined’, as Alison Fell recently argued.
In this essay, I will examine the historiography of the First World War, as it relates to the study of military masculinities, the rising scholarship on wounded, disabled and colonised bodies, and then reflect on my own response to the centenary. Together, they demonstrated how masculinity underpinned imperialism and militarism, fundamentally shaping the experience of modern war as social, embodied and psychological experiences.
One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1914, a series of events set off an unprecedented global conflict that ultimately claimed the lives of more than 16 million people, dramatically redrew the maps of Europe, and set the stage for the 20th Century.
In the year of the centenary of the First World War, it is timely to reflect upon the rise of masculinity studies and its impact on the historiography of Britain’s military culture and the changing landscape of focused studies of the war.
Focusing on the period of the war and extending to its long aftermath, Gabriel Koureas identified an ideal of ‘unconquerable manhood’ in British visual culture.
Koureas argued that the political construction of memorials rendered the memory of the war in terms of heroic sacrifice, which not only avoided the issue of trauma and disability, but reflected wider anxieties about working-class masculinity, particularly in the light of post-war civil discontent.
Laurinda Stryker also wanted more precise evidence to map the causes of male breakdown, ‘sexual impotence’, and gender anxiety, noting the military psychologists were neither obsessed with gender nor cowardice.
Similarly challenging the ‘crisis’ thesis, Tracy Loughran argued for a more nuanced approach to the medical and social history of both the diagnosis and experience of psychological wounds.
Indeed, the development of the cultural history of war has reframed investigations into war, militarism, mobilisation, and soldiers’ bodies and minds, as cultural A common starting point for historians has been that the First World War was a modern, technological war that tested and broke Victorian and Edwardian codes and expectations of manliness.
Thus studies of military medicine in the treatment of shellshock had to contend with the Victorian education of most military psychiatrists, who reached for the tools of class and gender to explain the seemingly inexplicable – men falling apart.