Tuesday, September 25, 2012

British Soldiers in the Desert War and Perceptions of Philandering Canadians, 1941-43

A soldier's morale is contingent upon numerous factors.  He may just need a hot mug of tea to cheer him up, or perhaps some bacon and oatmeal to replace his bully beef breakfast.  Most take support from their primary group, the men of their immediate working environment, whose esteem is critical to their emotional well-being.  Some may seize a greater ideology to keep them satisfied with their place in the greater war machine.  Nearly all soldiers keep some connection with their loved ones in distant communities.  Mail from home could be the greatest morale booster for men in far-flung and isolated theatres.
Mail being unloaded from an Army Post Office
 lorry in the Western Desert, 16 July 1941.
© IWM (E 4175)

Jonathan Fennell's Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (2010) examines the many factors effecting the rise of the British Eighth Army's morale as the pivotal battle of El Alamein approached in the fall of 1942.  Fennell writes, "it was not just the arrival of the mail that was important but also the contents of the written correspondence, with all that this entailed in regard to relationships and family affairs.  

As it was pithily put by one officer, 'the two main factors affecting morale  of the soldier overseas are the mail and the female.'" (Fennell, p. 165)  Historians have noted that the long build-up of Canadian troops in England had a negative effect on the morale of Canadian citizens and soldiers alike.  It appears, due to the Canadians' amorous assault on the island nation, that a reciprocal decline of morale was experienced by British troops in the Western Desert.

One officer wrote in September 1941, of his soldiers' perceptions of the Canadians in England:
The boys are getting very scared of the Canadians upsetting their domestic life at home.  We have three instances of it in this unit during the last month.  It started when I got a letter addressed to the O.C. Would I be good enough to inform Pte. X that his wife was an expectant mother and had gone to live with another man...Poor chap...He couldn't speak for three days.  Since then two more have had letters breaking off engagements.  What with that and the delay in the mail, the whole crowd are worried to death. (Fennel, p.165, from "British Troops in Egypt no. 100 Field Censorship Report Week Ending 23 September 1941, p.4, AWM 54 883/2/97)

Lance Bombardier Sydney May (of New Denver, British
Columbia) and a colleague chat to Miss Doreen Peel
 (wearing sunglasses), during a boat trip
 along the River Thames. © IWM (D 9704)
Fennell notes that by January 1942, censorship summaries recorded a "hysterical pandemic of worry and jealousy among the troops in the desert".  That summer, one soldier wrote to his wife, "I tell you what our tent is called now, love, it is called the 'Jilted Lovers Tent,' because there are four chaps in this tent who were engaged, but now their girls have broken it off and in three cases the girls have married Canadians."

The stress over infidelity may have caused physiological distress as well. In April 1942, medical officers noted that disease could be brought on by psychological friction noting "marital infidelity" and "broken homes" as particularly effective in wearing a man down.  This stress was linked directly to a decline in morale.

Bing Coughlin cartoon as published in "The Half Million". Allies in War.
One might assume there was nothing the War Office could do to combat such natural feelings arising from dislocation.  Fennell notes, however, that the Directorate of Welfare effectively used the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) as a liaison between soldiers and families, to initiate a reconciliation scheme.  SSAFA would visit wives and attempt to ameliorate domestic issues in lieu of withdrawing family allowances, legal action, or divorce.  (Fennell, p. 170)  Free legal aid was offered in the Middle East for men filing for divorce.  SSAFA dealt with sixty known cases and thirty suspected cases of infidelity daily!  Fennell suggests that as only 53% of the divorce cases ended in marital dissolution, the efforts of the War Office to soothe anxieties were fruitful.

Mail normally dampened the agony and longing for connection with distant loved ones, but it is clear that when promises were broken, morale could plummet.  Men would invest great hope in the life that they would return to after the war, and their partner was central to the sentiments which allowed them to endure the privations of campaigning.  In a sense mail could be a double edged sword.  While fostering an idealized and romanticized civilian past, mail could just as easily dash these dreams and leave soldiers with nothing but grim combat to look forward to.

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