Re-remembering the Soldier Hero : the Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War

  • Roper M
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This article explores the compulsion to re-tell experiences of soldiering. In Soldier Heroes (1994) Graham Dawson stressed the importance of war stories in the subjective composure of masculinity. Here the significance of soldiering as a culturally-vaunted means of narrating a man's life is suggested through a focus on one man's experience of a single event in the First World War, and how his narration of that event changed in a succession of accounts written between 1914 and the 1970s. The image of a soldier hero is not cast in stone, and the qualities ascribed to it may change with aging. With the officer Lyndall Urwick (1891-1983), youthful derision towards the `old incompetents' of the army staff gave way to forgiveness in late career, whilst memories of trench warfare and of death resurfaced in old age. A study of these narrative shifts provides insights into the burdens and discontents of masculinity in the here-and-now of writing. However, the role of postwar gender scripts in the composure of war memory can be overstated. Equally important is the experience of war itself: how trench warfare, in particular, confronted men with feelings which could not be accommodated within prevailing ideals of masculinity. Drawing on Freud's definition of war neurosis, the article argues that remembering can be understood as a part of a continued search for ways of dealing with fear of death and dislike of killing - feelings which date from the war itself. This `underlay' of memory has tended to be ignored in recent work, which has emphasized the role of public and collective gender discourses in shaping personal testimony of war.

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  • Michael Roper

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