In his deceptively modest Soldiers: Fighting Men’s Lives, 1901-2001, Philip Ziegler explores an enduring question: Why do soldiers fight? Individual human violence can be explained in a variety of ways, ranging from original sin to social deprivation, but there has always been a recognition that something beyond a personal proclivity for mayhem keeps men to their duty in the brutal chaos of a battlefield. Over the centuries many writers, from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus to the American philosopher J. Glenn Gray, have attempted to explain the mysterious allure of combat. Ziegler provides a valuable contribution to this literature. His approach is prosopographical. He gives his readers a series of short lives of British soldiers who fought for their monarch and country during the course of the twentieth century. The eldest of these men saw action in World War I. All served in World War II. Most fought in other, less storied wars of the British Empire in its sunset years. These men were members of that large, and largely unsung, class of “other ranks.” They did their soldiering as privates and noncommisioned officers (noncoms). Ziegler is not here interested in the experience of officers or of men who held high command. He wants to understand the world of the ordinary men who filled out the regiments of the British army, the men who followed, rather than gave orders.
Ziegler found his subjects at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London. King Charles II founded the hospital in 1682 as a home for aging and ailing soldiers. He was imitating his rival, Louis XIV of France, who had established the famous Hotel des Invalides in Paris. Ever since, the hospital has provided a refuge for the men who fought Britain’s wars. At the dawn of the twenty- first century, it is a place rich in color and tradition. In- pensioners (residents) are provided scarlet coats and tricorn hats. These men take part in military ceremonies and remembrances around the country. Every June 8, they turn out in full regalia for the Founder’s Day Parade, receiving an inspection by a member of the royal family. Watching such a parade, with very old men standing at attention, saluting, and marching the best that they are able, one begins to get an inkling of the pride and courage that carried them through their military careers. Ziegler notes that the in-pensioners can amongst themselves point to some ten thousand years of service. They were stationed in over seventy countries. Their medals are too numerous to count. The Royal Hospital Chelsea is an actuarial end point of a long military tradition. As such, it is a fitting place to launch an investigation into the soul of a soldier.
The experiences of the nine men that Ziegler writes about differ in many ways. Distinct individuals, their varied characters as well as the vagaries of chance shaped the trajectories of their lives. They saw many different faces of battle. One man saw action in the dangerous and hectic days of the first Ludendorff offensive on the western front in March, 1918. Another was a tanker who battled the Afrika Korps in the deserts of North Africa. A third man served as a commando during World War II, raiding German installations in the eastern Mediterranean. Others saw little or no combat and were primarily occupied with logistics or training. Despite everything that distinguishes these men and makes their stories unique, however, there are also similarities amongst them. These commonalities enable Ziegler to present these men as a group and to say something intelligible about the world from which they emerged and the army in which they served.
All of Ziegler’s soldiers were born in Britain in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Thus, they grew up in the Britain of Winston Churchill, P.G. Wodehouse, and Noël Coward. The class system was still a potent reality, with social distinctions effectively demarcated by accent. The Empire seemed an indestructible edifice, staining great swathes of the map pink, in its extent defying even the setting of the sun. Theirs was a Britain where, in the hinterlands at least, eternal verities still ruled and were respected. These men were not the beneficiaries of this imperial greatness. Without exception, they came from the working class, though they were more likely to have grown up in rural environments than in urban slums. The degrees of these men’s youthful deprivation varied from hard-won respectability to abject poverty. Every one of these men left school at the age of fourteen, once they had finished with their primary education. Most lacked the money to move on to grammar school. Even those who might have won one of the few available scholarships preferred to go to work and help in the support of their families. The navy and army were attractive career choices for working-class boys, especially for young men who came of age during the period of the...
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