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Touring behind the lines: British soldiers in French towns and cities during the Great War


This article explores the importance that accessing urban life assumed for British soldiers stationed in France during World War I. Many who fought on the Western Front had never visited a foreign country before sailing to France. Drawing on contemporary letters and diaries and later memoirs, it considers how men responded to the new experiences they found in French towns and cities behind the lines. Through exploring activities from shopping and dining to cinema and prostitution, it argues that urban outings became critical to sustaining morale by offering opportunities to engage with civilian life on a reasonably regular basis.

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1 Engall J.S., A Subaltern's Letters (London, 1917), 38.

2 R. White considers tourism amongst Australian soldiers in World War I, but his argument that this was a key reason why many enlisted is not replicated in British accounts. My concern here is with tourism as a subsidiary activity to war rather than a motivating factor. See White R., ‘The soldier as tourist’, War and Society, 5 (1987), 6378.

3 This approach has dominated the cultural history of World War I, most obviously in Fussell P., The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975). Fussell's work has been expanded – and critiqued – in a number of important studies including Hynes S., A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London, 1991); Mosse G., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford, 1989).

4 For an overview of this shift see McCartney H.B., Citizen Soldiers: The Liverpool Territorials in the First World War (Cambridge, 2005), 18.

5 See for example Watson J.S.K., Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory and the First World War in Britain (Cambridge, 2004).

6 One example of the ‘disillusionment’ school of war literature is Leed E., No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War One (Cambridge, 1979). For challenges, see Fuller J.G., Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914 –18 (Oxford, 1990).

7 Fuller, Troop Morale; Fergusson N., The Pity of War (London, 1998), 357–66.

8 For the ratio of time spent in and out of the trenches, see Beckett I. and Simpson K. (eds.), A Nation at Arms: A Social Study of the British Army in the First World War (Manchester, 1985), 178.

9 For example McPhail H., The Long Silence: Civilian Life under the German Occupation of Northern France, 1914–18 (London, 2001).

10 Winter J. and Robert J.-L. (eds.), Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin, vol. I (Cambridge, 1997), 4. See also Winter J. and Robert J.-L. (eds.), Capital Cities at War, vol. II: A Cultural History (Cambridge, 2007).

11 Winter J. and Prost A., The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies 1914 to the Present (Cambridge, 2005), 154. The literature referred to here by Winter and Prost is predominantly French.

12 See for example Rüger J., ‘Entertainments’, in Winter and Robert (eds.), Capital Cities, vol. II, 105–40, at 117.

13 K.C. Gibson, ‘Relations between the British army and the civilian population on the Western Front, 1914–18’, University of Leeds Ph.D. thesis, 1998. See also Gibson K.C., ‘Sex and soldiering in France and Flanders’, International History Review, 23 (2001), 505756; Gibson K.C., ‘The British army, French farmers and the war on the Western Front’, Past and Present, 180 (2003), 175240.

14 Goebel S. and Keene D., ‘Towards a metropolitan history of total war: an introduction’, in Goebel S. and Keene D. (eds.), Cities into Battlefields: Metropolitan Scenarios, Experiences and Commemorations of Total War (London, 2011), 146, at 11.

15 The sample comprised 118 collections of private papers held at the Imperial War Musuem (IWM) identified via keyword searches on the Museum's database, then supplemented by published material. I am grateful to the trustees of the IWM and individual copyright holders for permission to quote material cited in this article: Maureen Bottom (N. Tennant); Paul Finch (Jack Sweeney); Angela Macfarlane (A.J.H. Smith); Miss M.A. Johnston (J.A. Johnston); Alison Baines (C.R. Jones); Jon Wicket (Stapleton Euchas) and R. Diamond (R.K. Lawson). Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, for the remaining material.

16 Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, ch. 5.

17 Ibid., 65.

18 Boyden P.E., Tommy Atkins’ Letters. The History of the British Army Postal Service from 1795 (London, 1990), 28; Roper M., The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009), 50.

19 Ellis J., Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War One (Baltimore, 1976), 139; Englander D., ‘Soldiering and identity: reflections on the Great War’, War in History, 1 (1994), 300–18, at 308.

20 The National Archives (TNA) WO95/376, Third Army routine orders, 9 Jan. 1916.

21 For recent approaches see Roper, The Secret Battle, 47–72, also Hämmerle C., ‘“You let a weeping woman call you home?” Private correspondences during the First World War in Austria and Germany’, in Earle R. (ed.), Epistolary Selves. Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600–1945 (Aldershot, 1999), 152–82; Hanna M., ‘A republic of letters: the epistolary tradition in France during World War I’, American Historical Review, 108 (2003), 1328–361.

22 Holmes R., Tommy (London, 2004), xxiii.

23 Carrington C., Soldier from the Wars Returning (London, 1965), 160. For similar, see Baynes J., Morale: A Study of Men and Courage. The Second Scottish Rifles at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle 1915 (London, 1987; orig. publ. 1967), 208–14; Van Emden R. (ed.), Tickled to Death to Go: Memoirs of a Cavalryman in the First World War (Staplehurst, 1996), 14.

24 IWM 05/9/1, C.R. Jones, Nov. 1915.

25 Lawrence B.L., War Correspondence from France and Belgium (London, 1919), 3.

26 Ajax, The Active Service French Book (London, 1915), 1.

27 Harris E.F., French for the Front (London, 1915).

28 Crouch L.W., Duty and Service: Letters from the Front (London, 1917), letter 31 Mar. 1915.

29 3 Jul. 1915 in Trafford P. (ed.), Love and War (Bristol, 1992).

30 IWM 76/226/1, Jack Sweeney to Ivy, 22 Aug. 1915.

31 IWM 88/25/1, M. Gower to sister, 17 Oct. 1917.

32 Bourke J., Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London, 1996), 23.

33 IWM 91/3/1, P.A. Brown to mother, 22–4 Oct. 1915.

34 TNA WO 154/73, war diary, APM 63rd Division, 28 Jun. 1917.

35 IWM 99/13/1, R .K. Lawson to sister, 4 Apr. 1917.

36 Hope T.S., The Winding Road Unfolds (London, 1965; orig. publ. 1937), 92.

37 Smith A., Four Years on the Western Front by a Rifleman (London, 1922), 193.

38 TNA WO 154/73, war diary, APM 63rd Division, 10 Jul. 1916.

39 Ibid., 29 Dec. 1916.

40 Nicholson W.N., Behind the Lines (London, 1939), 261; Lawrence, War Correspondence, 27. See also Fuller, Troop Morale, 83–5.

41 Carrington, Soldier from the Wars, 80; IWM 99/13/1A, J. Rixon, diary, Apr. n.d. (?1916); Dearden H., Medicine and Duty: A War Diary (London, 1928), 27.

42 IWM 78/58/1, Capt. R.J. Thompson, memoir, 15 Apr. 1915.

43 IWM Con Shelf, A.C. Stanton to Brownie, n.d. (Mar. 1917).

44 Holland C. and Phillips R. (eds.), The Great War Letters of Roland Mountford (Leicester, 2009), 74.

45 Ibid., 34.

46 Van Emden (ed.), Tickled to Death, 89.

47 Rogerson S., Twelve Days (Norwich, 1988; orig. publ. 1930), 146, 149.

48 Ibid., 148; Spicer L.D., Letters from France (London, 1979), 88.

49 Hope, The Winding Road Unfolds, 197.

50 IWM 02/4/1, F. Philipson, memoir, 73.

51 IWM 91/2/1, P.A. Brown to mother, 27 Oct. 1915.

52 IWM Con Shelf, A.C. Stanton to Brownie, 27 May 1918.

53 TNA WO 95/376, Third Army circular memorandum 10, 30 Nov. 1915, ‘Orders as to officers and other ranks going to Amiens’; Third Army routine orders, 1 Jan. 1916, ‘Passes for Abbeville’.

54 Duffett R., ‘A taste of army life: food, identity and the rankers of the First World War’, Cultural and Social History, 9 (2012), 251–67.

55 Sansom A.J., Letters from France (London, 1921), 184.

56 Greenwell G., Infant in Arms War Letters of a Company Officer 1914–1918 (London, 1925), 25 Dec. 1915.

57 Van Emden (ed.), Tickled to Death, 129; Douie C., Weary Road: Recollections of a Subaltern of Infantry (London, 1929; orig. publ. 1988), 42; Hiscock E., The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-Ling-a-Ling (London, 1976), 97.

58 IWM 99/56/1, C.R. Smith 22 Aug., no year.

59 For more detail, see J. Caillaud, ‘La presence britannique dans les départements de la Somme et du Pas-de-Calais 1914–18’, Université Picardie Jules Verne MA dissertation.

60 See for example Archives départmentales de la Somme (ADS) 4M741, file concerning the Aeroplane café in Abbeville.

61 ADS KZ219, Réponse aux rapports décadaires des SDS 27, 15 Aug. 1917.

62 Neil Fraser-Tytler, 5 Jun. 1916, in Baker Major N. (ed.), With Lancashire Lads and Field Guns in France 1915–1918 (Manchester, 1922).

63 IWM 99/13/1, R.K. Lawson to sister, 19 May 1917.

64 IWM 76/226/1, Sweeney to Ivy, 18 Aug. 1918.

65 Fuller, Troop Morale, 110. For Amiens examples, see various programmes in Fonds Duchaussony, ADS 14J.

66 ADS 4M777, Raport d'une surveillance exercée à Amiens.

67 Archives de la Préfecture de la Police, Paris (APP) DA/851, press cutting; ADS 4M777, surveillance report 13 Apr. 1917; table of ‘femmes ou filles notoirement’, in Abbevile, 13 Apr. 1917.

68 TNA WO/32/5597, cabinet minute, 18 Mar. 1918. For French reactions, see TNA WO/32/5597, letter from the mayor of Granville-Ste-Honorine to the War Office, 24 Jun. 1918.

69 For a broader consideration of how – and why – men wrote about this topic see Gibson, ‘Sex and soldiering’. The lacunae in evidence is also considered in Makepeace C., ‘Male hetrosexuality and prostitution during the Great War’, Cultural and Social History, 9 (2012), 6583.

70 IWM 86/66/1, Lieut. G.K. Begg to mother, 6 May 1918; IWM 99/62/1, R. Oxtoby to sister, 24 Jun. 1916.

71 IWM 04/21/1, J.A. Mitchell to Doris, 8 Jun. 1916.

72 Cited in Harrison M., ‘The British army and the problem of venereal disease in France and Egypt during the First World War’, Medical History, 39 (1995), 133–58, at 145.

73 TNA WO/32/5597, ‘The provision of tolerated brothels’.

74 IWM 83/36/1, R.I. Smith, memoir.

75 IWM 01/51/1, S.T. Euchus, ts diary, 23 Feb. 1917.

76 IWM 76/226/1, Sweeney to Ivy, 18 Aug. 1917.

77 IWM 92/36/1, memoir, Lieut. R. Dixon, ‘The wheels of darkness’.

78 H. Dearden, Medicine and Duty, 27, 28.

79 Carrington, Soldier from the Wars, 164.

80 Rogerson, Twelve Days, 147.

81 Hope, The Winding Road, 88.

82 Mottram R.H., Journey to the Western Front (London, 1936), 102.

83 For instance P. Higonnet, ‘Parisian peculiarities: the French capital in the age of total war’, in Goebel and Keene (eds.), Cities into Battlefields, 73–82.

84 Cronier E., ‘The street’, in Winter and Robert (eds.), Capital Cities at War, vol. II, 57104, at 58.

85 Ibid., 103.

86 IWM 84/22/1, Capt. A.J.H. Smith to mother, 10 Jun. 1917.

87 Charteris J., At GCHQ (London, 1931), 42.

88 IWM P91, Lieut. Campbell, unpublished memoir.

89 On the physical transformation of Paris during the war, which included the demolition of the city's ramparts, see Pinol J.-L. and Garden M., Atlas des Parisiens de la Révolution à nos jours (Paris, 2009), 3042.

90 IWM 06/30/1, T.H. Holmes, memoir.

91 IWM 99/62/1, R. Oxtoby to father, 8 Oct. 1917.

92 Dundas N., Henry Dundas Scots Guards (Edinburgh, 1921), 108.

93 IWM 04/30/11, N. Tennant, unpublished memoir.

94 Gregory A., ‘Railway stations: gateways and termini’, in Winter and Robert (eds.), Capital Cities, vol. II, 2356, at 47.

95 Lawrence, War Correspondence, 56.

96 Cronier, ‘The street’, 118.

97 APP AB/2179 Grande Bretagne, ‘Army and Navy Leave Club’ folder, Walter R. Hearn to M. le Préfet de Police, 13 Sep. 1917.

98 IWM Women's Work Collection (WWC) B.O.4 14/3; ‘A corner of Blighty’ pamphlet, IWM WWC B.O.4 15/6; ‘Responses of the British Army and Navy Leave Club’, APP AB/2179, ‘Army and Navy Leave Club’ folder.

99 APP AB/2179, ‘Army and Navy Leave Club’ folder.

100 Mottram R.H., Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four (London, 1928; orig. publ. 1925), 433.

101 Dundas, Dundas, 108.

102 IWM WWC B.O.14/4, ‘Corner of Blighty’ pamphlet.

103 A. Borrell, ‘Trade, industry and tourism’, L'Exportateur Français, May 1917.

104 Rüger, ‘Entertainments’, 105–40, at 113.

105 Dundas, Dundas, 109.

106 Cronier, ‘The street’, 87–93.

107 Lewis C., Sagittarius Rising (London, 1936), 74.

108 IWM 73/235/1, L.Y. Kirkpatrick to mother, 15 Feb. 1919.

109 La Vie Parisienne, 7 Aug. 1915, cited in Cronier, ‘The street’, 92. For concern over female drinking, see APP DB 343, circular 24/3/13.

110 Rüger, ‘Entertainments’, 139–40; Cronier, ‘The street’, 103.

111 IWM 02/29/1, J.A. Johnston, unpublished memoir.

* Research for this article was funded by the British Academy, SG 45884.

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