Experience into identity : the writings of British conscript soldiers, 1916-1918
Between January 1916 and March 1919 2,504,183 men were conscripted into the British army-representing as such over half the wartime enlistments. Yet to date, the conscripts and their contribution to the Great War have not been acknowledged or studied. This is mainly due to the image of the war in England, which is focused upon the heroic plight of the volunteer soldiers on the Western Front. Historiography, literary studies and popular culture all evoke this image, which is based largely upon the volumes of poems and memoirs written by young volunteer officers, of middle and upper class background, such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But the British wartime army was not a society of poets and authors who knew how to distil experience into words; nor, as mentioned, were all the soldiers volunteers. This dissertation therefore attempts to explore the cultural identity of this unknown population through a collection of diaries, letters and unpublished accounts of some conscripts; and to do so with the aid of a novel methodological approach. In Part I the concept of this research is explained, as a qualitative examination of all the chosen writings, with emphasis upon eliciting the attitudes of the writers to the factual events they recount. Each text-e.g. letter or diary-was read literally, and also in light of the entire collection, thus allowing for the emergence of personal and collective narratives concurrently. In Part lithe results of this method of research were used to create an extended account of the human experiences of these conscript soldiers-from enlistment through to daily life on the Western Front. The narrative is constructed out of their words, and written from their perspective, as a subjective account of their wartime existence. The result of this synthesis of attitude and experience is an explanation of these conscripts' cultural identity, as a conclusion to Part II.