There is something about men and water… and war. I almost forgot that last part, didn’t I? My bad. But there is this crazy motif about soldiers stripping down and going swimming that I keep stumbling across again and again in my research on the Great War. It’s now at the point where it has become a key part of my new research on the relationship between water and warriors in the Dardanelles Campaign.
I won’t deny it — reading about ripped young soldiers frolicking naked in the surf makes me smile, even on the most frustrating day at the archives. There are some perks to masculinities research, after all.
But there are grander themes than my own personal amusement at issue here. Among those I have identified surrounding water and its interplay with men’s bodies on the battlefield include:
– youth/male beauty – the Brooke-ian ideal realized and tested by high casualty rates
– escapism – a soldier’s need to remove himself mentally and physically from the trenches
– naked flesh v. metal bullets – the denial of war’s realities and vulnerabilities
– homoeroticism – obviously, flesh unclothed carries with it much sub-text
– illness – the prevalence of dysentery, thirst, and poisoned wells at Gallipoli
– mortality and fatalism – Turkish snipers waited above the bay, shooting landing craft and swimmers at random
– recreation – horseplay is always part of soldiering; brief games of cricket and football also appeared at Suvla
– hygiene – the flies at Gallipoli were infamous, as were the appalling sanitary conditions that helped to make dysentery more dangerous than the Turks
– military strategy – prior to June 1944, Gallipoli was the largest amphibious landing ever attempted, within sight of where the Greek ships had once landed at Troy
– war trauma and neuroses – the lack of water in summer (and its killing effects in winter as snow, ice, and flooding rain) scarred many men, affecting their memories of the battle and also how they lived their daily lives at civilians after the war
Sexuality is also an obviously important theme that swimming/bathing makes apparent. Gallipoli was a theatre entirely without women. Gertrude Bell showed up once to mourn at the grave of her lover, Major Charles Doughty-Wylie VC, CB, CMG, but that was only for a day. Nudity was one thing, but would any man in the line have dared to record for posterity what T. E. Lawrence once described as “friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace”?
It was a diary entry from Gallipoli that I discovered in the Imperial War Museum a few years ago that made me first start contemplating water and warfare. John McIlwain, an Irishman on break from the front lines, sat on a cliff overlooking the Ægean, writing in his journal. He noted the number of broken bodies going past him on stretchers and then, immediately after, jotted down that he couldn’t help but notice the “magnificent physique and condition of the almost naked young Anzacs.”
Yes, my mind first went straight to some kind of bizarre Hollywood version of Gallipoli where Liam Neeson was sitting on the cliff looking down at a shirtless Hugh Jackman (that man is shirtless in every movie he makes – I am not being lascivious when I picture him as one of the Anzacs in question). But afterwards, I had to start asking some questions:
How important was the presence of whole and healthy male bodies in a battlefield known for its wounded soldiers? (Gallipoli had upwards of 250,000 casualties before the final evacuation of British soldiers in January 1916.)
What was the grey area between homoeroticism and homosexuality in a world where women were completely absent and where memories of Oscar Wilde still carried a huge amount of cultural baggage?
This was not the only bathing scene that I encountered when doing the original research for Ulster’s Men. Discussing the bodies of naked soldiers became something of a standard set-piece in many veterans’ memoirs after 1918. F. P. Crozier of the 36th (Ulster) Division added to this literature with his recollections of watching Ulstermen bathing in the Ancre just prior to the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Crozier recorded that, as he arrived as the bathing pool, they were
all standing stark naked on the improvised spring board, ready to jump in for a race. How wonderful they look, hard, muscular, fit, strong and supple, yet devoid of all coarseness … I realise I am, thanks to circumstances, in the presence not only of boys versed in war, but men already known to women. I think as I watch them ducking each other in the water, and playing like young seals I have so often seen up North, ‘what a pity they are not married in order that they might plant their seed.’ Mankind has ordained that they shall shortly die. Alas! the weaklings and shirkers escape and breed like rabbits, while the strong suffer and are wiped out.
Crozier held an obvious sectarian and moral bias, but his comments were also highly homoerotic, stressing the beauty he found in the men’s bodies and his awareness of their active heterosexuality. (Crozier had previously concerned himself with the young officers’ involvement with local prostitutes, making sure that all his men received “disinfectants after indulgence” and that the girls were offered the same, free of charge.) Both Crozier’s commentary and McIlwain’s diary entry involve quasi-erotic scenes emphasizing, in the words of Paul Fussell, the cruel contrast between beautiful, vulnerable, naked flesh and “the alien metal that waits to violate it.”
This theme of “boys bathing” was a popular motif from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Who can forget Freddy Honeychurch meeting George Emerson for the first time in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, with the immortal words, “How d’ye do? Come and have a bathe.” (And, yes, the movie version of that scene is also highly memorable. Ahem.)
There were also the poems by the Uranians, who celebrated an idealized love for young boys, and the paintings of Henry Scott Tuke. According to Julia F. Saville, Tuke partially removed the post-Wildean unease about male sexuality by focusing on groups of young men in his work rather than individual nudes, thereby replacing homoeroticism with the homosocial. In fact, the ambiguity of hetero boys sluicing off together was such a welcome image to the imperial spirit that the “athletic masculinity” displayed in nude bathing and swimming conformed to the “Victorian heterosexual ideal of imperial manliness, while simultaneously opening the possibility of same-sex eros in such manly beauty.”
The Great War was, truly, an Edwardian war. We often think of 1914-1918 as the birth of modernism, cynicism, Bolshevism, and anti-traditionalism (-isms are, sadly, unavoidable when writing about culture and war). However, in terms of how soldiers were characterized — both before the war in memories of imperial conquest, during the conflict in newspaper reports and political rhetoric, and after the Armistice when the romantic chivalry of memorials and remembrances clashed with the cultural rejection of romantic tradition in the West — Edwardians, with their cigars and gentlemen’s clubs, their crisp, clean lines of male fashion, and their (misplaced?) respect for historic authority, strongly shaped how artists and, later, society at large viewed the future, the present, and the past, both on the battlefield and away from it.
McIlwain’s brief yet perceptive comment about the Anzacs carried no political or sectarian overtones. Instead, it was a simple enjoyment of men displaying vigour and vitality in the face of death. The passage underlined the importance of whole, healthy men in a setting where so many male bodies were being torn apart. The sentence immediately preceding this appreciation of Antipodeans mentioned the “wounded” and “stretcher bearers” moving past McIlwain as he looked over the bay. Juxtaposing these observances with an obvious approval for the swimmers’ bodies emphasised his horror of one and enjoyment of the other. Physical fitness had the potential to remind soldiers of how beautiful the male body could be when in prime condition and not being cut down by shrapnel or a sniper’s bullets. An intimacy with violence on a daily basis shaped men’s ideas regarding physical expressions of masculinity, not necessarily in a homosexual manner, but certainly in terms of valuing male bodies – their own and those around them – as repositories of strength and as potent reminders of the physical cost of war.
On a more personal note, I would like to add that I, too, have swum in the Ægean at Anzac Cove. It was a rainy day this past May, when we had just finished hiking from the heights of Chanuk Bair down along the
terror-inducing steep spine of Rhododendron Ridge and onto the beaches. I was thoroughly soaked from the deluge, so I figured a dip wasn’t about to make me any more uncomfortable. While the “boys” in the group pussy-footed around the edge of the surf, I stripped off to my bathing suit (having wisely worn it all day long) and ran straight into the waves.
It was so cold, I could do nothing except to start laughing hysterically.
Still, despite the chill and my lips turning blue, the water was ridiculously refreshing and fabulously salty. I can only imagine how much fun it would have been at the height of a long, hot summer — minus the snipers, of course.
Then again, maybe it’s just an Edwardian thing.
F. P. Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land (1931)
E. M. Forster, A Room with a View (1908)
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)
T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)
Julia F. Saville, “The Romance of Boys Bathing: Poetic Precedents and Respondents to the Paintings of Henry Scott Tuke,” in Victorian Sexual Dissidence, Richard Dellamora, ed. (1999)
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (1918)
Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural history (1995)
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.