Engagement Centres Voices of War and Peace First World War Engagement Centre

Lest we forget: Muslim Service in the Great War

Written by Chris Hill, Birmingham City University, and previously appearing on the Voices of War and Peace Blog. Reproduced with thanks.

‘Stories of Sacrifice’, an exhibition run by the British Muslim Heritage Centre about Muslim service in the First World War, was met with a note of surprise by visiting Muslims from across the UK.

Dr Islam Issa at the exhibition 'Stories of Sacrifice'
Dr Islam Issa at the exhibition ‘Stories of Sacrifice’

Dr Islam Issa, curator of the exhibition and lecturer in English at Birmingham City University, recalled how e-mails and letters from descendants of Muslim soldiers were full of gratitude, often with the qualification that ‘we didn’t think anyone cared’.


Shaving in the Trenches: Washing and grooming in the Great War

This guest blog post was written by Dr Alun Withey, a 2014 New Generation Thinker and academic historian of medicine and the body. It was originally published on his blog.

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, we are constantly reminded of the horror of trench warfare. A raft of new books, articles, websites and programmes will be devoted to charting the conflict. All of the big questions will be revisited, from the motives for going to war to the fitness of those in charge to lead their men. Much attention has already been paid to the lives of ordinary ‘Tommies’ in the trenches and the recent publication of diaries, such as that of Harry Drinkwater vividly bring to life the experience of living in the shadow of battle.

In the discussions of action, however, the day-to-day experience of living in the trenches, the ordinary routines of life, are sometimes overlooked. How did men keep themselves clean, for example? In the muddy quagmire of battle trenches, did the usual routines of washing and grooming still apply? I thought it might be interesting to look at one aspect of this – shaving –to see what the sources might reveal.

Until 1916, it was a statutory requirement for all members of the British Army to wear a moustache. Uniform regulation command number 1695 stipulated “the hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under-lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…”. It is not clear how far this order was rigidly enforced but until General Sir Nevill Macready, who apparently hated moustaches, repealed the order in October 1916 British soldiers were moustachioed! Nonetheless, shaving was still required; to appear stubbly was still effectively a breach of regulation. What, then, did soldiers in the field actually do?


Firstly it is clear that many soldiers, at least initially, carried razors as part of their kit. Some also took tins of shaving cream and lathering brushes – officers, especially, had toilette kits to help them keep up appearances.

As the war drew on, however, it seems that razors became harder to come by. In the wet, muddy conditions metal objects, like razors, quickly became rusty. Over time, and with use, they blunted and resharpening them only possible with a stone or strop. By 1915 they were starting to become scarce. In October 1915, as winter approached, many regiments were starting to run out of basic necessities. Funds, such as the Christmas Comforts Fund in Manchester, called for people to donate everything from envelopes and pencils, to chocolate and razors. The 2nd Battalion South Lancashire regiment asked specifically for mirrors, shaving soap and razor strops amongst their ‘wish list’.

The 2nd Battalion Cheshire regiment asked for the same in a long list that included everything from chocolate, coffee and cakes to musical instruments. Such items were small comfort in cold winter months, which the Manchester Guardian described: “The wet mud, the ice-cold water beyond their knees in the communication trenches, the wind that lashed them like sharp whips, the ooze and slime in the dugouts, the waterspouts through the roofs of broken barns…Must our men” the paper argued “suffer all that again?” Indeed they must.


In the dirty environment of the trenches, without access to running water, basins, towels and even privacy, how did men even manage to shave? In some regiments, rules were relaxed in times of action meaning that stubble was permitted, although soldiers were expected to take the first opportunity to attend to their beards in calmer conditions. In the field, though, even obtaining clean water to shave was no easy matter. Complete washing was an irregular occurrence. According to one account, a single tub of water served for the whole company. Instead, soldiers might get a cursory wash of face and hands at best. In such circumstances ingenuity was required. Some soldiers took to using cold tea as shaving water – better than drawing water from a muddy puddle although even this likely sufficed in an emergency


Whilst such a mundane, prosaic activity such as shaving might not seem important in the broader discussions about the First World War, it is also something that brings us closer to the lived experiences of trench warfare and the daily lives of ordinary men. Requests for razors and strops, along with other basic items, remind us of the comfort that even these basics could bring. Even in the heat of battle, men tried to maintain some semblance of normality, no doubt finding comfort in routine. I would argue that these small glimpses, such as Thomas Mcindoe’s account, are vitally important in any study of the Great War.

One of the best narratives we have of the practicalities of shaving comes from the records of a British soldier on the Western Front. In 1914, Private Thomas Mcindoe was entrenched with his regiment, the 12th battalion Middlesex. In 1975 Thomas recalled how, in a lull in fighting, he decided to remove his several days’ worth of beard. Setting up in an abandoned sniper post Thomas described how be filled his mess tin with water and stuck a mirror into the earth and carefully shaved himself. Emerging from the post he encountered an officer who exclaimed “Oh, what a lovely clean boy!”. The officer was impressed by Thomas’s new-fangled safety razor, as opposed to the usual cut-throat models, and asked the young Private to shave him – a task that was undertaken outside on a chair next to the sniper’s position

4701As Thomas himself pointed out, cutthroat razors were lethally sharp and dangerous in battle. Shaving oneself, especially around the neck and throat, required precision and a steady hand. Many soldiers of what Thomas described as the “nervous type” had faces full of nicks and cuts since their hands shook so much from the experience of battle. In fact, shaving comrades was a common occurrence. It was perhaps easier to do this than rely on a broken shard of mirror and attempt to do the job yourself.

Whilst such a mundane, prosaic activity such as shaving might not seem important in the broader discussions about the First World War, it is also something that brings us closer to the lived experiences of trench warfare and the daily lives of ordinary men. Requests for razors and strops, along with other basic items, remind us of the comfort that even these basics could bring. Even in the heat of battle, men tried to maintain some semblance of normality, no doubt finding comfort in routine. I would argue that these small glimpses, such as Thomas Mcindoe’s account, are vitally important in any study of the Great War.


Soldiers as victims? Futility and the First World War

In this guest blog, Roger Deeks considers how we have come to view the First World War as futile.

One of the shifting narratives of the First World War has been the explanation of why soldiers, particularly those on the Western Front endured the experience as long as they did. Scholarly work has increasingly looked at this question in the context of the British Army and also comparatively in terms of the other armies. Those keen to advocate for how well the British Army performed point out that with the collapse of German morale in late 1918, the British Army fared better than most of those who first met on the battlefields of 1914. There are various explanations for this and my own sits with the performance of the British Non Commissioned Officer, the NCOs who ran the British Army on a day to basis. The traditional idea, very much based on a belief in Noblesse Oblige, places the emphasis on the quality of officer-man relations. This idea has deservedly come under scrutiny; were the working and upper classes so closely bound by this chivalric ideal that they endured together, fought together and died together?

In the immediate aftermath of the War it was believed that the War had a purpose, an idea that was also popularly thought to have some sway with the soldiers who fought the War. However before long, and particularly after the Second World War became necessary, the War took on a sense of futility. Futility, a lack of purpose or meaning, took a stranglehold over the memory of the First World War in the late Twentieth Century, both about the purpose of the War and the perceived attitude of those who fought it. The development of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ thesis set apart the villainous generals from the venerated dead of the battlefield but compounded an increasingly difficult question in the public mind if the mythology of the first World War was to have coherence; why were the soldiers of the First World War prepared to go ‘over the top’ if it was futile?

Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)

Blackadder was able to explain this. The finale to the TV series set it out very clearly. Firstly, it was ironic and very British to get yourself killed for no purpose. Secondly, and particularly in the case of Blackadder it was a British Officer’s duty to obey orders, however stupid, and you had  a moral obligation to your soldiers to do what you were asking them to do, and get killed. The Blackadder ‘view’ took such hold that it is now how many people imagine the War was experienced by the participants. It contains some strands of what we recognise from research. British humour was important, trench newspapers tell us that irony and self-parody were common place and generated comradeship. Loyalty and obligation to comrades was a key factor in many soldiers overcoming their fear. However, there was clearly a belief in many cases that objectives on the battlefield could be achieved and that the War had a purpose, and one worth fighting for.

Four Lions (2010)

I heard Helen McCartney (King’s College, London) raise some of these issues recently and it reminded me of a film I had recently seen. Four Lions is described as ‘the story of a jihad satire following a group of home-grown terrorist jihadists from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England’. This comedy has several difficult moral problems to contend with in achieving its aim of making people laugh. One of them is the idea of the suicide bomber, a concept that to the secular thinking British viewer is something difficult to grasp. In the film the question and representation of the purpose of the Jihadist mission is gently dropped as the story unfolds and the troop begin to take on the characteristics of the caricatured ‘Blackadder’ British Army section in the First World War. Outnumbered and doomed from the start they bumble forward led by Omar, their subaltern, and whose one wish is that his sacrifice is not futile. Of course in the end he has a futile death necessary because of comradely loyalty. This reflected for me the depth to which the ‘futility narrative’ emerging from Blackadder and other First World War portrayals has permeated popular culture and can be transferred to new settings.

FW Harvey

We know that most British soldiers entered battles quite purposefully committed to what they were doing. The infantry and artillery officers in the field were increasingly well trained as the First World War progressed and most accepted their orders and saw their battlefield objectives as achievable. There were instances when orders were thought impracticable and sometimes suicidal. Stoicism was common in the face of the adversity and horror of the battlefield but one has to doubt that a sense of futility pervaded the trenches. In 1935 reflecting on these ideas F.W. Harvey, the poet, wrote: ‘The truth will permit no question of these men going sorrowfully to war, driven like sheep to slaughter. That is a false modern idea’. The motives for enlisting were varied but most British soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause and some passionately believed that winning was important. However much we regard the outcome of the First World War as futile we should resist the portrayal of the participants as victims. Reversing this idea is one of the most difficult historians face in dealing with representations of the First World War.