Alexander Mayhew

Alex Mayhew_Image

What topic are you working on for your masters degree or doctorate?

My doctoral research focuses English soldiers’ morale in the First World War. I see morale as a process based on a set of changing factors. Focussing on the Western Front, my doctorate aims to broaden the historical perspective on morale by investigating the phenomena using a cultural frame of reference. It also seeks to develop insights into how morale changed over the course of the war: asking how and why it differed among regular soldiers, volunteers and conscripts and whether it varied between officers and men. In an attempt to gain a holistic vision of English soldiers’ morale I have engaged with a very varied source base from meteorological reports through to soldier’s cartoons. The thesis is structured thematically and focuses on the men’s perceptions of peace, winter, duty, England(s) and war, and investigates how these perceptions relate to morale. Ultimately, it will throw light on the ‘experience’ of morale and the nature and functions of soldiers’ ‘frame/frames of reference.’

Why did you decide to work on the First World War?

I have long been fascinated by the First World War, a fascination which grew out of childhood trips to Imperial War Museum in London, developed through the study of the British war poets at school and which was massively enhanced in a special subject undertaken in my final year of undergraduate studies. As my understanding of the war – its historical complexities and its human tragedies – grew deeper, I became more aware that 1914-1918 was one of the watershed moments of modern history. When combined with my deep desire to understand how people thought in the past, I became fascinated (and not a little awe-struck) by the extremes of horror and endurance evidenced in soldier’s experiences. My PhD is fundamentally a product of a wish to understand human resilience in one of history’s most destructive events.

Which is your favourite book on the First World War and why?

There are a number of texts that have influenced me and are of huge importance to my topic. Alexander Watson’s Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 is a monograph that has been very important to the development of my doctorate. Furthermore, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We, a semi-autobiographical novel, fostered my inclination to investigate the mentalities of the rank-and-file, whilst also being a moving and engaging read. However, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s Men at War 1914-1918: National Sentiment and Trench Journalism in France During the First World War is probably the thesis that has engaged me most over the course of my secondary reading. Audoin-Rouzeau’s use of source material was enlightening. By providing a window onto soldiers’ culture through trench journals he avoided the over-generalisation that can come with the sole use of letters and diaries. Not only providing a platform for the collective voice of the poilus through his thematic analysis he allowed his readers to gain an insight into how the war was experienced and viewed by the French combatants.