As part of its commemoration of World War I, the Daily Telegraph‘s web site posted the following which shows graphically how the “typical” English soldier’s kit evolved from that of an Anglo-Saxon housecarl who fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to a present-day sapper in the Royal Engineers stationed in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Such a striking photo essay provides an opportunity for thinking about history, especially the extent to which we resemble our ancestors.
It is hard to make generalizations about soldiers or the trajectory of history based on these kits because they are not exactly comparable. An archer who fought at Agincourt (1415) was not the equivalent of a Yorkist man-at-arms at Bosworth (1485). And the medieval knights who fought at the siege of Jerusalem in 1244 undoubtedly enjoyed much higher social status than the fusiliers who fought under the Duke of Marlborough at Malplaquet (1709). Still, some of the continuities are striking, and Thom Atkinson, who put this collection together, repeatedly points out the similarities between soldiers from different periods. For example, he writes, “While the First World War was the first modern war, as the Somme kit illustrates, it was also primitive. Along with his gas mask a private would be issued with a spiked ‘trench club’ – almost identical to medieval weapons.” In the next frame, he writes, “The Anglo-Saxon warrior at Hastings is perhaps not so very different from the British “Tommy” in the trenches [during World War I].” The caption for the Yorkist man-at-arms at Bosworth states, “‘There’s a spoon in every picture. . . . I think that’s wonderful. The requirement of food, and the experience of eating, hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. It’s the same with warmth, water, protection, entertainment.” Later, while commenting about the private’s kit at Malplaquet, he writes, “Watching everything unfold, I begin to feel that we really are the same creatures with the same fundamental needs.” Moreover, it’s not merely what Atkinson writes but how he writes it. He implicitly compares the Yorkist man-at-arms to the Royal Marines who helped win the Falklands’ war against Argentina in 1982 by stating, “From the cumbersome armour worn by a Yorkist man-at-arms in 1485 to the packs yomped into Port Stanley on the backs of Royal Marines five centuries later, the literal burden of a soldier’s endeavour is on view”–as if to say there is a kind of correspondence between one and the other. Even when Atkinson discusses differences, they morph into similarities. While writing about the kit of the trained caliverman who prepared to repulse the Spanish Armada in 1588, Atkinson claims, “The similarities between the kits are as startling as the differences. Notepads become iPads, 18th-century bowls mirror modern mess tins; games such as chess or cards appear regularly.” In other words, almost every item today has some sort of medieval or early modern antecedent. And, indeed, the various kits are presented as part of a single evolution. The “bolt-action Lee-Enfield” rifle that was the standard weapon of the infantryman in 1916 becomes the precursor of the “laser-sighted light assault carbine” of the sapper in Afghanistan in 2014. Likewise, “the pocket watch of 1916 is today a waterproof digital wristwatch.”
In this context, it seems like a good idea to refer to the thoughts with which John Lynn, one of America’s leading military historians, opens Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2003). Lynn pays tribute to the ways in which warfare has remained constant over time. The soldier, he argues, has always been the perpetrator and victim of “havoc and suffering.” Fear, discomfort, danger, and death have ever been the lot of the soldier who is required to display “endurance, self-sacrifice, and heroism.” For those reasons, we have a tendency, Lynn claims, to see this “universal soldier” as an “unchanging agent of pillage, destruction, and death,” an “eternal, faceless killer.” When we look at soldiers through the ages from this perspective, we convince ourselves that “only weapons and tactics have changed, not the men who have wielded them.” This perspective seems to be precisely the one that Atkinson has chosen. Atkinson’s survey of kit seems to indicate that all soldiers are more or less the same, regardless of the era in which they lived; only the weapons are different.
Yet, as Lynn argues, the soldier is not universal in either time or space. Every soldier is the product of a distinct culture that believed different things and tried to live up to different values. Lynn stresses that “one culture’s bravery is another’s bravado and one’s mercy is another’s meekness.” Just because the Anglo-Saxon housecarl who fought under King Harold at Hastings had a spoon doesn’t mean he was at all like the lance corporal who was dropped over Arnhem with the 1st Parachute Brigade in 1944. While both men may have subscribed to a code of honor, those codes would have been extremely different. Each, of course, was generated by a society that had very little in common with the other. That they were both soldiers makes them part of a guild of sorts, but it is certainly not enough to make them the same
This matter points to a larger issue with which all historians struggle constantly. There is a fundamental consistency in human nature. Across the ages, we have worked, we have loved, and we have played. And when we study the work, love, and play of people from the past, we see something of ourselves in our forbears. When we see that the Anglo-Saxon housecarl had a spoon, we delight in the discovery because we, too, have spoons, and we feel a kind of kinship. Some years ago, the blog master went to the Museum of Science in Boston to see an exhibit on Roman artifacts recovered from Pompeii. He was stunned at how modern-looking Roman plumbing was, particularly the spigots, and he felt a closeness to the Romans that he had never sensed before. Yet we cannot make the mistake of thinking that housecarls and Roman plumbers were just like us. Their work, love, and play (which oftentimes was very different from ours) did not signify the same things to them as our work, love, and play signify to us.
The job of the historian, then, is almost impossible. It does not consist of pointing out how earlier peoples were like us. Rather, the historian seeks to translate these earlier peoples to contemporary readers and students. The impossibility of the task has to do with the act of translation. The Anglo-Saxon had a spoon much like ours, but the food the Anglo-Saxon ate, as well as the way in which eating fit in his peculiar culture and society, is almost incomprehensible to us. The historian must somehow bridge the gap between this incomprehensible world and ours, but using our language and our ideas–tools that are not always well suited to the job. In other words, scholars are in the business of rendering the alien familiar, and that is a hard row to hoe.