Social capital in the trenches

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition "Ednduring War: Grief, grit & humour"

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition “Enduring War: Grief, grit & humour”

I’ve known for a long time about the Pals’ Battalions in the First World War. Recruiters – who included ‘philanthropists’, civic dignatories and religious leaders as well as the military – played on young men’s personal loyalties as a way of persuading them to enlist in groups. Initially the ‘pals’ came largely from the middle classes, though nowadays we tend to think of them as drawn mainly from the industrial cities.

In war, as in many other situations, friendship and workplace networks are an obvious way of swelling the ranks. It isn’t simply a matter of getting more bangs for your buck, so to speak, by recruiting a whole group rather than individuals. Social capital theories suggest that not only will people volunteer more readily as part of a group, but that they will be able to draw on their learned resources of trust and co-operation once they are in uniform.

This poster, which I spotted at a fantastic exhibition in the British Library, sets out the case very clearly. It was aimed at ‘young men from 19 to 35, especially those employed in Banking and Commercial Houses’, and its main selling point was that the recruit would ‘Serve with your friends’. I guess it must have worked well enough for a time, because the same approach was then extended to the industrial north.

Of course, social capital theory tells us that connections can work in many ways. It suggests that soldiers who know each other well can also organise and co-operate to resist authority. It also suggests that strong bonds might predispose some young men to refuse to serve in war, and indeed the BL exhibition includes a moving statement by a young Quaker and Socialist who stood trial rather than be conscripted.

No one has claimed that social capital theories identify some entirely new phenomenon. The value of connections has entered cliche corner a long time ago, through phrases like “old school tie” and so forth. What the theories can help us do is to understand the nature of those ties, the meanings that they have for people, and the ways in which people use them, for good or for ill.

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