Date of Award

Spring 2014

Document Type

Restricted Thesis

Terms of Use

© 2014 Steven H. Hazel. All rights reserved. Access to this work is restricted to users within the Swarthmore College network and may only be used for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes. Sharing with users outside of the Swarthmore College network is expressly prohibited. For all other uses, including reproduction and distribution, please contact the copyright holder.

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


History Department

First Advisor

Pieter M. Judson

Second Advisor

Robert Weinberg


This paper investigates British soldiers’ changing understandings of heroism during the Great War. Heroism was an unstable but not meaningless concept: every version of heroism related a new set of virtues to successful violence. For the devastation of war to be meaningful—as civilians so desperately desired—violence had to be governed by an underlying logic that rewarded virtue and punished vice. By isolating specific moments where multiple ideas about heroism collided, military medals like the Victoria Cross functioned as points of mediation, providing a unique opportunity to understand the psychological distance between the Western Front and the Home Front. Medal citations reproduced civilian ideas about heroism. Alleged heroes appeared to champion civilian values, such as duty and autonomy, affirming the fundamental unity between combatants and civilians. However, the realities of trench warfare strained and eventually severed the connection between violence and virtue. The optimistic expectations promoted by medal citations betrayed combatants by camouflaging the chaos and contradictions of war. Through ideas about heroism, the cultural norms and social anxieties that predisposed civilians to impose order on violence directly influenced military experiences, often for the worse. But while violence obliterated past values and expectations, it also provided a fertile ground for soldiers to forge new ideas about war. Intimacy among soldiers replaced individual virtue as a creator of purpose, an arbiter of meaning, and a supplier of agency. Soldiers began to understand war through the shifting lens of comradeship, friendship, and unit pride. Rather than artificially imposing order on violence, combatants haphazardly improvised intimacy.


Recipient of the Paul H. Beik Prize in History, awarded in 2014.