BOOK REVIEW – James E. Kitchen, The British Imperial Army in the Middle East: Morale and Military Identity in the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns, 1916-18 (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2014)

This book was one I had wanted to read properly for a long time; Christmas 2021 seemed the best time to read it. My maternal grandfather served in the Palestine Campaign in 1917-1918 as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery. I had hoped Kitchen’s book would give me some insight my grandfather’s experience but unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Kitchen’s study aims to explore the ‘morale in the British Imperial army that fought in Egypt and Palestine’ in the second half of the Great War.[1] It attracted me because few studies have been conducted on this subject.[2]

The methodology of the book is to examine morale and identity in three case study formations; the British Territorial 54th Division, the Australian and New Zealand Mounded Division (ANZMD) and units of the Indian Army being deployed to the Middle East in 1918 as part of the ‘Indianisation policy’ which sought to replace British units with those drawn from the Indian Army.

His conclusions are in line with those of other historians. For example, the main motivators for the soldiers in the ANZMD and the 54th Division were motivated by esprit de corps with their battalion or regiment, their identity as civilian soldiers, leave and letters from home and the leadership of their immediate officers.[3]

However, there are four challenges with the study. The first problem is his definition of morale which he sets as a ‘mental attitude, in relation to happiness and confidence’.[4] This seems to reduce morale to a feeling, emotion and thought rather than a definition that focuses on action, behaviour and outcomes.

The second problem is Kitchen’s understanding of primary group theory (PGT) and how primary groups function in combat. PGT was developed by American sociologists after the Second World War after American when they concluded that combat motivation and resilience amongst German and American soldiers was frequently based on the social relationships in small (primary) groups that high levels of trust, loyalty and solidarity between group or unit members.

Kitchen argues that PGT could not function because of the losses suffered by units in 1917-1918 meant ‘primary group loyalties, were simply not robust enough to endure the rigours of modern, industrial combat’.[5] He even concludes that in the ANZMD men were forced to adopt a ‘primary group identity.’[6] He never considers the possibility that primary groups once disrupted by casualties were never reformed and assumes that once they were formed they were static entities.[7] This is despite him citing some evidence that new drafts were integrated quickly into existing units and taught how to survive.[8] Observational studies of men in combat and military service demonstrate conclusively that primary groups are important to unit functioning, groups form and reform to deal with absences and casualties and soldiers derive considerable benefit from group membership such as social support and an increased chance of survival.

The third issue is that Kitchen does not address the role of coercion, court martials and discipline as a factor in sustaining morale; his sole focus is on the ‘carrot’ than the ‘stick’. 

The final and the greatest problem is Chapter 6. This chapter is meant to examine the morale and identity of Indian Army units drafted to fight for the British in the Middle East but instead focuses on the practice and outcomes of the Indianisation policy. It appears that no diaries, memoirs or letters of soldiers form the Indian sub-continent are cited; the bibliography suggests that no archive in Pakistan or India was visited. As a consequence, we have some voices of British, Australian and New Zealand combatants but none from Indian soldiers.

Despite these caveats, Kitchen’s book is an engaging read. For instance, he explores whether soldiers in British forces considered their fight against the Ottoman Turks in the Holy Land a 20th century crusade and he concludes few soldiers were motivated to fight for this idea.[9]

[1] James E. Kitchen, The British Imperial Army in the Middle East: Morale and Military Identity in the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns, 1916-18 (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2014)., pp.5-6.

[2] Ibid., p.15.

[3] Ibid, pp.122-182.

[4] Ibid., p.6.

[5] Ibid., pp.52-53.

[6] Ibid., p.218.

[7] Ibid., p.136.

[8] Ibid., p.136.

[9] Ibid, pp.101-122.