Dear friends, unless you’ve been in the military, I’m guessing your thoughts look something like this right now:
“This looks boring.”
Also highly likely: “What is it?”
That was my question when I spied Morale-Building Activities In Foreign Armies while poking around Winston Smith Books several years ago. I asked the cashier about it but he was just as mystified as I was. All we could come up with was that it was for World War Two morale officers who needed ideas for keeping troops’ spirits up on the battlefield. Whatever that meant. Word games, maybe? Positive thinking? My curiosity got the better of me, and to paraphrase a certain immortal (and unfortunate) Nancy Pelosi quote, I had to buy the book to find out what was in it.
Once I got it home, I quickly realized the book was anything but a “Helpful Hints For Battlefield Pick-Me-Ups”-type of manual. For one thing, most lifestyle books don’t have “Restricted” printed in boldface block letters all over the cover.
Morale-Building Activities was issued by the War Department for Army officers on March 15, 1943, and according to stamps on some copies, may have been used as late as the Korean War. Apparently this little volume is so uncommon that very few copies still exist. The archives that do have them usually don’t allow them to be checked out, although digital versions can be found. I bought mine for fifteen dollars, but copies have been known to sell for around $200.
Once a reader gets past the initial pages (the frontispiece also says RESTRICTED in big friendly letters, by the way), Morale’s purpose is obvious: American officers were to be well-versed in inner workings of the armed forces of the other major warring powers. Not all of them, but the ones that would have the most relevance to the American officer: Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Russia. As befits a government-issue book, Morale is very simple and direct, albeit with a few illustrations.
During the Second World War, there was a wide variance in how the forces in different countries were operated. They were similar in that they used a pretty uniform rubric for promoting within the forces, but other than that, every nation had its own modus operandi. One aspect of this was in the officer-enlistee relationship. Germany’s military was very class-conscious. While no interactions were permitted between officers and enlisted men, the caste system was weakening as a result of the war.
Whereas Japan’s armed forces had more of a brotherhood kind of system, with the officers being the older wiser siblings, some of whom ruled with an iron fist. Italy was similar because every man in the military went through the same training whether they were commissioned or not. So was Russia, although the officers naturally got better accomodations and food.
Great Britain was the outlier, as they used to select their officers from the upper class. That quickly went by the wayside, though, because it became clear that these upper-crusters lacked military training and skill, and the book notes that as of 1943, only twenty-six percent of officers were of the upper class. Like Germany, Britain discouraged officers from fraternizing with enlisted men.
Discipline and lodging complaints were other ways the forces differed, but less so. Punishments ranged from forfeiture of pay, confinement to quarters, doing menial jobs, and possible court-martial. Italy was unusual, though, in that it made a distinction between disciplinary offenses and penal offenses, the latter being more like criminal charges and handled by a military tribunal. In all forces the soldiers were allowed to make complaints via the chain of command, but the procedures varied slightly between countries.
Another important aspect of military life is furlough. Each of the countries discussed in Morale-Building allowed it, but the length of a leave might vary based on whether or not a soldier is married (Germany), whether there is a large-scale operation going on (also Germany), harvest time (Germany, Italy, and Russia), or a major holiday such as the New Year (Japan).
Great Britain was the most generous with their leave, offering four one week furloughs a year plus four short ones, with additional time off for what they called “compassionate leave.” In other words, if someone’s family was bombed out, for instance, a soldier might be permitted to go home and help. As an added perk, Britain issued “mess pay” to soldiers on leave to help with expenses.
The largest section of Morale concerns “Special Procedures,” or characteristics that were unique to each force. Propaganda was big among all the nations mentioned in the book, but the amount given to the soldiers varied by country. Germany was the most propaganda-heavy by far, with lectures, communiques, magazines, newsletters, films, and the like constantly issued to its fighting men. Japan and Italy chose to rely on lectures. While Russia was also pretty light, they did publish an Army newspaper. Radio was another very common medium for communicating to the soldiers. Britain was closer to Germany in terms of the volume of propaganda, but they weren’t quite as bombastic.
The biggest difference between countries, though, was the degree of freedom with which soldiers were allowed to interpret the information they were given. Britain and Germany were on opposite ends of the spectrum, with Britain fostering critical thinking among its armed forces, while Germany’s soldiers were supposed to accept what they were told or know the reason why.
Leisure is a major part of Army life, and Morale details what soldiers in foreign countries are allowed to do in their off-time. Soldiers were permitted to bring their art supplies and paint with them in the service. When it came to athletics, calesthenics and other non-competitive sports were the order of the day. All countries allowed their soldiers to receive newspapers, with some forces encouraged to print their own (for military eyes only, of course). Receiving and sending letters home was encouraged as well.
Movies were permitted, but some countries like Germany and Italy didn’t allow anything to be shown that might inspire homesickness or insurrection. Russian troops loved movies; the most popular film shown to the Red Army was Chaplin’s Modern Times. Mickey Mouse was huge with Russian soldiers as well. Only Britain allowed soldiers to attend commercial movies for free, although soldiers from the other countries mentioned could go to theaters.
The book goes into what each country’s procedure was when it came to soldiers who went the way of all flesh. Put it this way: Venereal disease was strictly monitored and controlled, oftentimes involving separating a soldier from his company for treatment. Soldiers and their girls weren’t allowed to be drunk during their conjugal acts, either. Only Germany wrote the initials of the girl in question in a soldier’s records.
Morale Building Activities In Foreign Armies is not the kind of book one reads for fun, natch. It’s a little bit dry but succinct, thank goodness. It doesn’t waste time or words being overly detailed or technical. What’s more, it provides a very chronologically bound picture of the inner workings of various armed forces, meant for very few eyes only. I feel priviledged to own such a piece of history, and it also goes to show the kinds of treasures that can be unearthed at an awesome used bookstore like Winston Smith.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of an important event in aviation history, and of course there’s a movie for that. Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you again soon…
Morale-Building Activities In Foreign Armies. Published by the Military Intelligence Service for Special Service Division, War Department. Issued on March 15, 1943.