In previous centuries, European armies showed each other more honour and civility than in modern times. An EU study examined the reasons for this, concluding that the honour code, by fostering nationalism, actually led to a more brutal kind of war.
Combatants in European conflicts during the Age of Reason showed each other compassion and mercy as part of a military code of honour. The code gradually disappeared between 1789 and 1945 with the advent of total war, and now modern armies are trying to reconnect with former ideals.
The EU-funded project 'The rise and fall of military honour in western Europe, 1789–1918' (EMH) explored the historical events and context. Questions addressed included whether the period 1789–1918 represented a break in historical continuity. Additionally, the study examined how a destructive phenomenon such as war could foster transnational European dialogue, and the instrumental role of honour in prisoner situations.
Finally, the research investigated reasons for the subsequent deterioration of honour and trust between prisoners and captors, and whether nationalism played a role. The project fell under the Marie Curie fellowship programme for career development, and ran for two years through to April 2013.
While the shift from mercenary to conscript armies had a nationalising effect, the new interaction between European populations also promoted respect for each other. While the French Wars revised national boundaries, the distinction between comrade and enemy was not as clear as the myths of nationalism suggest.
Growing nationalism during the 19th century made punishment for prisoner breaches of military honour more strict, including the death penalty. The project concluded that military honour contributed to a general code of increasing violence, because national reputations were at stake.
The study also found historical reasons, including a lessening of the separation between rank classes, and conscription having made such separation obsolete. Eventually, the responsibility for compliance with the code came to rest with each soldier, bypassing the chain of command and empowering individuals.
EMH demonstrated that the code of honour was never really fixed and in fact created debate. The transnational expression of military honour remained constant in European warfare because of the code's flexibility. The research was intended for academic and popular audiences. As such, the results provide a broad understanding of the military's role in promoting cross-cultural understanding, and of factors leading up to total war.
Provided by Cordis