We tend to think of armies as unresponsive organisations, especially when we think of the supposed ‘Donkeys’ who commanded them in the Great War. In fact, those Generals were keen to know about both the reality of modern warfare at the front (information fed back into training) and the morale and gripes of those they commanded. Captain Martin Hardie was one of the men who gave them that knowledge of morale that was vital to keeping the army going.
Martin Hardie was born in London in 1875, educated at St Paul’s School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Fresh from university, he went to work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1898, when the building that how houses it was about to be built. He married Madeline Pattisson in 1903 and they had two sons. Working in the Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design, he was promoted to the level of Assistant Keeper in 1914. He was also an accomplished artist, having exhibited at the Royal Academy; a wonderful portrait in the Aberdeen Art Gallery collection shows him at work on his etchings in 1915.
In September 1915, Hardie joined the army as a Second Lieutenant. As an accomplished administrator, he was employed in the postal service of the army, working as Deputy Head Censor. Promoted to Lieutenant in 1916 and Captain in 1917, Hardie’s reports on morale in the army have been a vital source for historians of the British Army in the Great War. Although several reports were produced and circulated, the official copies were not kept and today the only collection of multiple reports (to my knowledge) is in Hardie’s papers at the Imperial War Museum.
The reports Hardie wrote from France and (in 1918) Italy were based on letters that were not censored in men’s own units. Usually soldiers’ letters were censored for sensitive information (such as place names, units, rumours of casualties that had not been officially reported) in their own companies or battalions. Men were regularly issued with ‘green envelopes’ (sometimes there were actually green, others had green markings) to allow them to write home without this localised censorship – allowing them to air grievances about their officers, if necessary, or simply to be more open, on the promise that they would not reveal any sensitive military information. Most ‘green envelope’ letters were not opened, but some were – by people like Hardie, who would check for illegal details being reported and give an assessment of the state of the army’s morale. (Officers’ letters were basically dealt with as per the ‘green envelope’ letters of their men).
Hardie’s reports are fascinating for historians as they set out the main concerns of the soldiers, with quotations from letters. Primarily the men’s complaints were around food, leave (i.e. the week a year they got to spend at home), conditions at the front in winter, and – when Britain’s fortunes were at their lower ebbs – the futility of the sacrifices made at the front. On the whole, though, Hardie reported good morale, even if it was often acceptance of the war effort rather than active support and enthusiasm.
After the war, Hardie returned to London and to the V&A. He became the Keeper of the Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design in 1921 and served in that role until he retired with a CBE in 1935. He was also a member of the council of the Royal College of Art from 1931-48.
Hardie died in Tonbridge in 1952 at the age of 76. His obituary in the Times records his achievements in his normal, peacetime life, but the country also owes him and his kind a debt for keeping the military commanders in touch with the mood of their men. Historians like me also owe him our gratitude for keeping his reports and donating them to the nation.
Hardie papers (Imperial War Museum item 84/46/1)
Who Was Who entry for Martin Hardie