The grand exhibition "14-18, it's our history", at the Royal Army Museum, revolves around the two Belgian and German sovereigns, Albert 1st and Wilhelm II. They're related, they're rivals in this worldwide war, and... they've got mustaches. They were also far from being the only men, in this Great War, to wear what was then the most important mark of virility. Indeed, in the yellowed photos of soldiers from 1914-1918, carefully guarded by family, the faces often include moustaches.
The history of the sexes (after "Gender Studies", now we say "genders") has made considerable progress in the last several decades, with that of women going much further than men. Researchers only stopped to consider virility after researching femininity. What makes a man, today and in the past? Like any historical question, this leads into a discovery of in-depth changes of mentality.
Amongst the "markers" of masculinity, hair growth has seldom been studied. It can almost be said to be a detail, a not very serious subject, even minimizing. But that's forgetting that in history, everything that is human is meaningful. How can one not point out that moving into adulthood is called "puberty", from the Latin verb pubere which means to be "covered with hairs"? How can one forget the place of the moustache in the national imagination of the pre-1914 Belgians, gracing as it does the lips of the glorious ancestors of Belgian Gaul, including that of the statue of Ambiorix in the central square of Tongres? Why not also recall that the 14-18 War is inseparable from the word "Poilu" (hairy), that is widely used by people who don't necessarily understand its origins, meaning or use? Like any other, the moustache is a way of approaching the Great War. Let's see where it goes.
A question of taste?
These days, hairstyle and clothing choices are increasingly seldom guided by prohibitions and increasingly by personal taste – or conformism. It is useful to recall that this has not always been the case. Belgians in 1914 know exactly what they can and cannot wear in terms of clothing, based, for example, on their social class, trade, age and the day of the week (who would wear their Sunday best on Saturday?). What is true for clothing also applies to headgear and hairstyles, as well as to facial hair, to a certain degree.
At the beginning of the 20th century, after all, the moustache is still viewed as a particularly important male accessory. In the previous century, it had been an attribute of prestige, that was also sometimes only worn with authorisation, having to be deserved: in France, for example, gendarmes only received this right in 1841. Many other professional categories also seek to obtain it. As such, servants and café waiters (referred to as "garçons" or boys, which indicates that they are not quite considered to be men in their own right) are only allowed to wear a moustache in France a few years before the Great War, after a long battle. In the years preceding the 1914 conflict, the moustache therefore stopped to be a mark of distinction, becoming instead a widespread mark of virility.
However, the greatest attachment to it is certainly in the military. After a long evolution, the moustache was an indispensable attribute of the army by the 19th century. The soldier with a moustache is the very image of virility, in terms of his trade, his uniform and his physical appearance. With the introduction of mandatory military service (later in Belgium than with its neighbours), this masculine ideal also penetrates into civilian society before the Great War: the faces of Belgian combatants are indicative of this.
The aim is to "trim Wilhelm's moustache". But are we really talking about the German Emperor's easily recognisable handlebar moustache here, or something else?
Having… or not having
In the 1914 mobilisation trains, the mobilised men compete with one another for bawdy songs and bravado, in order to forget or conceal their anxiety. The songs tell us that the aim is to "trim Wilhelm's moustache". But are we really talking about the German Emperor's easily recognisable handlebar moustache here, or something else?Symbolically having a go at the enemy's virility already means having something over him, weakening him and maybe even defeating him. Every camp does it, with the German propaganda notably preferring to show its adversary in the form of beardless rascals, easily corrected by virile men. Belgium is naturally the first in line for a spanking… But infantilizing the enemy will quickly become problematic, given the growing imagery surrounding the "Poilu".
Poilus, jasses, piottes or simply men?
The term "Poilu" truly became a popular expression during the Great War. Some years ago, the few surviving veterans were referred to as the "last Poilus", and many books about the conflict have used the term in their titles. And yet, the word is more problematic than one might imagine, especially if trying to use it in a Belgian context.
Despite widespread belief, the word "Poilu" (hairy) has nothing to do with difficulties shaving in the trenches and the supposedly hirsute appearance of the soldiers. No army likes its soldiers to look slovenly when in uniform, and in addition, gas masks fit poorly over neglected beards. It was therefore exceptional for the combatants during the First World War to be poorly shaven, except perhaps during engagements that prevented the men from being relieved for long periods (which was rare in the case of Belgium, except during the battle of the Yser or the final offensive). The term actually dates back much further than 1914, as it was already in use in France during the Napoleonic era. "Etre un poilu" or "avoir du poil" (being hairy) meant being fearless: once again, whiskers were the mark of virility. The expression became popular in certain French barracks in the 19th century, and was a huge success during the Great War. But this success wan't unanimous: initially, a French soldier wouldn't refer to himself as a "Poilu". It was civilians and journalists, all non-combatants, in fact, who began to use the expression in order to pay homage to their defenders. The soldiers themselves would either reject "Poilu" as an artificial term, or adopt it in order to garner the respect that it elicited behind the lines. But it long retained a somewhat bookish and unnatural feel to it, with French soldiers frequently using more neutral terms such as "the men" or "the guys".
And what about the Belgian soldiers in all that? They're faced with the same dilemma as the French with "Poilus", the English with "Tommy Atkins" or "Tommies", or even the Americans with "Doughboys" or "Sammies". Adopting a word used by civilians or the hierarchy means accepting to have one's identity dictated by the rear; not adopting it means refuting the honour that it may include. The widespread popularity of "Poilu" in France explains the term's usage by certain French-speaking Belgian combatants, just like the word "gars" (guy), of Breton and Norman origin, most often written simply as "gas". But there are specifically Belgian terms, "piotte(s)" and "jass(es)" (or "jas") written with or without quotation marks. Authors sometimes use one term or the other, or both indifferently.
"Piotte" is a pre-war word, used until the end of the 1930s. It refers to a soldier from the regiments of the infantry of the line, as opposed to cavalrymen, artillerymen or men in more prestigious infantry regiments, such as the Grenadiers. In the pre-1909 context, that of an "army of the poor" that is still making replacements, the term is pejorative: the piotte is not admired, but rather scorned or pitied. The term also expresses the soldier's subordination to the hierarchy: gendarmes are referred to as "piotte-pakkers" (the ones who catch piottes), with the abbreviation "P.P." (or "on ne Peut Pas le dire" (we can't say it) in order to avoid the censorship). But during the conflict, civilian admiration also extends to the word "piotte", that increasingly seldom expresses disdain, and increasingly often a certain admiration for these men, who have to perform the most dangerous and thankless tasks. The word "jass(e)" (from the Dutch "jas", jacket or vest) is another pre-war term referring to the "recruit" of the newly raised militia as opposed to the "veteran" from militias raised in the past. Once again, some people will attempt to promote the word and transform its humble origin into something more glorious. But the heated debates in the press at the front in 1918 once again show that at this time, the term isn't unanimous and still has a certain civilian aspect to it, related to its use by writers "behind the lines" or by the official press. As such, like many of the French, the Belgians often use more neutral words: "With the men", writes Robert Vivier, " our “man” as we like to say, brother of the French “poilu” and of the English “tommy”, the Tasnier brothers write. "Men" or "gentlemen" not only conveys an aspect of humanity, but also of virility… with or without a moustache.
No hero without a moustache?
Of course, Belgian soldiers are not the only men to wear a moustache. In the occupied country, the biggest names of the civilian resistance often have one, from the famous burgomaster of Brussels Adolphe Max down to the obscure person smuggler or spy. 227 of them give their lives for their ideal, and the photo galleries of the martyrs also show many with moustaches. The heroism of the relatively high number of women in the intelligence networks can also naturally be recognised, though without the precious marker… but the machismo of the time is such that frequent comment will be made of their "virile" (and therefore not very feminine) behaviour.
One famous figure of the civilian resistance is an exception: namely Cardinal Mercier. In the pantheon of great Belgian heroes, he alone is clean-shaven. Indeed, a moustache is not a positive symbol of virility: it requires constant care, and indicates a certain degree of attention to one's physical appearance. It is therefore perceived by the Church as a kind of vanity, incompatible with a religious vocation. It is for this reason that the faces of members of the clergy are clean-shaven, including most chaplains and religious stretcher bearers on the Belgian front. There are naturally exceptions, of course, notably the members of missionary orders, who frequently have a beard. But in general, the clean-shaven faces of the clergy members stand out amongst those of the men surrounding them, and effectively distinguish them from most of the soldiers and career members of the military.
The moustache and the American dream
Unlike members of the clergy, higher Belgian officers all wear a moustache without exception, just like their king, Albert 1st. This is not only a mark of virility or of belonging to the military caste, but also an essential accessory for the paternal (and paternalistic) authority that they expect to have over their subordinates. In that, they are part of the great moustache-wearing family of higher officers of the Great War, that includes all or nearly all of the German, English, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Serbian and Turkish generals.
Within the forces of the British Empire, the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and South African generals adhere to this general rule, with the notable and famous exception of General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian corps and liberator of Mons in 1918. It is not insignificant that it was in fact this non-conforming officer, from a relatively modest background, devoid of any charisma but an excellent manager and tactician, who would stand out in this manner. The absence of a moustache on General Currie is an additional indication of his free spirit relative to the British military establishment, which allowed him to revolutionize the attack methods used by his troops, thereby transforming the Canadian corps into an elite unit.
Beyond the special case of A. Currie, the rest of the new world is an exception. Moustaches are rare in the American army, including in the higher ranks, even though their commander, General Pershing, has a moustache. The arrival in Europe of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, generally bigger than average Europeans and arriving fresh and ready in 1917 within a Europe exhausted by the conflict, does not go unnoticed, notably by women. The American dream is not an empty expression in Europe in 1918-1919, and when faced with these young, clean-shaven and therefore terribly modern faces, the moustache doesn't stand a chance. This is clearly the case in southern Belgium, with the arrival of the American troops. In Arlon, for example, the Americans attract attention from the young ladies, and the men very quickly take drastic measures to remain attractive to the ladies, notably by shaving their own moustaches. They don't lose any time, since the Americans arrive in the city on 22 November, and an article in the Nouvelles on the 24th already comments on the hair-related upheaval in Arlon: "The stronger sex, for its part, as a diversion to the temporary infidelities – we hope – that he is forced to undergo in order to demonstrate his admiration in another form, has taken, with the help of razors and clippers, to sacrificing beards and moustaches… And these days, along the streets of Virton, under the shimmering banners, you can see the most select representatives of the gentry, totally clean-shaven as they walk along" .
The Americans attract attention from the young ladies, and the men very quickly take drastic measures to remain attractive to the ladies, notably by shaving their own moustaches.
After the war : a progressive loss of interest
Does the sensational arrival of the young men from the New World immediately ring the death knell for moustaches in the Old World? That would be too simple. Certain moustaches in fact disappear since they are viewed as too old fashioned (such as that of the most famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot, another veteran of the Great War) or too ridiculous as a result of their similarity with certain famous comedic actors (such as Charlie Chaplin or Oliver Hardy). On the other hand, more discreet moustaches remain a precious asset, as demonstrated by the success of Clark Gable and Errol Flynn in the 1930s. In addition to actors, there is also some question as to the role played by famous sportsmen in the evolution of the moustache's image. In any event, the moustache remains very present in Belgium in the inter-war period, though its form evolves and it loses ground amongst young people. Amongst the 12 Prime ministers between 1918 and 1940, 11 have moustaches, including 10 Catholics (Léon Delacroix, Henry Carton de Wiart, Georges Theunis, Aloys Vande Vyvere, Prosper Poullet, Henri Jaspar, Jules Renkin, Charles de Broqueville, Paul Van Zeeland and Hubert Pierlot) and one liberal (Paul-Émile Janson). Belgium's only clean shaven Head of state during the inter-war period (very briefly, in May 1938!) is a socialist, Paul-Henri Spaak. Undoubtedly, the absence of a moustache still comes across as somewhat revolutionary at the time… It should be noted that the moustaches of the two youngest Catholics P. Van Zeeland and H. Pierlot, are very discreet. Is it by accident that, along with P-H Spaak, they are the representatives of the generation that went to the front? Paul Van Zeeland joined as a volunteer in August 1914 and was captured during the battle of the Yser, Paul-Henri Spaak attempted to flee Belgium in order to sign up and was captured at the border in 1917, Hubert Pierlot joined up in 1914 and served throughout the war in the 20th regiment of the line.
In the 1930s, these three men must face up to the totalitarian ideologies that threaten Belgium and the rest of Western Europe. The "new man", whether or not communist, is clean-shaven: both totalitarian systems share a certain cult of youth. Perhaps it is not by accident that only the oldest of the veteran officers from the Great War, such as Semion Boudienny (Russian side) or Gerd von Rundstedt (German side) still have a moustache at the time of the Second World War, not to mention Hitler and Stalin, neither of whom is particularly young…
The moustache experienced its hour of glory before the first worldwide conflict, but did not disappear immediately thereafter. But with hindsight, the years of the Great War seem to us, looking at yellowed photographs, to have been a golden age for the moustache. A time when, amongst the many reasons for holding off the enemy – spirit of camaraderie, patriotism, a love for work well-done, conformity, fear of what others will say or punishment – there was also a certain conception of virility, that was notably displayed on the upper lip.
Amongst the many reasons for holding off the enemy – spirit of camaraderie, patriotism, a love for work well-done, conformity, fear of what others will say or punishment – there was also a certain conception of virility, that was notably displayed on the upper lip.