French Cuirassiers only a year before WWI would begin, looking much the same as they did under Napoleon; ca. 1913
And for most of that first year of fighting in WWI, they continued to look like this. French soldiers were massacred because of these dated outfits.
At the outbreak of war the French Army retained the colourful traditional uniforms of the nineteenth century for active service wear. These included conspicuous features such as blue coats and red trousers for the infantry and cavalry. The French cuirassiers wore plumed helmets and breastplates almost unchanged from the Napoleonic period. From 1903 on several attempts had been made to introduce a more practical field dress but these had been opposed by conservative opinion both within the army and amongst the public at large. In particular, the red trousers worn by the infantry became a political debating point. Adolphe Messimy who was briefly Minister of War in 1911-1912 stated that “This stupid blind attachment to the most visible of colours will have cruel consequences”; however, in the following year, one of his successors, Eugène Étienne, declared “Abolish red trousers? Never!”
Australian soldiers blinded in a German gas attack at an aid station near Villers-Bretonneux, France; May 27, 1918.
The Germans were using mustard gas at Villers-Bretonneux. A mild dose would result in the eyelids swelling up to the point where the casualty would be temporarily blinded, more severe exposure could damage their eyes to the point where they’d be blind permanently.
Canadian Soldiers take back a wounded from the front during the battle of Passchendaele; ca. November, 1917
Douglas Haig’s chief of staff, Launcelot Kiggell, reportedly broke down and wept when he finally visited the Passchendaele battlefield in the autumn of 1917, saying “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
I have the daily schedule of one Captain Geoffrey Bowen with the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers on September 3rd, 1917.
I’ll be giving some context in brackets throughout for reading sake:
8.pm. Started [wake up] 9.30 p.m. Arrived. [at trench] 11 p.m. Company arrived. 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Round the line [ie: checking on men, checking positions, maintaining quality control across the line] 3.15 a.m.-4.15 a.m. Sleep 4.15 a.m.-6.am. Stand to. [Night watch, essentially] 6 a.m.-6.30 Reports [from lower level officers] 6.30a.m.-9. Sleep 9 a.m.-9.30 Breakfast: bacon, eggs, tinned sausage 9.30 a.m.-10.10 Round the line 10.10 a.m.-12. Reports, etc. 12.30 p.m. Lunch: Steak, potatoes, beans, sweet omelette 1.45 p.m.-2.15. Daylight patrol. 2.15 p.m-2.30. Sleep. 2.30 p.m.-3.40. Gup [gossip, idle chat] with the C.O. 4 p.m. Tea, bread, jam. 4.30 p.m.-4.35. Sleep. 4.35 p.m.-5.10. Entertain 'Bowes' 5.10 p.m.-5.15. Sleep. 5.15 p.m.-5.25. Trench Mortar Officer reports. 5.25 p.m.-6.15. Sleep 6.15 p.m.-6.35. Entertain Brain and Padre [Chaplains, implied work on mental and religious health] 6.35 p.m.-7.30. Sleep. 7.30 p.m.-8. Round the line 8 p.m.-8.15. Dinner: steak, potatoes, tinned fruit and custard. 8.15 p.m.-9. Round the line 11.30 p.m.-12.30 a.m. Sleep. 12.30-2.30 a.m. Intensive sniping [under fire] 2.30-5 a.m. Sleep.
It’s not nearly as dramatic as you may think. The unfortunate truth for Hollywood is that most of WWI was sitting around improving defenses and doing basically nothing. The conditions were horrific the entire time for most parts but you were not constantly getting out of trenches and charging enemies most of the time. One of the biggest jobs of men on the front is to constantly check, repair and lay down barbed wire outside of their trenches. This was generally done at night for obvious reasons and generally required hundreds of men to cover the workers doing this. At first they had to use mallets and even if they tried to muffle the sound by putting sandbags between the mallet and the stake to hold the barbed wire down, it was still noisy business. This brought the attention of many snipers. Eventually a corkscrew type of device would be universalized which would allow men to ‘screw’ the stake into the ground silently.
However the amount of fighting and what fighting you got depended on your sector. There were generally two types, quiet and loud sectors. Loud sectors were ones where the trenches were extremely close to the Germans — at times less than 25 yards away but usually no further than 100-200 yards away. You are in constant threat of rifle fire but not so much artillery lest each side hits their own men. So your entire existence is painted by avoiding snipers, being under sniper fire, and having bursts of machine gun fired in your general direction in your daily life. The quiet sectors were generally very different. You could easily be 600-800 yards away from the other trench and both sides adopted a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and your greatest threat would be random artillery barrages from miles away. Capt. Dugdale described the experience:
Time passed very peacefully, as the Germans were very quiet. My battalion snipers had the time of their lives; never before had they been given such targets. We literally kept a game book of hits for hte first three days; after that the Germans did not show themselves so much; also they started to retaliate.
Wiring was carried out nearly every night, but not in the style we were accustomed to in the days of the Somme. Our men did not creep through the wire carrying coils of wire, stakes, etc.; instead, a general service wagon was driven into No Man’s Land with the materials on board, which were dumped out when required. At first we expected bursts of machine gun fire every minute, but nothing happened. It must have become a well-established custom, as the enemy did the same thing themselves; we did not interfere.
Nonetheless in the general, the Germans were very keen on disrupting workers parties; particularly with machine guns and offensive patrols. The need for quiet was imperative but not always followed by the more reckless green horns. One account by Henry Gregory describes a particularly loud worker party shouting orders and joking with each other while his company was covering their duties. After about 30 minutes of it the Germans (who were previously pretty quiet) got fed up and unleashed a massive mortar barrage and machine gun attack on the position, killing dozens of men who had no reason to.
Conditions in the trenches were universally awful however. That is one universal thing that can be applied. Many trenches had water up the knees of men and you would have to wade around in this grungy, dirty mud water all day and everything you had would be almost constantly wet. When digging new trenches it was not uncommon to get a sudden and sharp scent of a dead body lying there for weeks or months as you pierced his flesh in the dirt, especially in when repairing trenches taken over from the enemy after large artillery barrages. Everything, once you got up to the front, had to be carried by hand for obvious reasons. Usually in the dark. In knee to waist high water. While being shot at by snipers consistently. You can imagine the frustration and how it could wear on a man.
That’s really what made the war so horrible. You didn’t attack all that much if you were a soldier but your life was still a miserable hellhole. You sat in a crappy trench while being shot on constantly by snipers or being bombarded constantly by artillery depending on where you were — if you were in a perfect spot both at once! You were constantly slightly hungry because of poor rations and if someone slipped and dropped a box of steak in water they were done for and you had just go without. Something that happened enough for men to justify writing about it as a part of their experience. However, for all that, the actual combat was pretty minimal and dare I say cushy, especially for quiet sectors. Your duties if you were a rifleman were essentially forward patrols from time to time and covering worker parties (usually the two duties were combined) which was a dangerous job but not really an all out attack and otherwise maintaining the trench system through constant labor. If you were a machine gunner or a sniper your life was essentially to sit in one spot for hours and harass the enemy and discourage them from performing their own maintenance or making them do it under great duress. And if you were an officer your job was basically to walk around and make sure everyone was doing their job correctly.
Now I’d like to talk briefly about how trench warfare worked. At first it was a crude type of deal, the Generals were literally learning on the fly. The original tactic through 1915 and 1916 was essentially bombard the enemy trench with so much firepower that they couldn’t possibly survive and then mop up the rest with your infantry. This was basically what The Battle of Somme was supposed to be — one of the biggest failures of the war where the British men advancing quickly found that the artillery barrage did nothing to the enemy barbed wire and the Germans just huddled up underground ,waited for the barrage to stop, and then just manned their machine guns again once the assault started. Things like the creeping barrage were developed as well where basically the artillery would ‘creep’ to the German trench as the infantry marched behind it. The idea was that the artillery would hit the trench and within seconds be struck by British and French troops in the immediate aftermath.
Again, the issue was coming with that all out artillery barrages where the men were marching was a horrible strategy. This is most demonstrated at the Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, where the British attempted to break out of the Ypres salient in Belgium by taking surrounding ridges. The British absolutely unloaded artillery on these positions and when the men went into battle the ground was so utterly destroyed the entire battlefield was composed of flooded craters. The men were literally getting stuck in the mud and could barely move and they were cut down endlessly. The battle was only a half success, only capturing a few ridges with egregious casualties no one predicted even at this stage in the war.
In many ways WWI was an artillery war, but it was a war that was won in the development of infantry doctrine. What generals realized by 1918 was that artillery can not win this war. It could not single handedly destroy the enemy like they believed and the principle of combined arms was developed. Combined arms stated that every component of the army must be used together in equal parts to support each other and win the battle and that’s precisely what happened. Artillery was used in short, concentrated bursts and barrages not meant to obliterate the enemy defense but just shock them and generally create temporary weak points. Infantry stopped being a force that charged into trenches trying to overwhelm a position “shattered” by artillery but rather began doing something we are more familiar with — squad based infiltration tactics. Small squads of men would independently infiltrate enemy weak points, neutralize key points and create an open path for friendly mortars and flamethrowers to move in to create a combined mortar, machine gun and flamethrower assault on the more fortified positions with the infiltrated elite troops attacking from all sides inside the trench as well. Combined with aerial reconnaissance, armor to shield advancing infantry, and short but sweet ‘hurricane’ barrages trenches became all but a stepping stone in the March 1918 offensive by the Germans and then for the Allies in the Hundred Days counter-offensive in August which ended the war.
Holmes, Richard, “Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front “
Simpson, Andy “Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life and Death in the Trenches of the First World War”
SA (Sturm Abteilung or “Brownshirts”) call for the boycott of Jewish shops in Friedrichstraße, Berlin; April 1, 1933.
The sign says: “Germans, Attention! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage the German economy and pay their German employees starvation wages. The main owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.”
Officially, the US went to war due to the British not respecting US citizenship when pressing sailors into service in the Royal Navy. The British claimed that any British subject was eligible for impressment (ie forced conscription) and that any man born a British subject continued to be a British subject. This included a sizable portion of the US population of the time, as many had been born before the peace treaty of 1782 and thus theoretically had been born as British subjects. Emigres were also subject to this treatment, and there were occasions where Royal Navy officers did not give a damn and just impressed American citizens who had never been British subjects.
Unofficially, the war hawks wanted to see an annexation of British North America (Canada). [The subject was openly debated in the US before the war. Jefferson claimed the conquest of Quebec was “a mere matter of marching” while Clay openly said that militiamen from Kentucky on their own could capture Upper Canada. Major General Brock certainly knew the war was coming, prepared accordingly and knew the US would invade Canada. In fact, his intelligence was so good that he got news of the war before the US troops across the border, something which he used for a surprise attack.]
The US invasions of Canada failed, the British hunted down or blockaded the US navy (a few frigates managed to slip out and the USS Constitution had some spectacular victories) and blockaded the US East Coast, preventing trade and causing widespread discontent, especially in the maritime-dependent New England states, who seriously started to discuss secession from the US.
The peace treaty at Ghent 1814 did not include any gains for the US – at least not officially. The treaty included no provision that the Royal Navy was to respect US citizenship, however, the end of the Napoleonic War had led the British to stop impressment from foreign vessels anyway, so the goal was achieved, king of.
British North America remained in British hands, and eventually became Canada, independent from the US.
The British war goals were to get the US to stop fighting them, without giving anything away, as they had bigger problems back home with Napoleon running rampant all over Europe, in which they succeeded.
The US war goals, to force the British to accept US citizenship as immunity to impressment was achieved, although not officially, while Canada remained unconquered.
While the US did not lose territory, I’d say they lost the war as they were unable to achieve the goals they went to war over. The British, while not gaining anything, did achieve their war goal.
So, it is either a draw (neither side lost anything) or a British victory (as they achieved their war goals and the US did not).
A self-firing rifle improvised by the Anzacs during their evacuation from Gallipoli, used to deceive the Ottomans into thinking that the Anzacs still occupied their trenches; ca. 1915
Fire was maintained from the trenches after the withdrawal of the last men, by rifles arranged to fire automatically. This was done by a weight being released which pulled the trigger. Two kerosene tins were placed one above the other, the top one full of water and the bottom one with the trigger string attached to it, empty. At the last minute, small holes would be punched in the upper tin; water would trickle into the lower one, and the rifle would fire as soon as the lower tin had become sufficiently heavy. Another device ran a string, holding back the trigger, through a candle, which slowly burnt down, severed the string, and released the trigger.
Such devices provided sporadic firing which helped convince the Turks that the Anzac front line was occupied long after thousands of men had crept down to the beaches and escaped. British generals estimated that half the force would be lost in any attempt to withdraw because the Turks could not fail to notice as the trenches were so close. In the event, the Turks were so deceived that 80,000 men were evacuated with only about half a dozen casualties.
A Rusland Hilfswillige Soldaten using a Soviet PPSch-41 submachine gun, Army Group North, Soviet Union; 1943
A Rusland Hilfswillige Soldaten is a Russian who joined the German army and fought for them, hence his cap, and his ammunition pouch (which appears is German and not Russian).
This photo is titled:
“Kosaken-Kavallerie-Division mit sowjetischer Maschinenpistole PPSch-41 im Anschlag im Wald hinter einem Baum stehend, in Schießbereitschaft; PK 693”.
Translated: A Kossack Cavalry Division with a Soviet submachine gun PPSCH-41 standing, ready to fire, behind a tree.
In Britain, there were victory parades in London and other big cities to celebrate both the end of the war and the return of the men. But most simply returned home to their everyday life, as their contract only conditioned them to fight for three years or until the end of the war (whichever came first).
The soldier that came back in 1918 was very different from the man who left for war four years before.
In Britain, there were three distinct types of soldier to be found in the infantry:
- The so-called “Old Contemptibles“, who had been professional soldiers or reservists upon the war’s outbreak. Many such men were in their thirties or forties when the summer of 1914 drew to a close, and some boasted relevant combat experience from the Second Boer War. These men comprised the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France and Flanders in August of 1914; at the time they constituted six infantry divisions split between I (Haig) and II (Smith-Dorrien) Corps.
- The men of “Kitchener’s Army“, the massive infantry apparatus built from the volunteers of the first wave of recruitment. This is an important distinction that I’ll be examining more in a moment: from the first, there was no program of conscription for the British infantry. The battalions that were raised were voluntary, and were very often comprised along local/professional lines for the sake of convenience. The practical consequence of this is that you’d have a regiment like the East Surreys (for example) comprised almost entirely of men from East Surrey, or the Artists Rifles comprised largely of… well, you get the idea. Entire villages and towns worth of men went off to fight in these battalions side by side, and the spirit of familiar camaraderie that prevailed in them saw them referred to as the “Pals’ Battalions.” More on why this matters in a moment, as I said. Anyway, whereas the men of the Old Contemptibles arrived in France more or less immediately upon the war’s outbreak, Kitchener’s Mob took a considerable amount of time to equip and train — often with less than satisfactory results, but there’s no sense in throwing about blame at this stage. The bulk of those trained up in this group began to arrive on the Western Front in the spring of 1915 — in time for Second Ypres, and eventually Loos.
- Finally, the men of the post-conscription recruitment drive. Conscription was formally enacted as of 1 January 1916, and the men inducted into the infantry through this drive first started to arrive on the Front in the late summer of that year. A further crucial difference prevailed: the “Pals’ Battalions” structure was largely abandoned, and conscripts were instead usually assigned to battalions as the need for them arose.
So, I stress these differences (to finally come to the point) because they would produce remarkably different sorts of veteran. Let’s examine some implications.
|Army||Rough Age in 1914||Rough Age in 1918||Active Service Duration||Character|
|Contemptibles||30-40||34-44||~52 Months||Professional, Voluntary|
|Kitchener’s||17-18||21-22||~43 Months||Civilian, Voluntary|
|Conscripts||15-16||19-20||~29 Months||Civilian, Duress|
Let us consider some implications, even if only sketchy ones.
Those in the first wave had survived a grinder of unparalleled proportions, and their first taste of the war’s true flavor would have come with the disastrous Retreat from Mons. No longer young men to begin with, 4.25 years of grueling conditions would have taken an enormous physical and mental toll upon them. Having been professional soldiers at the war’s outset, some would choose to continue serving in this capacity now that it was over — but this was a difficult prospect in the great national rush to demobilization. Positions in the rapidly shrinking peacetime army were hard to secure and even harder to hold, and many of these veterans found themselves demobbed (though honorably) whether they wished it or not. They then found themselves forced to seek new employment after (in some cases) two decades of army life, and the difficulties this posed would have been considerable. There were literal millions of demobbed soldiers searching for the same jobs, and most firms would balk at the notion of hiring an exhausted 40-year-old when there were so many millions of men at half the age begging to be taken on. These are stories that did not always end happily. In any case, the appalling casualties suffered by this particular wave of the infantry ensured that they did not constitute a very large portion of surviving veterans after the war. As Robin Neillands notes in The Old Contemptibles (2004), “the British Official History gives the casualties from the start of the campaign in August 1914 to the end of First Ypres in November as 89,864 men killed, wounded or missing. It notes also that ‘the greatest part of this loss had fallen on the infantry of the first seven divisions [the six infantry divisions I mentioned plus one cavalry division], which originally numbered only 84,000 men'” (328-29).
This original number would only grow to a total of 160,000 by the end of 1914 — still better than 50% casualties. By means of useful comparison, the French mustered an army of 1,071,000 within the first days of the war, while the initial German army of 850,000 swelled to 4,300,000 within a few weeks. Even “brave little Belgium” could boast an initial army of 350,000 (37). The BEF started small, and suffered an appalling proportion of casualties by any metric. Many of the men left over were moved into training positions as the second wave began to train up — but more on that below.
Those in the second wave served a similar stretch to their earlier professional counterparts, but with some considerable practical and psychological differences. Their first taste of combat would likely have been the appalling terror of Second Ypres (with its corresponding first deployment of poison gas) or the catastrophic failure that was the Battle of Loos. This is not a cheerful tone to set, and it was only made worse by the situation of the Pals’ Battalions. Because of the way in which these battalions were constructed, a particularly bad day for one of them could result in the functional destruction of an entire town’s worth of men. This, in part, is responsible for the idea of the “lost generation” — in many villages and towns throughout the isles, this was very literally the case. These veterans, then, would carry with them the scars of having (in many cases) lost every friend or even nodding acquaintance they had ever had, often over the course of a single day. Though still relatively young, they returned to uncertain prospects and with a host of physical and mental ailments. The prevalence of PTSD among veterans of this sort, but it is also worth noting the high rate of respiratory ailments and chronic pain that afflicted them as well — not very helpful when looking for jobs in industry.
Less happily still, many of those who had been most eager to enlist in the first place had done so due to a lack of employment prospects elsewhere, and because the life that the army provided would be a step-up from what they might otherwise expect. It’s amazing to consider that army life (in spite of its dangers) actually constituted a real improvement recreationally, vocationally and even nutritionally for many of those who enlisted, but this was very often the case. With the war over, however, and the great demobilization in progress, these men, too, had to find new jobs — and they were not often available. A final note about this group: a combination of patriotic fervor, the opportunities offered by the soldier’s life, and a very lax system of official scrutiny led to many under-aged boys enlisting as adults. Such boys were scarcely ever to be found among the Old Contemptibles (for reasons I hope are obvious), and the census records kept by the government formed a more reliable means of age verification when it came to distributing conscription cards in the third wave, but all that was required of those volunteering from 1914 onward was the declaration by oath that the man was over the age of 18 — that’s it. Though it’s impossible to get a hard number, it’s estimated that as many as 250,000 such under-aged volunteers served in the British infantry throughout the war. Most joined up at 17, unwilling to wait; some were as young as 15 or 16. The youngest of which we have record, a Pvt. S. Lewis, was a mere 12 years old when he arrived on the Somme. He survived, as best we can tell, and went on to open a pub, live through the second war, and die in the fullness of his years in the 1960s — but many did not. (See Richard van Emden’s Boy Soldiers of the Great War for more on this subject.)
Finally, those in the third wave may have been in the hardest place of all. In addition to all of the challenges I’ve already noted above, these poor souls had the misfortune to have had their first tastes of combat on the Somme. Not necessarily at its supremely troubled opening, of which today is the 97th anniversary, but throughout that long, frustrating slog all the same — through the wet summer, into the frozen winter, and finally into its quiet and (apparently) consequence-less conclusion. This, too, is a hard place to start one’s career as a fighting man — and to have it followed up by Passchendaele and the German Spring Offensive of 1918 does no favors either. Another crucial difference between this group of veterans and those above is that many of them had very much wished to have nothing to do with the war at all. While many of those conscripted in 1916 would have gone willingly enough in 1914 if only they had been older, there were many more still for whom their lack of a uniform after 2.5 years of war was a very conscious choice. They were conscripted against their will, sent off in resentment or fear, trained in arts they did not wish to learn, deployed among strangers, and then subjected to all of the difficulties and boredom and thrills of the war that the first two waves experienced without any of the small mitigation of having chosen to. If we wish to find at least one of the roots of the spirit of “disillusion” that blossomed so aggressively from 1927 through 1933, we may look with interest to this generation.
Some final notes before concluding.
A serious consideration in the post-war employment market was that of women. During the war, women had risen to the nation’s call in a tremendous way and had provided crucial labor in industry of all sorts — and not just those focused on the manufacture of weapons. While many such women found themselves being let go at the war’s conclusion as the production of artillery and whatnot inevitably wound down, those in industries that would remain prolific (such as textiles, metal-working, food distribution, and so on) were not so willing to simply see themselves sent back to their former situations. Many of their employers agreed, having come to recognize their talents and being unwilling to sacrifice experienced labor to give the jobs to men who had spent the last four years doing nothing of the sort. A step forward for sexual equality it certainly was, but it also carried the unfortunate consequence that many of the men who went off to war returned to a country in which jobs that might once have been guaranteed for them would never be theirs again.
A variety of groups tried to ameliorate these problems in different ways. The Red Cross and the YMCA continued to serve as vital support networks for veterans, offering shelter, employment (when it could be found), entertainment and a means of keeping in touch with erstwhile colleagues and finding out about new opportunities. New organizations came into being in the midst of this as well; the main reason for the founding of the Royal British Legion, for example, was to help alleviate the hardships being faced by veterans who returned to a country that seemed no longer to hold a place for them.
It may surprise a modern reader to learn of it, but Sir Douglas Haig was instrumental in the founding of this charitable group, among several others, and devoted most of his public energies until the end of his life to its service. He flatly refused to allow separate Legions to be created for officers and for other ranks, believing that the wartime spirit of mutual respect and utility must be maintained, and refused the reward of a viscountcy after the war until then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed to create a more substantial network of support for veterans. The Legion is still widely known and popular, and chapters of it operate both in the United Kingdom and in many those countries that were imperial dominions during the war. Somewhat less known are the Haig Homes for ex-servicemen, which Haig’s estate helped endow at his request, and the Haig Fund — now known more simply as the Poppy Appeal. Gary Sheffield’s The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (2011) has much more to say on this subject, among countless others.
(A word or two should be said about the programs in place for disabled veterans returning home, but I am much less qualified to speak on it than I am on other matters. Let it suffice to say that there were large-scale governmental training programs set up to teach veterans with a variety of disabilities how to master trades that they could practice even in spite of whatever disability they then bore. Basket-weaving, sewing, painting and so on were popular choices for those who had lost the use of one or both their legs; other possibilities existed for those without arms, or who were blind, but I know little about them myself.)