The First World War was a common experience that many soldiers, of many nationalities, had to endure. Because the devastation and loss of life was so great, no nation’s soldiers were spared from the horrible psychological effects of the First World War. Various books and memoirs were useful in understanding the circumstances of the War and the effects they had upon the soldiers that fought it.
World War One was like no war that had ever been fought before. The advent of machine gun and heavy artillery gave armies the killing power that they had never even dreamed of. The standard tactics of the armies involved had not developed enough to accommodate these new technologies, and the result of these two factors was prolonged trench warfare.
Trench warfare produces some of the most horrible experiences that a man can endure. Men dig themselves into the earth to protect themselves from the enemy. When they are ordered to attack they have to cross a vast open stretch of land knows as “no-man’s land”. The guns of the enemy, who are dug into trenches of their own, protect this area. When these attacks failed it was then the soldiers duty to retreat back to their trenches, taking back whatever wounded they could, and waiting for the enemy to attack them. Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front gives a good example of this when he writes: “Attacks alternate with counter-attacks and slowly the dead pile up in the field of craters between the trenches. We are able to bring in most of the wounded that do not lie too far off. But many have long to wait and we listen to them dying” (Remarque). The living conditions that the men had to endure in these trenches were almost as horrible as the conditions of battle. An example of what the common soldier had to endure everyday can be found in Robert MacKay’s diary entry of September 3rd 1917: “Feeling like nothing on earth, with a rash all over me, even on my toes. Must have eaten something. Tinned fruit? Carried on half-heartedly and then had to go off to ‘bed’” (MacKay). Even the food the men had to eat caused them physical pain. All of these factors together created an endless cycle of pain and killing that left no man mentally unscathed.
The men that went off to war in 1914 were not at all prepared for horrors that they would have to face. The nations of Europe filled their head with notions of patriotism and a quick war that would be over by Christmas. Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce Et Decorum Est says it best when its states, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori” (Owens). The Latin in this poem means “ It is sweet and noble to die for ones country”. These are the thoughts that were fed to the men and the thoughts that they carried to their deaths.
As the War dragged on and on it became necessary to draft new recruits into the various armies, because the War was killing the all the volunteers that initially marched off. Remarque talks about the feelings the seasoned veterans had for the new recruits that would come up to the to front to replace their fallen comrades, “It brings a lump into the throat to see how they go over, and run and fall. A man would like to spank them, they are so stupid, and to take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be” (Remarque).
Neither side during the War had a great advantage of arms. Both sides employed the same type of weapons, in the same fashion. They caused massive amounts of casualties. John Keegan writes about it in his book The Great War. He quotes a young lieutenant from the French 72nd Division after the German offensive at Verdun. The lieutenant writes to his superiors, “The commanding officer and all company commanders have been killed. My battalion is reduced to approximately 180 men (from 600). I have neither ammunition nor food. What am I to do?” (Keegan).
This kind of massive loss of life in individual units was not uncommon in the larger offensives of the War. The generals in charge of the various armies adopted the tactics of hurling men at each other in direct charges that more often than not resulted in failure. Mackay writes in his diary about one such failure at the battle of Arras in 1917, “Our attack was a failure. The barrage was too fast and of the wrong nature and our men were mown down by guns and by M.G. fire. All the officers except Tobermory, A.G.Cameron and G.H.Mitchell were either killed or wounded”(Mackay). General incompetence in the higher levels of command is undoubted one of the factors that led to such horrible conditions during the First World War.
All of this had a deep pshyological impact on the men in the trenches. Remarque says “ The terror of the front sinks deep down when we turn our backs upon it; we make grim, coarse jests about it…. And so we speak of everything that keeps us from going mad” (Remarque). Psychiatric trauma or “going mad” was a common problem during World War One. In 1915 a British physician named C.S. Myers coined the phrase “shell shock” to be applied to all psychiatric causalities (The Great War). Shell shock happened to many men during the war, and it was not always the fault of the individual soldier, but the fault of the stress that the men had to deal with everyday. The strain of having to deal with miserable living conditions on the front line, seeing your comrades killed or wounded, and the complete arbitrariness of being killed or wounded yourself, was simply to much for many men to take.
All of the different factors mentioned above cam together to create the lasting impression that the survivors of World War One took home with them. The First World War was so terrible that it was named “The Great War”, because no one dreamed that another of its scale could ever be repeated. “And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still at war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentaglement of life and death” (Remarque). The battles of the First World War may have ceased in 1918, but the memories would last long after the fighting ceased.