How the experience of soldiers fighting on the frontline varied and changed throughout the war

The First World War was one of constant changes as new concepts, strategies and issues were developed to achieve the ideal outcome: victory. However, it was also a war that was at a standstill where variations to a number of factors were unlikely to occur in the short term. Thus, soldiers experienced a war of changing strategies yet one of discomforting routine. While changes did occur, routine was still implemented with the monotony of these repetitions accentuated by the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front.

Changes involved attitudes, weapons, tactics and commanders, while constants included routine, food, casualties and the concept of failure. The relationship between attitudes and all other factors mentioned above is that of cause and effect, for the effect of these various elements contributed to the negative attitude that most, if all, soldiers developed throughout the course of the war. The start of the war had been well received by the majority of the European population for it represented imperialism and superiority.

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This view is reflected by British Subaltern Grenfell who wrote: “I adore war. It is like a picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy”. However by the end of 1914, when it was obvious that this war would not be a short decisive victory, the attitudes of soldiers towards the enemy and the war in general diminished, as the war was now seen as senseless slaughter. Grenfell’s comment can be contrasted to soldier Arthur Savage who spoke of his memories “… of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous”. Thus it can be seen that the unprecedented experiences of soldiers led to the pessimistic attitude of the soldiers.

Attitudes towards the enemy also changed throughout the course of the war. In the beginning, nai?? ve soldiers who had joined the battle with their friends, such as in the case of the BEF Pal’s Battalions, entered the war with little expectation of what they were to face. Upon experiencing the initial shock and horror of the war, many Allied soldiers developed a compassionate attitude towards the Germans and vice versa. The most obvious example of this emotional identification was the Christmas Truce of 1914 where a number of brief truces were established between the Allied and German troops of Christmas day.

On this day the guns were inactive and there were numerous cases of soldiers leaving their trenches to talk and exchange presents in no-man’s-land. Sir John French, Commander of the BEG, issued an order at once ‘to prevent any recurrence of such conduct’, which was granted as attitudes changed greatly upon experiencing the prolonged horror of the war. Naturally, the ‘war-wearied’ soldiers came to see the enemy as the cause of all their misfortunes, and hence sought every opportunity to repay them. As Denis Winter wrote, ‘the official army attitude to the Germans was clear-cut.

Men were to be always hostile and kill when they could’. During the course of the war, weapons changed significantly to cater for the movement away from the offensive strategy to that of the offensive strategy. This led to changing experiences of the war for soldiers, as the horror of trench warfare was further instilled by the brutality that these weapons could provide. At the outbreak of war, the Commanders had relied largely on rifles with bayonets, which historian Dennis Winter describes as ‘an anachronism’, and to a lesser extent machine guns.

By the end of the war both sides had come to realise the ineffectiveness of bayonets and had acknowledged several other weapons as far more useful, including heavy artillery, such as the German ‘Big Berthas’, Zeppelins, planes, tanks and gas. The latter two were especially potent as the tank allowed for a powerful offensive action to break trench deadlock, while gas generated fear and panic and disorientated the enemy. The effectiveness of gas was obvious- sixty-four types of gas were used throughout the war. These weapons affected the experiences of soldiers greatly in providing one of severe mutations and horrors of the front.

The development of new tactics greatly changed the experience for soldiers on the front as the offensive strategy changed to defensive, making the co-ordination and accuracy of the strategies imperative to prevent the enemy from gaining an advantage. As new weapons were deployed, tactics were reconsidered as it was acknowledged that each side would need to do more than attack, retreat and defend. The reliance on the common Three line trench system changed after 1914, as the Germans developed ‘defence in depth’ tactics among many other strategies including the creeping barrage, the Bruchmuller tactic, box barrage and infiltration tactics.

These aimed at reducing the lives of as many enemy soldiers as possible, and most were extremely effective. This changed the experiences of soldiers as carefully planned tactics further instilled the reality of war. Perhaps the most successful of the tactics that was developed in the ‘Artillery War’ was the allied coordinated assaults which involved a surprise attach with no preliminary bombardment with four waves of infantry moving in a creeping barrage. This tactic, which was observed at its greatest in the Battle of Hamel, 1918, decreased offensive deaths resulting in significantly less sacrifices, thus increasing soldier morals.

The increase in usage of snipers throughout the war provided a haunting experience for soldiers where they were constantly on-edge at the prospect of being shot at any time while in the front line. Over time snipers picked away at platoons. Priestley, head of B Company in Sourchez in 1917, saw his 270 men go down to 70 during a period of holding the line and without any battle activity. A couple were lost to shells, a couple to machine guns but as he wrote, ‘the real killer was the sniper’. This tension decreased morale greatly as well as adding to the animosity felt towards the enemy.

The replacement of Commanders on the Western Front played a key role in the changing experiences of both German and Allied troops, as soldiers were faced with ameliorated commanders, or worse commanders that exacerbated the dreadful experience of the war. The most obvious change to experiences derived from changing commanders was due to the shift from defensive to offensive strategies. In the beginning of the war, all leading Commanders, that is Britain’s J. French, France’s J. Joffre and Germany’s H. Moltke, believed in the strength of the offensive strategy.

With French and Moltke replaced within the first year of battle, new Commanders emerged eager to advance their army: D. Haig for Britain and E. Falkenhayn for Germany. Although they managed to coordinate the army a lot more effectively by acknowledging the importance of the defensive strategy, their failure to achieve a breakthrough on the stalemate led to criticism and eventual replacement for Falkenhayn. Haig’s orthodox views in the way of reliance of cavalry over artillery resulted in negative experiences for the British soldiers.

General Haig has been both fiercely defended and harshly criticised, with historian John Keegan describing him as “profoundly unattractive… cursed with emotional deficiency”. The constant changes of the various factors led to fluctuating experiences for soldiers on the Western Front, however the regularity of other factors brought with it long-standing memories of experiences that the soldiers would remember for the rest of their lives. The repetition of trench life was by far the most formidable experience for the soldiers. As Dennis Winter wrote in Death’s Men, ‘The trench timetable was fixed’.

In explaining the daily routine for the men at the trench, Winter paints the picture of the menacing experience that men witnessed for the four years of Stalemate on the Western Front. ‘War’, he writes, ‘reversed the normal time sequence… night was silence and isolation and fear’. Although a soldier’s tour of duty varied with eight days in the front line and support trenches, six to eight days as a reserve billet and 14 days at a rest camp, the recurrence of this led to lack of enthusiasm and interest in the fight for victory.

Macmillan, a British soldier on the Western Front, found that trench life was a greater strain than battle, for it was ‘strain unrelieved by excitement’. Hence it can be seen that the repetition of trench life was an unchanging experience for the majority of soldiers during the First World War. The monotony of food was a factor that limited vivacity and prevented soldiers performing to their full capability. Surviving primarily on a tin of bully beef and three packets of biscuits or bread a day, a soldier could not acquire the nutrients necessary for battle.

Fresh bread was anything baked within eight days while army biscuits were so hard that they had to be smashed apart before being soaked and boiled. The main lunchtime meal for most British soldiers was ‘Maconachies’s’, a watery stew of turnip, carrot and small gobbets of fatty meat. To repeatedly eat any type of food is monotonous, but to continuously eat such a meat and vegetable supplement would have not only been tough on the soldiers emotionally, but would have physically affected them in depriving them of essential sustenance.

The on-going casualty lists proved to affect morale of troops as they were faced with the ever-increasing number of dead comrades. The reality of death brought with it declining morale and loss of hope for victory as many men witnessed the deaths of their comrades and friends. This was especially the case with the British Pals’ Battalions which were made up of groups of friends from the same district, workplace, street or group such as a rugby team.

To lose one friend is enough for one man in his whole life, but to lose the friendship of hundreds of men who grew to rely on each other and support each other through the war was a terrible experience that only too many soldiers were to endure. This resulted in not only declining morale but also several emotional problems, such as shell shock and depression. The failure of each side to breakthrough the stalemate led to greatly reduced spirit and confidence in the armies.

Besides lack of enthusiasm, mutinies occurred as men refused to fight for what they saw as useless slaughter. This was undoubtedly the case for the French army during the Spring 1917 offensive, where troops, under the leadership of General Robert Nivelle, broke out in revolt. The replacement of Nivelle by Petain in May put a halt to these mutinies and increased morale somewhat, yet the threat of rebellion still remained among the troops. The ongoing casualty list mixed with the dreariness of war and lack of movement led to very poor attitude among soldiers.

This also led to increased injuries and sicknesses as men stopped attending to their own well-being, such as preventing trench foot from developing. The horror of the war is embodied in Winter’s description, ‘the cumulative weight of cold and wet, vermin and poor diet, meant a big sickness list’. The repetition of these factors drained the life out of soldiers like a leech. The enthusiasm of soldiers having been extracted by the power of death and the concept that this war, which was expected to have been over within months of outbreak, would be an ongoing saga in which millions were to suffer from.

The prediction that this war would be short and victorious is such an obvious disparity as seen by the various changes that took place over the lingering years on the Western Front, as well as the repetition of daily life. The experiences of all soldiers on the Front changed greatly during the course of the war, as seen by changes in attitudes, weapons, tactics and commanders, as well as repetition of routine, food, casualties and the concept of failure.

These changes and constants shaped the experience of war for the soldiers: one of horror and despair, as described by British soldier Arthur Savage. He provides the all-too-familiar image of the Great War with his memories “of sheer terror… of trench foot that had turned gangrenous… of filth and lack of privacy… of huge rats and cold deep wet mud everywhere. And of course, corpses… and there he’d stay for days”.