World War One is also referred to as the Great War of Europe. The Great War saw an immense polarization of ideas and ideologies in Europe. The Central Powers consisting of Germany the Austria-Hungary empire, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire were on one side against the Allied Powers consisting of the British Empire, France, Russia and later on Italy and the United States of America. The introduction of biological and chemical weapons in the first World War changed the face of warfare in Europe. It introduced a weapon so powerful in the hands of conventional armies that it brought a revolution of unprecedented proportions.
Most importantly, it gave the powerful forces of Europe a weapon, which did not recognize the difference between one’s allies and one’s enemies. With the introduction of revolutionary weapons which included poison gas, hand grenades, flame throwers, tanks, submarines, amongst many, the soldiers had to face challenges which they had never encountered previously. The location of the combat was divided between the Western Front (Western Europe), where most of the fighting took place and the Eastern Front (Eastern Europe). The soldiers on the Western Front conducted themselves in trenches.
The trenches stretched from the North Sea to the borders of Switzerland. The enemies faced off each other in their trenches and the land between the enemy trenches was called ‘no mans’ land. It was called ‘no mans’ land as the land was under dispute and neither side was too keen on trying to occupy it for fear of being killed. The soldiers had approximately dug out 6250 miles of trench in France. The trenches in the front line were around 6 to 8 feet deep and the distance between them varied from 50 yards to a mile. These trenches were fortified by trenches used for communication and support trenches for the front line.
All the trenches were protected by sandbags and rows of barbed wire which was a huge obstruction to massed infantry advances. Although the trenches were useful in protecting soldiers from pistol or rifle fire they did not provide adequate protection from artillery attacks (Merriman, 1996). The trenches differed in quality. The German trenches were usually far better constructed than the British trenches and when the British captured sections of the German trenches they were amazed at how luxurious the trenches were as compared to their own (Ferguson, 1998).
Life in the trenches was no bed of roses. The following is an extract from the diary of Lieutenant Philip Brown who was a subaltern from the Durham Light Infantry. “I wonder if I can give you an idea of what life is like. We have our turns of duty and off duty. If I am off in the middle of the night my day begins with ‘stand to’ at dawn. Everything is grey and damp in the autumn mist. A few stray shots but little more. I tramp down each narrow lane between the high banks of sandbags and past my men in a little row of three or four in each bay standing with bayonets fixed and generally yawning.
The order ‘stand down’ comes the day sentry sits down and looks into his periscope, and the others stretch themselves, and move off to get rations, to light fires, to clean rifles. Soon there is smell of frying bacon and I go round to examine rifles before breakfast. After breakfast some men are sent to clean the wooden boards in the footway, others are working at a digout, others sleep (they get most of their sleep in the day)… ” (www. bbc. co. uk). The soldiers lived amongst trench rats, lice and stagnant water which were ideal breeding ground for disease.
The Great War soldier was in a more difficult situation than his predecessors in the sense that he had to overcome more than just his competitor on the other side. Disease was rampant in the trenches in which they were stationed and was causing havoc. Disease carrying rats were scorning those trenches and it is widely believed that the flu epidemic of 1919 which killed more people than bullets and shell fragments in the war was a result of the bubonic plague that these rats tagged with them. In addition, many soldiers were left with aches and rashes on their legs due to a disease called trench-foot.
Trench-Foot was caused by standing stationary in puddle trenches for long hours. Usually, if not treated quickly, it led to amputation and finally to the loss of the soldier. During the Great War, more than twenty thousand British troops were treated for the disease. Lice were also a major thorn in the side of the soldiers. They got into their uniforms and could not be moved. It was considered a great skill to burn the lice without burning the uniform. Even this way of avoiding the lice could backfire as the lice eggs would hatch when they were warm.
Lice also carried a disease popularly known as ‘trench fever’ which would cause shooting pains in the shins followed by high fever. This disease was not life threatening though it did prevent soldiers from fighting. The soldiers went through extreme psychological trauma due to the conditions in the Great War. The world was going through a period of upheaval and the soldiers were like mere pawns on a chess board. There was bloodshed everywhere. In the initial stages of the war 329,000 French soldiers were killed in a period spanning two months and half a million soldiers died by the end of the violent year.
In March – April 1918, 68,397 German soldiers died. In July – August 1914, 45,063 BEF soldiers died. The experience of a soldier during those times can be summed up by a statement made by a French soldier: ‘ All day long they lie there, being decimated, getting themselves killed next to the bodies of those killer earlier. ‘ Then the soldiers had to evade the shelling which for many was the worst aspect of the war as it quite badly mentally scarred the soldiers. The feeling of being helpless and vulnerable caused a lot of mental anguish to soldiers.
A journalist in the French newspaper Le Saucisse described it thus: ‘There’s nothing more horrible in war than being shelled. It’s a form of torture that the soldier can’t see the end of. Suddenly he’s afraid of being buried alive. He conjures up the atrocious agony. The man stays put in his hole, helplessly waiting for, hoping for, a miracle. ‘ Soldiers had been dumped in drum-fire and annihilated and were stacked up one on top of each other (Ferguson, 1998). As a result of all the brutal violence many soldiers suffered from ‘shell shock’. Shell shock is a mental condition caused by acute combat stress.
It was not recognized as a medical condition before World War One. Shell shock symptoms included concussion, emotional shock, and nervous exhaustion. A lot of soldiers did not recover from shell shock and lived the rest of their lives in depression suffering from horrible nightmares. A psychological study investigating 758 cases estimated that 39 per cent of the soldiers got on with their lives without much emotional trauma though even they did not completely recover, 65,000 ex British soldiers, 6 percent of the total after the war lived on disability pensions because of suffering from ‘neurasthenia’ (Ferguson, 1998).
The surroundings of the soldiers were extremely depressing, with dead bodies everywhere. A French soldier recalled, “We all had on us the stench of dead bodies. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank, everything we touched had a rotten smell. ” A soldier on average got just two hours of sleep a night. German soldiers were not adequately clad for the winters. The German army were so certain of victory that they did not provide their men with warm coats and lace up boots as a result of which they suffered in the cold (Merriman, 1996).
The Great War saw the advent of gases being used as a major military weapon. Though only 3 percent of deaths in the Great War were caused by gas attacks they had a major effect in limiting the ability of soldiers and it disabled a lot of soldiers. Gas was one of the soldier’s biggest fears it was something new and could cause a slow and painful death. With the extensive use of chemical warfare in the First World War, the War also came to be known as “the chemists’ war”. The gases used were chlorine, diphosgene, phosgene, tear gas and mustard gas. Germany was the first country which used gas as a weapon in the war.
The first killing gas they used was chlorine which they got from a German company which was producing chlorine as a by-product in their dye manufacturing. Chlorine was not a very potent gas as it could be detected quite easily and its impact could be reduced quite easily as it is water soluble. Phosgene was more lethal than chlorine. It was not easy to detect and if mixed with chlorine it made an even more dangerous gas as chlorine helped spread the denser phosgene. The most effective gas in the First World War was mustard gas, which disabled in the enemy.
It burned and blistered the skin, caused temporary blindness and if inhaled flooded the lungs and led to death from pneumonia (www. wikipedia. org) The gas which led to the most deaths was mustard gas. Death by gas was extremely painful and horrendous. A report from a British nurse treating soldiers recorded the following: “They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.
A post mortem report of one of the first soldiers who died from mustard gas recorded: “Case four. Aged 39 years. Gassed 29 July 1917. Admitted to casualty clearing station the same day. Died about ten days later. Brownish pigmentation present over large surfaces of the body. A white ring of skin where the wrist watch was. Marked superficial burning of the face and scrotum. The larynx much congested. The whole of the trachea was covered by a yellow membrane. The bronchi contained abundant gas. The lungs fairly voluminous. The right lung showing extensive collapse at the base. Liver congested and fatty.
Stomach showed numerous submucous haemorrhages. The brain substance was unduly wet and very congested” (wikipedia. org). If this was not enough, soldiers had to encounter attacks from airplanes for the first time in the history of warfare. In October 1914 a British plane took off from Antwerp and dropped two twenty pound bombs on a hangar in Di?? sseldorf. In order to let their positions be known in case of a crash landing, soldiers carried pigeon cages with them and wrote notes to send via the bird (Merriman, 1996) So its small wonder that the soldiers were looking for the smallest opportunity to get back home to their loved ones.
For the common soldier, the mere thought of being wounded was a blessing in disguise. The idea of a lack of responsibility and of being cared for after the horrors of the war, was often a great relief. As Major Ronald Schereder recounts, “I saw a fellow get a lovely wound in the head with a bit of shrapnel. He was so pleased, he made me laugh. ” The soldier was engulfed in a world of extreme paranoia, one like never seen before which made him even more paranoid. Soldiers would often fire flares out into the darkness and receive all kinds of information, much of it highly imaginative.
The World War One Soldier experienced a war which has shaped us today. The innovation in warfare, weaponry, strategy in the Great War was the beginning of the technological revolution. The spirit, bravery and dedication of a World War One soldier should be saluted for he encountered situations which were extremely dangerous in that time. The common soldier stood his ground, visible to his pretentious opposition as a symbol of defiance and dedication. The common soldier was a free spirit, waiting for the chance to rest in peace for eternity, with a service for his country to show as his contribution to society.