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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: Soldier' Experiences

By Frederic Krome

Soldier' Experiences

In the 1980s and 1990s, a spate of publications focused on the experiences of the so-called “Greatest Generation” that fought in World War II.  As scholarly attention on World War I has expanded, it is not surprising that a similar interest in the experiences of the common soldier in that war has grown.  Helen B. McCartney’s case study Citizen Soldiers: The Liverpool Territorials in the First World War uses material gleaned from personal letters, diaries, and newspapers to describe the experience of the two primary battalions—the Liverpool Scots and the Liverpool Rifles—from enlistment to training.  McCartney also examines their combat experience as well as issues of military discipline, community ties, the relationship between men and their officers, and how the men endured the experience of trench warfare.

Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918, uses the sources of historians and the methodological tools of social scientists to explain why so many men willingly went to war and how they endured it for so long.  His examination of soldiers’ coping mechanisms, as well as the role of junior officers in maintaining unit cohesion and discipline, are among the most fascinating parts of the book.  The comparison of the effects of the 1918 German offensive, in which British morale buckled but did not shatter, and German morale collapsed, provides new insights into the last days of the war.

Historians are fortunate that in the last decade, more and more primary source materials that focus on soldiers’ experiences are becoming accessible.  Joshua Brown has edited A Good Idea of Hell: Letters from a Chasseur à Pied, a collection of letters by a French infantryman who served on the Alsatian front until he was killed in action during the Somme in 1916.  Written during the war itself, as opposed to postwar memoirs, the letters provide a sense of the intensity of the battles and the fear felt by their author.

A similar collection of letters (although in this case, the author survived the war) is found in George Browne, An American Soldier in World War I, edited by David L. Snead.  Browne served in an engineering regiment, and his letters remark on everything from the nature of censorship to the experience of being under fire.  George B. Clark, Devil Dogs Chronicle: Voices of the 4th Marine Brigade in World War I, offers a collection of letters and diary entries from U.S. Marines who served with the AEF in some of the pivotal battles of the last months of the war.

For the first time in modern history, the Jews of Europe fought as soldiers in the armies of almost all the belligerents.  One of the most controversial questions in Britain was whether they should fight in integrated units or in segregated Jewish units.  Martin Watts in The Jewish Legion and the First World War examines the story of the British army’s Jewish Legion, which fought in the Palestine Campaign, and the domestic politics behind recruitment in Britain and the United States and among Palestinian Jews, and explains the historical impact.  Tim Grady’s The German Jewish Soldiers of the First World War in History and Memory focuses on the motivation behind military service among the Central Powers (largely patriotism, but also an assertion of citizenship rights), then recounts how the veterans remembered the conflict and how this shaped their response to political events.

A global war did not just witness fighting throughout the world; it meant that people from all over the world found themselves in the fight, often far from home.  For example, over a half million African and Asian soldiers served in the French army during the war.  Richard S. Fogarty, Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918, examines the intersection of military policy, French racial thought, and the impact of the deployment of these imperial troops.  Timothy C. Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, examines the legal and political framework that required or enabled indigenous populations to serve in the British army.

A fertile ground for study is the experience of prisoners of war and internees; the first were captured soldiers, while the latter were civilians who found themselves on the wrong side of the geographic divide.  Heather Jones’s Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War: Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1920 is an example of the virtues of comparative history.  She demonstrates that the actual experience of POWs was influenced by both structural issues and wartime propaganda.  Whereas Allied military officials had to answer to civilian authorities and had access to greater food supplies (which meant better treatment for German POWs), the German military had no such moderating oversight.  Another type of comparative history is Panikos Panayi’s Prisoners of Britain: German Civilian and Combat Internees during the First World War, which recounts the experiences of captured soldiers, German citizens resident in Britain who for various reasons were interned, and German civilians captured somewhere in the British Empire and transported to Britain for confinement.  Although all of these internees were German citizens (and almost exclusively male), they nonetheless represented a variety of socioeconomic and political backgrounds, resulting in many different coping mechanisms to long-term confinement.

A focus on the experiences of the common soldier leads logically to an examination of the medical history of the war.  To date, most of the English-language sources on this subject focus on the western front, specifically, the British and Commonwealth armies.  In the last few years, more expansive studies, in terms of comparative history and in putting the medical experience into a global perspective, have also started to appear.  While Mark Harrison, in The Medical War: British Military Medicine in the First World War, focuses on the British army, he does so in its global perspective, with chapters on the western front, Gallipoli, and Mesopotamia.  In addition to his analysis of combat casualties, Harrison considers the toll that diseases and sanitation took on soldiers’ lives.  Emily Mayhew, in Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I, focuses on the western front and tells the story of the major battles from the perspective of those who were casualties, taking them from frontline aid stations back through the system of field hospitals and on to specialized care in Britain.  In many ways, Mayhew argues, the effective medical system of twenty-first-century armies is a direct descendent of that war.

For years, the subject of “shell-shock” and its legacy dominated the historiography, and as with many other topics, it might seem as if there is nothing new to say.  Peter Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, examines the case files of thousands of British servicemen who were diagnosed with mental illness brought on, according to military doctors, by such noncombat-related causes as hereditary “imbecility.”  While these men were being shunted off to insane asylums as incurables, many officers with similar symptoms were diagnosed with “neurasthenia,” which was assumed to be treatable.

One aspect of the war that has not yet received detailed treatment is the religious dimension.  A very good start, from the American perspective, is Jonathan Ebel’s Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War.  Ebel argues that rather than being disillusioned by the hell of the trenches, many American soldiers came back from their war with a religious fervor that saw meaning in their suffering.  This religious zeal also shaped postwar veterans, such as those in the American Legion, which played a major role in how veterans remembered the war.

Works Cited