“All blood runs red.”- Phrase painted on the side of a plane flown in World War I by Eugene Bullard.
To us, all war is pointless. It is a social construct that uses people’s lives a cannon fodder in a political game between rivalling countries. The First World War was no exception. It was horrific, disgusting, torturous, and many other synonym for bad. However, war is also one of the great unifiers. There is no concept of class on the front line and between the First and Second World Wars, the concept of different “classes” or “breeding” almost completely deteriorated. World War I also greatly helped the Women’s Movement. Whilst these outcomes do not justify having a war, they do show that some small good things can come out of on large bad thing.
The politics of 19th century Europe was quite disorganized. Europe was made up of various empires which colonized other countries around the world. It was basically a mass of empires trying to prove that they were the strongest. So everyone built huge armies with many weapons to fend off any countries who wanted to starts wars with them.
The catalyst on World War I was on 28 June, 1914; when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed by a group of six Serbian nationalists, whilst attending a military review in Sarajevo; Bosnia. Within a month and a half, five of Europe’s leading powers were at war. Everything changed though, when a group of six assassins killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria Hungary. This then lead to Austria Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Russia then allied with Serbia causing Germany to declare war on Russia. Germany, knowing that France would start a war with them, decided to attack France via Belgium and Luxemburg, who were neutrally allied. This then caused the British to step in.
So in essence, World War I was a mass of allegiances and ancient rivalries. WWI was also the dawn of modern warfare. This is because it was the first war in which machine guns, tanks, airplanes and chemical gas weapons were used. World War I, despite being called ‘The War To End All Wars’, was not the most destructive war, however it changed the face of warfare.
Young men were greatly pressured into signing up for the war, as Sources A, B and C show. Propaganda poster like these would be plastered all over everywhere, the most popular of which are probably the posters of “Uncle Sam” and Lord Kitchener. Most of the propaganda, especially Source B about the “Irish Hero” consisted of some sort of complement given to the reader. This gave the reader some sense of belonging or purposes making them want to join the army even more. The posters told people that they were “defending justice” and fighting for their families, king and country. It was considered their duty, and many men felt that the war would be over in time for Christmas of 1914. They felt that the war would bring them honour and glory, so much so that young men-even boys as young as twelve- would lie about their age in order to get conscripted. What they found however, was scarring, disturbing and they soon realised that there is no glory in war.
Most of the battles in the later stages of WWI were fought in trenches. Trenches are long networks of passages in the ground but not underground. One soldier described them like this:” Great Britain and France on the one side, Germany on the other, with no man’s land between.” There is quite a lot of metaphorical resonance in “Living men digging holes where they would in time die.” Soldiers dug all the trenches. We personally think that it must have been awful to dig the trenches. Not because of the manual labour (even though that in itself must have been taxing), but because of the thought that this could be the last thing you will ever do. We think that thought in it is enough to kill anybody.
The conditions in the trenches were awful. Trench warfare was awful for two reasons:
1) They were either very hot and humid or extremely wet and muddy.
2) They stank.
In France and Belgium, soldiers in the trenches lost their feet due to rotting from the wet mud they constantly stood in. On the other hand, soldiers from the Ottoman Empire, India and Arabia fighting in Gallipoli suffered from dehydration. The trenches smelled bad due to decomposing flesh. Another reason the conditions in the trenches were so awful was the confided, cramped spaces. There is evidence for this in Source D and E.
Lice were constant problem; lice of the head and body plagued 97
% of the soldiers. Lice were also abbreviated to chats, and when the soldiers had a free moment, they would sit down, talk and remove the lice from their clothing, i. e “to chat.” Lice also contributed to the spread of Trench Fever.
Bodies and body parts would be buried, but sometimes if the side was fighting, they couldn’t bury the bodies immediately. Carts of bodies and body parts would be in the trenches. Aside from being unhygienic and possibly spreading diseases if they attracted flies, one cannot imagine the emotional toll of having to fight with the dead bodies and broken faces, the limbs torn away from the men that carried them, and the blood of your fallen comrades lying right next to you. Source F illustrates this, as it shows one of these carts.
Source G Shows the mentality that soldiers were thought of as disposable. The average life expectancy of a junior officer on the front line was six weeks. Men were not seen as individuals, but as automated robots, programmed to shoot the enemy, and the loss of their lives was considered collateral damage. Many officers lost all hope of ever leaving the trenches and ended their own lives, or tried to be killed. Source H talks about “the hell where youth and laughter go”, referring to how the young soldiers would lose all their childhood innocence in the trenches. Source H also shows a soldier, devoid of all hope, a mentality that was fairly common.
Hospitals were to be feared, as men would be operated on sans anaesthetic, and their screams would fill the wards. Source I shows a young man brought dying to a hospital, when the doctor really could do nothing for him. This would often happen, and the hospital would just be a place for the wounded soldier to die with a shred of dignity.
However, the hospitals also generated a lot of opportunities for women. The timing of the First World War coincided with the timing of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Many women volunteered to be nurses on the front line, and performed tasks that required a great deal of courage, such a nursing in the hospitals, bring mutilated bodies out on No-Man’s Land and so on. Source J give a few example of these women. This made many men begin to realise that women were just as capable as men, and perhaps deserved a little more equality. Of course, it was still a long way to go, but the events of World War I set the ball into motion.
War is one of the great unifiers. There was no concept of class in the trenches. A noble-bred young man would fight alongside a working class young man, and thus the class lines blurred. This also made people think a bit about the social construct of classes. As previously mentioned, between World War I and II, the concept of classes was almost completely abolished.
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas of 1914, many unofficial ceasefires were declared. Men would sing carols in the trenches, German and British soldiers would exchange season’s greeting, and some would even walk across No-Man’s Land to chat with the enemy, and exchange food and souvenirs. On Christmas Day, the opposing sides played a game of football. However, later on in the war, as the uses of gases became more common and the battles became bloodier, the soldiers began to view the opposite sides as less than human, as simply a nameless force of “bad”; as the enemy. No more Christmas truces were sought.
One of the reasons WWI is seen as the ‘war to change all wars’ also why it was so incredibly destructive was the combination of new technology and outdated tactics. World War I was the first time things like airplanes, tanks, chemical gas and machine guns were used in warfare. There is a colonial verse that says: “Whatever happens/ we have got/ the Maxim gun/ and they have not.” This was no longer the case. Two of the most destructive innovations at the time were machine guns and barbed wire. One army would climb out of there trenches and run through no man’s land. They would then get caught in the wire. This gave the opponent chance to mow them down with the ‘maxim gun’.
Bombs and mustard gas were commonly used. Robert Graves; an English soldier said that a particularly nasty German explosive was the “German Canister”, a two gallon drum with two pounds of an explosive called ammonal inside, an explosive that “looked like salmon paste, smelled like marzipan and, when it went off, sounded like the Day of Judgement.” (Quotation from “Goodbye to all That” by Robert Graves.)
Chemical weapons were used mainly to demoralize, injure and kill soldiers in trenches. This was where the slow moving nature of the gas clouds was most effective. There were three main gasses used: Tear gas, Chlorine and Mustard gas. Tear gas was an irritant. Chlorine is also a powerful irritant that damages eyes, noses, lungs and throats. But by far the most efficient, dangerous gas was Mustard gas, which caused large blisters to form in your lungs, nose and throat, effectively sealing your airways. It made your skin blister, and could even lead to blindness. It also contributed to the risk of cancer. It could alter your DNA, causing decrease in the formation of red or white blood cells.
One nurse, Vera Brittain, wrote: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” Source K is a Canadian solider who was being treated after being gassed. You can clearly see the blisters, burns and overall discomfort that Vera Brittain was talking about.
Combining all these factors meant that World War I was the dawn of modern warfare.
The soldiers who were lucky enough to make it back, very often had Shellshock, which is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some symptoms included tinnitus, amnesia, tremors and a hypersensitivity to noise. Shellshock victims were looked down upon. If your Shellshock occurred after an enemy shell has rained down upon you, then you would be given a “wound stripe’ to wear on your arm, and would be considered wounded. If your breakdown was not preceded by an enemy attack, then you would be given an‘s ’ for sickness and were no longer entitled to a pension.
Sometimes, Shellshock victims would be tried and even executed for military crimes such as desertion and cowardice. It was considered a lack of moral fibre and Lord Gort once remarked that no “good” units had shellshock, as it was weak. Even after the soldier had returned to normal life, a small thing that reminded him of the war could trigger his Shellshock.
The war ended on 11 November, 1918. Countries were left dilapidated, and the men and women on the front line returned home, broken, haunted, and shadows of their former selves. Did the end to this war really justify the means?
Source A- Uncle Sam, which was first created for the War of 1812. A very popular propaganda poster in America.
Source B- Figure 2: Other examples of propaganda
Source C- “Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You! Join Your Countries Army! God save the King!” This was propaganda poster commissioned by Lord Kitchener; the British Secretary State for War, in 1914. It was created to persuade young men to join the army, and is arguably one of the most famous propaganda posters of the time. This poster is relevant because it shows the propaganda that was used to influence people into fighting for their countries.
Sources D and E- Photographs of soldiers in trenches
Source F- “For What?” by Frederick Varley, 1917. Varley was a Canadian painter, and fought in the First World War. He was an official war painter, and part of the Group of Seven; a group of Canadian landscape artists. Whilst he imagined going to war would be glorious, what he saw deeply disturbed him and he used his paintings as an outlet. This picture is painted of a cart filled with “khaki arms and legs…bits of people” by the trenches. It had obviously contained the bodies or body parts of dead soldiers. This picture is relevant because the mud and the bodies and body parts lying around depict how the conditions were in the trenches.
Source G- Whilst we could not find when, where and why this photograph was taken, we still feel that this is powerful and relevant. It depicts a dead U.S soldier, tangled in the barbed wired separating two rival European sides. It was probably taken by a war photographer for some publication and it was taken during the war. It shows how soldiers were not seen as individuals with their own hope, dreams and suchlike, but rather as cannon fodder, as disposable. It further illustrates the futility of war, as no man benefits from it, and it only serves as a power play between rivalling countries.
Suicide in the Trenches:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Source H- “Suicide in the Trenches”, by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917. See Source E for information about Sassoon. This poem shows the utter desperation and depression most soldiers were faced with. After seeing one too many horrors, many soldier would either try to get shot or take their own lives.
In an Underground Dressing-Station:
Quietly they set their burden down: he tried
To grin; moaned; moved his head from side to side.
He gripped the stretcher; stiffened; glared; and screamed,
‘O put my leg down, doctor, do!’ (He’d got
A bullet in his ankle; and he’d been shot
Horribly through the guts.) The surgeon seemed
So kind and gentle, saying, above that crying,
keep still, my lad.’ But he was dying.
Source I- “In an Underground Dressing-Station”, by Siegfried Sassoon, 2 June 1917. Sassoon was an English poet who was decorated for his bravery on the Western Front. This poem describes what would happen when a soldier was badly injured and was taken to a dressing-station (which refers to a makeshift hospital.) It is relevant because it shows the horrors wounded soldiers would have to face in the hospitals. The soldiers would have limbs amputated without anaesthetic, and this made them terrified of having anything amputated, as the pain was excruciated. Often the whole hospital would be filled with the amputee’s screams.
Sharing a love of motorbike, two nurses who set up their own illegal dressing station: Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker
Determined: Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker set up their own illegal dressing station after discouraged by the number of men they were losing in the Flying Ambulance Corps in Belgium
Mairi Chisholm was a Scottish motorbike fanatic whose penchant for hairpin turns won her an invitation to join the Flying Ambulance Corps in Belgium.
She and her biker-friend Elsie Knocker joined forces and were soon doing vital wartime work, ferrying wounded soldiers to a field hospital in Furnes.
Mairi was also tasked with taking mutilated corpses to the mortuary.
Yet, discouraged by the number of men they were losing, Mairi and Elsie decided to leave the Corps.
They found an abandoned cellar in Pervyse and set up their own illegal dressing station, just 100 yards from the trenches.
With no affiliation to the Belgian Red Cross, they had to find their own supplies and support.
Fortunately, Mairi and Elsie managed to be seconded to the Belgian troops stationed nearby.
Together, they saved the lives of thousands of men on the Belgian Western Front – men who would have no doubt died on their way to the Corps hospital. Mairi was awarded the Belgian Order.
Death by firing squad for helping wounded allied soldiers: Edith Cavell
Killed: Edith Cavell was shot by an execution squad for helping soldiers
Edith Cavell was a British nurse famous for treating countless soldiers, no matter their nationality, and helping as many as 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War One.
When Brussels fell to the Germans in November 1914, Cavell walked away from her British Secret Intelligence Service recruitment to hide wounded Allied soldiers and sneak them out of the country to safety.
The soldiers were given fake identification and hidden until they could make it to the Dutch frontier.
In August 1915, Edith was betrayed by German collaborator Gaston Quien.
German soldiers arrested Edith for treason and subjected her to a court-martial.
Cavell admitted that she had personally harbored about 175 men in her home and helped them to escape.
Her actions went directly against German military law.
Despite international pressure for mercy, she was sentenced to death and executed by a 16-man German firing squad on October 12, 1915.
Edith Cavell’s remains were brought back to Britain after the war, and she had a memorial service in Westminster Abbey on 15 May 1919.
First woman to be awarded the rank of major in the U.S. army: Julia C. Stimson
Two wars seen: Julia C. Stimson was continued to work as a nurse after the war and was a key recruiter of female nurses for World War Two
Julia C. Stimson has been described as energetic, charismatic, courageous, and determined; and she needed to be to make a difference during the Great War.
Her passion and devotion to excellence were evident at an early age, as she was one of the few young women of her day to get an undergraduate degree.
Julia earned a place at Vassar College at the incredibly young age of 16.
Her career path eventually led her to the Army Nurse Corps, and in May 1917 she went to France with Base Hospital 21.
By 1918, she’d been made chief nurse of the American Red Cross in France.
From there, she was pulled back from the front-line to fill a vital administrative role in Paris, orchestrating the nursing service of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Through her efforts, thousands of wounded soldiers received good medical care.
And as a result, she was awarded the United States Distinguished Service Medal at the end of the war.
She continued to work as a nurse after the war and was a key recruiter of female nurses for WWII.
She was also the first woman to be awarded the rank of major in the U.S. army.
Source J- Excerpts from a Daily Mail Newspaper article entitled “Greatest Nurses of the First World War: Inspirational women who overcame fear and prejudice to save thousands of lives.” This article was written by Jill Reilly, and was published on 11 January, 2013. It was written about some women who went to go help the on the front lines, and did exceptional work. This is relevant because it shows that the war gave women a lot more opportunities to do things that had previously been reserved for men. They were beginning to be seen more as equals, just as capable of putting their lives at risk to serve a common purpose as men.
Source K- A Canadian soldier with mustard gas burns.
Source L- A solider wearing as gas mask. Gas masks were used to try and lessen the effects of the gasses.
Source M- Painting of a man dying from gas poisoning.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
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.
Source N- Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen, 1917. It is written about a gas attack.
Note: Whilst Sources L-N are not explicitly referenced in our essay, we did use them quite a lot for background information, and for further understanding, and felt it would be a shame not to include them.
For additional reading: Private George Kellet wrote a diary during his time in the trenches, which has been found and turned into a Twitter account. We feel that this would be an interesting account to follow, or even just to read through, as it gives a firsthand experience of the war. Here is the link: https://twitter.com/WW1_Diary/status/410086801596899328