Confronting the Horrors of War
Confronting the Horrors of War
Excerpts from 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War
Edited by Lyn Macdonald
Published in 1988
Excerpt from Good-bye to All That
By Robert Graves
Published in 1957
Excerpt from Sagittarius Rising
By Cecil Lewis
Published in 1936
Excerpt from The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front
By Ernst Jünger
Published in 1929
"When nothing happened I opened my eyes and saw, to my immense relief, a large shell half buried in the earth only one and a half metres away from me. It was a dud. Thus we waited in our holes for ten hours—the most fearful ten hours I had ever experienced in my life."
Sergeant Gottfried Kreibohm
By the end of 1914 it was clear that World War I was unlike any war that had come before it. The powerful artillery and machine-gun fire proved more devastating than anyone had imagined possible. French, German, and English forces suffered terribly—90 percent of the British Expeditionary Force were casualties (seriously wounded or killed) in 1914.
The early battles resulted in a stalemate. Opposing forces dug deep trenches into the earth; from the trenches soldiers could safely lob explosives at their enemies. The majority of the war was fought from parallel lines of trenches stretching 475 miles between the Belgian coast and Switzerland. This line was called the Western Front. Both the Central Powers and the Allies dug complicated networks of first-, second-, and third-line trenches connected by supply and communication trenches. The Germans dug elaborate, well-engineered trenches—some even included plumbing—while the Allied forces chiseled out crude dugouts that were decidedly less accommodating. Both sides positioned machine guns in frontline trenches to prevent
advances and along second- and third-line trenches to cover any breakthroughs. Each line of trenches was protected by tangles of barbed wire, which guarded against any advancing sol diers who managed to cross the barren stretch of land called no man's-land between the opposing trenches.
Trenches changed army life. Instead of relying on the daring hand-to-hand combat that had won previous wars, sol diers of World War I lobbed explosives at each other from deep dirt holes. Through curtains of shell-fire, soldiers witnessed unimaginable destruction; the blood of hundreds of thousands of their comrades soaked the fields that separated them from their enemy; heavy artillery ripped huge holes in the earth and could bury men alive. Sitting in their damp, stinking, dirt trenches, soldiers lurked, fearful of peering over the top. And as the war dragged on, the supplies to the front and the numbers of replacements dwindled, leaving tired, hungry soldiers to hold the front.
The following excerpts are samples of the diaries and autobiographies of soldiers from both sides. Their notes describe what it was like to be a soldier—living in a trench, flying a reconnaissance (information-gathering) mission, surviving a near miss, helping the wounded, seeing death all around, working when tired and hungry, fearing the enemy, conquering their fear, and feeling proud. Little is known about the lives of many of the individuals who wrote these excerpts, but their writings paint a vivid picture of the war from a soldier's perspective.
Things to remember while reading the personal stories of fighting:
- The author of the second excerpt, Robert Graves, enlisted a few days after England declared war on Germany, partly as a way to delay his entrance to Oxford University, which he dreaded.
- The author of the fourth excerpt, Cecil Lewis, signed up for service in the Royal Flying Corps in England because, being under seventeen, he was too young to join the regular army corps.
- The author of the last excerpt, Ernst Jünger, joined the German army during the first year of the conflict, at age nineteen.
- personal information is known about the soldiers who wrote the other passages.
Excerpt from Good-bye to All That
British army captain
[May 28th 1915]
Last night a lot of German stuff was flying about, including shrapnel. I heard one shell whish-whishing towards me and dropped flat. It burst just over the trench where'Petticoat Lane' runs into 'Lowndes Square.' My ears sang as though there were gnats in them, and a bright scarlet light shone over everything. My shoulder got twisted in falling and I thought I had been hit, but I hadn't been. The vibration made my chest sing, too, in a curious way, and I lost my sense of equilibrium. I was ashamed when the sergeant-major came along the trench and found me on all fours, still unable to stand up straight. [Graves, p. 112]
Excerpt from Sagittarius Rising
British Royal Flying Corps, Square pilot
[1916–Battle of the Somme]
Next morning I was allotted a machine and given my orders…My flight-Commander was scandalized at my lack of experience. Twenty hours, the total my logbook showed, was no good to him. I was to take mymachine and fly it all day…
After ten hours of this came my first real job—to photograph the enemy second-line trenches…
If there was ever an aeroplane unsuited for active service it was the BE 2c. The pilot sat slightlyaft of the mainplanes and had a fair view above and below, except where the lower main plane obscured the ground forward; but the observer, who sat in front of him, could see practically nothing, for he was wedged under the small center section, with a plane above, another below, and bracing wires all round. He carried a gun for defense purposes but he could not fire it forward, because of the propeller. Backwards, the center-section struts, wires, and the tail plane cramped his style. In all modern machines the positions are reversed; the pilot sits in front, leaving the observer a good field of fire aft and using his own guns, which can be fired through the propeller, forward. But in 1916 the synchronized gear enabling a machine gun to be fired through the whirling propeller and still miss the blades had not been perfected.
The observer could not operate the camera from his seat because of the plane directly below him, so it was clamped on outside the fuselage, beside the pilot; a big, square, shiny mahogany box with a handle on top to change the plates (yes, plates!). To make an exposure you pulled a ring on the end of a cord. To sight it, you leaned over the side and looked through a ball and cross-wire finder. The pilot, then, had to fly the machine with his left hand, get over the spot on the ground he wanted to photograph—not so easy as you might think— put his arm out into the seventy-mile-an-hour wind, and push the camera handle back and forward to change the plates, pulling the string between each operation. Photography in 1916 was somewhat amateurish.
So I set out on that sunny afternoon, with a sergeant-gunner in the front seat, and climbed up towards the lines. As I approached them, I made out the place where we were to start on the ground, comparing it with the map. Two miles the other side of the front line didn't look far on paper; but it seemed a devil of a way when you had to fly vertically over the spot. The sergeant knelt on his seat, placed adrum on theLewis gun, and faced round over the tail, keeping a wary eye open forFokkers. But the sky was deserted, the line quiet.Jerry was having a day off. I turned the machine round to start on my steady course above the trenches, when two little puffs of gray smoke appeared a hundred feet below us, on the left. The sergeant pointed and smiled:"Archie!" Then three others appeared closer, at our own height. It was funny the way the balls of smoke appeared magically
in the empty air, and were followed a moment later by a little flatreport. If they didn'trange us any better than that they were not very formidable, I thought, and began to operate the camera handle.
There are times in life when the faculties seem to be keyed up to superhuman tension. You are not necessarily doing anything; but you are in a state of awareness, of tremendous alertness, ready to act instantaneously should the need arise. Outwardly, that day, I was calm, busy keeping the trenches in the camera sight, manipulating the handle, pulling the string; but inside my heart was pounding and my nerves straining, waiting for something, I did not know what, to happen. It was my first job. I was under fire for the first time. Would Archie get the range? Would the dreaded Fokker appear? Would the engine give out? It was the fear of the unforeseen, the inescapable, the imminent hand of death which might, from moment to moment, be ruthlessly laid upon me. I realized, not then, but later, why pilots cracked up, why they lost their nerve and had to go home. Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For always you had to fight it down, you had to go out and do thejob, you could never admit it, never say frankly: "I am afraid. I can't face it any more." For cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. You might have a greater will-power, greater stamina to fight down your failing; but a thoroughbred that has been lashed will rear at the sight of the whip, and never, once you had been through it, could you be quite the same again.
I went on pulling the string and changing the plates when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something black ahead of the machine. I looked up quickly: there was nothing there. I blinked. Surely, if my eyes were worth anything, there had been something … Yes! There it was again! This time I focused. It was a howitzer shell, one of our own shells, slowing up as it reached the top of its trajectory, turning slowly over and over, like an ambling porpoise, and then plunging down to burst. Guns fire shells in a flat trajectory; howitzers fling them high, like a lobbed tennis ball. It follows that, if you happen to be at the right height, you catch the shell just as it hovers at its peak point. If you are quick-sighted you can then follow its course down to the ground. I watched the thing fascinated. Damn it, they weren't missing the machine by much, I thought; but I was left little time to consider it, for suddenly there was a sharp tearing sound like a close crack of thunder, and the machine was flung upwards by the force of the explosion of an Archie burst right underneath us. A split second later, and it would have been a direct hit. A long tear appeared in the fabric of the plane where a piece of shrapnel had gone through. There was a momentary smell of acrid smoke. "Ess! Ess!" shouted the sergeant. "They've ranged us!" I flung the machine over and flew west, then turned again, and again, and again… The Archiebursts were distant now. We had thrown them off.
"How many more?" shouted the sergeant, with a jerk of his head to the camera box.
Flying on a steady course is the surest way to get caught by Archie, and we had been, right enough. If we were quick we might snatch the other two photos and get away before he ranged us again. I turned back over the spot, pulled the string and flew on to make the last exposure, when the sergeant suddenly stiffened in his seat, cocked his gun, and pointed: "Fokker!"
I turned in my seat and saw the thin line of the monoplane coming down on our tail. He had seen the Archie bursts, no doubt, had alook round to see if we were escorted, and, finding it all clear, was coming down for asitter.
I got the last photo as he opened fire. The distant chatter of his gun was hardly audible above the engine roar. It didn't seem to be directed at us. He was, I know now, an inexperienced pilot, he should have held his fire.
We replied with a chatter that deafened me, themuzzle of the Lewis gun right above my head. The Fokker hesitated, pulled over for a moment, and then turned at us again. The sergeant pulled his trigger. Nothing happened. "Jammed! jammed!" he shouted. He pulled frantically at the gun, while the stuttering Fokker came up. I put the old 2c right over to turn under him. As I did so, there was a sharp crack, and the little wind-screen a foot in front of my face showed a hole with a spider's web in the glass round it.
It was Triplex: no splinters; but another foot behind would have put that bullet through my head—which was not Triplex. A narrow shave. Instinctively I stood the machine on its head and dived for home. At that moment, as if to cap it all, the engine set up a fearful racket. The whole machine felt as if it would fall to pieces.
"Switch off! Switch off!" yelled the sergeant. "The engine's hit."
I obeyed, still diving, turning sharply as I did so to offer a more difficult target to the Fokker. But, luckily for us, he decided not to pursue. In those days theHuns did not adventure much beyond their own side of the line; and now we were back over ours.
We saw him zoom away again. He had us at his mercy, had he known. There was a moment of wonderful relief. We laughed. It had all happened in much less time than it takes to tell, and we were still alive, safe!
"Make for the advance landing-ground," shouted the sergeant. He was furious with the gun jamming, jumpy at our narrow shave, and, anyway, didn't relish his job with inexperienced pilots like me, just out from home. [Lewis, pp. 54, 55, 56–60]
Excerpt from The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front
[July 1917] Rations, too, were very poor. Beyond the thin midday soup, there was nothing but the third of a loaf, and something infinitesimal to eat with it, usually half-mouldy jam. Most of mine was always eaten by a fat rat, for which I often lay in wait, but in vain.
This sparse living, which left us always half-fed, brought about a most unpleasant state of affairs. The men often suffered literally from hunger, and this led to pilfering of rations… When it comes to food, the good manners that in Europe are mostly whitewash are soon scratched off… Privations and danger tear away all that has beenacquired, and then good form survives only in those in whom it is born. [Jünger, p. 192]
"The Great Offensive"
 …Everybody had that clutching feeling: 'It's coming over!' There was a terrific stupefying crash … the shell had burst in the midst of us…
I picked myself up half-conscious. The machine-gun ammunition in the large shell-hole, set alight by the explosion, was burning an intense pink glow. It illumined the rising fumes of the shell-burst,in which there writhed a heap of black bodies and the shadowy forms of the survivors, who were rushing from the scene in all directions. At the same time rose a multitudinous tumult of pain and cries for help.
I will make no secret of it that after a moment's blank horror I took to my heels like the rest and ran aimlessly into the night. It was not till I had fallen head over heels into a small shell-hole that I understood what had happened. Only to hear and see no more! Only to getaway, far away, and creep into a hole! And yet the other voice was heard: 'You are the company commander, man!' Exactly so. I do not say it in self-praise… I have often observed in myself and others that an officer's sense of responsibility drowns his personal fears. There is a sticking-place, something to occupy the thoughts. So I forced myself back to the ghastly spot…
The wounded men never ceased to utter their fearful cries. Some came creeping to me when they heard my voice and whimpered, 'Sir…Sir!' One of my favourite recruits, Jasinski, whose leg was broken by a splinter, caught hold of me round the knees. Cursing my impotence to help, I vainly clapped him on the shoulder. Such moments can never be forgotten.
I had to leave the wretched creatures to the one surviving stretcher bearer and lead the faithful few who remained and who collected round me away from the fatal spot. Half an hour before I had been at the head of a first-rate company at fighting strength. Now the few who followed me through the maze of trenches where I lost my way were utterly crestfallen. A young lad, a milksop, who a few days before had been jeered at by his companions because during training he had burst into tears over the weight of a box of ammunition,was now loyally hulking one along on our painful way after retrieving it from the scene of our disaster. When I saw that, I was finished. I threw myself on the ground and broke into convulsive sobs, while the men stood gloomily round me. [Jünger, pp. 245–46]
What happened next …
The fighting that everyone thought would only last for weeks dragged on for months, and then for years. The bloody stalemate along the Western Front caused the Allied forces and the Central Powers millions of casualties. The war also caused tremendous psychological stress—soldiers had never before been subject to such prolonged or bloody battles. The entrance of the American forces into battle in 1918 lifted the spirits of the suffering Allied soldiers along the front and became the turning point of the war.
Did you know …
- The wounded outnumbered the dead. According to the World War One Sourcebook, Russia had about 5 million wounded; France and Germany, 4.2 million each; Austria-Hungary, 3.6 million; Britain, 2 million; Italy, 950,000; and Turkey, 400,000.
- World War I caused a kind of psychological damage called shell shock, which had symptoms ranging from nervousness to mental collapse to complete paralysis.
- Shell shock in World War I is attributed to the unprecedented durations of enemy fire, long periods without sleep, and ongoing malnutrition. Soldiers of previous wars did not suffer from shell shock.
- The upper classes (those with social and educational advantages) suffered the heaviest casualties during the war because they were most often promoted to ranking officers. "In 1916, for example, the chances of an officer being killed were about double those of an 'other rank,'" according to the World War One Sourcebook.
For More Information
Ellis, John. Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. New York: Pantheon, 1976.
Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That. 2nd ed. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1957.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Sourcebook. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992.
Higonnet, Margaret, ed. Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I. New York: Plume, 1999.
Jünger, Ernst. The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front. London: Chatto and Windus, 1929.
Lewis, Cecil. Sagittarius Rising. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1936.
Macdonald, Lyn. 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War. London: Michael Joseph, 1988.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914–1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. [Online] http://www.pbs.org/greatwar (accessed October 2000).
Lycos Guide to Trench Warfare of World War I. [Online] http://www.lycos.com/wguide/wire/wire_17451773_93717_3_21.html (accessed March 2001).
The 1918 Influenza. [Online]http://www.library.utoronto.ca/spanishflu/1918.html (accessed December 2000).
World War I: Trenches on the Web. [Online]http://www.worldwar1.com (accessed October 2000).
Genocide in Armenia
An Excerpt from Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, 1999.
In January 1915 Turkish troops attacked Russian-held Kars in Armenia. The attack failed after only a few months, and the disappointed Turks began to suspect that Armenians living within Turkish borders had aided the Russians. Shortly after the failed offensive, the Turkish government began to deport and massacre Armenians living within the Turkish Empire.
As part of the deportation, in 1915 Gadarinée Dadourian and her five children were forced from their home in Gurun in eastern Anatolia. (Her husband was in America at the time.) In the following excerpt Dadourian recalls the genocide .
The deportation of Armenians from Gurun happened under the same conditions as everywhere else.
The road we took to Der el Zor presented to view an enormoushecatomb . Luckily, my husband was already in America. I went into exile with my five children, three of whom died along the way, the two others at Der el Zor…
Once a week, groups of three to four thousand Armenians, under pretext of transporting them elsewhere, were taken away and exterminated. The river Murad was choked with corpses; an escort of military laborers was called to the spot to free the blocked waters of the river. The children of these martyrs were assembled in an orphanage; there were at least 6,000. Town criers warned that any Arabwho sheltered Armenians in his house would be hung. They were authorized to keep only women, without children, as servants.
I was in the last caravan to leave the city; we knew they were leading us to our deaths. After two hours' march, we were halted at the foot of a hill. The Turks led the women in groups higher up. We did not know what was going on there. My turn came too; holding my two children by hand, I climbed the calvary [hill]. Horror! There was a well wide open where the executioners immediately threw the women they were stabbing. I received a sword blow on my head, another on my neck; my eyes were veiled at the moment I was thrown into the well with my children. I was on a pile of cadavers wet with blood. My head wound bled and my face was bloody.
I scarcely had the strength to drag myself toward a cavity in the well, where I lost consciousness. When I regained my senses I was in an Arab house. After the departure of the Turks, Arab women had come to search among the corpses in hope of finding some survivors. That is how they found me and seeing I was alive, they saved me. From then on I lived in this family as a servant.
I was anxious about the fate of my children, and the Arabs told me they had been taken in by other Arabs; I sought them but did not find them. Since orphans were carried to Constantinople, I went there in the hope of finding them. They must have died, because on the feast day of Bairam, the Turks took the thousands of children of Der el Zor outside the city, where they were burned alive. Only a few children survived by throwing themselves in the Euphrates [River], then gaining the further shore. [Higonnet, pp. 280–81]
Strafe: Attack with machine guns.
Drum: A cartridge of ammunition.
Lewis Gun: A type of machine gun.
Fokkers: German planes.
Jerry: Slang for a German.
"Archie:" Antiaircraft weapons.
Report: The sound of a firearm or explosive.
Range: Aim guns to hit a target.
Genocide: The systematic execution of a particular group, either national, racial, or political.
Hecatomb: A slaughter.