The Rush to War

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The Rush to War

Excerpts from 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War

Edited by Lyn Macdonald
Published in 1988

Excerpt from The First World War: An Eyewitness History

Edited by Joe H. Kirchberger
Published in 1992

Excerpt from Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Officer, 1917

By Edwin Campion Vaughan
Published in 1981

"I sank back into the cushions, and tried to realize that, at last I was actually on my way to France, to war and excitement—to death or glory, or both."

From Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Officer, 1917

Upon the declaration of war, citizens from every country gathered to unite against their new foes. Fueled by patriotic fervor, the crowds grew seemingly hysterical with nationalistic feelings. French ambassador to Russia Maurice Palélogue labeled the beginning of the war "world madness," according to W. Bruce Lincoln in Passage through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914–1918.

Two days after Germany's declaration of war on August 4, 1914, angry Russians displayed their patriotism by ransacking the German embassy in St. Petersburg. The czar (leader of Russia) and Russian military leaders worked to unite the Russian people against the Central Powers (the countries united behind Germany and Austria-Hungary, fighting against the Allies). Russians responded quickly. Many Russians had no idea that Germany existed as a country, and they cared little for politics or conflicts outside their motherland; still, hundreds of thousands of Russians marched off to defend their country. Czarina Alexandra remarked that the war "lifted up spirits, cleansed the many stagnant minds, brought unity in feelings, and was a 'healthy' war in the moral sense," as quoted by Lincoln in Passage through Armageddon.

Citizens of other nations also greeted the war with optimism and hope. Men signed up eagerly for the war, and crowds cheered them with hopeful cries for victory. People across the world knew that the war had been brewing for years, and they hoped that the armed conflict would quickly bring a lasting peace. In France, the departure of troop trains to the front occurred in an atmosphere of celebration. A French soldier quoted in John Keegan's The First World War remembered the scene:

At six in the morning, without any signal, the train slowly steamed out of the station. At that moment, quite spontaneously, like a smouldering fire suddenly erupting into roaring flames, an immense clamour arose as the Marseillaise [a French anthem] burst from a thousand throats. All the men were standing at the train's windows, waving their kepis [caps]. From the track, quais [loading docks] and the neighbouring trains, the crowds waved back … Crowds gatheredat every station, behind every barrier, and at every window along the road. Cries of "Vive la France! Vive l'armée" ["Long live France! Long live the army"] could be heard everywhere, while people waved handkerchiefs and hats. The women were throwing kisses and heaped flowers on our convoy. The young men were shouting: " Au revoir! A bientôt!"["Goodbye! See you soon!"]

After the initial call to arms, recruiting efforts contin ued. Sporting events became opportunities to recruit from the stands. Crowds would sing patriotic songs to stir spectators into enlisting. Recruiting posters also encouraged many to enlist and helped each country supply the front with fresh soldiers. British posters, which secured the enlistment of an estimated one-quarter of all British soldiers, read: "Your Country Wants You" and "Women of Britain say, GO." After the sink ing of the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine, an Irish poster rallied men to fight: "Irishmen Avenge The Lusitania. Join an Irish Regiment To-Day." The most famous French poster relied on France's pride in the fighting spirit of its troops. Showing an eager soldier charging forward, the poster read "We'll get them!" A German poster of a soldier with shining, determined eyes beckoned young men to "Help us win!" In America, recruiting posters read "It's up to you. Protect the nation's honor." (See Chapter 5 for more examples of World War I recruiting and propaganda posters.)

The men who signed up never imagined that the war would drag on for four years. In every nation, writes Lincoln, the "youth marched off to war expecting adventure and glory, not suffering and death." The following excerpts indicate the enthusiasm and confusion of the times. They also reflect the innocence of the enlistees. Taken from the diaries of soldiers or from autobiographies written years after the war, the excerpts offer a snapshot view of men's feelings about leaving for war. The full details of these men's lives are not available, but these small samples of their writings illustrate the variety of responses that men had to enlisting.

Things to remember while reading the personal stories of enlisting:

  • France, Russia, and Germany used universal conscription or required service, also called the draft, to create their huge armies.
  • The United Kingdom relied on volunteers to fill its army but later also used a draft.
  • Russia, with its vast population, had the largest army of any combatant. Russia's peacetime strength (the number of soldiers in active service ready for battle) stood at 1,445,000 in 1914; Russia was capable of increasing this force to 3,400,000 in case of war, according to statistics quoted by Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War.
  • France followed Russia in peacetime strength, with 827,000 soldiers, a force it could increase to 1,800,000 in wartime.
  • By 1914, according to statistics cited by Ferguson, the German military had a peacetime strength of 761,000 men and was capable of increasing that number to a wartime strength of 2,147,000.

Excerpt from The First World War: An Eyewitness History

André Fribourg
French 106th Regiment soldier

Our hearts beat with enthusiasm. A kind of intoxication takes possession of us. My muscles and arteries tingle with happy strength. The spirit is contagious. Along the line track walkers wave to us. Women hold up their children. We are carried away by the greeting of the land, the mystery that the future holds, the thought of glorious adventure, and the pride of being chosen to share it. [Kirchberger]

Excerpt from Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Officer, 1917

Edwin Campion Vaughan
British Second Lieutenant

January 4, 1917

It was an incredible moment—long dreamed of—when the train steamed slowly out of Waterloo, a long triple row of happy, excited faces protruding from carriage windows, passing those which bravely tried to smile back at us—we were wrapped in the sense of adventure to come, they could look forward only to loneliness. We took a last long look at the sea of faces and waving handkerchiefs—and we left.

When we had swept round the bend, away from the crowded platform, ringing with farewell cheers, I sank back into the cushions, and tried to realize that, at last I was actually on my way to France, to war and excitement—to death or glory, or both. [Vaughan, p. 1]

What happened next …

Each country was convinced that it needed millions of soldiers in order to win the war. After the first groups of soldiers left for the front, governments began churning out propaganda (materials aimed at convincing people of an idea) to persuade more men to join and serve. The propaganda came in several forms: Recruiting posters depicted the enemy as a menace that must be quashed; newspaper reports detailed the atrocities committed by the enemy; censorship of the press helped governments shape the opinions of citizens and persuaded many men and women to sign up to serve in the armed forces.

As they gained soldiers, armies needed to move those troops quickly and efficiently. Before 1914, military strategists in many countries had developed elaborate plans for mobilizing troops in time of war. In the beginning weeks of the war, countless trains were scheduled to leave at specified intervals to whisk soldiers from German cities to the border of Belgium. In France, traffic backed up for mile after mile on eastbound roads heading toward the front. In Russia, soldiers came to

serve their country from more than eight million square miles of territory, but because of Russia's small railway network, their travel was slower than soldiers' travel elsewhere.

As the war wore on, governments continued to persuade more and more people to enlist. But the men and women who joined after 1914 did not leave with the same innocence as the first troops to fight at the front. Guy Chapman joined the British army in 1915; he put his thoughts bluntly in his memoir, A Passionate Prodigality:

"I wasloath to go. I had no romantic illusions. I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to the thought of England. In fact I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, anxious lest I should show it."

The crowds seeing the soldiers off were also changed as the war's casualties started filling hospitals and as civilian women and men struggled to bring in the crops and keep the factories working without their nation's strongest and most able-bodied men.

Did you know …

  • Together, the Central Powers could count on a wartime army of 3,485,000 men—over two million men less than the Allies in 1914.
  • In May 1917, the Selective Service administration began registering for the draft all American men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty.
  • Although sheer numbers of soldiers were a top priority to military strategists, the ability to mobilize (move troops to a battlefield) was another crucial element to success. In 1914 Germany had the most advanced railway system in Europe, which meant that it could quickly move troops to battle.
  • Unlike Germany, France, England, and Austria-Hungary, which could mobilize their armies within days, Russia did not expect to be fully mobilized for three months.
  • Some Frenchmen used taxis to travel to the front.
  • Unable to convince enough people to enlist voluntarily, the United Kingdom passed a conscription law in 1916. The law obliged single men between ages eighteen and forty-one to serve in the military.

For More Information


Chapman, Guy. A Passionate Prodigality. 1933; London: Buchan and Enright, 1985.

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. New York: Viking, 1998.

Fribourg, André. The Flaming Crucible: The Faith of the Fighting Men. Trans.

Arthur B. Maurice. New York: Macmillan, 1918.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Kirchberger, Joe H., ed. The First World War: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. Passage through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914–1918. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Macdonald, Lyn. 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War. London: Michael Joseph, 1988.

Vaughan, Edwin Campion. Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Officer, 1917. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1981.

Web sites

BBC News: The Great War on Eighty Years. [Online] March 2001).

The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century. [Online] (accessed October 2000).

The 1918 Influenza. [Online] (accessed December 2000).

World War I: Trenches on the Web. [Online] (accessed October 2000).

A proper Charlie: A fool.

Skip: Brim of a hat.

WC: Water closet; latrine.

Kilts: Knee-length skirts worn by Scottish men.

Get off your Mark at the Double: Move quickly.

Loath: Not willing; reluctant.