A Soldier's Life

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A Soldier's Life

The Rush to War … 5

Confronting the Horrors of War … 17

Reactions to War's End from the Front … 37

World War I, the conflict that engulfed Europe from 1914 to 1918, was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863–1914) of Austria in June 1914. But this single event was not the only cause of the war; the seeds of war had been sown long before. Hungry to expand their territories or determined to maintain their possessions, countries had formed strategic alliances, aligning themselves against nations that appeared to be a threat to them. Armies had stockpiled weapons, and military leaders had drawn up elaborate plans of attack. Soon after the fatal shot struck Franz Ferdinand, citizens across the globe were rallied by calls to serve in the war effort.

In the beginning, no one knew that World War I, also called the Great War, would change warfare forever. No one knew that the powerful artillery, the machine guns, and the other advances in weaponry would slaughter eight million young men and soak battlefields in blood. No one knew that the carnage would last for four years, almost destroying an entire generation of young men. And no one knew that the horror of such a war would destroy many people's confidence in the goodness of the human race.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Europe had lived in relative peace for a hundred years, excepting the Crimean War (1854–56; a war that pitted Russia against Turkey, England, France, and Sardinia) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71; a war between France and the Germanic states, the strongest of which were Austria and Prussia). There had not been a general European war since the defeat of Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815. And the world had only known wars to be rather quick and not too bloody. When the war began, many thought it would be over in six months.

At first, citizens across the world enthusiastically supported their countries. Men raced to sign up for military service, eager to get involved before the action would be over. New recruits marched off to war cheered by crowds of wellwishers. Anywhere a crowd would gather, be it a soccer match or a church service, military recruiters could be found, signing up young men—and later, women—to serve their countries.

Though many soldiers marched off to the sound of bands playing patriotic songs and wildly cheering crowds, they did not achieve the quick results the enthusiastic crowds hoped for. Instead, soldiers found themselves embroiled in a deadly conflict, the likes of which they had never imagined possible. Soldiers were stuck in a nightmarish stalemate at the Western Front. In attempts to win the war, each side in turn made the war worse, either by including more people—as when the Allies opened new fronts against the Austrians in the Swiss Alps and along the Isonzo River in 1915, or when the British invaded Gallipoli that same year—or by creating more destructive weapons—like poisonous gas, which the Germans introduced in 1915, and the tank, which the British introduced in 1916.

Besides changing the practice of warfare, World War I changed the lives of many people. During the war, soldiers' experiences were recorded in the letters they sent to loved ones at home, in diaries, and in poems. After the war, people published memories of the war in autobiographies, histories, and fiction. The names of those who captured the war experience with great literary skill are well known; they include soldiers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Ernest Hemingway. You can read about their experiences in chapter 4, Literature of the Great War. Others, faceless millions, wrote too. They recorded their surprise, their horror, their despair, their wonder, and their pride in brief notes and rambling letters. Their words create a picture of the war like no other, a picture of how four years of war changed people's ideas about war and about life. This chapter gives you a glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of these people through samples of their letters, diaries, and autobiographies. The Rush to War highlights the experiences of a variety of men as they entered military service and includes excerpts from 19141918: Voices and Images of the Great War; The First World War: An Eyewitness History; and Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Officer, 1917. Confronting the Horrors of War presents soldiers' reactions to combat and includes excerpts from 19141918: Voices and Images of the Great War; Good-Bye to All That; Sagittarius Rising; and The First World War: An Eyewitness History. Reactions to War's End from the Front, with excerpts from Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I; The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front; and 19141918: Voices and Images of the Great War, illustrates the variety of reactions that people on the front had to news about the war's end.