In what ways did the attitudes of soldiers and civilians change towards the war and towards the enemy between 1914 and 1918?
Michael Leedham 5N
In what ways did the attitudes of soldiers and civilians change towards the war and towards the enemy between 1914 and 1918?
The attitudes of soldiers and civilians changed greatly during the course of the First World War. This was the first war that Britain had been in that genuinely affected everyone in the country. Previous wars such as the Boer war had been fought overseas by small professional armies. This war was a lot closer to home and this meant that peoples’ attitudes changed. After war had been declared, soldiers were excited about the war and they saw it as an adventure that would be over by Christmas. “I adore war. Its just like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic,” Julian Grenfell, 24th October 1914. There was a surge in patriotic enlistment and propaganda encouraging men to join up. Propaganda is an aspect that affected people’s thinking at the time. Soldiers also thought lowly of the German army and their opinion of it also changed markedly during the war. This was due to propaganda from the government and also from interactions with the enemy such as the Christmas truce in 1914.
Men began to arrive on the western front expecting to do very little and then come back home as a hero. This was as far away from what actually happened as possible and this mental lack of preparation for what was going to happen was a huge shock to many men who had never even held a gun six weeks earlier. The battle of the Marne in September 1914 was the beginning of a realisation for the whole of Britain that the war was going to drag on. The combination of British and French forces stopped the German advance at the river Marne about 50km from Paris. By the 8th September, both sides began to dig trenches to protect themselves from artillery fire and snipers. These were the first signs of a stalemate. The British and in particularly the French fought heroically to stop the advance and the fighting was intense: “[That] French soldiers who have retreated for ten days, sleeping on the ground and half-dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles when the bugle sounds is a thing which we never expected,” said a German army commander. This quote also shows that the conditions of living on both sides were horrendous and if anything conditions got worse as the war progressed, particularly in winter.
Trench warfare was perhaps the distinguishing feature of the First World War. Trenches had never before being used in battles (a possible exception being the American Civil War) and at first they were very basic shelters simply to avoid enemy fire. Entrenchments are only used when… the efforts of the attacking forces must be limited temporarily to holding ground already won,” Infantry Training Manual, 1914. The lifespan of trenches were in fact a lot longer than the manual hoped for. As the stalemate continued, trenches became complex defensive systems. Even with the horrors occurring around them, during the autumn of 1914 morale was still high and soldiers still thought highly of the war. The experiences in the front-line trenches were horrendous and unimaginable that men had to live and fight in these shelters. Supplies such as rations were inconsistent and even when they did get through, they weren't pleasant anyway. The consistent shelling from the enemy literally caused men to go mad. This shell shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder) wasn’t identified as a condition until later on in the war. Sights such as these would have been horrifying for men to see knowing that it could happen to them next. Officially 304 soldiers were executed for cowardice and disobeying of orders event though they were suffering from shell shock. The realisation that no progress was being made would have been hard for men to comprehend as they had ‘signed up’ for a three month outing. Soldiers also suffered horrific injuries that had nothing to do with enemy actions. Many men lost feet and legs due to a condition called trench foot. This occurred when men were standing in mud all day so their feet became wet. The skin would go numb and turn red or blue. If untreated this could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. This was a big problem at the start of the war before a remedy was discovered. Over 20,000 men were treated for trench foot during the winter of 1914-15. The experiences of the horrors of trench warfare are summed up by Arthur Savage talking about his experiences on the western front: “My memories are of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. I'd never seen a dead body before I went to war. You could be talking to the fellow next to you when suddenly he'd be hit by a sniper and fall dead beside you. And there he's stay for days.”
The Christmas truce of 1914 was a key period for how men began to feel towards the enemy. They had detested the army in the period before the truce. It occurred mainly in the British occupied stretch running twenty seven miles south from the Ypres salient. There were clear skies around Christmas time and fighting came to a complete stop in many places. “Just opposite, the Germans were singing a Christmas carol, interrupted and punctuated by rifle fire. Poor little God of love, born tonight, how can you love mankind?” Maurice Laurentin, 77th French Infantry Regiment. The truce was not as prominent in French areas as they had little to be happy about as their country was being occupied. “No peace here – guns blowing off around Ploegsteert, Messines and Rabecque,” Diary of William Tyrell, Lieutenant on Christmas Eve 1914. However, both the British and German troops were heartened by gifts and letters from home. The actual events of the Christmas truce have been glamourised and even where the truce wasn’t in place, fighting was less intense during the period. There were however, many unofficial and impromptu truces almost daily during the war. These often occurred at around dawn and dusk when supplies were brought up for both sides. At this point, allied soldiers began to realise that the ordinary German soldiers were exactly the same as they were. The stories of German atrocities at the beginning of the war were found out to be untrue and this angered many men and animosity towards the enemy was less so than it had been.
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Morale and soldiers attitudes towards war began to fall steadily throughout 1915. Trench warfare continued and gas attacks began on British and French trenches. Although the French had used tear-gas grenades during the first month of the war, it was the Germans at Ypres in April 1915 that first used it widely. It had not been used before as it had been seen to be an “uncivilised weapon” but the war was hardly civilised so Germans began to use it. Chlorine gas was put in shrapnel shells and fired into enemy trenches. It destroyed the respiratory organs and men died of asphyxiation. Although a lot of men died from gas attacks, estimates suggest about 90,000, it was a relatively low number compared to the deaths from more orthodox methods of war. It was not, however, the number if men that died that appalled men in the trenches, it was the manner of death. Men would cough blood and die in extraordinary pain. By definition, the weapon was invisible and this shocked men. Many died in their sleep without even knowing about an impending attack. “On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth. To ease the pain in my chest I may subconsciously have stopped breathing, until the pounding of my heart woke me up. I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep,” William Pressey, who suffered from a German gas attack
1916 was the year of attrition. The German plan was to “bleed France white.” From February to December, both sides flooded resources into the battle of Verdun. This battle was a slaughter of lives as the instigator of the offensive, General Erich von Falkenhayn, admitted that the aim to capture Verdun was impossible. The only real objective was to kill as many French troops as possible and troops on both sides died needlessly as a result. Of the 330 infantry regiments in the French army, 259 of them fought at Verdun. There were nearly a million casualties at Verdun and half of these died. These were mainly French soldiers. This would have affected British morale as they knew that there would be fewer troops to support them if they were required and that the allies were suffering huge losses. They could have been thinking that they were next. Morale had hit rock-bottom.
it began to pick up in June as men heard news about the battle that was supposed to end the war. This was the Battle of the Somme. which was to be fought on a front of thirty kilometres between Arras and Albert and ran until the 18 November. Again, although there was the objective to capture German positions, the primary one was to kill as many German troops as possible as part of the war of attrition and to draw their forces away from Verdun. The tactics employed by British and German generals have since been highly criticized for the waste of life. In the last week of June there was a prolonged artillery attack on German fortifications. 3,000 British and French guns were used in the bombardment. The idea was that this would obliterate German defences and that infantrymen could just walk across no-man’s land and claim the trenches. However, this was definitely not the case. The artillery bombardment had failed completely and nearly all of the German troops were able to emerge from their positions to fight.
This building up of morale was shattered on the 1st July 1916 which was the worst day in British military history. British forces suffered 58,000 casualties, a third of which died. Over the following days and months, there were a combined 1,250,000 casualties for very little gain. British generals have since become under intense scrutiny for the inflexibility of the attack and repeatedly using flawed tactics, such as sending waves of men on a frontal assault at Thiepval even though all other frontal assaults had failed. Some regiments lost up to 90% of their men during the first day of the battle alone. “Haig ordered many bloody battles in this War. He only took part in two. He never even saw the ground on which his greatest battles were fought, either before or during the fight,” David Lloyd George on General Haig’s tactics. This would have been especially hard for soldiers as many PALS battalions were used in the battle so many men would have lost close friends. Also, this battle was supposed to be the one that would help to end the war. Instead, many men died and the war had no obvious end in sight.
The Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendale, was arguably the most horrific battle of the First World War. This was meant to be the allies’ breakthrough in Flanders. The battle was launched on 31st July 1917 and continued until the fall of Passchendale on 6th November. Although there were gains made at Passchendale, they were not what General Douglas Haig had intended and were pitiful considering the human loss of life. This was the final large battle of “the war of attrition.” The tactics employed in this battle are as controversial as the ones used at the Somme. Four and a quarter million shells were fired at German positions as a precursor to the main offensive. This took away the element of surprise. Gains were limited and extremely heavy rain caused the fields to become a muddy swamp. Many men in this battle drowned in the mud, another sight that caused men to think differently about the war. The allies became exhausted as battles continued throughout the autumn, whereas the Germans were supported by troops freed from the eastern front as Russia had left the war. This was another factor that ruined morale in 1917.
Even though the offensive had been a failure, General Haig continued with it until the capture of the village of Passchendale “where the shell-exploded bodies were so thickly strewn that a fellow couldn’t step without stepping on corruption.” There were 700,000 allied casualties to gain the Passchendale ridge this brought more strain on the army as the gains in fact widened the Ypres salient by another few kilometres.. What was to follow, however, is what made soldiers detest war. Four months later, as a part of the 1918 spring offensives, German forces managed to push back the allies to the walls of Ypres. What had taken 100 days and 700,000 men to gain had been lost in just three days. “It achieved little except loss,” Captain Liddell Hart.
Civilian attitudes towards war definitely changed during the war years but did not change as much as how British soldiers did. However, civilians didn’t change their feelings towards the enemy that much, if at all. I believe that it was towards the government itself and generals in the army that civilians’ attitudes changed the greatest, their indifferent feelings about the war were a by-product of this change in stance and the minimal change towards the enemy irrelevant to this, as civilians never heard about the untruths that were told to them by the government until after the war.
During the autumn of 1914, civilian attitudes to the war as a rule could not have been any higher, whereas attitudes towards the enemy were at the other end of the scale. This mirrors the soldiers views as most of them were still in the country at the time and were hearing the same news as civilians. The propaganda campaign encouraging men to enlist amongst other things used by the government had the desired effect as men rushed to enlist with the full support of their family and friends. The reason for the country’s hatred of all things German was also down to the government. It released stories about atrocities committed by German soldiers such as sticking bayonets through babies. There is no evidence to suggest that this was true but the public at the time believed these stories without question and men continued to enlist because of their pride and patriotism and also because of a new found hatred towards Germany. “I began by not believing in German atrocities and now I feel that I myself would, if I could, kill every combatant German that I might meet,” Lord Bertie, British Ambassador in France, 21st February 1915.
Propaganda can also be attributed to why there was a public outcry when the liner Lusitania was sunk in May 1915 by a German U-boat. Many civilians were aboard the ship and were drowned. The British government publicised the sinking as a criminal act that just killed civilians but the ship was also carrying explosives for the war, making it a viable sinking in German eyes, whilst the British version of events was what civilians believed, so contempt for Germany rose again.
Propaganda continued to be utilised throughout the war but on a far lesser scale than that of the early parts of the war. It was a different sort of campaign of misinformation by the government called censorship that kept attitudes towards the war positive. This entailed telling everyone about the good things that were occurring whilst ignoring failures. For example, the Battle of the Somme was portrayed as a victory whilst the sinking of the battleship, HMS Audacious, in October 1914, was not mentioned. This censorship was a function of the “Defence of the Realm Act” (DORA). This was introduced on the 8th August 1914 and is equivalent to the modern-day “emergency measures” that could be used by the government in a time of war. This gave exceptional powers to the government that could be used to control many things that they could otherwise not do such as being able to seize land. Most importantly perhaps, though in keeping civilians’ opinions of war high and of Germans low, was censorship.
“If the people really knew [the truth about the war] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t – and can’t – know. The correspondents don’t write, and the censors would not pass, the truth,” Prime Minister Lloyd George in a conversation with the editor of the Manchester Guardian in December 1917.
Newspapers were only allowed to publish good news about the war although this was not a problem necessarily with mainstream newspapers as their editors and owners were actually among the most supportive of everyone of the war. There was more of a problem with independent papers. Pacifist (anti-war) newspapers were closed down and socialist ones were monitored closely throughout the war. “It is a domestic tragedy of the war that the country which went out to defend liberty is losing its liberties one by one,” The Nation, 1916. This journal was eventually withdrawn under the terms of DORA. Journalists were only allowed onto the western front in November 1916 and they also had to be approved beforehand by the government. The censorship side of DORA was a complete success until later on in the war when articles that showed the truth of what was happening at the front-line began to be leaked. DORA was a huge factor in why civilians continued to fully support the war for long periods of time, to the surprise of many and perhaps even the government. “I discovered to my amazement that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war,” Bertrand Russell, a British intellectual and writer.
Another key part of DORA was David Lloyd George’s programme to keep skilled workers in munitions factories due to the shortages that were occurring. His solution was to employ women in these jobs. Trade unions resisted this fiercely. They argued that because women were paid less than men, this ‘diluted’ men’s wages. Women were only allowed to work eventually when they were paid the same as men and that they couldn’t keep their jobs when men returned home from the war. The government also opened state-run munitions factories, which generally employed women. This solved the munitions crisis that was affecting how Britain could fight the war and the army’s supplies were in good health for the rest of the war.
DORA, however, did have some negative effects on the British public. David Lloyd George said that Britain was, "fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink." If people had extra money in hand, they were not allowed to buy a friend a drink in a public house under the conditions of the No Treating Order, introduced under DORA.
Zeppelin attacks in 1915 on British towns such as Scarborough affected morale greatly for civilians. Although 119 people died in one night, it was negligible compared to the losses that were occurring on the fronts. It was mainly the thoughts and emotions that came with the attacks. People were no longer safe in their homes at night and people lived in great fear for a while. Adequate defences to zeppelins were created quickly however and zeppelins only played a small part for the rest of the war, but some people continually lived in fear.
At the start of 1916, the government introduced conscription for all single men between eighteen and forty. This was followed by conscription for married men also in May of the same year. This was because of a reduction in volunteers The demand for troops was also increasing. The winter of 1915 had brought huge losses which needed to be replaced and the generals were also planning the “big push” for victory – the Battle of the Somme. Although conscription was ostracized by a few, it was generally and perhaps surprisingly, a positive motion. Most people thought that certain parts of society were not putting their share into the war effort or not at all such as upper-class males and the control that was exerted by the government was welcomed by the majority. People thought that they were being treated respectfully by the government – those that wanted to could join up when they pleased, and the ones that chose not to were forced to eventually because the country needed them. This avoided the fact that all these men were required because of the huge unnecessary losses that were occurring at the same time. There were also negative aspects of conscription. Conscripts who had families at home would have had low morale which could have been passed on to the volunteers who had actually chosen to be there.
Towards the end of 1917 people were worried that food was going to run out and this led to panic buying and thus shortages. In May 1917, voluntary rationing was introduced as a result of these drops. The government passed a law to keep a level on the price of bread whilst there were dwindling flour supplies, “The Ninepenny Loaf.” Posters were released to persuade people to use less food such as “The Kitchen is the Key to Victory – Eat Less Bread” poster released in 1917. These posters, however, were not as successful as enlistment posters were during the earlier stages of the war. They were so unsuccessful that compulsory rationing was introduced in early 1918. This limited how much sugar, beer, meat and butter that one could have. There were strict punishments for persons who didn’t keep to rationing rules such as one person in the Old Street area in September 1918 who was fined £72 and £5 costs for “being a retailer selling to unregistered customer.” Contrary to common perception, rationing was welcomed by the majority of people. It was seen as a fair system of sharing out food so that everyone had the same. Because of rationing, some people’s diet actually improved. The approval of rationing was a success for the government during a time of the war when they were coming under intense criticism for their running of the war. This however, would have done little to change people’s perception of the government, just alter it slightly.
Another reason why civilians did not know the whole story of what was occurring at the fronts was due to the soldiers themselves. Although government censors had withdrawn letters home that showed the war in a negative light, many soldiers didn’t tell the truth about what was happening at the front. This may have been because soldiers didn’t want their families to worry about them. This is a huge reason for why British morale in civilians remained high for most of the war.
The creation of PALS battalions may have been a positive recruitment tool at the start of the war, but the idea backfired badly at the end of the war. PALS battalions were among the forces at the Battle of the Somme which had huge losses. As PALS battalions were made up of men from a certain area, when they all died and the families of that area found out they were dead a whole town would have been mourning. Some towns lost the whole of their young male population because of the war. This would have changed their attitude to the war because of losing their friends and relatives, but not towards the enemy. They would still have thought that the Germans were all barbarians because of DORA.
Civilians and soldiers’ attitudes to the war changed between 1914 and 1918. However, the changes of attitudes that soldiers made were far greater than those of civilians. This is due to the first-hand experiences of war for soldiers. DORA and the controls which were exerted by it were the main reason for why civilians did not learn about these experiences. The Battle of the Somme was portrayed as a victory to the British public whilst soldiers knew the true horrors that occurred. Soldiers changed their view towards the enemy greatly during the war. In 1914, they thought they were all savages due to the stories that had been fed to them by the government. They found out that this was not true, due to occurrences such as the Christmas truce of 1914. Civilians, however, did not change their opinions at all to any great extent. They had no direct contact with Germans so never found out about their true nature. Soldiers changed their attitude towards the war fairly quickly but it took civilians a long time to realise the horror of it all. First-hand experience of horrible occurrences such as trench foot and gas attacks affected nearly every soldier and some were left with medical conditions such as shell shock whilst the rest just had the horrible experiences to remember. Civilians never heard about these occurrences until after the war. Towards the end of the war, documents were leaked that showed the true extent of the war which changed their attitudes. It was mainly towards the government that civilians changed their attitude and opinion of most. Controls such as conscription were irritating for the public as they had no real impact on how the war was going to be won.
The terrible experiences of the war affected mankind as a whole. It was supposed to be “The war to end all wars.” It was the first modern war that had affected a great deal of the world, and, in the aftermath, lessons were supposed to have been learnt by world leaders. These lessons, unfortunately for the world, were not listened to and war started again just nineteen years later in 1939.