In what ways did the attitudes of soldiers and civilians change towards the war and towards the enemy between 1914 and 1918?

Authors Avatar

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.

Join now!

        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 ...

This is a preview of the whole essay