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Combat experience: life on the battlefield

When on June 1914 the Bosnian student named Gavrilo Princip shot to death the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he didn’t expect to excite such a reaction as the outbreak of the First World War. The guy was part of an irredentist organization that had his major quarter in Serbia, and boasted a certain tolerance from the government of that country. That was more than enough to provoke the reaction of the Austro-Hungarian government and apparatus, both convinced since a lot of time that Serbia deserved a harsh warning. Hence, a terrorist attack became an international issue and sparked a chain of reactions and counter reactions that threw Europe in a conflict of unexpected proportions. On July 23rd Austria sent an ultimatum to Serbia that was immediately supported by Russia. The Serbian government accepted the ultimatum only partially, and judging the answer insufficient, Austria declared war to Serbia on the 28th of July. Russia instantly ordered the mobilisation of the armed forces that was extended all along the Western boundaries. Interpreting the Russian call-up as a hostile act, Germany declared war first to Russia, and then to her military ally, France, that in the meantime was also mobilizing her armed forces. The war plan elaborated at the beginning of the 20th century by the chief of the German general staff Alfred von Schlieffen, provided two steps: a first massive attack against France that should have been beaten in few weeks, and a second assault to Russia whose military machine was potentially strong but very slow in starting to operate. After on august 4th Germany invaded neutral Belgium to reach the north-east French borders, England joined the conflict declaring war against Germany.

In those crucial days almost every government was underrating the gravity of the fight they were about to face. Politicians believed that a war was necessary to suffocate the social contrasts and to strengthen governments and ruling classes. The public opinion was massively mobilised to sustain the national cause and ready to support the good reasons of its country, was it France or Germany. In this occasion, the recall of patriotism showed all its strength and touched any social class, even the ones that weren’t so happy to accept it. In his book “A Student in Arms”, Donald Hunkley, an English soldier and writer, reports: “The unprecedented had occurred. For once a national ideal had proved stronger than class prejudice. In this matter of the war all classes were at one – at one not only in sentiment but in practical resolve”. Meanwhile, the German volunteers were grouping in a very peculiar social composition: “There were many students; there were also many young businessmen and professionals, as well as some tradesmen. The working class was under-represented but not fully absent”. Patriotism was strong even in those countries, like Italy, that had reached the unity just few years before the war, and where irredentist recriminations were still intense. Although Italy joined the war in 1915, people believed that a fight was necessary to gain more liberty as much as territories and to build up a stronger nation. An Italian soldier writes passionately: “You know how I have dreamed of this war of liberation, which will make Italy a greater and more united nation: how for years I have encouraged such a war, and urged it by means of the press”.

The use of compulsory military service and the higher performances of transportations let the European powers put into action armies with sizes never seen before. In August 1914 Germany arrayed only on the Western front a million and a half men while France contrasted with more than a million. Great Britain managed to mobilise more than two millions of volunteers. These huge military forces were also better armed than any soldier of the 19th century: everyone had repeating rifles, powerful cannons, and automatic machine guns. New offensive means were introduced, such as subtle chemical weapons like gas, and were sent to the opposite trenches to suffocate the enemy. The aviation also experienced an enormous improvement, as confirmed by the words of a French artillery man: “Above the aviators are flying incessantly, hindering any rush of the enemy on our position and keeping us informed of his position all the time. We have sometimes six aviators in the air to one German who hovers at a distance, not daring to advance in the face of such superiority.” But despite this news, none of the war powers had elaborated strategic ideas that differed from the ones used during the 19th century conflicts; these fights were based on the idea of the war of movement, which means an offensive manoeuvre with rapid movements of huge masses of men in few and decisive field battles. Every war plan was based on the prevision that the conflict would have lasted few months or even few weeks.

After a massive attack from Germany and another counter offensive from France, at end of November the armies were arranged within improvised trenches along a from of 750 kilometres that started form the North sea down to the Swiss borders. In four months of war, 400.000 soldiers died and almost a million were wounded only on the Western front. And all of this wasn’t followed by any strategic result neither by Germany nor France. The war of movement planned by the generals turned out to be a stall situation. A new type of war was about to start, neither planned nor prepared by any of the belligerent countries: the war of attrition that showed two almost immobile arrays (in five years the battle fronts did move not further than 15 kilometres) that fought in a series of sterile and bloody attacks, interspersed by long periods of stasis. A French soldier reports his surprise: “We had been in a fight, had seen loaded ambulances going to the rear, had crossed woods filled with corpses and passed ravaged farms; and we say to each other, ‘What a battle it has been!’. No wonder we were somewhat astonished to read in our official communication, ‘Situation unchanged in the Lorraine and in the Vosges’”. In this new kind of war the initial military superiority of the central empires was fading. On the other hand, the role of Great Britain was becoming decisive, inasmuch she could use her colonial empire resources and her naval superiority.

Two years and a half of war neither had change the stall situation of 1914 nor had facilitate the tremendous stress that the armies were facing. A stress caused by the combination of the old military doctrine that forced the soldiers to break the opposite front and the conquest of a certain position, and the new automatic weapons that transformed any assault in a real carnage. From a technical perspective, the protagonist of World War I was the trench, that is the simplest and more primitive of the defensive fortifications: a ditch dug in the ground to protect soldiers from the enemy’s fire. Firstly designed as temporary refuges for the troops, once the situation was stabilized, the trenches became the permanent base for the first line groups. In short, all the line of the front was full of a tied web of ditches set within one or two different lines and linked together. As time went by, the trenches were extended, provided with shelters, and covered with barbed wire and groups of machine guns, becoming less easy to conquer. Life in the trenches, monotonous and risky at the same time, was fraying the nerves more than the bodies of the soldiers, and was bringing them to a state of apathy and mental torpidity, as the words of a British soldier describe: “The worst of it was inaction. Every minute several shells fell within a few yards and covered us with dust, and the smell of the explosives poisoned my mouth. All I could do was to crouch against the parapet and pant for breath, expecting every moment to be my last. (…) in time my nerves became almost numbed, and I lay like a log until roused”. Soldiers and officers remained on the front line for weeks without changing place with someone else. They were living in deplorable hygienic conditions, without having the chance to wash themselves or change their clothes. They were exposed to hot and cold weather in addition to bombings from the enemies. They did go out from their ditches only to be engaged in some dangerous night expeditions or to run against the opposite trenches. The assaults usually started during the sunrise, preceded by an intense shooting that theoretically had to disrupt the defence but that in fact only eliminated the element of surprise.

Few months of war in the trenches were enough to let vanish the initial enthusiasm that lots of fighters – especially young bourgeois – had at the very beginning. On the 25th of May 1915, right after Italy joined the war, Italian sailor Giuseppe Sancini was excitedly writing to his captain: “The enthusiasm among the men who have been recalled is admirable, grand, and sublime, eminently fine in these fathers of families who think of nothing besides being speedily embarked in our glorious squadron”. Meanwhile German student Karl Peterson was summing up his experience as a soldier in the trenches with a desperate appeal: “Away with war! Away with this vile abortion brought forth by human wickedness! Human beings are slaughtering thousands of other human-beings whom they neither know, nor hate, nor love. Cursed be those who, while not themselves obliged to face the horror of war, bring it to pass!”. A lot of simple soldiers didn’t even know why they were fighting, and considered it as a natural event to accept with fatalistic patience: “those who have this sense of duty do not ask (…). No: one shoots, one stays awake, one is constantly on the watch, burrows in the ground till 12 or 1 o’clock, and is at it again by 5 the next morning, simply because it’s one’s damned duty and obligation”, says soldier Johannes Haas. However, neither the sense of duty nor the threat of execution could prevent that fear and aversion towards the war would generate an authentic sense of refusal. The most popular was the individual choice not to return to join the military conscription, as much as the practice of self-mutilation, consisting in auto inflicting wounds and mutilation to be dispensed from the front battle.

As professor Jeffrey Verhey noticed: “A historical curiosity, an innocent and naïve playing at heroism, a moment of profound tragedy, the end of a militaristic innocence, these are some of the possible narratives of the [war] if the narrative had been based on the sum of individual experiences”. By the end of 1918, the number of deaths within the military sphere was almost 10 million, not to count the civilians: what was considered to be a necessary and brief event of positive change turned out to be one of the most dramatic pages of our history, followed almost immediately by one even more terrible.


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