Prose & Poetry - German and British Memoirs of the First World War
The First World War spawned a great variety of war novels and memoirs. German novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and British memoirs by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden helped to create a mythology of "disillusionment."
Unfortunately, scholarly work on the subject of soldiers' experiences of the First World War has tended to take the literature of disillusionment as representative of the views of most soldiers who fought in the war. In reality, however, war memoirs represent a wide variety of views; some soldiers enjoyed the war and some hated it, but most were unable to decide how they felt about it.
I will survey several German and British memoirs in this essay, making comparisons between them with a view to drawing some conclusions as to how German and British soldiers sustained morale.
Ernst Jünger's The Storm of Steel is a unique and interesting book. Jünger's view of the war was a violent one and he did not hesitate to describe horrible wounds in great detail. Unlike other memoir writers, however, Jünger did not feel revulsion at the violence of war.
To him, war was primarily a beneficial experience that left soldiers with a positive legacy of friends made and lessons learned: "Time only strengthens my conviction that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart."
This attitude has caused many scholars to condemn Jünger as a bloodthirsty German nationalist. In an ambivalent introduction to the first English edition of this book, the English veteran and novelist R.H. Mottram indicts Jünger for creating "a sort of Nietzschean-Wagnerian atmosphere of heroics," and wonders whether "blows from great pieces of metal" had affected Jünger's sanity; but he also commended the German for his "sterling honesty."
The modern writer Martin Travers complains that Jünger failed to "engage with either the human or the historical tragedy" of the war, and that therefore he was somehow dishonest compared to anti-war writers.
There is no doubt that Jünger's motives in writing The Storm of Steel were political. He was a nationalist who believed in the resurrection and rearmament of Germany; one of his goals was to perpetuate the myth of an unbeaten German army.
Jünger claimed that the German soldiers fought with undiminished morale to the bitter end of the war despite the overwhelming Allied superiority in men and material. He believed that the Germans were able to do so because of their faith in the greatness of Germany and their unwavering loyalty and devotion to duty.
The ultimate goal of the book was to inculcate a feeling of national pride among Germans and convince them that the greatness of pre-war Germany could and should be restored. Jünger's judgment of the war generation stands in direct contrast to those who spoke of a legacy of bitterness and alienation: "We stand in the memory of the dead who are holy to us, and we believe ourselves entrusted with the true and spiritual welfare of our people."
It would be unfair, however, to dismiss Jünger's writings as so much nationalist propaganda. Jünger was unafraid to admit that there were times when German soldiers committed apparent atrocities.
He wrote, for example, that German soldiers sometimes massacred British soldiers attempting to surrender. Nor was he afraid, despite the anti-French feeling of many German nationalists, to compliment the French civilians for their kindness; he wrote that all soldiers should uphold the French example of "internationality of the heart."
Jünger experienced a full four years of fighting but most British and German soldiers spent much less time at the front. Remarque only spent a total of two months in or near the line.
All Quiet on the Western Front is also a political book and is not necessarily more "realistic" than The Storm of Steel. Many scholars reject Jünger out of hand and accept Remarque's interpretation of the war as "realistic." This is largely because a pessimistic view of the war is currently fashionable. I would argue, however, that Remarque's book is not only fictional but an unqualified romance; Jünger's book at least has the advantage of being ostensibly non-fictional.
Hans Carossa's A Roumanian Diary covers three months of the author's experiences as a junior medical officer in a Bavarian infantry regiment fighting in Romania. As a medical officer, Carossa observed the troops of his regiment from a distance.
He remained close enough to them, however, to get a sense of how the Bavarian soldiers coped with fighting Romanians and Russians on battlefields far distant from Germany. The fighting in Romania was heavy at times but, needless to say, was not the same as the trenches of Flanders. This book is useful nonetheless; Carossa was unconcerned with the question of whether the war was just and his account is relatively objective.
According to Carossa, the troops of his regiment were beginning to tire of the war by 1916, mainly because of the lack of sufficient food and clothing. The author also believed that somehow the German soldiers were mentally "altered by the war."
The troops were discouraged by their distance from Germany and the incompetence of their Austrian allies, and they were unafraid to make apparently mutinous remarks. Nevertheless, the soldiers always remained willing to fight.
Part of the reason for the maintenance of morale among the soldiers was the fact that civilians in the area hailed the Germans as "liberators." Peasants often boosted German morale by giving them food and drink, something the French peasants rarely did for their British "liberators." The German soldiers had no illusions, however, that they were fighting the Romanians for the greater glory of Germany.
More important was flexible but firm discipline. Ernst Jünger believed that good officership was responsible for the maintenance of morale, and Carossa's experiences seem to bear out this assertion. Carossa mentioned instances when officers felt obliged to ignore mutinous behaviour; at other times, however, firm discipline was essential.
The difference between Jünger and Carossa is that Jünger felt that constantly rigid discipline combined with a belief in the greatness of Germany kept the German soldier fighting to the last, while Carossa argued that steady but flexible discipline was instrumental in maintaining the morale of soldiers who had no illusions about fighting for any higher ideals.
In direct contrast to this picture of good discipline is Wolfgang Ackermann's And We Are Civilized, an unintentionally humorous first-hand account of life in the Austro-Hungarian army. Ackermann's memoirs present accounts of officers murdered by their men, rampant desertion, nationalist rivalries, and subsequent demoralization.
According to Ackermann, the Austrian army was in such bad shape after two years of war that soldiers routinely executed their own officers for not respecting national differences. Officers and soldiers often committed suicide rather than face more time in the trenches. The author, who was himself a junior officer, welcomed the possibility of death even though the conditions in trenches on this front were not nearly as bad as they were in France.
National jealousies and a lack of good leadership were the main factors in the incompetence of the Austrian army. It would be inaccurate to entirely blame the multi-national composition of the army for its ineffectiveness.
There are many historical examples of multi-national armies that have performed well when effectively led and organized. The Russian army in the First World War did very well when competently led as, for example, during the Brusilov offensive of 1916.
Ackermann's memoirs tend to indicate that poor officership was the primary cause of demoralization. One regiment that had received a great boost in morale at hearing news of the Russian surrender in 1918 mutinied after the official order that, instead of going to fight in Italy, they should remain in Russia and gather up all of the barbed wire in front of the trenches on their portion of the front.
And We Are Civilized also demonstrates the dislike that Ackermann and his troops felt for the Germans. Demoralization spread among the Austrian soldiers because the Germans never allowed them to retreat and often shot those who tried to run away.
The Austrians saw themselves as having "Russians before us" and "German machine gunners behind us." Given the choice, many soldiers either shot themselves in the feet or hands or deserted to the Russians.
Rudolf Binding's A Fatalist at War is one of the most pessimistic memoirs of the First World War [John Toland wrote in No Man's Land, pg. 7, that "Lieutenant Rudolf Binding" was "an important member of German post-war authors who idealized the virtues shown at the front and, to an extent, prepared the psychological atmosphere that helped bring Adolf Hitler to power."
Binding was not a lieutenant, and he was about as far from being a nationalist as one could imagine.] Binding hated the war and dwelt at length on the human suffering that it caused. Martin Travers believed that A Fatalist at War was an honest and realistic account simply because it addressed the "moral implications" of the war.
He wrote (illogically) that Jünger and Carossa, by contrast, did not understand the tragedy of war because they selfishly concentrated on their own "war experiences" and not on the "war."
Travers's assertion that Binding's work is "realistic" and "strikes home with total honesty" is ironic for several reasons, aside from the implication that a modern academic is qualified to judge the "realism" of a memoir based on the extent of its adherence to modern political standards.
Binding, a high-ranking staff officer in a cavalry regiment, never ventured into the front lines for any substantial length of time. The inactivity of the cavalry during the majority of the war left Binding constantly depressed; he wrote after one prolonged period of inactivity that "War has lost all its dash."
Despite his relatively comfortable existence (he spent several months of 1915 in a French château far behind the front lines), Binding was not ashamed to write home about the "immanence of the foe and of Death."
Binding's views were certainly heartfelt, but there is no reason to assume that they were representative of the views of the common soldiers. The author may have sensed the "human tragedy" of the war, but he also expressed an extreme hatred for French, Austrian, British, and even German soldiers and civilians; he expressed disgust when he found that his troops were fighting the "scum of East London."
By contrast, Jünger and most other German memoir writers expressed a healthy respect for their enemies and allies both. Binding was depressed during Christmas 1914 because he felt that the "Enemy, Death, and a Christmas-tree" did not go together even while his troops, in high morale, celebrated all around him. Many other incidents in this book emphasize that Binding was usually isolated in his depression and in lower spirits than his troops in the front line.
It is difficult to discern the state of mind of the common German soldier from this book. Binding was always distant from his soldiers and did not know or care how they felt about the war. For example, he believed that the German 1918 offensive failed almost entirely because of excessive looting by the German soldiers.
It is apparent, however, that the soldiers still believed either in victory or at least in the impossibility of total defeat until the conclusive defeats of the German army in the summer of 1918. At this point, in August 1918, Binding pronounced his verdict on the war generation: "This generation has no future, and deserves none. Anyone who belongs to it lives no more."
It is, unfortunately, difficult to find German memoirs of the First World War that come anywhere near the relative objectivity of British memoirs. Martin Travers, in his book on German novels of the First World War, points out that the political atmosphere in Weimar Germany effectively prevented any truly objective memoirs from receiving wide readership.
Every war memoir or novel printed between the wars in Germany automatically became political in nature because of the highly charged atmosphere of debate that surrounded interpretations of the war in this period.
Travers noted that All Quiet on the Western Front was a political work that was intended as a rebuttal of the "nationalist myth" of war represented by Jünger. Remarque sought to demonstrate that the German army had lost all cohesion by 1918, and that Jünger's assertion that the German soldiers fought to the end without flinching was false.
Remarque also intended to provide an alternative to Jünger's gory and relatively unfeeling portrayal of death by emphasizing that the dead had been human beings. Furthermore, Remarque asserted that the war produced a "lost generation" of men who would never be the same again.
It is easy to forget that German memoirs are usually inherently political. A number of historians have made the mistake of taking German memoirs at face value; unpublished or obscure diaries and memoirs would be much more useful in any attempt to accurately portray the war experiences of German soldiers. The published novels and memoirs of this period are worthwhile reading but of dubious historical value for the student of the First World War.
Charles Carrington's A Subaltern's War is unlike many British memoirs; it is part memoir and part bitter polemic against the British literature of "disillusionment." Carrington was fascinated rather than repulsed by corpses and freely admitted that he preferred life in the trenches to the hypocrisy of the home front: "Only in the trenches . . . were chivalry and sweet reasonableness to be found." He also believed that battle created a "thrill of excitement" and was a valuable learning experience. The similarities between Carrington and Jünger are obvious.
A Subaltern's War is, however, different from The Storm of Steel in several ways. Unlike Jünger, Carrington admitted that there were times when he broke down under the stress of fighting; he also mentioned instances when British soldiers panicked under fire. Carrington was also unlike Jünger in that he truly hated the enemy soldiers. He massacred surrendering Germans and did so "laughing"; he made no attempt to excuse it.
The epilogue of this book, entitled "An Essay on Militarism," is a summary of Carrington's bitter feelings toward disillusioned memoir writers. He claimed that the common British soldiers simply tried to "make the best of a bad job" and were never as critical of the war as were the civilians at home. He attacked Remarque, "the author of that highly coloured romance All Quiet on the Western Front," and other writers whom he felt had exaggerated the sufferings of men in the trenches.
According to Carrington, disillusion appeared after the war ended and originated at home. Though somewhat extreme by the standards of other British memoir-writers, Carrington's attitudes cannot therefore be discarded as less "honest" than they.
A Passionate Prodigality is a balanced and useful war memoir. Guy Chapman's view of the war can best be described as ambivalent. His book is filled with neither the aggressive nationalism of Jünger and Carrington, nor the overwhelming pessimism of Binding and Sassoon.
Instead, the book presents both the horror and the strange fascination that many soldiers felt toward the war. Chapman's memoirs also chronicle the progress of British morale from 1915 to 1918 in an objective and probably very accurate manner.
Chapman wrote that the British soldiers were still in a state of "primal innocence" until they fought in the Battle of the Somme. Even after the Somme and through the first part of 1917 the British retained a sense of confidence about the ultimate end of the war. Around the time of Passchendaele in August 1917, a feeling of despair began to sink in among the soldiers.
At this time, wrote Chapman, the soldiers were "tired beyond hope" and had no faith in patriotism, politicians, profiteers, England, France, or Belgium. By 1918 they were bitter about the war but were not truly disillusioned. Instead, they had an almost lethargic attitude; the war was terrible but they could to nothing about it.
The author of A Passionate Prodigality hated war, but he also felt a strange affection for it. Chapman wrote of "the enormous fascination of war, the repulsion and attraction, the sharpening of awareness . . . an apprehension which was not fear - a quickening rather."
This ambivalence was representative of many British soldiers who fought in the war. Denis Winter in his exhaustive study of British war memoirs showed that most men either felt ambivalent toward the war or were never able to make up their minds up about it.
Some Desperate Glory is a young British subaltern's diary, never intended for publication, that was printed fifty years after the author had died. Vaughan's diary presents a straightforward account of the day-to-day thoughts and concerns of a British soldier on the western front during 1917.
The author did not attempt to present his views on the justice of the war; he sought only to record his impressions of what he had seen and done. Most British and German memoirs were written years after the war and intended for a wide readership. Diaries such as Vaughan's are more trustworthy because they are personal and not popular accounts.
Vaughan spent the greater part of 1917 in a relatively quiet sector of the trench system. He endured some heavy bombardments and was once knocked senseless by a shell that nearly killed him, but did not experience any real fighting until Passchendaele in August.
It is therefore unsurprising that Vaughan did not mind being in the trenches in the months before August. During this period he actively sought patrol duty in no man's land, claiming that "Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale." Vaughan's optimism remained despite the fact that he did not get along with any of his fellow soldiers.
The author's attitudes changed greatly when he experienced the horrors of Passchendaele in August. Vaughan's diary reflects how the outlook of a soldier could radically change once he experienced the realities of a great battle. After months of light fighting, in a few hours Vaughan saw every other officer in his company killed or wounded, shattering his optimism of the first half of 1917.
After a few days in the battle of Passchendaele he wrote: "I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future." Vaughan was lucky to be withdrawn after only a few days in the line. The greater part of life in the trenches may indeed, as Carrington said, have been rather boring or even enjoyable; but there is no doubt that this attitude could change quickly after only a day in battle.
Denis Winter's depiction of life in the trenches sheds light on the question of how the British soldiers maintained morale throughout the war.
Carrington believed that British soldiers actually spent very little time in the front trenches; he calculated that during the year 1916 he spent only 65 days in the front line, and he only spent a small proportion of those in actual combat.
Winter agreed and added that a division would have only 10 percent of its men in the front line at any one moment.
Most spent a vast majority of their time in complete boredom. As Winter has said, the real enemy was not German bullets or artillery, but "the weather and the side-effects of living rough," such as lice and trench foot.
Carrington wrote, "Quite late in the war I have seen a man go to spend the afternoon in a trench under heavy shellfire because he was bored with sitting in a safe dugout." British memoirs reflect the fact that the soldiers only spent a tiny minority of their time in the front lines.
Why was there never a serious collapse of morale in the British army? British soldiers were not too busy to think about the war. As Winter has shown, most soldiers were so bored that there would have been plenty of time for them to reflect on why they were there in the trenches.
Nor is it enough to claim that the average British soldier had a greater sense of duty or patriotism than his French or Russian counterparts; British memoirs reflect the fact that most soldiers had no use for patriotic ideals.
Many soldiers believed that the camaraderie of the trenches helped them through; but some soldiers such as Vaughan did not collapse despite an intense dislike of their fellow soldiers. Small unit loyalty certainly played a large role, but this loyalty would not help a soldier through after he had seen all of his friends killed.
Morale remained good throughout the war largely because soldiers never had to spend much time actually fighting in the front lines. Battle was certainly horrible for all the soldiers involved, but most soldiers spent very little time in actual combat.
Soldiers who spent too much time in the line almost invariably broke down; no amount of patriotism or camaraderie could prevent a soldier from cracking if he spent a month in the front lines of the Ypres salient.
Fortunately, most soldiers did not have to spend more than two or three days at a time in an active sector of the front; British memoirs reflect this fact. The High Command of the British army must be given credit for an intelligent policy of rotation that kept soldiers in fighting condition for a much longer period of time than might otherwise have been possible.
The question of German morale is more complicated. Rudolf Binding wrote cynically that "the powerful word 'Vaterland' suffices to encourage the German to get himself shot." F.L. Carsten believed that "it was a mixture of discipline and patriotism."
Vaughan wrote that Germans who attempted to surrender were often machine-gunned by their own men. Jünger, Carossa and Ackermann, as I have noted, emphasized the importance of discipline.
Overall, German soldiers probably carried a heavier load of fighting than did their British counterparts. Germany had a large population, but German soldiers were spread all over Europe on several fronts. Carossa and Ackermann depicted German soldiers constantly being used as "fire brigades" to shore up Austria-Hungary, much as SS divisions were to be used in Russia 25 years later.
Jünger spent a large percentage of his time in the line. I have not read anything that has adequately answered the question of German morale, but I think Carsten was fairly accurate in asserting that discipline and patriotism played large roles.
German and British soldiers usually expressed respect for each other; but they hated the French. Almost all of the German and British memoir writers had something bad to say about the French soldiers. Jünger, Binding, Chapman, and Vaughan all mentioned that the French either did not bury their dead or buried them in the worst of places even when it would not have been much trouble to bury them behind the lines. Others such as Robert Graves brought their resentment of the French to the point of wishing that the British had fought the French and not the Germans.
German and British memoirs also reveal that French civilians were generally more friendly toward the Germans than toward the British. Vaughan met a Frenchwoman who talked of how well the Germans had treated her. Winter noted that many British memoirs depicted the French as impolite or even hostile. German memoirs, by contrast, depict the French civilians as very polite; but of course the Germans took what they wanted in any case. These attitudes toward the French were not new, but it is interesting to see how they were reflected in wartime. [Note: the memoirs that I have read between 1991 and 1998 indicate the necessity for some revision of this assertion. In the first and last years of the war, when the British armies were advancing, the French were noticeably more friendly toward them.]
Any study of the First World War should include an examination of a wide variety of war memoirs, including some of those less well known. Anyone who reads these memoirs and is able to keep in mind that they do not always provide objective accounts of the war can learn a great deal about why World War One was such a shattering experience for all Europeans, both soldiers and civilians.
Memoirs show that soldiers expressed a wide variety of views about the war, and most of them did not express Remarque's pessimism. Although none of the survivors were ever again the same as they had been in 1914, every soldier had changed in a different way. Some who survived the war became dedicated to pacifism. Others looked forward to the next war. Most, however, never entirely made up their minds.
Article contributed by Edward George Lengel.
The Russian war ace Alexander Kozakov claimed 20 victories during the war; his nearest compatriot, Vasili Yanchenko, claimed 16.
- Did you know?