With focus on the routines of work, rest and recreation, Senior Curator Paul Cornish describes the typical daily life experienced by soldiers in World War One.
For the soldiers of the First World War fighting was an exceptional circumstance, rather than the norm. For many, life consisted of toiling to keep those at the front supplied. But the frontline troops
themselves were rotated to ensure that time spent facing the enemy was balanced by periods of rest and, occasionally, home-leave. The determination of soldiers to keep fighting could be strongly influenced by the regularity of this rotation. Some armies were more efficient than others in this respect. Russian and Turkish soldiers, often fighting at huge distances from home, in regions poorly served by railways, were less able than others to find respite from the hardships of the front. This encouraged war-weariness and desertion. Poor leave arrangements also featured among the grievances of mutinying French soldiers in 1917. When armies were hard-pressed by their enemy – as was the case in the German army in the autumn of 1918 – repeated exposure to the stress of combat could lead to a collapse of morale.
Work while ‘at rest’
Even when supposedly at ‘rest’ soldiers could find themselves engaged in exhausting work. There was always a shortage of labour at the front, with fighting men having to provide working parties to make good the lack. Officers were exempt from tiring manual labour, but faced different claims upon their time out of the line – chiefly never-ending paperwork. In addition to dealing with general military bureaucracy, they were expected to master an ever-growing body of tactical and technical instructions, and to attend residential training courses.
Keeping clean, eating and smoking
However, time spent out of the line at least offered the opportunity for the frontline soldier to get clean. Communal baths would be set up and lice-infested clothing steam-cleaned. The chance to be clean was another essential prop to morale. Even more important to soldiers was the food that they ate. If supplies failed, or the quality was poor, the effects could be serious. Germany and Austria-Hungary – with food supplies hit by the Allied naval blockade – made immense efforts to keep their soldiers fed; even if this increased the hunger being felt by their citizens at home. But starvation eventually played a key role in the collapse of the latter’s army in 1918. French soldiers disdainfully referred to the meat provided for them as ‘monkey’. In attempting to restore their morale after the mutinies of 1917, their commander, Pétain, ensured that their food was improved. British soldiers had plenty of grumbles about the monotony (if not the quantity) of their food but, like other men fighting on the Western Front, they were able to supplement their rations with food sent from home, or bought locally. They could also visit canteens run by organisations such as the YMCA, or the local Estaminets. At the latter they could spend their wages on another essential ‘comfort’: wine and beer. Tobacco was also central to the lives of most European soldiers. Pipes or cigarettes offered a pleasure that could be enjoyed in almost any circumstance.
Letters to and from home
In the Western and Central European armies, where a high proportion of soldiers were literate, communication with home made a vital contribution to the maintenance of morale. Letters from friends and family kept soldiers in touch with the life that they had left behind. Writing home could also be therapeutic. The scale of this correspondence is shown by the fact that the British Army Postal Service alone despatched two billion letters and 114 million parcels over four years.
Games and sports
Soldiers of all armies grasped any opportunity for recreation when out of the line. The most universal activity came in the form of card games, such as the German soldier’s favourite Skat, or gambling games like ‘Crown and Anchor’; officially forbidden, but widely played by British Tommies. British soldiers had an additional passion – football. Even dog-tired men would start kicking a ball about given the opportunity. Football and other sports could also be played on a more organised level, with units and formations holding their own competitions featuring team sports, boxing or tests of horsemanship. Some of these competitions aimed to improve a unit’s esprit de corps, others to sharpen military skills. The British Tank Corps even held tank races.
When soldiers were at ‘rest’, the question of sex came to the fore. Some commanders sought to impose strict controls – the Italian commander-in-chief Luigi Cadorna asserted that the only women who could legitimately be seen with a uniformed soldier were the man’s mother or his wife! In reality, the presence of vast numbers of men behind the lines supported a flourishing sex industry on most fronts. Armies could ill-afford to ignore this aspect of soldiers’ lives; venereal diseases had the potential to add hugely to the numbers of men going sick. Most armies therefore became involved in the running or supervision of brothels.