The daily life of soldiers

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.

Cook book for the trenches

Cook book for the trenches

Cookbook for soldiers in the trenches published in 1915 giving simple recipes that could be made with few ingredients.

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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.

Souvenirs and trench art

Souvenir hunting became a mania for many soldiers. This was especially true in the British Army, whose citizen-soldiers were eager to acquire mementos of what was, for most, a once in a lifetime adventure. Trophies captured directly from the enemy were the most sought-after. Until its issue ceased in mid-1916, the German spiked helmet, the Pickelhaube, was the most prized among Allied soldiers. But humble battlefield debris like shell fragments and nose-caps were also collected.

Some soldiers even found an opportunity for creativity – re-working battlefield debris into what we now know as ‘trench art’. They turned shell cases into flower vases or tobacco jars. Copper driving-bands – which ensured that a shell fitted tightly into a gun’s barrel – became paper knives. Some musically inclined French soldiers even formed ‘trench orchestras’; making instruments from battlefield debris. The natural environment also provided inspiration. Leaves could be cut and embroidered into souvenirs. Soldiers on the Eastern Front sent home postcards made from the bark and wood of the abundant local trees. For those unable to make their own, similar types of handicraft could also be purchased from local people, who adapted traditional skills in metal-working or lace making to meet this new market for souvenirs.

Sex

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.

History of No.1 general hospital Canadian Expeditionary Force

Drawn from interviews and official documents, this is an account of one of the four main hospitals attached to the First Canadian Contingent, 1938.

Account published in 1938 about a hospital attached to the First Canadian Contingent containing tables of information of men admitted and their illnesses.

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  • Paul Cornish
  • Paul Cornish is a Senior Curator at the Imperial War Museum London. From 2010 to 2014 he worked on the creation of IWM’s new First World War Galleries. He is the author of Machine Guns and the Great War, and co-editor of two volumes on the Material Culture of Conflict: Contested Objects and Bodies in Conflict.

See also

More articles on: The war machine

More articles on: Life as a soldier

More articles on: Race, empire and colonial troops

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