Print showing illustrated figures in the midst of battle. This is shown through smoke, horses fleeing and shrapnel flying from bright explosions.

Combat and the soldier's experience in the First World War

In a war that saw new weaponry technology and great numbers of casualties, Assistant Professor Vanda Wilcox considers the common experiences of soldiers in active combat.
The men and women who served in the First World War endured some of the most brutal forms of warfare ever known. Millions were sent to fight away from home for months, even years at a time, and underwent a series of terrible physical and emotional experiences. The new technologies available to First World War armies combined with the huge number of men mobilised made the battlefields of 1914-18 horrific, deadly and terrifying places.

Photograph of Woman in the Russian cavalry (savage division)

A female member of the Russian savage division, part of the Russian imperial guard created in 1828 and composed of volunteers from the Caucasian minorities. This July 1917 image documents a situation more complex than the usual assumption of women’s civilian roles in wartime.

Female member of the Russian savage division, part of the Russian imperial guard, July 1917.

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Technological developments

Technological developments in the late 19th century had made artillery and machine guns extraordinarily effective defensive weapons, creating a deadly zone of fire in front of the defenders' positions. Soldiers and labourers were required to dig trenches and machine gun placements, which would protect men from enemy shelling and allow them to fire back at the enemy without exposing themselves to danger. New weapons were introduced during the war, like poison gas in 1915 and tanks in 1916, which made combat more unpredictable. 

Podgora Hill: the Italian front line trench on hill 240

Italian army corps of Carabinieri in a trench on Podgora Hill, Gorizia at the Italian Front. They are facing the Austro-Hungarian army and wearing early rudimentary gas masks.

This photograph shows the Italian army corps of Carabinieri in a trench on Podgora Hill, Gorizia at the Italian Front. They are facing the Austro-Hungarian army, wearing rudimentary gas masks. 

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Life in the lines

Even before battle began, the experience of life in the lines could be overwhelming. Men were living outside for days or weeks on end, with limited shelter from cold, wind, rain and snow in the winter or from the heat and sun in summer. Artillery destroyed the familiar landscape, reducing trees and buildings to desolate rubble and churning up endless mud in some areas. The incredible noise of artillery and machine gun fire, both enemy and friendly, was often incessant. Yet soldiers spent a great deal of time waiting around, and in some quiet sectors there was little real fighting and a kind of informal truce could develop between the two sides. Even in more active parts of the front, battle was rarely continuous and boredom was common among troops, with little of the heroism and excitement many had imagined before the war. The Italian infantry officer Emilio Lussu wrote that life in the trenches was ‘grim and monotonous’ and that ‘if there were no attacks, there was no war, only hard work’.[1] The order to attack – or news of an enemy assault – changed everything.

The order to attack

Men ordered to attack – or ‘go over the top’ – had to climb out of their trenches, carrying their weapons and heavy equipment, and move through the enemy's ‘field of fire’ over complex networks of barbed wire, keeping low to the ground for safety. The objective was to reach the enemy's front line, where the defending troops would be sheltering in their own trenches, and use rifles or bayonets to attack them directly. Once the defenders were eliminated, the attacking force seized the position – at least in theory. In reality these tactics were often unsuccessful and victorious attacks were rare. Casualties were extremely high, with many men killed and wounded: attackers often suffered higher casualties than defenders. Wounded men were carried or escorted back to field hospitals for treatment, while the dead could only be buried if there was a suitable break in the fighting.

Why did soldiers keep fighting?

Unsurprisingly ‘going over the top’ was a terrifying experience for most soldiers. Yet it was rare that men disobeyed the order to attack: most First World War troops were generally compliant. What motivated men to fight under such terrible conditions? What kept their morale high despite their fear and physical exhaustion?

Traditionally, the authorities believed – or hoped – that men would be motivated by loyalty to an idea: usually patriotism. French and Serbian soldiers were defending their homeland against invasion, while British, German and Austrian soldiers were encouraged to focus on their duty to their King or Emperor. These ideas encouraged men to volunteer for military service and could keep their spirits high through long spells of front-line service, but once under fire men needed more than ideals to maintain their courage.

One important explanation for soldiers’ resilience is the idea of the ‘primary group’: men were motivated above all by comradeship as they fought alongside friends and companions. Effective training also helped, making soldiers familiar with the chaos and fear of the battlefield so that their actions in battle became second nature to them. But armies did not leave men's behaviour in battle down to chance: the system of military discipline existed to coerce them into obedience. Punishments for disobeying orders could be severe, and men who were convicted of ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’ or desertion from their unit could receive the death sentence. Many hundreds of soldiers were executed by their own armies for military offences during the conflict.

A unique and terrible experience for all

Some 60 million soldiers from all over the world served in the First World War, fighting in locations varying from France to Iraq, Greece to China, the North Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and experiencing a huge range of types of combat. Yet wherever they fought, the impact of modern technologies combined with the political circumstances of the war made First World War combat a unique and terrible experience.

'Calm' - part of a soldier's diary

A page from a Serbian soldier’s diary, describing some of his impressions during an attack.

Page from a soldier’s diary describing the experience of battle: 'Through thundering gun and cannon fire, you can hear shouting of wounded soldiers or bold attackers, storming and laughing at death.'

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[1] E. Lussu, Sardinian Brigade trans. Marion Rawson, (Prion Books, 2000) pp.172-3.

  • Vanda Wilcox
  • Vanda Wilcox teaches European History at John Cabot University, Rome. Her research explores the experience and memory of the First World War in Italy, and she has published on soldiers' emotions, military service, and morale and discipline in the Italian army.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.