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What were the individual soldiers motivated by during World War 1?

What were the individual soldiers motivated by during World War 1?

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A history book will tell you that the First World War was started due to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and a tangled mess of alliances and defensive treaties criss-crossing Europe. And, of course, many of those countries had been vaguely itching for a fight for a while, each feeling like their super-modern weaponry made them unstoppable.

But these seem like poor motivators for a kid from London or a husband from Berlin to go to war. In World War 2, there were many famous motivators on each side of the conflict, such as the German resentment of the Allies for their post-war treatment or the American fury after Pearl Harbor.

Maybe I'm underestimating the potency of those alliances in the mind of the common citizen, but it seems like "I'm going to enlist because one of my government's allies was attacked by one of my government's enemy's allies because some random guy from one of my government's enemy's allies' countries was shot" isn't enough to get many people to leave their wives and girlfriends.

When the boys marched off to war in 1914, or perhaps more importantly when the later boys joined the front in 1915 or 1916, what were they fired up about? Surely we have interviews or letters, or even biased propaganda, outlining the issues that the soldiers of each side considered the most important reasons for continuing the fight? The French were presumably fighting to defend their homeland and the Serbians and Austrians no doubt felt the assassination hit quite close to home, but what about the average German or British or Russian or American or Turkish or Italian soldier in the trenches? What were the issues that they felt were the most important reasons to fight?

Or were they actually just THAT fired up about "king and country"? What did contemporary chroniclers such as Erich Maria Remarque ("All Quiet on the Western Front") or Robert Graves ("Goodbye to All That") have to say?

This is only a partial answer:

Even when conscription wasn't a factor there was enormous social pressure to enlist. Those who refused were accused of cowardice. See for example the Order of the White Feather, a movement of civilian woman, often young and attractive, who were encouraged to present a white feather to any man of fighting age seen in public not in military uniform. The white feather was a public accusation of cowardice. The order was started in Britain at the outbreak of WWI by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald and was so successful and so zealous that it was necessary to provide civil servants and honourably discharged soldiers with badges so that they weren't publicly shamed. It also spread well beyond Britain.

In both France and Germany there was mandatory conscription, so both countries had as large an army as they could afford. It was a crime to fail to enlist if you were ballotted into the army. Both countries publicly glorified the army and soldiers as patriotic entities. Also, the pay was better than many starter jobs available to young men at that time.

Britain's army was entirely voluntary until 1916. The government used patriotic propaganda and organized recruiting to enlist soldiers. A typical technique was to enlist young men from particular companies, areas or schools all at the same time, creating a sort of peer pressure for the groups to enlist and fight together. As in Germany, patriotic fervor was a prime motivation in addition to the pay.

The United States generated a range of patriotic propaganda to encourage enlistment, but this was completely insufficient, so that when the US entered the war it was necessary to forcibly conscript soldiers. For example, in 1916 the president appealed for 1 million volunteers and less than 100,000 enlisted. Therefore, after war was declared in April 1917, it was immediately followed in May by compulsory conscription and it was made a crime not to report to the army when summoned. By this time all the other major belligerents had done the same thing.

As the war dragged on, both enlistment and desertion were serious problems to the extent that mass executions by firing squad were carried out on both sides. Robert Graves wrote about his experience in his famous book, Goodbye to All That, "I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived at Le Havre in May 1915 and read the back-files of army orders at the rest camp. They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion. Yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons, answering a question from a pacifist, denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of His Majesty's Forces". Note that this was just one rest camp, out of hundreds, and that was in 1915, before conscription had even started.

Every nation had its own "pet peeve" which had to be addressed.

  • France: Alsace-Lorraine and redress of humiliation of Franco-Prussian War
  • Germany: the great nation is being cheated out of colonies!
  • Austria-Hungary: the great nation is being insulted by a Balkan upstart
  • Russia: Pan-Slavism, the Straits
  • Britain: the Hunns are threatening the civilization

As you mention yourself, the common expectation was a quick triumph, and such atmosphere is quite conductive to militant patriotism flaring up.

The soldiers of the war were initially volunteers, except for Italy, but increasingly were conscripted into service. Britain's Imperial War Museum has collected more than 2,500 recordings of soldiers' personal accounts and selected transcripts, edited by military author Max Arthur, have been published. The museum believes that historians have not taken full account of this material and accordingly has made the full archive of recordings available to authors and researchers. Surviving veterans, returning home, often found that they could only discuss their experiences amongst themselves. Grouping together, they formed "veterans' associations" or "Legions", as listed at Category:Veterans' organizations.

Prisoners of world war I

About 8 million men surrendered and were held in POW camps during the war. All nations pledged to follow the Hague Convention on fair treatment of prisoners of war . A POW's rate of survival was generally much higher than their peers at the front. Individual surrenders were uncommon. Large units usually surrendered en masse. At the Battle of Tannenberg 92,000 Russians surrendered. When the besieged garrison of Kaunas surrendered in 1915, some 20,000 Russians became prisoners. Over half of Russian losses were prisoners (as a proportion of those captured, wounded or killed) for Austria-Hungary 32%, for Italy 26%, for France 12%, for Germany 9% for Britain 7%. Prisoners from the Allied armies totalled about 1.4 million (not including Russia, which lost 2.-3.5 million men as prisoners.) From the Central Powers about 3.3 million men became prisoners.

Germany held 2.5 million prisoners Russia held 2.9 million while Britain and France held about 720,000. Most were captured just prior to the Armistice. The U.S. held 48,000. The most dangerous moment was the act of surrender, when helpless soldiers were sometimes gunned down. Once prisoners reached a camp, in general, conditions were satisfactory (and much better than in World War II), thanks in part to the efforts of the International Red Cross and inspections by neutral nations. Conditions were terrible in Russia, starvation was common for prisoners and civilians alike about 15󈞀% of the prisoners in Russia died. In Germany food was scarce, but only 5% died.

The Ottoman Empire often treated POWs poorly. Some 11,800 British Empire soldiers, most of them Indians, became prisoners after the Siege of Kut, in Mesopotamia, in April 1916, 4,250 died in captivity. Although many were in very bad condition when captured, Ottoman officers forced them to march 1,100 kilometres (684 mi) to Anatolia. A survivor said: "we were driven along like beasts, to drop out was to die." The survivors were then forced to build a railway through the Taurus Mountains.

In Russia, where the prisoners from the Czech Legion of the Austro-Hungarian army were released in 1917 they re-armed themselves and briefly became a military and diplomatic force during the Russian Civil War.

While the Allied prisoners of the Central Powers were quickly sent home at the end of active hostilities, the same treatment was not granted to Central Power prisoners of the Allies and Russia, many of which had to serve as forced labor , e.g. in France until 1920. They were only released after many approaches by the ICRC to the Allied Supreme Council . There were still German prisoners being held in Russia as late as 1924.

Military attachés and war correspondents

Military and civilian observers from every major power closely followed the course of the war. Many were able to report on events from a perspective somewhat akin to modern " embedded " positions within the opposing land and naval forces. These military attachés and other observers prepared voluminous first-hand accounts of the war and analytical papers.

For example, former U.S. Army Captain Granville Fortescue followed the developments of the Gallipoli campaign from an embedded perspective within the ranks of the Turkish defenders and his report was passed through Turkish censors before being printed in London and New York. However, this observer's role was abandoned when the U.S. entered the war, as Fortescue immediately re-enlisted, sustaining wounds at Montfaucon d'Argonne in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 1918.

In-depth observer narratives of the war and more narrowly focused professional journal articles were written soon after the war and these post-war reports conclusively illustrated the battlefield destructiveness of this conflict. This was not the first time the tactics of entrenched positions for infantry defended with machine guns and artillery became vitally important. The Russo-Japanese War had been closely observed by Military attachés, war correspondents and other observers but, from a 21st Century perspective, it is now apparent that a range of tactical lessons were disregarded or not used in the preparations for war in Europe and throughout the Great War.

15 thoughts on &ldquo Unsung heroes of World War I: the carrier pigeons &rdquo

Please include the facts that the Passenger Pigeon went extinct, hunted out of existence, by September 1914. Their numbers used to be in the hundreds of millions, but in the course of just 100 years their numbers dwindled to zero because there were virtually no efforts to protect this bird species that had served our country so well.

Passenger Pigeons are extinct but Carrier Pigeons (the subject of this article) are not. They are two different species.

4. M&Ms didn&apost have their signature "M" stamp until 1950.

Urbano Delvalle/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Shortly after wartime quotas ended and the candies were made available to the general public, Forrest Mars bought out Murrie’s shares in the company and took sole ownership of the M&M brand. The familiar brown bag package that remains in use today was introduced in 1948. Two years later, the candies began to be imprinted with a black “m” (which changed to white in 1954), and customers were encouraged to “Look for the M on every piece” to ensure they were getting the real thing.

The Gallipoli campaign

Life for the New Zealand soldier on Gallipoli was tough. Packed inside the tiny Anzac perimeter, they endured extreme weather and primitive living conditions during their eight-odd months on the peninsula. During summer (June-August), temperatures soared, while the winter months (November-January) brought rain, snow and bone-chilling winds. After a few months in crowded conditions on the peninsula, soldiers began to come down with dysentery and typhoid because of inadequate sanitation, unburied bodies and swarms of flies. Poor food, water shortages and exhaustion reduced the men’s resistance to disease.

Living conditions

The area occupied by the New Zealanders and Australians at Anzac was tiny – less than six square kilometres. At its furthest point, the distance between the front line and the beach was just over 900 metres. Conditions were harsh. The area possessed no natural water source, so there were constant shortages. Water, food, ammunition, and other supplies arrived at Anzac on ships and were landed on the beach with great difficulty.

Whenever possible, whether in the line or out of it, a man paired off with a mate and established a ‘bivvy’. This was a structure of a very primitive sort. With pick and shovel a cut was made in a slope that gave protection from the bullets of the snipers, and if possible from the bursts of shrapnel. A couple of salvaged oil sheets pinned across with salvaged bayonets made a roof that would keep out the dew at night and the sun glare by day. Furnishings consisted of commandeered sandbags or old overcoats for softening the hardness of the baked floor, a cut down petrol tin for a ‘bath’ and whole one for storing water. As soon as the work was finished the flies and the lice – the permanent residents – took up their abode, while the casual boarders such as centipedes and soldiers strayed in from time to time as opportunity offered…

Ormond Burton, The Silent Division, 1935

Poor food contributed to a general deterioration in the men’s health. Troops lived on a staple diet of tinned bully beef, army biscuits and jam fresh fruit and vegetables were non-existent. Sanitation was also a problem. With up to 25,000 men packed into such a cramped space, latrines filled up fast and there was limited space for new ones. Body lice became endemic, and diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery and enteric fever (typhoid) flourished in the unsanitary conditions.

Bully beef and biscuits. You couldn’t eat your biscuit dry. It was like chewing rock. You’d break your teeth in the biscuits if you got stuck into them. You had to soak it. For pudding we used to have biscuit soaking in water and the jam all mixed up together. They issued you with a small tin of jam, perhaps four to a tin.

Russell Weir, Wellington Battalion, in Jane Tolerton, An Awfully Big Adventure: New Zealand World War One veterans tell their stories, 2013

The stench of the dead made living conditions even worse. Unburied corpses littered no man’s land, while others lay in shallow graves close to the dugouts of the living. In the searing heat of summer, the rotting corpses, food and body waste were the perfect breeding ground for flies and the diseases they spread. Swarms of flies tormented the men, turning simple tasks such as preparing and eating food into horrible ordeals.

Psychological pressures magnified the physical hardships. Service in the front line was always dangerous. Opposing trenches were extremely close – barely four metres apart in some places. At this range, enemy hand grenades, or ‘bombs’, caused a steady stream of casualties. Danger also lurked behind the front line. No place within the tiny perimeter was safe from enemy fire, and Ottoman shells and snipers took a toll of troops in support areas.

Medical treatment

For those wounded on Gallipoli, the wait for treatment and evacuation was often long and agonising. Compared with the organisation and efficiency of the Western Front, medical services at Gallipoli were a shambles. The evacuation framework for casualties — moving wounded from field ambulances to casualty clearing stations, and then military hospitals — fell apart, as poor planning and the sheer scale of casualties overwhelmed the available medical resources.

During the April landings and the August offensive, the advanced dressing stations in the gullies and the casualty clearing stations on the beach could not cope with the large numbers of wounded. The stations themselves often came under fire because of their exposed positions.

From the field ambulances and casualty clearing stations, wounded were evacuated by boat to hospital ships and ambulance transports — dubbed ‘black ships’ — waiting offshore. Poor coordination and mismanagement meant that many serious cases were left on the beach too long once on board they found appalling conditions.

. There were no beds. Some were still on stretchers on which they had been carried down from the hills, some on the paillasses thrown down on the hard decks. The few Red Cross orderlies were terribly overworked. For twelve hours on end an orderly would be alone with sixty desperately wounded men in a hold dimly lit by one arc lamp. None of them had been washed and many were still in their torn and blood-stained uniforms. There were bandages that had not been touched for two or three days – and men who lay in an indescribable mess of blood and filth … Most of them were in great pain, many could get no ease or rest, and all were patched with thirst. Those who slept dreamed troubled dreams and those waked were in torment:
‘Orderly! Orderly! Water! Water!
‘Orderly, for Christ’s sake, ease me up a little.’
‘Orderly! I can’t sleep.’
‘Water! Fetch me a drink.’
‘Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!’
‘I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept for three nights – give me morphia.’
‘Oh God! You don’t know how this hurts.’
‘Oh thank you orderly, but can’t you give me a whole cupful.’
‘Orderly! Orderly! Fetch me a drink.’
‘Look out there! They are coming! Take that you bastard!’
‘Oh God! Oh God! – the pain!’

Ormond Burton, New Zealand Medical Corps, quoted in Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon & Kynan Gentry, The Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War, 2009

The ships transported wounded to hospitals in Egypt, Lemnos, Malta or even to England. Such was the chaos of the operation that some relatively lightly wounded men ended up in England, while casualties still convalescing found themselves going back to Gallipoli.

Uniform and equipment

New Zealand troops came ashore at Anzac on 25 April 1915 laden with equipment. Infantrymen carried a rifle, ammunition, bayonet, water bottle, entrenching tool, haversack, and a pack containing over 30 kilograms of extra rations, water, firewood and clothing. Individual food rations, known as ‘iron rations’, consisted of tinned bully beef, hard biscuits, tea, sugar and beef cubes. Soldiers attached most of this kit to webbing, which they wore over their uniforms.

The majority of New Zealanders on Gallipoli wore Territorial Force uniforms introduced in 1912. These were a darker shade of green than the khaki-brown British uniforms, and featured coloured piping on the epaulettes to distinguish branches of service.

As the campaign dragged onto in summer, comfort and practicality became more important to the Anzacs than maintaining dress regulations and appearance. Soldiers stitched bits of cloth to the back of their peaked ‘forage caps’ for better sun protection, rolled up or cut off shirtsleeves, and turned trousers into shorts. Most kept their hair short as protection against lice but water shortages meant that shaving was a luxury.

Day by day the sun grew hotter and hotter until it burned down scorchingly hot. There was scarcely any shade. The bivvies themselves were swelteringly hot. The ground was almost red hot. There was little stirring of air beneath the great cliffs. Men soon commenced to shed their clothing. Slacks were ripped off at the knees and the vogue of shorts commenced. Coats were flung off and then shirts. The ‘Tommy hats’ in which the New Zealanders had landed were soon thrown away and replaced by Australian felts, pith helmets or the New Zealand issue of unfortunate members of the reinforcement drafts … Within six weeks of landing the fashionable costume had become boots, shorts, identity disk, hat and when circumstances permitted a cheerful smile. The whole was topped off by a most glorious coat of sunburn.

Ormond Burton, The Silent Division, 1935

Most New Zealand infantrymen were armed with .303-inch ‘Long’ Magazine Lee Enfield Mk I rifles. The exceptions were officers (who carried revolvers), and specialist personnel like machine gunners. They operated .303 MK III Maxim Guns – the standard heavy machine gun used by the NZEF in 1914-15. It fired up to 400 rounds per minute, and proved vital to the defence of the Anzac perimeter.


Given our understanding of the horrors of war, it is often difficult to understand how men coped with life at the Front during the First World War. Many, of course, did not: it is during this period that shell shock and what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder were first described and diagnosed . Hundreds, across all the armies involved in the war, deserted, and both sides faced large mutinies &ndash among the French in 1917 and by the German navy in 1918, as well the Russian Revolution in 1917. But these aside, the majority of those serving followed orders and often acted with enormous courage and bravery, as well as killing their fellow men. What allowed them to do this?


The ability for both sides to place so many men in the field for so long is testament not just to the power and control the military could exert but also to the strength of belief of those involved in the fighting. It is impossible to understand how men volunteered, accepted conscription and continued to fight without taking into account their beliefs about the war.

While individuals varied greatly, there are some common themes that run through soldiers&rsquo diaries and letters and point to how they saw the call to arms and the nature of battle. The military was also especially interested in morale, and took pains to measure what the troops were feeling and thinking.

Many British volunteers, and later conscripts, saw the German threat as very real. Belgian soldiers were fighting for their homeland (although linguistic allegiances complicated their sympathies) and France knew it faced a repeat of the German invasion of 1870. For Austro-Hungarians, the Archduke had been assassinated, and Germans could believe that they were fighting for an equal place with the other European empires and were resisting Russian aggression. For soldiers, these patriotic notions were also mixed with other emotions, as well as a good dose of realism. Few really thought that the war would be over quickly, at least after the first few months had passed. Many served out of thought for their families and friends as much as through loyalty to their country. For others, the promise of regular pay and help for their families might have influenced their decision and motivation to serve. Later in the war, rumours of peace or victory repeatedly spread along the Fronts, giving men an illusion that the end of the conflict was near (the hope of leave also served a similar purpose).

Given the size of the army and the presence of a large number of either recent volunteers or conscripts, something about the nature of the society from which the men were drawn no doubt influenced attitudes towards military service. Britain&rsquos high-levels of industrialisation, and workers&rsquo adaptation to the rigours and boredom of often-harsh factory life, may have prepared men for the Front, while the social cohesion (and acceptance of paternalism) evident in British society was reflected in good officer-ranks relations. In contrast, the hierarchy and militarism of the German army and the &lsquowar-enthusiasm&rsquo of many volunteers led to disillusionment and eventually radicalisation of the ranks.

Rest and recreation played some part in the resilience of British troops, who were able to enjoy some of the leisure activities they enjoyed in civilian life during regular times away from the Front: music hall, cinema and organised sports offered some form of respite.

Friends and enemies

Despite the famous (but by no means ubiquitous) truces of the first winter of the war, hatred of the enemy &ndash and even the desire to kill &ndash fuelled many soldiers&rsquo ability to keep fighting. Revenge for friends and companions killed, and the experience of being shot at or bombarded, combined with pervasive propaganda and helped to instil national hatred as the war continued.

In parallel to these feelings, the military unit could provide an alternative set of communal bonds. Soldiers often wrote about their sense of comradeship and friendship with their fellow men. Many fought for each other as much as for remoter loyalties such as to king and country.

French propaganda poster about German attrocities

This French poster is an example of an attempt to mobilise troops. It portrays Germany as the enemy of both individual freedom and international treaties evil versus good.

Coping with war

Men responded differently under fire. For many, the helplessness of suffering artillery bombardment was the hardest thing to deal with. Many could not stay hunkered down but could only cope with the noise and danger of death by walking around, thereby increasing their risk of becoming a casualty. Group panic could break out during an attack, as could more serious breaches of discipline, particularly when troops were especially exhausted or bore grievances against the officers. Those immediately thrown into heavy action tended to cope less well than novices who were gradually exposed to conflict.

As soldiers spent more time under fire, they tended to develop what among German troops was termed ‘Dickfelligkeit’ (‘thick-skinnedness’) and became hardened to the rigours of the Front. Veteran soldiers learned to pay attention to their environment, taking advantage of cover and working better under fire. In general, older hands did better with managing the intense feeling of terror that inflicted itself on those under fire.

Soldiers also had to cope with long stretches of anxious waiting, or even boredom, as well as responding to or participating in attacks. To counteract this, busy routines were put in place, ensuring that trenches were repaired, men supplied, and all was ready for the long, wakeful nights (daytime was usually too dangerous for major activity). Soldiers could also comfort themselves with the knowledge of the inefficiency of most First World War weaponry. Men often resorted to black or gallows humour, as well as a bitter fatalism and superstition, as a means of dealing with everyday reality doses of rum may also have played their part in steadying nerves.

Mental breakdown

Many, of course, did not cope with the stresses of the war. This manifested itself in a number of ways, including the reporting of physical ailments, such as trench foot, which, in the British army, was tracked as a marker of morale. Recognising that a rise in certain diseases was linked to problems with morale, the British army recorded the incidence of trench foot and asked officers to produce a report if the number rose. Others responded to the strains with what was called &lsquoshirking&rsquo, a general lassitude and lack of aggression in combat.

Medical opinion, and the rates of psychological breakdown after returning to the field, suggested that those who temporarily left their post (that is, were convicted of the charge of &lsquoAbsence without Leave&rsquo) were suffering from the mental effects of war.

Suicide offered another way out. It was much underreported, as at least 3,828 German soldiers killed themselves a figure that does not reflect the numbers who simply walked into enemy fire or whose death was ambiguous.

Those that returned also had to readjust to civilian life, often during periods of great political and social upheaval. Millions also had to cope with physical trauma or the loss of family members and friends. Many men found it difficult to talk about their experiences, or found it hard to relate their sense of service with a society that increasingly came to lament the loss. The psychological consequences of the war continued to be felt for a generation or more.

  • Written by Matthew Shaw
  • Matthew Shaw is a curator in the European and Americas team at the British Library. He has published on the Revolutionary Era, and was lead curator of Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain&rsquos freedoms and rights (2008-09).

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

World War One was the first conflict where the number of deaths from wounds outstripped those from disease. Shrapnel and machine gun fire destroyed men’s flesh and left behind some of the worst injuries ever seen. New weapons caused complex wounds that needed new surgical techniques, in areas such as orthopaedics and plastic surgery. Wound care developed further with antiseptic treatments, such as the Carrel-Dakin technique, which consisted of regular irrigation through rubber tubes placed in the wounded area. There were also psychological wounds to contend with. And though wounds proved more fatal than disease, illness was still rife at all of the fronts.

Fragments of an explosive bullet extracted from the wound of a soldier in 1914

This photograph shows several explosive bullet fragments extracted from the leg of Milan Stavić, a private in the Serbian army, at the Russian field hospital at Valjevo in western Serbia. A bullet like the one in this photograph would explode within the body, and its fragments would act like shrapnel.

Medical care in conflict depends on various factors, from the number of doctors and nurses available to the climate and geology of the land being fought on and the number of soldiers requiring treatment. Living conditions on the Western Front meant that many men suffered from gas-gangrene, trench foot and trench fever. The heat of the Middle East brought with it its own complications, as did the extreme cold in Salonika, where frostbite became common. Diseases such as malaria (which had major epidemics in Macedonia, Palestine and Mesopotamia, in particular), typhoid (in the Mediterranean) and dysentery (on the warmer fronts, in particular) raged amongst those stationed on these fronts. Venereal disease was another problem for forces on both sides &ndash as well as for civilians &ndash and a matter of great concern among government and military powers.

Faced with the unique nature of wounds sustained in World War One, doctors and scientists developed a number of innovative techniques, tools and treatments.

Treating fractured femurs

The Thomas splint was introduced to the Western Front in 1916, and between then and 1918 it reduced the rate of mortality from fractures, and from fractures of the femur in particular, from 80% to 20%. [1] The splint was originally designed in the 1870s by Hugh Owen Thomas, who is considered the father of orthopaedic surgery in Britain, with the intention that it would stabilise a fracture and prevent infection. However, it was not widely used until his nephew, Robert Jones, introduced it for use in the war. Essentially, the splint keeps the leg immobile which prevents further bleeding (caused by the movement of broken bones) and helps to align the fractured pieces. By keeping the leg secure, it furthermore made the men more comfortable during transportation.

The instructions for application contained the following suggestions for when it should be used:

    1. For all fractures of the thigh bone, except where there is an extensive wound in the upper part of thigh or buttock, which would interfere with the fitting of the ring.
    2. In severe fractures about the knee-joint or upper part of the tibia.
    3. In certain cases of extensive wounds of fleshy part of thigh. [2]

    Ideally, a team of three (an operator and two assistants) was required to apply the splint. There were 12 different stages in its application, all of which served to make the patient as comfortable as possible. The main goal of the splint was to allow practitioners to move the patient without causing him pain, or any further damage to the injured part.

    Alexander Fleming's notebook, June 1917 - 1918

    Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist best known for his discovery of penicillin, worked on alleviating the symptoms of gas gangrene.

    Artificial limbs

    Although the Thomas splint reduced the mortality rate of wounded soldiers significantly, injuries from new weapons still resulted in many men returning with physical disabilities. Around 41,000 British servicemen lost at least one limb after being wounded in combat. [3] A number of hospitals opened with the sole purpose of helping men with amputations, two of the best known being the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers, based in Erskine, and the Queen Mary Convalescent Auxiliary Hospital, based in Roehampton.

    When the war broke out, the making of prosthetic limbs was a small industry in Britain. Production had to increase dramatically. One of the ways this was achieved was by employing men who had amputations to make prosthetic limbs &ndash most commonly at Erskine and Roehampton, where they learnt the trade alongside established tradespeople. This had the added advantage of providing occupation for discharged soldiers who, because of their disabilities, would probably have had difficulty finding work. [4]

    The main material used in the construction of these artificial limbs was wood, with willow found to be the most suitable, due to its pliable nature. As the war progressed, the makers of artificial limbs experimented with newer and lighter materials. Towards the end of the war and into the 1920s, light metal became common. Standardisation of limbs came gradually. It was not until the early 1920s that the Government Research Laboratory finished designing what would become known as the &lsquoStandard Wooden Leg&rsquo, which was to be manufactured by all limb makers from a prescribed pattern. Standardisation was useful because artificial limbs were more often than not repaired by someone other than the original maker.

    Once a limb had been fitted, a man had to learn how to use it. Hospitals placed a huge emphasis on rehabilitation. Rehabilitation focused on enabling men to pursue both recreational activities and employment. At institutions like Erskine and Roehampton workshops were set up to teach patients to do everything from joinery and hairdressing to basket weaving and bee keeping. Tools were also adapted for men who had lost limbs, especially for those who were using artificial arms.

    The treatment and training of disabled and discharged soldiers in France by Sir Henry Norman

    This report provides an insight on amputees who struggled to deal with the heavy and uncomfortable prosthetics provided for them.

    Facial reconstruction and plastic surgery

    Before World War One, plastic surgery was rarely practiced as a specialism. Usually, work was undertaken by whichever surgeon received the case. But from the Battle of the Somme onwards there was a huge rise in facial mutilations, and a separate medical field developed as a result, focused on treating such injuries. Plastic surgery also became less dangerous, thanks to improvements in asepsis and general anaesthetic.

    The most influential figure in facial reconstruction during World War One is Harold Gillies. Born in New Zealand, Gillies studied medicine at Cambridge and qualified as a surgeon in the UK. After heading to France to serve in the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps, Gillies met Auguste Charles Valadier, a dentist working on replacing jaws that had been destroyed by gunshot wounds. It was during this period that Gillies turned his attentions to facial plastic surgery.

    Plastic Surgery of the Face, by Harold Gillies

    An example of Gillies&rsquo jaw work.

    Usage terms Harold Delf Gillies: You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Sidney Walbridge [photographer]: Public Domain.
    Held by© The Gillies Family

    Gillies&rsquos focus was on the aesthetic side of plastic surgery: he wanted to make patients look as similar to their pre-injured state as possible. He was famed for his use of the tubed pedicle technique: only partially removing tissue from its original site so it retained a blood supply during transfer to another site, and reduced the risk of infection. This allowed large quantities of still-living skin to be transferred from one section of the body to the other.

    Plastic Surgery of the Face, by Harold Gillies

    Gillies&rsquo aimed to make patients look as similar to their pre-injured state as possible. In 1920, he published a book instructing other surgeons on how to achieve this.

    Usage terms Harold Delf Gillies: You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Sidney Walbridge [photographer]: Public Domain.
    Held by© The Gillies Family

    Speaking in 1951 at the Festival of Britain, Gillies pointed out that his tubed pedicle technique had been accepted and used, developed and enhanced, in every country in the world. He also praised the plastic surgeons working at Sidcup in World War One, saying that they &lsquodeveloped [the technique&rsquos] use beyond all conception.&rsquo [5] Operating from 1917 until 1925, the hospital at Sidcup became a major centre for facial injury and plastic surgery. The service treated 5000 men for facial injuries and included separate units for British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand patients.

    Blood transfusion

    Blood transfusion in World War One refined techniques already in use. Direct transfusion from donor to recipient was impractical for such wide use, especially on, or near, the front lines. Blood was collected and stored before battles occurred, a process that, according to F Boulton and D J Roberts, &lsquosignificantly widened the scope of transfusion&rsquo. [6] The initial problem with how to stop blood from clotting while in storage was partially solved by the discovery that paraffinising the inside of the glass collection vessel delayed clotting for a sufficient length of time. [7] Citrate was also discovered to be an effective anticoagulant. US Army Captain Oswald Hope Robertson showed that stored universal donor or cross-matched blood could be given safely and quickly to forward medical units. [8] Blood could be stored for up to 26 days without any negative effects, and could be transported to where it was required. As a result, by 1918 transfusions were being performed much closer to the front lines than clearing stations, as a means of improving survival during evacuation of the wounded to field hospitals. Primarily, transfusions were used to treat severe haemorrhage and shock, before an operation took place. However, transfusions could also aid with carbon monoxide poisoning and wound infection, and so were increasingly used during and after operations as well as before.

    The war necessitated rapid developments in all areas of medicine and medical technology. From the moment a soldier was wounded until after he had returned home, the treatment he received was different from that experienced by soldiers even a generation ago. Many medical techniques used today have their origins in those developed during World War One.


    [1] Colonel H W Orr, &lsquoThe Use of the Thomas Splint&rsquo, in The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 20, No. 11 (August 1920), pp. 879&ndash80.

    [2] The National Archives: AIR 2/136.

    [3] Mary Guyatt, &lsquoBetter Legs: Artificial Limbs for British Veterans of the First World War&rsquo, in Journal of Design History, Vol. 14, No. 4 (January 2001), p. 311.

    [4] John Reid, The Princess Louise Scottish Hospital For Limbless Sailors And Soldiers At Erskine House (Glasgow: printed for private circulation by James Maclehose and Sons, 1917), p. 26.

    [5] The National Archives: WORK 25/23/A2/B2/158.

    [6] F Boulton and D J Roberts, &lsquoBlood Transfusion At The Time Of The First World War &ndash Practice And Promise At The Birth Of Transfusion Medicine&rsquo, in Transfusion Medicine, Vol. 24, Issue 6 (British Blood Transfusion Society, December 2014), p.330.

    [7] Lynn G Stansbury and John R. Hess, &lsquoPutting the Pieces Together: Roger I. Lee and Modern Transfusion Medicine&rsquo in Transfusion Medicine Reviews, Vol. 19, No.1 (January 2005), p. 82.

    [8] Lynn G Stansbury and John R Hess, &lsquoBlood Transfusion in World War I: The Roles of Lawrence Bruce Robertson and Oswald Hope Robertson in the &ldquoMost Important Medical Advance of the War&rdquo&rsquo in Transfusion Medicine Reviews, Vol. 23, No. 3 (July 2009), p. 232.

    Banner: © The Gillies Family

    Louise Bell is a researcher of First World War prosthetics, medicine and disability.

    Though often overshadowed by World War II, the African-American experience in World War I was a transformative moment in black history, says Chad Williams, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Brandeis University . 

The author of “Torchbearers of Democracy: African-American Soldiers in the World War I Era,” Williams says the African-American experience in the Great War sowed the seeds of the civil rights movement that would flower decades later.

    To mark the centennial of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire’s declaration of war on Serbia on July 28, 1914 — the first declaration in a series over the course of a week that marked the beginning of World War I — Williams spoke to Brandeis Now about the war’s place in shaping modern black history.

    Chad Williams

    How were African-American soldiers received during the war and afterward?

    The service of African-Americans in the military had dramatic implications for African-Americans. Black soldiers faced systemic racial discrimination in the army and endured virulent hostility upon returning to their homes at the end of the war. At the same time, service in the army empowered soldiers to demand their individual rights as American citizens and laid the groundwork for the future movement for racial justice.

    How did the lessons African-American leaders learned during World War I shape the way World War II was handled and the civil rights movement?

    The memory of the First World War — the opportunities as well as the disappointments — remained very much alive for African-Americans as the Second World War approached. In many ways, World War I marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement for African-Americans, as they used their experiences to organize and make specific demands for racial justice and civic inclusion.

These efforts continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The “Double V” campaign — victory at home and victory abroad — adopted by African-American leaders during World War II was informed by the lessons of World War I and an insistence that the United States must first and foremost ensure freedom for African-Americans.

    Did World War I provide an opportunity for African-American soldiers to reconnect with their roots?

    For most African-American soldiers, service in World War I allowed them to broaden their social, political, geographic and cultural horizons. Having the opportunity to travel to different parts of the country and, for the approximately 200,000 African-American soldiers who served overseas, to different parts of the world, was a life-altering experience. 

    Did the war serve as an opportunity to spread African-American culture internationally?

    In France, many African-American soldiers interacted with African soldiers and laborers from the French colonies in North and West Africa, forging bonds and sowing the seeds of a pan-African consciousness. African-American soldiers also became cultural ambassadors, introducing France and the world to jazz through the various regimental bands that took the country by storm.

    At home, what were the most prominent effects of the war on African-Americans?

    World War I marked the beginning of the Great Migration, the most prominent and lasting effect of the war on African-Americans and the nation. Eager to escape the racially oppressive social and political environment of the South and lured by wartime industrial job opportunities, approximately 500,000 African-Americans migrated to northern cities such as Chicago, New York and Detroit. The Great Migration, which continued throughout the 1940s, fundamentally transformed the demographics of the United States.

    What role did African-American women play during the war? 

    African American women played a central role in the war effort. Existing networks of black women’s organizations mobilized on the national and communal levels to provide support for African-American soldiers at training camps throughout the country. 

Black women also served in various social welfare organizations like the Red Cross, YMCA and YWCA to provide much needed support to black troops in the face of institutionalized discrimination. As they supported African-American soldiers, black women also used the war effort to advance their own claims to equal citizenship.

    #GreatWarInAfrica: Honour motivated some Cameroonian soldiers who fought for Germany during the First World War

    Until recently, historians of WWI in Africa have paid scant attention to the relationship between the question of honour and Africans’ military actions. The motivations of African colonial soldiers have been lumped into the political economy of colonialism. These soldiers, scholars argue, were either responding to the monetary benefits of fighting for the colonial state, they were paying blood tax, or they were being coerced into military service by the colonial apparatus that must keep up with the capitalist rational of colonialism (Parsons 1999 Echenberg 1995). A challenge to the social-labour frame has been posed by what Jay Winter (1992:88) calls “a new cultural history of the Great War.” The social history frame tends to present African soldiers as a tabula rasa[i] for European military training. Yet, there was little or no military training in Cameroon for the thousands of local soldiers deployed on the battlefield by both European belligerents. Nor was there enough material motivation to cause Africans to kill both Europeans and themselves on the battle front. Although war must rate as one of the central shaping experiences of humanity, the exclusive social history frame has failed to draw (African) military history fully into the body of kirk (Purseigle and Macleod 2004).

    Cameroonian unit on parade during World War One

    The basic question is how do we account for the excitement of Cameroonian soldiers in the Cameroon campaign of WWI? When Britain and France ignored Germany’s appeals to limit confrontations to Europe and chose to invade German Cameroon in September 1914, the Germans only had about 1500 Cameroonians in the schutztruppe[ii]. But in no time, they raised a local army of over 10,000 men. Preliminary research shows that many of these soldiers were coerced and conscripted into the German military apparatus. But research shows also that many more might have been responding to “the honour of men” enshrined in militarism: that the honour of man lay in his willingness and ability to take up arms, fight, kill and/or be killed. It is estimated that about 20,000 Cameroonians enlisted for military services in the Allied camp to fight the Germans in Cameroon. And again, these soldiers received little or no material motivation to fight. It must have been the issue of military honour that motivated them.

    If military invocation elsewhere has been explained on the basis of intangible factors such as patriotism and honor, is this not also applicable to Africa? As everywhere in the world, both tangible and intangible forces dragged African soldiers to war. Writing recently in 2011, Michelle Moyd has sought to understand how tangible factors such as monetary benefits, entitlement to sexual pleasure with women, and intangible ones such as honour, determined the positive response of East Africans as men of combat in the German schutztruppe. But she also demonstrates how askari militarism rested on several interrelated types of honour. Askaris were driven by their masculine subjectivities into military service. The point, Moyd notes, is that pillars of self-understanding (forms of honour and identity) fuelled Africans to perform combat roles in either the German military formation or in anti-colonial wars. Evidently, Moyd was inspired, among many others, by the brilliant works of John Ileffe on Honor in African History. For Ileffe, honour was the chief ideological motivation of African behavior prior to, during and after colonial rule. He defines honour as “a right to respect”, including the willingness and ability of the individual to enforce such respect. The question of honour appeared to have been entangled in military masculinity, of men’s efforts to gain and defend respect. In many African polities, men were men because they readily took up arms and defended themselves, their women and children against external forces.

    I once asked a Kom (Cameroon) notable in 2012 what he considered to be the urge behind Cameroonian combat roles in the war. Without even a pause, he immediately answered “to gain respect”. He opined that soldiery was always a masculine invocation, in which men sought to uphold their honour through fighting. Thus in line with other African soldiers in the war, I propose that we should seek to understand the Cameroonian soldiers’ behaviour in the war, not simply on the basis of material attractions or even coercion during European mobilisation and conscription, but also from the soldiers’ own philosophies of their world and subjectivities to it. To show that honour was more important than material means and coercion, Cameroonian soldiers did not abandon their German colleagues even when they were defeated and left the territory in 1916. At the time when clearly the Germans had no pay for them, over 6,000 Cameroonian soldiers followed the Germans into refuge to Rio Muni in Spanish Guinea. There could hardly have been a more honourable and professional act by a group of soldiers.

    These questions of honour facilitated the ease with which Europeans mobilised, recruited or conscripted and deployed Cameroonians for military service in the territory during the war. But they also complicated the situation, in terms of either the preference of Cameroonians to fight for the Allies or their reluctance to fight for the Germans, the immediate result of which was flight into the bushes to evade European recruiters. This is a complicated issue that requires further historical research.

    George Njung is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the United States.

    Why did soldiers keep on fighting during World War I?

    As I understand it, the international rivalries mattered little to ordinary soldiers after 1917 or so, especially after the massacres and high death rates at the Somme, Verdun, etc. What made the average soldier keep fighting, and was there an increase in desertions as the war went on?

    Some soldiers didn't: Panzerkampfwagen noted the French mutiny in which hundreds of thousands of French troops refused to go back to the front lines. Nothing happened to them because it was too large a mutiny (at least, at first - eventually the ringleaders were singled out for punishment) and as Auguststraw noted, the Kiel revolt really put the brakes on the German naval plans. Also, the entire Russian army pretty much refused to fight in 1917 - mass desertions were common, soldier participated in anti-war riots, and even after the Romanovs were no longer in charge, Kerensky hamstrung himself by keeping Russia in the war, thus allowing the Bolsheviks an opportunity to topple the Nationalist government he headed.

    Basically, there were several factors involved in the continued war effort at play in individual soldiers:

    First, there was Nationalism - the idea that you would fight for your country no matter what because you loved it. Nationalism is very powerful in motivating people to fight in the first place. Think of your national anthem, your coinage, your public buildings: at least in America, many of these are designed (at least initially) to instill in you, the individual, a sense of belonging and loyalty to an entity which transcends family, locale, and region. That sens of belonging motivates people to defend their country in much the same way it motivates them to defend their friends or family.

    Second, there were concepts on manliness which are no longer as prominent today as they were in the early 20th century accusations of cowardice would literally haunt a man for the rest of his life - he could lose friends, family, jobs, be disinherited, and largely ostracized for even the perception of cowardice (see the film "The Four Feathers" for a sense of this). Many men - especially the older generation - saw the war as a great sport or a way to prove manliness and transition from boyhood to manhood. Here's a really well done BBC animation about the first two aspects I've covered:

    Third, there was a ɼrusade' mentality alive on both sides of the conflict German and British propaganda played upon the divine guidance of God in fighting this war as well as the devilish nature of the opponent. See these:

    Fourth, some people needed the money - it sounds crazy, but many knew that their families were better with military pay than with any factory job working class men from England and Ireland, for example, were often shorter and lighter than their middle- or upper-class counterparts due to malnutrition and disease. Army pay, though not great, was certainly better than the on-again, off-again low paying jobs they may have held before. During the 1916 uprising, many Irish jeered and insulted Patrick Pearse because he and his "sinn feiners" (Pearse wasn't a member of Sinn Fein) threatened the pay that mothers and wives of the Irish Volunteers received while their men were off to war.

    Finally, there was fear of execution failure to go over the top meant that you could be court martialed (or sometimes shot on the spot) for failure to fight. Many soldiers suffering from what we now recognize as PTSD (or "shell shock" in WWI parlance) were executed because they became hysterical, catatonic, or violent when ordered to return to the front. The flip side of PTSD is also the addiction to danger some people were addicted to violence and so sometimes volunteered for dangerous duty over and over again. This aspect of PTSD played a large role in the behavior of the Black and Tans in Ireland, for example.

    Watch the video: The Effects of Shell Shock: WWI Nueroses. War Archives (August 2022).