Changing attitudes of Allied and German soldiers to the war over time


Focus Questions
  • What was the attitude of soldiers at the start of the war?
  • Why did they hold these views of the war?
  • What caused the attitude to change?
  • What sources show the change in attitude to the war?


Initial response


The war was greeted with great enthusiasm by young men in Britain and Germany.

Source A
Much has been written about the ‘generation of 1914’, the young men who joined the armies at the outbreak of the First World War with enthusiasm and high hopes. They were conscripted in France and Germany, though there were many volunteers among them who joined up before they were called. However, whether young men in 1914 were conscripted or volunteered, most of them in their enthusiasm stood in the tradition of earlier volunteers... patriotism, the search for a purpose in life, love of adventure, and ideals of masculinity... The rush to the colours of this generation has been ascribed to the fact that they no longer knew the reality of war; the Franco-Prussian War was fought long before and had been a short war in any case, an easy triumph for Germany over France. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why these recruits believed that the war would be short, a belief that was shared by all the warring nations. The last long wars were those of Napoleon one hundred years earlier.

Mosse, G.L., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, 1991, p.54

What reasons are given in Source A for the enthusiastic response of young men to the war?

Britain relied on volunteers to join the army and they joined up in their hundreds of thousands. Germany had conscription (compulsory military service), yet many young men also joined voluntarily.

external image 800px-British_recruits_August_1914_Q53234.jpg
British volunteers for "Kitchener's Army" waiting for their pay in the churchyard of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, August 1914.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Why did they join?
  • They thought it would be a thrilling adventure and that it would be all over by Christmas. There was no understanding of the type of warfare that would develop.
  • They would be with their mates – especially in the British ‘Pals’ battalions.
  • They would be paid for having an adventure and dishing it out to Jerry (Fritz, the Boche, the Hun).
  • It was a just cause: Germany had violated the rights of a neutral nation (Belgium).
  • Peer pressure, the desire to impress women and the prestige that came from wearing a uniform and ‘doing your bit’.
  • The propaganda campaign. This emphasised two things initially: the patriotic duty to join (e.g. Lord Kitchener poster); and the justice of the cause, as the Huns not only violated Belgian’s neutrality but committed all sorts of atrocities on the civilian population (e.g. Punch “German Culture”). These themes were developed through official propaganda and through the popular press, e.g. Punch magazine. (See Propaganda and Recruitment for more examples).
  • For Germans, despite being a conscripted army, the appeals of patriotism, adventure and duty were the same as the young British men. The righteousness of their cause came from the aggressive encirclement of Germany by the France and Russia. For them, it was also a defensive war. The propaganda emphasised atrocities committed by the enemy.

The attitude of soldiers to the war remained positive even after the fighting had begun, as can be seen in the early war poetry.

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Source B

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke

external image 270px-Rupert_Brooke_Q_71073.jpg

Source C

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army

external image 220px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae%2C_M.D..jpg
What positive attitudes towards the war are expressed in each of these poems?


Christmas Truce


For some soldiers, a change in attitude was brought about by the unofficial Christmas truce in some sections of the front in 1914. Soldiers sang and exchanged presents and address with ‘enemy’ soldiers, and realised that they were no different from themselves.

Source D

I had taken the addresses of two German soldiers, promising to write to them after the war. And I had, vaguely, a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, and that both camps believed the same things about the righteousness of the two national causes, it might spread, this truce of Christ on the battlefield, to the minds of all and give understanding where now there was scorn and hatred.

Henry Williamson, a soldier near Ypres, cited in History of the First World War, 1969, p.556

More sources on the Christmas truce.



Changing Attitudes


After two years of trench warfare and terrible conditions culminating in the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme, the soldiers’ attitude to the war began to change.

The reality of the war, especially their being used as ‘cannon fodder’, brought about a more bitter reflection on the war.
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were two poets whose work contrasted sharply with the earlier patriotic efforts of Brooke and McCrae.

Source E

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen

external image 151px-Wilfred-Owen.jpg

Source F

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Siegfried Sassoon

external image 220px-Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_%281915%29.jpg
List three examples from each of these poems of negative attitudes towards the war.

Research: find out the wartime experiences of Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

  • Despite the more negative attitude to the war, the British maintained their efforts without any serious attempts at mutiny.
  • For German soldiers, who faced the same privations at the front as their British counterparts, their attitudes were also affected by the deterioration of the home front with widespread food shortages.
  • For Germany, there were some mutinies (e.g. Wilhelmshaven August 1917), though these did not become widespread until the final moments of the war (e.g. Kiel 3 Nov 1918).

Attitude towards the military leaders


Source G – Australian attitude

The following source shows the attitudes of Australian soldiers following the slaughter at Poziéres during the Battle of the Somme:

“Although most Australian soldiers were optimists, and many were opposed on principle to voicing – or even harbouring grievances, it is not surprising if the effect on some intelligent men was a bitter conviction that they were being uselessly sacrificed. ‘For Christ’s sake, write a book on the life of an infantrymen (said one of them...), and by doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.’ That an officer who had fought so nobly as Lieutenant J.A. Raws, should, in the last letter before his death, speak of the ‘murder’ of many of his friends ‘through the incompetence, callousness, and personal vanity of those high in authority’, is evidence not indeed of the literal truth of his words, but of something much amiss in the higher leadership. ‘We have just come out of a place so terrible (wrote ---, one of the most level-headed officers in the force) that... a raving lunatic could never image the horror of the last thirteen days.” (Official Australian History – C.E.W. Bean)
The history indicates that Birdwood lost much of his Gallipoli popularity through his failure to interpose against Gough’s impetuous desire for quick results and his lack of thought. This may have been a factor in leading the Australian troops to reject Birdwood’s personal appeal when they voted against the conscription of other men to share the horrors that they had experienced.

Basil Liddell Hart, History of the First World War, 1930, pp.249-50

Source H – French Mutinies 1917

Nivelle’s Champagne offensive in April 1917 was a disaster and resulted in mass mutinies in the French army:

With a prolonged bombardment giving away any chance of surprise and without first drawing away the German reserves, the idea of a rapid breakthrough was doomed to failure. The high hopes that had been raised caused the greater reaction, and the troops were weary of being thrown against barbed wire and machine guns to no apparent effect.

Accentuated by service grievances, mutinies occurred in the French armies, and no less than sixteen corps were affected... ‘We will defend the trenches, but we won’t attack!’ ‘We are not so stupid as to march against undamaged machine guns!’ The fact that the mutinies always occurred when the troops were ordered into the line is clear proof that disgust with their leadership rather than seditious propaganda was the real cause of revolt... So general was the rot that, according to the Minister of War, only two divisions in the Champagne sector could be relied on fully, and in places the trenches were scarcely even guarded.

Basil Liddell Hart, History of the First World War, 1930, pp.301-2

somme_mud_cover_small.jpgSource I – German loss of morale

The failure of the German’s 1918 Spring Offensive, combined with the impact of the British blockade at home and in the trenches, caused German morale to plummet in the closing moths of the war. There were many instances of Germans surrendering rather than maintaining the fight:

Fritz are rising shivering from little holes in the ground, surrendering in fear. They seldom attempt to dispute our progress. We’re collecting dozens of them. They don’t show any fight. A dozen Fritz rise from in front of us in a bunch yelling ‘Kamerad!’ We’re up to them and busy ratting them for souvenirs. They have surrendered from a great round concrete machine gun emplacement that they could have held for hours as they have two machine guns here. We despise them. Too cowardly to fight and too frightened to run. Surrendered an almost impregnable position without firing a shot. The morale of the enemy seems down to zero.

On we go, capturing more and more Fritz; cringing, crawling, cowardly fellows, those we meet now. Poor broken-spirited beggars, they’ve had the pluck knocked out of them. Attacked here for weeks on end, trouble brewing in their own country, up against it in every way, no wonder they sling it in. Many of them are just kids; poor, frightened, skinny little codgers of fifteen to seventeen, a pathetic sight in their big, round, silver-rimmed spectacles. Clad in men’s uniforms that flap all over their under-nourished young bodies, there’s nothing of the man about them except the rifle they’ve flung away.

E.P.F. Lynch, Somme Mud, 2006, p.294


Source Based Questions:

1. Using Source B and Source E and your own knowledge, explain the changing attitude of Allied and German soldiers to the war.

2. Using Source G, Source H and Source I and your own knowledge, explain the changing attitude of Allied and German soldiers to the war.

3. Assess how useful Sources C and F would be for an historian studying the changing attitude of Allied and German soldiers to the war.
In your answer, consider the perspective provided by the TWO sources and the reliability of each source.


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