Soldiers and civilians
Taking up the Sword of Justice
For the average British citizen, the concept of war at the turn of the century was one of relatively short campaigns wagered against nations who were often no match for the modernised British Army – nations who were being drawn into the empire. So when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, an epidemic of mass volunteering swept the land.
At the declaration of war, with communication running at the speed of newspaper print, BBC radio broadcasts and hearsay, knowledge was limited and easily controlled by the state. The reality of total war was not understood by the general population, nor talked about by the services that had witnessed fighting in actions such as the Crimean and Boer wars. Although earlier conflicts were reported in the press, the average man in the street was caught on the tide of empire.
Men eagerly swallowed the propaganda proclaiming that it was their duty to serve. Posters with slogans such as 'Take up the Sword of Justice' and 'Be a man and Enlist Now!' told of the glory to be gained in battle.
From a modern point of view, it appears unusual that millions of men should so eagerly volunteer for the front, with what amounts to a careless gush of bravado backed by feelings of unquestioning patriotism. But, in 1914, the majority of young men had no reason to question the authorities. The reality of life on the front was yet to be witnessed. All their lives they had been fed a diet of imperial prestige and superiority, and, of course, the majority held a firm belief that war would only last for a few months at most. Walking into hell
The opening engagements, which were sweeping and mobile, were followed by the dawn of stagnant attritional trench warfare. For the innocent, chirpy volunteers, the colour had gone and the fanfare had stopped. Many must have experienced a dreadful realisation that they had walked freely into hell.
It should be remembered that, for many, military service would have been their first time away from home, and almost certainly their first time to a foreign land – let alone their first time under fire. Once stationed in the trenches, most would have felt a terrible mixture of homesickness and fear, with little choice but to accept that there was no going back and that the war had to be won.
The tremendous stress placed on individuals of all sides in trench warfare can only be imagined. During every attack, each man was faced with only three possible outcomes: either you died, were maimed, or survived unscathed. Through each encounter, your chances were gambled over and over again, causing unimaginable mental stress.
Of course, aside from the horrors of the 'pushes', the appalling living conditions in the trenches had to be endured and survived. Flooding caused trench foot – a condition where troops found their feet literally rotting on the ends of their legs – and the winter brought with it frostbite. Dysentery, flu, colds, trench fever, lice and rats were constant companions in the filthy conditions, and fear never left most men throughout the ordeal.