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’ 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’s high-levels of industrialisation, and workers’ 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 ‘war-enthusiasm’ 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.
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