Enduring the Great War; Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British armies, 1914-1918


Alexander Watson is a Research Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge and is a joint winner of the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library's Fraenkel Prize for 2006. The book is part of the series Cambridge Military Histories the editor of which is Hew Strachan.

Watson states that the book began life as a doctoral thesis in October 2001 [it shows] and amongst those listed in the acknowledgements are Professor Niall Ferguson, Professor Hew Strachan and Professor Richard Bessel; follow that then.

Watson seeks a new understanding of the impressive resilience of both the British and German armies during The Great War; to assist his quest he focuses on the individual soldier's psychology while engaged on the Western Front. Watson seeks answers to three basic questions:-

1. Why did soldiers and armies fight for such a long time?

2. How were they able to cope psychologically with the awful conditions found at the front?

3. Why did they eventually stop fighting?

In seeking answers Watson has consulted a number of sources including printed primary and secondary works, much of his evidence comes from manuscript and archives both British and German.

Without doubt The Great War was a war of endurance. The three great powers, Germany, France and Britain would form armies of unprecedented size. Following the Battle of the Marne when the German advance was halted and pushed back some 250 miles these armies were literally entrenched. These lines of defences moved significantly only once, in March 1918, when the Kaiserschlacht offensive gained ground and then, in the wake of a strategic decision, the German army promptly retreated. Watson reckons that military fatalities were Britain- 723,000; France -1,398,000 and Germany-2,037,000. The number of civilian casualties and military casualties from other fronts e.g. Russia or the Dardanelles is not mentioned. In addition to the fatalities the armies suffered casualties of varying seriousness. While the British army had 11.8 per cent killed it also had 43 per cent casualties; the German army fared worse the figures being 15 per cent and 51 per cent respectively.

Position warfare i.e. trench warfare is nerve warfare unlike mobile warfare which is muscular warfare. The effects of the constant bombardment the terrible living and dying conditions all prey on the mind. Watson cites the British third Army censor

It is perfectly plain that the minds of men are adversely affected far more by their continued absence form home and by the dread of winter conditions than by the prospect of actual conflict with the enemy. (p19)

At the front soldiers were constantly hungry, wringing wet and frozen to the core. It could take all day to bring rations up a mile long communication trench. They lived fought and died surrounded by vermin and literally lousy. The latter not only caused skin irritation and spread disease but, according to one German soldier, their noise kept men awake. Summer brought its own problems not least that of water, men might well only have a quarter of a litre of water per day, to share between two.

All the time the men were under constant bombardment from artillery. Shelling, even if it was ineffective in trench warfare, killed more men than any other weapon furthermore it accounted for over 60 per cent of the casualties. Ineffective? Certainly in pure numeric terms. Between 1914 and 1918 the British manufactured 210,300,676 high explosive and shrapnel shells. If troops lay protected in trenches it needed approximately 329 shells to hit one German and about four times that number to kill him. Watson makes much of the supposed ineffectiveness of World War 1 weaponry. He points to its inaccuracy and the survival of wounded. On p103 he notes that 64 per cent of the British and 69 per cent of the German wounded were healed and returned to the front. I would suggest that this is something of a red herring those who made it back to the field hospital would have been only slightly wounded and even then would have been lucky to survive. Of course if one was on the receiving end of constant bombardment mathematics were the last thing on one's mind. Shelling played havoc on the mind most soldiers were fearful of getting maimed; not killed necessarily- that was quick, but it was the thought of being maimed with wounds to the stomach, jaw and eyes which turned men's minds. So frightening was the noise, smoke and wind of artillery fire that it affected those firing the guns. Even if they were completely safe until any enemy retaliation gunners developed signs of stress and anxiety.

However, men fought. Germans were conscripted to fight for a Fatherland encircled by powerful neighbours or there again perhaps they fought because they were told to and they were the most obedient nation on earth. Britain had a small regular army for which Watson has hardly a good word. This contemptible army was not of the highest quality, was often illiterate and of low habits. Watson cites that Special Reservists of the Connaught Rangers mutinied and another line had to be put behind to stop them running away. Watson might have considered that special reservists of the Rangers, an Irish regiment, might have had nationalistic leanings, but that the regiment won 42 battle honours in WW1 including in 1914 Mons, Marne and Aisne. This army helped to defeat Germany at the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and stop the advance to Paris. Watson believes that middle-class men on both sides were more likely to volunteer than working class men because they were partly more prone to a war enthusiasm but mainly because their education and social standing meant there was no other course open to them (p56). Of course Watson might care to consider that, if one is struggling to keep a family going on poverty wages the last thing on one's mind was volunteering for someone else's war. Watson suggests that men flooded to the colours because they believed Britain was in danger of being invaded. He seems to ignore the fact that Britain had a territorial army, yes mainly middle class, whose aim in life was to defend the homeland. So much so that they could not be forced, but had to volunteer, to serve abroad at the outbreak of war. When discussing the British army of the early years Watson might have paid more attention to HB McCartney, Citizen Soldiers [1], it is in his bibliography.

Men fought; they fought out of deference to their officers, out of pride in their battalions and regiments and they fought because there was a feeling of self preservation. There was always the man who claimed to be able to dodge shells or believed the bullet always hit the other bloke. They possessed an air of black humour, remember The Wipers Times? Some even fought because they believed they were in the right and God was on their side. They fought because propaganda both at home and abroad put a heroic, positive, slant on events; even defeats and retreats could be termed as 'withdrawals to set defensive positions'. They fought and survived, as the British survived the debacle of the Third Ypres, because they believed they would ultimately win the war.

It must be remembered that soldiers did not spend all their time at the front. British battalions would expect to spend only 10 days per month in the front line. the 1/5 Durham Light Infantry spent over 1000 days in France but only 63 in major battles. during which time their death rate rose from 1 fatality per 6 days to 6 fatalities per day. Considering that this territorial battalion had an initial strength of 1,031 men it is now obvious why battalions were constantly being reformed, or it would if Watson had mentioned it.

Watson deals with his third question with his chapter on the German collapse of 1918. As he states the German army was so fatigued that they were demoralized and had no wish to fight; this applied to the officer and to the 'squaddie' alike. More Germans (186,000) surrendered to the British in the final three months than in the previous four years (142,000). Germany -[thanks in no small part to the Royal Navy blockade]-was starving at home and at the front. By November 1918 it's army of 3½ million men faced 6½ million allied soldiers. The German army was short of artillery pieces and ammunition for those it still had; by contrast the British, in September 1918, fired more than 940,000 shells into the Hindenberg line. Perhaps more might have been made of the timing and conditions of the German surrender. Why did the Germans commence to fight? Fear of invasion from the east? If so that had gone with the defeat of the Tsar's army. They certainly could not have believed that Britain, France or poor little Belgium would attack them, unless it was France in support of Russia. Whatever aim they originally had it must have evaporated by 1917 let only 1918. It could be suggested that the Germans lost the war at the Battle of the Marne in 1914 it just took four years to prove it. Britain by contrast was going merrily on, true it was getting steadily poorer; although some of its capitalist were getting steadily richer. Furthermore Britain was fighting on someone else's soil although admittedly, this also applied, just about, to the German army.

Alexander Watson has produced a work that reflects his tremendous scholarship. He has consulted many archives both in English and the original German, which has enabled him to make direct comparisons between the two armies. Thus for instance he can compare the Junior Officers on both sides, noting that too many authors have underestimated their importance. He noted that some ideological differences existed between the two sides, with many of the Germans being initially drawn from the hereditary nobility. However, the spirit of paternalism, noblesse oblige, was present in both armies. Men of both armies tended to think more of the immediate officers and less of the staff back at H.Q. The other side of this paternalism is of course deference. Were the relations between officers and other ranks merely brought to war from civvy street? Watson doesn't consider it. Neither does he consider the effect the disproportionate casualty rates, per capita more officers were killed than other ranks, had and would have on the class structure of the two countries.

As stated, Watson's work grew out of his doctoral thesis, it contains at a rough estimate some 75,000 words, but it seems to lack direction. It may be that the three posed questions are not mutually compatible; perhaps No. 2 the psychological question wanted to stand alone, while the other two run neatly together.

Enduring the Great War fails to bring home to me the horror and the full force, of that conflict. It was not termed 'The Great War' for nothing. At any one time between 1914 and 1918, more men were in uniform and at war than the world had seen before. It was a war that touched the hearts, souls and the everyday lives of the British, French and German people. It changed many aspects of society in those countries for ever. I am writing this review on the day of the funeral of Harry Patch who died 25 July 2009 aged 111 years. It is being held in Wells Cathedral. Harry Patch was the last known British survivor of the Western Front, the last one to go 'over the top', the last 'Tommy'. He went to France as a Lewis gunner with the 7th battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry in June 1917. He was wounded in September of that year, three of the Lewis gun team were blown to pieces by the shell that wounded him. However, Harry Patch was an ordinary man as were millions upon millions of those who fought, lived and died on the Western Front.

Enduring the Great War doesn't set out why that conflict was so special and in consequence I feel the book is poor value at fifty quid. I would rather spend the money on; Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices [2], George Herbert Hill, Retreat from Death [3], John Jackson, Private 12768 [4] and probably best of all Richard Holmes, Tommy [5].

[1] HB McCartney, Citizen Soldiers, The Liverpool Territorials in the First World War, Cambridge, CUP, 2005. (see Open History No. 98 summer 2006 p32)

[2] Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, London, Ebury Press, 2003.

[3] George Herbert Hill, Retreat From Death, a soldier on the Somme, London, TPP, 2005

[4] John Jackson, Private 12768, memoir of a Tommy, Tempus, Stroud, 2005.

[5] Richard Holmes, Tommy, the British soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918, London, Harper Perennial, 2005.

Don Vincent
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