The huge gap between expectation and reality for soldiers in WWI

With the outbreak of WWI, men around Europe rushed to take up their opportunities to fight in a conflict that they believed would be a glorious and great adventure that would end with victory by Christmas of the same year, 1914. While such views were shaped by a range of factors including patriotism and propaganda, it was hugely mistaken, with few (if any) knowing of the gritty and horrifying trench warfare that came ahead over four years, shaping and largely degrading the mental state of men across the continent.

Most prominently, in nations like Britain and Germany, devotion to king/Kaiser and country was ubiquitous, and was enough to motivate thousands of men to rush into war. Peer pressure, propaganda. Opposition to the war was minimal in such countries at the start of the conflict. In Britain, only a few dedicated socialists and pacifists, including Keir Hardie, while in Germany, the authoritarian nature of the state suppressed any anti-war effort.

‘Lord Kitchener Wants You’ propaganda poster; this iconic 1914 advertisement was a common example of how the British government used propaganda to encourage enlistment  (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

However, with the reality of the war settling in especially with the emergence of a stalemate on the Western Front, soldiers started to experience the horrific conditions of the war that they were involved in. Far from their glorious expectations, soldiers on both sides of the Western Front went through the terrors of trench life as the stalemate continued for years. Levels of hygiene were low, with the often muddy and wet conditions in many parts of the Front, leading to issues with lice and mice, which did bring some diseases, including Weil’s disease and trench fever. The flooding of trenches also led to the outbreak of trench foot, which in many severe cases, resulted in the amputation of legs. Mentally, this gap between expectation and the reality of trench life and warfare was incredibly damaging to many. Shell shock was a common mental illness that arose from such conditions for soldiers, leading to the mental collapse of many of them. Even worse, generals and other high-ranking officials dismissed it as cowardice, rather than what it actually was: a serious mental illness. War weariness and disillusionment became prominent amongst soldiers as the war continued.

British Forces in Messines on the Western Front, January 1917; wet and muddy conditions made trench life and warfare especially hard for soldiers (Wikipedia Commons)

Of course, with different nations, the attitudes towards soldiers varied, depending on the conditions that they faced. For example, on the British side, soldiers experienced relatively better conditions with the more stable management of the home front and successful Allied naval blockade, as well as the relief provided by the American entry into the conflict in April 1917. For the French, morale for soldiers dropped to point so poor that mutinies started occurring across the Western Front, especially following the Second Battle of the Aisne. For the Russian and German soldiers, disastrous conditions both on war fronts and their respective home fronts led many to contribute to significant political upheavals, with the Russian Revolution in February/March 1917 and German Revolution in November 1918.

Bolshevik forces in the Red Square, Moscow (Wikipedia Commons)

Undoubtedly, soldiers from different parts of Europe experienced different elements of the conflict, but few would’ve expected the horrors that the war would bring to them. The real nature of the war crushed their high hopes that were shaped by a multitude of factors, and for many that survived, it left them broken following the war. When considering the span of the war, this divide between the expectation and reality for the war was a major aspect that ultimately weighed heavily on the minds of almost all soldiers.


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