The Physical and Psychological Devastation of Europe in World War I

 

The causes of World War I are arguable, but its devastating physical and psychological effects on Europe’s home front and battlefield are not debatable.  Before the war, no one could have foretold that the events which stemmed mainly from rivalries and alliances1)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 674.would create a powder keg environment not only for Europe but also for the world.  Before the war, nationalism and militarism fueled two wide-reaching beliefs:  the first being that each European country was superior and the second being that Middle Eastern countries could achieve a goal of independence.  Capitalism was born from the Second Industrial Revolution and radically changed international trade as each country advanced its own industries in an effort to grab greater power, exert more influence, and make tons of money.2)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 674.This competition forced countries into alliances for protection against other countries with similar ambitions.  The Triple Alliance, made up of Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary was formed and the Triple Entente, made up of France, Russia and Great Britain was created.3)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 674.The power and seeming paranoia smoldering within these six countries would furnish violent death and destruction to a generation who grew up knowing a tiny sliver of peace and prosperity and whose pride and nationalism would mask an unfortunate hidden truth – they were expendable.  Yet another generation demanded freedom and independence from both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.4)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 675. On June 28, 1914, one Serbian fired two fatal gun shots in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, killed the Austro-Hungarian heir and his wife, and ignited the massive powder keg.  Swiftly, the whole world burst into flames and the coming tides of death hung iridescently in the air, overriding initial sentiments of joy.  I will endeavor to further lift the veil and expose the physical and psychological effects in Europe during this Great War.

 

A look at the following dates from these various newspapers reveals how rapidly the Great War escalated:

 

The physical effects of the war greatly impacted the working class on the home front.  In every country, the war created the limitless order for men and weapons, so governments appealed to national unity and mandated all remaining civilians to work.5)Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 870.The privately owned industrial factories and buildings were taken over by governments and used to quickly manufacture munitions.6)Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 872.As a result of government’s total warfare control, the European industrial working classes experienced deterioration in their overall standard of living and working conditions.7)Sirianni, Carmen J. “Workers’ Control in the Era of World War 1: A Comparative Analysis of the European Experience.” Theory and Society Vol. 9 No. 1, 1980: 36-37.People received lower wages due to the war’s inflation, worked longer hours to meet the increased demand for constant munitions production, and slogged through neglected and dangerous working conditions.8)Sirianni, Carmen J. “Workers’ Control in the Era of World War 1: A Comparative Analysis of the European Experience.” Theory and Society Vol. 9 No. 1, 1980: 37.Governments also rationed food and raw materials which created extreme hardship for those on the home front.  Germany’s citizens “averaged little more than a thousand calories a day.”9)Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 872.The initial exhilaration to help in the war effort became soured as people starved, worked beyond their capacity, and grew increasingly war weary.10)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 685.Given these physical impacts upon the working class, it isn’t surprising that there was labor unrest.

The physical effects of the war had an expectantly greater impact to those on the battlefront.  Like the home front’s rationed materials, soldiers had inefficient supplies, evidenced by British Army soldier, Fololiyani Longwe, when he said they went days with “no food, no water.”11)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 685.Also like the home front’s labor unrest, the troops became increasingly weary with military strategy and war conditions.  Mutinies and desertions plagued European militaries.  During an April 1917 offensive, half of France’s front line mutinied.12)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 681.Though there are a few similarities in the physical effects the war had on the home front and the battlefront, the contrasts are sharper.  On the home front, entrepreneurs and stock owners benefited from the war.13)Baten, Joerg and Rainer Schulz. “Making Profits in Wartime: Corporate Profits, Inequality, and GDP in Germany during the First World War.” The Economic History Review, 2005: 36.Workers had the opportunity to make and save money as there was little to purchase unless bought from the black market.14)Sirianni, Carmen J. “Workers’ Control in the Era of World War 1: A Comparative Analysis of the European Experience.” Theory and Society Vol. 9 No. 1, 1980: 37.In contrast, those on the home front were not exposed to relentless horrors of war on the front lines.  The beginning of the war saw massive volunteerism for the battlefront.  Britain alone had 750,000 volunteers during the first few months.15)Winter, J. M. “Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War.” Population Studies, 1977: 449-466.Their gung-ho attitude was soon met with the reality of the terrors and dread of trench warfare on the Western Front.  Casualties and loss of life amassed in shattering amounts.  As the Schlieffen plan failed, Germany dug in for the defensive while Russia, Britain and France dug in for the offensive.16)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 680.Trenches along the western front were dug at 30 feet deep with barbed wire on the outside providing a protective home for the boots on the ground.17)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 680.These “homes” housed the dead and the dying, vermin, waste, and disease while the persistent threat of artillery shells was ever present.18)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 680. Military leaders increased all out offensives seemingly unmoved by the significant losses of life with each assault.  A soldier on the front line was expected to live no longer than two months.19)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 681.  The failure to comprehend the massive scale of new weaponry manufactured from Europe’s pre-war militaristic and nationalistic ideals left soldiers more than ill-prepared.20)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 681.The new weapons of light and heavy machine guns, artillery, airplanes, poison gas, flame throwers, tanks, and submarines left soldiers virtually untrained and, therefore, helplessly exposed.21)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 682.Disfigured and mangled men were often the survivors who were either rehabilitated and sent back to the front line22)Koven, Seth. “Remembering and Dismemberment: Crippled Children, Wounded Soldiers, and the Great War in Great Britain.” The American Historical Review, 1994: 1184.or came home to little in the way of jobs or compensation.

 

 

The psychological effects the European home front suffered during World War I happened at a measured pace and can be seen through the support for the war effort, change in society, and government control.  The home front’s early enthusiasm for the war was generally maintained throughout the armed conflict and “public hostility toward unenlisted men in no way subsided”23)Gullace, Nicoletta F. “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War.” The Journal of British Studies, 1997: 204.,as seen in Britain even after the draft was implemented in 1916.  Much of European society changed. Women received more freedoms and new jobs which created a fresh sense of independence and confidence.24)Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 872.However, the ultimate control of governments over their people, the meager food supplies, and the pressures of total war caused many people to snap.25)Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 874.In addition to all this, the psychological aspects of government propaganda played a pronounced role in perpetuating fear and indignation.  Germans “pictured black soldiers from France’s African empire raping German women,”26)Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 874.and the French portrayed German atrocities on a magazine cover which showed “an innocent, horror-stricken, assaulted woman” leaning against “a blood-soaked crib” cradling “the body of her murdered child.”27)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 685. The longer the war lasted, the further emotions ran high with the critical outcomes of conflict, protest, and rebellion.

The psychological effects of World War I similarly impacted those on the battlefront. Like the home front, the same enthusiasm and initial disdain for “cowardice” was felt at the beginning of the war. The same propaganda used to evoke fear and outrage on the home front was used to gain military support for the war effort through volunteerism and the “us versus them” attitude.28)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 684.The atrocities of trench warfare and the psychological effects of all out offensives created the same conflict, protest, and rebellion that was present on the home front.29)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 681-82.

 

 

The psychological effects of the war on the battlefront, however, would prove far more ghastly and debilitating.  Shell-shock was first defined in World War I30)Winter, Jay. “Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2000: 7.as an uncontrollable psychological response to either the horrors of war or to injuries received as a result, and seemed to stem from trench warfare and artillery battle.31)Winter, Jay. “Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2000: 7.It is no wonder that such psychological infirmities existed, as medical officer on the frontline Captain F. G. Chandler so profoundly explains:

“There is the horror of seeing men and animals wounded and maimed and mutilated, or torn to pieces or lying dead in some grotesque attitude . . . One has to inhibit nausea and disgust, and the feeling that one may oneself be like that in a few minutes’ time, and I believe that it is these inhibitions that constitute the chief strain of this kind of warfare . . . Much mental and emotional inhibition is necessary to preserve one’s reason.”32)Edgar Jones, “The Psychology of Killing:  The Combat Experiences of British Soldiers during the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 41, no. 2 (2006): 231.

German soldiers diagnosed with shell-shock were met with scorn by military and medical communities who tried to humiliate them by saying the disorder was nothing more than weakness and that redeployment on the front line was the cure.33)Lerner, Paul. “Psychiatry and Casualties of War in Germany, 1914-18.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2000: 27.This was an erroneous sentiment felt by many military leaders and psychiatrists throughout most of Europe.  Psychological effects didn’t leave when a soldier returned home from the war.  Not only did he have to deal with various forms of neuroses, but he also had to assimilate into an uncertain and apathetic society.

In conclusion, one must view World War I with a great amount of solemnity due to the physical and psychological effects it had on all of humanity.  One could argue that the 10 million soldiers and 10 million civilians who lost their lives during the war34)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 688., along with millions more casualties and mutilated men, were the result of greedy governments longing to control their own economic interests.  This argument could be substantiated by the revolutions of the people within most European countries, most notably, Russia,35)Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 694. and the toppling of monarchies which would never return to Europe.  One could argue that militaries refused to accept defeat due to a nationalistic spirit, and sanctioned losses even though an entire generation of people died horrific deaths. On the other hand, with so many men lost, accepting defeat meant their men died in vain. Once started, it couldn’t stop until one side was crushed. Nevertheless, this war was only a precursor to the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and so on. It was supposed to teach people that war of such brutal scale and magnitude should never again be attempted.  Regrettably, World War I brought about a change in warfare and a new and ongoing inventiveness to the careless capabilities of complete annihilation.

 

 

**Featured Image – Gunner inside a whippet tank with hatches open – France 1918 – U. S. National Archives – Wikimedia Commons CROPPED

References

1, 2, 3 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 674.
4 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 675.
5 Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 870.
6, 9, 24 Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 872.
7 Sirianni, Carmen J. “Workers’ Control in the Era of World War 1: A Comparative Analysis of the European Experience.” Theory and Society Vol. 9 No. 1, 1980: 36-37.
8, 14 Sirianni, Carmen J. “Workers’ Control in the Era of World War 1: A Comparative Analysis of the European Experience.” Theory and Society Vol. 9 No. 1, 1980: 37.
10, 11, 27 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 685.
12, 19, 20 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 681.
13 Baten, Joerg and Rainer Schulz. “Making Profits in Wartime: Corporate Profits, Inequality, and GDP in Germany during the First World War.” The Economic History Review, 2005: 36.
15 Winter, J. M. “Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War.” Population Studies, 1977: 449-466.
16, 17, 18 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 680.
21 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 682.
22 Koven, Seth. “Remembering and Dismemberment: Crippled Children, Wounded Soldiers, and the Great War in Great Britain.” The American Historical Review, 1994: 1184.
23 Gullace, Nicoletta F. “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War.” The Journal of British Studies, 1997: 204.
25, 26 Mckay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991 p. 874.
28 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 684.
29 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 681-82.
30, 31 Winter, Jay. “Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2000: 7.
32 Edgar Jones, “The Psychology of Killing:  The Combat Experiences of British Soldiers during the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 41, no. 2 (2006): 231.
33 Lerner, Paul. “Psychiatry and Casualties of War in Germany, 1914-18.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2000: 27.
34 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 688.
35 Sherman, Denis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World 3E. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 694.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *