Life on the Western Front
The First World War was a shattering experience for all Europeans, both soldiers and civilians. Memoirs show that soldiers expressed a wide variety of views on the war. Some soldiers enjoyed the war and some hated it, but most were unable to decide how they felt about it. In this essay I will be examining whether or not official accounts of the Western Front more accurate than personal accounts. I will survey several sources and try to draw a conclusion. Soldiers in the war were allowed little correspondence. Their letters and postcards sent home were censored to the point of very little detail.
They were only allowed to write about family, friends and their health, as can be seen on the field service postcard, source A1. The honour clause was a statement all soldiers had to sign to confirm they were not writing about anything else other than private family matters. The honour clause also gave the officials permission to examine the contents of the postcard/letter e. g. ‘Green envelope’ source A2. The officials censored letters and postcards because they didn’t want people back home to know too much and also because they didn’t want the Germans to accidentally find out their plans.
They were able to do this under the defence of the Realm Act 1916. Postcards and letters were limited because the government wanted to maintain high morale on people back home so that recruitment would not be affected. The postcards are useful to historians studying the Western Front because it shows how little time the soldiers had. They also tried to be more optimistic when writing back home to family and friends. This is because they didn’t want them to worry too much so tried to keep a happy tone in their letters.
I personally think letters in the personal section give the most information about trench life because in the official account the trenches are shown as they are meant to be, not as they actually are. Whereas in the personal account soldiers describe what the trenches are like. “About six feet in depth, they were floored with duckboards and were wide enough for two men to pass comfortably… “. Some of the letters in the personal account are similar. Many soldiers wrote about the same things i. e. ight-hearted happy conversations. “I got your letter today and you seem quite cheery so as long as Dora’s all right all’s well with the world. ” So as to not worry their family and friends. The letters and postcards in the official and personal section do not give off the same impression of life on the Western Front. For example, Teddy Bennett who was a second lieutenant of the twenty-ninth battalion of the Machine Gun Corps described the trenches as eighteen inches and only three feet deep , only big enough for a ‘drain pipe’.
But George Coppard wrote that the trenches were ‘in very good condition’ and were ‘about six feet in depth… enough for two men to pass through comfortably’. These two clearly show that trenches varied in condition. The majority of soldiers used the same tone and wrote about similar things effectively censoring themselves. The letters and postcards do not give the same impression of life on the Western Front as other sources. The other sources i. e. photos showed soldiers dieing cruel deaths and suffering from severe injuries and diseases.
I don’t think this type of evidence, personal and official, gives a totally accurate view of life on the Western Front but they are useful as evidence of soldiers feelings and opinions. Official war artists were commissioned by the government to paint pictures/images of the war. Fortunino Matanaia and C. R Nevinson are examples of war artists. Paul Nash was a front line soldier for four months in 1917 but was sent home after an accident. He was then sent back to the Western Front as an official war artist. He was ordered not to show any dead bodies in his pictures.
He gave off a peaceful and honourable impression of the war. The content of some of the paintings in the official section are not reliable because they censored dead bodies. I don’t think these paintings in the official section are an expression of opinion because the artists were told what to hide & what to draw. The painting by John Singer showing soldiers blinded by gas seems fairly accurate to me because it was painted in 1918 and during that time many soldiers suffered from tear gas that caused temporary blindness. The painting is very similar to source A5, a photo.
I think source A4, the photo showing two British troops in anti -phosgene masks manning a Vickers machine-gun, was posed to show those back home that anti-phosgene masks were provided for soldiers so more volunteers would sign up to join the army. I think it was posed because until after 1916 there were no more volunteers and conscription was introduced. My feelings towards source A9, a photo of two men badly disabled from the war which might have been used for propaganda purposes, is sympathy. But soldiers would not want pity because they felt proud.
This is one of the differences of the two generations. I think that they feel the need to smile to show they are strong and they probably think they have to put on a brave face so their loved-ones won’t worry. Sources B9-B13 are more gruesome compared to the sources in the official account. The reasons for the difference are officials wanted to conceal all the gruesome deaths that the British soldiers had and only took photos of their peaceful deaths. I think photos, official and personal, are quite accurate as source of information on the Western Front for a variety of purposes.
Punch was a British humorous political magazine. It contained anti-German propaganda. The main purpose of political cartoons is to get a message across in a more entertaining way. I think source A10 is very useful to historians studying soldiers’ attitudes to life on the Western Front because it shows that soldiers were pessimistic and found trench life difficult to handle. I don’t think source A13 is reliable. This is because the cartoon was taken from a British political magazine and the Germans were the enemy so they would have wanted to make the Germans look bad.
There are a few hints of bias in sources A14 and A15, for example “Our operations, in conjunction with the French, definitely stopped the German attack, and it has not since been removed. ” and “We progressed North Poziers and hear High wood and Delville extremely severe enemy losses. ” This is because the articles were written by the British and also because they were official. Based on what I have read I don’t think cartoons and newspaper are reliable. Although it is useful for historians studying soldiers’ humour. The most famous war poets are Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Seigfried Sassoon serviced was an officer who suffered from shell shock and had come to the conclusion that the War was pointless. He was sent home on sick leave in 1916. During his second visit to France his views on war became more doubtful about the way in which war was being conducted from a military point of view. By July 1916 he was well enough to return to duty but he couldn’t bring himself to do so, so he wrote a statement which he regarded as ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’. The officials found this hilarious and he was ordered to attend a Medical Board at Chester in July 16th but he failed to attend.
A Second Board was arranged at Liverpool on July 20th, which he attended and it was recommended that he be sent to Craiglockhart. Wilfred Owen spent the winter on 1916-7 on the front line but was then sent home on sick leave. He returned to the front on 1st September 1918 and was killed on 4th November, seven days before the war ended. He was awarded the Military Cross. Many of the poems were about warfare and the effects of gas and bombardment. For example ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen tells the story of a phosgene gas attack as troops were making their way back from the front line.
This poem is backed up by source A5. It is possible that these poems are exaggerated because the soldiers might have been suffering from depression and by writing these poems they were drowning their sorrows. I don’t think the poems are inaccurate because they are from soldiers’ views. Many of the poems are making a specific point i. e. ‘Does it Matter’ and ‘For the Fallen’ written by Siegfried Sassoon. The poem ‘Suicide in the trenches’ by Siegfried Sassoon tells the story of a ‘simpler soldier boy’ who fought in the war and couldn’t cope so committed suicide expresses anti-war sentiment.
The poem ‘Returning, we hear the larks’ written by Isaac Rosenberg also expresses anti-war sentiment. In the poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ the title is Latin saying Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori meaning ‘It is sweet and noble to die for your country. ‘ I think it is used in the last line because the soldiers die in the end and the poet is saying it is sweet and noble of them. Also to highlight the wrong. Overall, these poems are quite accurate as evidence of life on the Western Front because they are soldiers’ points of views and this was the only way they were allowed to express their feelings.
Siegfried Sassoon was decided as having mental illnesses because he didn’t agree with the way war was conducted. As a result of this he was admitted into a mental hospital to be treated for shell shock. My opinion of the war poets are they were all depressed and found war difficult so they wrote poems to show this. I think they can be relied upon as they are the thoughts and feelings of soldiers. Which cannot be ignored and tend to highlight the variety of experience on the Western Front. The conditions of the trenches were often very bad. The mud was often deep and became very muddy whenever it rained.
The trenches were lined with sandbags and collapsed as they filled with water causing the sides to rupture. The trenches were always shelled by enemy artillery which destroyed the sandbags and sides of the trenches so needed frequent repair. Barbed wire lined the outside of the trenches to keep the enemy from attacking. Many soldiers experienced illnesses and diseases whilst living in the trenches. Trench foot was a common disease which many soldiers got by standing in mud for too long. To prevent this from spreading the soldiers rubbed whale oil on to their feet everyday.
Being bitten by lice was also very common in the trenches. They tried to prevent this by running a lighted candle along the seams of their clothing but this only killed the lice, not their eggs. The lice carried a disease called trench fever. I think sources A9, B3, B13 would be most useful to historians wanting to find out about the morale of the soldiers. The people today view the war a lot differently compared to the people who lived through it. When you step back and take a closer look at the picture you see things differently.
Overall, I have a fairly accurate view of life on the Western Front from looking at personal and official accounts. I have found both, official and personal, accounts useful. I can’t really put together an accurate picture of what life on the Western Front was actually like using personal accounts because the soldiers may not remember what happened to give an accurate description and would be bias against Germans. The official account has been censored so that also is not really reliable. Therefore I think that by looking at both accounts would give a clearer picture.