If war should break out no one can estimate its duration or see when it will end. The greatest powers of Europe, which are armed as never before, will fight each other. None can be annihilated so completely in one or two campaigns that it would declare itself vanquished and be compelled to accept hard conditions for peace without any chance, even after a year’s time, to renew the fight. Gentlemen, it might be a seven, or even a thirty years war – but woe to him who sets Europe alight and first throws the match into the powder-barrel!

General Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of General Staff, Imperial German Army (Hart, p. 12)

This means, almost inevitably, that Russia will come to the scene in defence of Serbia and in defiance of Austria, and if so, it is difficult for Germany and France to refrain from lending a hand to one side or the other. So that we are in measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real Armageddon. Happily, there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.

Prime Minister Sir Herbert Asquith (Hart, p. 28)

Night fell. The cold became intense. This is the time, when the battle is over, that the wounded that we haven't yet found, cry out loud in their pain and suffering. And these shouts, these plaintive cries, these moans torment all those who can hear them: an especially cruel punishment for soldiers who must stick to their post, when all they wanted to do was run to the gasping comrades, to tend to them, to comfort them. But they cannot, they must remain static, weighed down by a heavy heart, raw nerves, actually trembling at the unceasing frantic call sin the night.

Lieutenant Maurice Genevoix, 106th Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 47)

Another Aeroplane; the same black hawk silhouetted against the pale blue sky which at every moment was getting brighter. The men swore and shook their fists. What tyranny! It was marking us down! Suddenly the enemy’s heavy artillery opened fire on the hills.

Gunner Paul Lintier, 11th Battery, 44th Artillery Regiment (Hart, p. 49)

Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and humbled corpses. With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.

Lieutenant Charles De Gaulle, 33rd Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 54)

They went down like ninepins until all we could see in front of us was a regular wall of dead and wounded. Above the noise of rifle fire, you could hear a strange wailing sound and they turned and ran for the cover of the fir trees.

Private Tom Bradley, 4th Middlesex Regiment (Hart, p. 55)

We must go to battle with every man both of us had and free from all reservations. ‘So far as the French Army is concerned, ‘ I continued, ‘my orders are given, and whatever may happen, I intend to throw my last company into into the balance to win victory and save France. It is in her name that I come to ask for British assistance, and I urge it will all the power I have in me. I cannot believe that the British Army will reuse to do its share in this supreme crises – history would severely judge your absence.’ Then, as I finished, carried away by my convictions and the gravity of the moment, I remember bringing down my fist on the table which stood at my elbow and crying , ‘ Monsieur le Marshal, the honour of England is at stake!’ Up to this mount French had listened imperturbably to the officer who was translating what I said, but now his face suddenly reddened. There ensued a short impressive silence; then, with visible emotion he murmured, ‘I will do all I possibly can!’ I had distinctly felt the emotion that which seemed to grip the British Commander in Chief; above all, I had remarked the tone of his voice, and I felt, as did all the witnesses to the scene, that these simple words were equivalent to an agreement signed and sworn to. Tea, which was already prepared, was then served.

General Joseph Joffre, General Headquarters, French Army (Hart, p.63)

A great grey mass of humanity was charging, running for all god would let them, straight on to us not 50 yards off. Everybody’s nerves were pretty well on edge as I had warned them what to expect, and as I fired my rifle the rest all went off almost simultaneously. One saw the great mass of Germans quiver. In reality some fell, some fell over them, and others came on. I have never shot so much in such a short time, could not have been more than a few seconds and they were down.

Captain Harry Dillon, 2nd Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Hart. p. 73)

I started to run to the woods at once and the ground all round me was spattered up like the surface of a puddle in a rainstorm. I got another 30 or 40 yards when I felt as if I had suddenly hit my right arm against a hard obstacle in the dark. It was a very hard and very sharp blow and left a numb sort of sort tingling sensation in my arm quite different from the stinging of the blows of one or two pebbles which had been knocked into my legs by the shots on the ground. I still ran on but the woods looked a long way off and the shock of the wound had scared me a bit and I felt rather dizzy and out of breath. So I decided I would do a ‘die’ and selecting as comfortable a place as I could I wheeled round in the most approved fashion and fell on my face. This had the desired effect for a minute or two and firing stopped.

Captain Beauchamp Tudor St john, 1st Northumberland Fusiliers (Hart, p. 76) I must have wriggled too much, however, for again a hot fire was opened on me. I lay for a few seconds wondering where it would get me, the bullets splashing mud all round me. Suddenly I felt as if someone had gently drawn something rather hot along my shoulder to the right side of my throat. I thought I was done for and wondered how my family would take the news and whether I would know how they took it. I felt aggrieved and angry at the thought of leaving this jolly old world for to me it had always been a jolly place and it seemed hard lines having to leave without seeing Roger and Madge again. However, I prayed to god to hurry the matter up as I was getting very uncomfortable.

Captain Beauchamp Tudor St john, 1st Northumberland Fusiliers (Hart. p. 77)

On Christmas day, they made a sign that they wanted to talk to us. It was me that went to within 3 or 4 metres of their tench from which three of them emerged to talk. It was the Christmas Day holiday, a day of festivities and they wanted no shooting from us during the day and night, saying they themselves wouldn’t fire a single shot. They were tired of making war, they were married like me (they had seen my ring), did not want to fight the french but the English! They passed me a bundle of cigars, a box of gold tipped cigarettes, I have them the Petit Parisien in exchange for a German Newspaper.our neighbors across the way kept their word better than we did! Not a shot. The next day, so they could see it was Christmas no longer, our artillery sent them a few well directed shells right into their trench.

Adjunct Gustave Berthier, 256th Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 84)

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As we forced our way through the deep narrow trench, what a horrible sight met our eyes! In a place where a trench mortar shell had burst, there lay, torn to pieces, about eight of the Alpine Chasseurs – some of the finest french troops in the a great bloody heap of mangled human bodies; dead and wounded. On the top a corpse without a head or torso and underneath some who were still alive, though with limbs torn off or horribly mutilated. They looked at us with bleeding, mournful eyes. The crying and moaning of these poor, doomed enemy soldiers went to our hearts. However much our heart shrank from trampling over them with our hobnailed boots, we were forced to do it!

Lieutenant Walter Ambroselli, 3rd Battalion, 12 Grenadier Regiment (Hart, p. 128)

I had to shout in their ears, such a thunder was going on all around. Then, just as I had crawled down again into the trench I was thrown over by a fearful concussion. Up above, there the three were lying, a soft gurgling sound was heard; the legs of the one nearest me jerked convulsively once; then all was deathly still. And so came the turn of one after another.

Ensign August Hopp, German Army (Hart, p. 128)

Black in the face, their tunics and shirt fronts torn open at the necks in their last desperate fight for breath, many of them lay quite still, while others were still wriggling and kicking in the agonies of the most awful death I have ever seen. Some were wounded in the bargain and their gaping wounds lay open, blood oozing from them. One poor devil was tearing at his throat with his hands, I doubt if he knew, or felt, that he only had one hand, and that the other was just a stump where the hand should have been. This stump he worked around his throat as if the hand were still there, and the blood from it was streaming over his blueish-black face and neck. A few minutes later and was still except for the occasional shudders as he breathed his last.

Private William Quinton, 1st Bedfordshire Regiment (Hart, p. 201)

I heard the cry, 'Poison gas!' I saw people around me putting in their gas masks. I adjusted mine, which still hung over my shoulder. There it was – a yellowish gas glimmering near the iron ladder. A gas bomb must have been thrown into the entrance shaft. The cry 'Gas masks on!' Electrified the whole shelter. Soldiers ran to get their masks, which they had hung on the walls and in the corners or laid on their packs. Many who had lost theirs on the battlefield began to cough. The wounded in the bunks tried to climb into the upper berths, while beneath the gas crept forward along its way, extinguishing one candle after another. Soon many were dying and the bunks and floors were filled with bodies over which the living stepped and stumbled in search of air. The alarm surged like a wave from bunk to bunk. Before long it had reached the farthest man, a hundred yards away. The panic was so great that I saw badly wounded men throw themselves onto the floor as though they wanted to drink in the gas, while others tore the masks from their neighbors' faces. Some had a reddish foam oozing from their mouths.

Private William Hermanns, Machine Gun Company, 67th Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 207)

I get a wonderful view from my observing station and in front of me and right and left, as far as I can see, there is nothing but bursting shells. It's a weird sight, not a living soul or beast, but countless puffs of smoke, from the white fleecy ball of the field fun shrapnel to the dense greasy pall of the heavy howitzer HE. It's quite funny to think that in London life is going on just as usual and no one even knows this show has started – while out here at least seven different kinds of hell are rampant.

Captain Cuthbert Lawson, 369th Battery 15th Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery (Hart, p. 217)

Large calibre shells droned through the air like giant bumblebees, crashing, smashing and boring down into the earth.Occasionally small calibre high explosive shells broke the pattern. What was it? The men of the trench garrison pricked up their ears in collective astonishment. Had the tommies gone off their heads? Did they believe that they could wear us down with shrapnel? We, who had dug ourselves deep into the earth? The very thought made the infantry smile.

Lieutenant M. Gerster, 119th Reserve Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 217)

A man came running in from the left, shouting, ‘There is a crocodile crawling into our lines!’ The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next it's yawning mouth would ear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.

Sergeant Weinert, 211th Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 234)

I will never forget that trench – it was simply packed with German corpses in the stage where face and hands with inky black with a greenish tinge from decomposition and whites of the eyes and teeth gave them a horrible appearance. How so many came to be in one trench I cannot tell, unless one of our tanks caught them there. Fritz had tried to get rid of some, for they were laid in rows on the parapets at the level of one's head, stuck into walls, buried in the floor and felt like an air cushion to walk on, and one was continually rubbing against heads, legs, arms etc.; sticking out of the walls at all heights. The floor one walked on was a fearful state, in some parts covered several deep with bodies or a face with grinning teeth looked up at you from the soft mud, and one often saw an arm or leg by itself and occasionally a head cut off. Everywhere are prussian helmets with their eagle badge, belts and equipment, many bodies had wrist watches etc. We did not collect many souvenirs, for our own skin was the best souvenir we could think of that day.

Signaller Ron Buckell, 1st Canadian Artillery Brigade, CEF (Hart, p. 238)

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All we know is that, sometimes, in our battles with the Russians, we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses from before our trenches, in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves.

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, Headquarters, Eastern Front (Hart, p. 243)

The flamethrower was a heavy, unwieldy cylinder containing a mixture of fuel oil and petrol, squirted from a nozzle, and ignited by a electrically fired flare in front of the nozzle. The jet of flame extended for about 30 yards. On reaching my objective, and entering the shed, I realised I was not needed there. The building had been blown up leaving four wrecked walls, shattered rifles and two dead Germans. Pressing on, I found myself up against an iron handrail at the water's edge, and in front of me a German Destroyer, with her guns firing and most of her crew on deck. I turned my flammenwerfer on them, sweeping the deck with flames. I must have killed a whole lot of them. I tried to reach the bridge, from which someone was potting at me with a revolver, but the range was too great, and my flamethrower ran out of fuel. As the bullets from the machine gun further up the mole got too close for comfort, I left my now useless weapon and took cover behind a low wall.

Private William Gough, 4th Battalion, Royal Marines, HMS Vindictive (Hart, p. 322)

They read out an order of the from that mass-murderer of 16 April, General Nivelle, to inform his troops (that is to say, his victims!) saying amidst other nonsense that, ‘The hour of sacrifice has arrived and we must not think about leave!’ Reading this patriotic nonsense aroused no enthusiasm. On the contrary, it only demoralised the soldiers, who heard nothing but another terrible threat: new suffering, great dangers, the prospect of an awful death in a vain and useless sacrifice, because no one trusted the outcome of this new butchery. However , our commanders did not seem to doubt for a moment that the Germans would be routed.

Private Louis Barthas, 296th Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 339)

The tank on the left suddenly becomes an inferno. In front of it is the still smouldering shell which set it alight. Two torches escape: two torches making a mad, frenzied dash towards the rear, two torches which twist, which roll on the ground.

Lieutenant Charles-Maurice Chenu, 4th Battery, 5th Special Artillery (Hart, p.339)

My dear wide, my dear parents and all I love, I have been wounded. I hope it will be nothing. Care well for the children, my dear Lucie; leopold will help you if I don't get out of this. I have a crushed thigh and am alone in a shell hole. I hope they will soon come fetch me. My last thought is of you.

Second Lieutenant Jean-Louis Cros, 201st Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 242)

Darkness alternates with light as bright as day. The earth trembles and shakes like a jelly. Flares illumine the darkness with their white, yellow, green, and red lights and cause the tall stumps of the poplars to throw weird shadows. And we crouched between mountains of ammunition (Some of us up to our knees in water) and fire and fire, while all around us shells upon shells plunge into the mire, shatter our emplacement, root up trees, flatten the house behind us to the level of the ground, and scatter wet dirt all over us so that we looked as if we had come of a mud-bath. We sweat like stokers on a ship the barrel is red-hot; the cases are still burning hot when we take them out of the breech; and still the one and only order is, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ until one is quite dazed.

Gerhard Gurtler, German Artillery (Hart, p. 354)

My eyes began to water and I felt as if I would choke. I reached for my gas mask, pulled it out of its container – then noticed to my horror that a splinter had gone through it leaving a large hole. I had seen death thousands of times, stared it in the face, but never experienced the fear I felt then. Immediately I reverted to the primitive. I felt like an animal cornered by hunters. With the instinct of self preservation uppermost, my eyes fell on the boy whose arm I had bandaged. Somehow he had managed to put the gas mask on his face with his one good arm. I leapt at him and in the next moment had ripped the gas mask from his face. With a feeble gesture he tried to wrench it from my grasp; then fell back exhausted. The last thing I saw before putting on the mask were his pleading eyes.

Corporal Frederick Meisel, 371st Infantry Regiment (Hart, p. 432)

The Enemy aircraft were coming at me from all sides, I seemed to be missing some of them by inches, there seemed to be so many of them the best thing I thought to do was to go into the tight vertical turn, hold my guns open and spray as many as I could.

Lieutenant Wilfred May, 209th Squadron, RAF (Hart, p. 435)

Exploit of colored Infantrymen some weeks ago repelling much larger German patrol killing and wounding several Germans and wining Croix de Guerre by their gallantry has roused fine spirit of emulation throughout colored troops all of whom are looking forward to more active service. Only regret expressed by colored troops is that they are not given more dangerous work to do.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing American Expeditionary Force (Carroll p.139)

When, however, they have plenty to do, and are riding about in small parties tapping the Turks here and there, retiring always when the Turks advance, to appear in another direction immediately after, then they are in their element, and must cause the enemy not only anxiety, but bewilderment.

Captain T. E. Lawrence, British Military Mission, Arabia (Lawrence, p. 42)

References

Carroll, A. (2008). War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Hart, P. (2013). The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lawrence, T. E. (2016). Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph.

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