Understanding the Great War
Understanding the Great War

Understanding the Great War – Part I.

If we look at the hundred-year-old historiography of World War I, we can conclude that it was at first characterised by political historical and diplomatic historical approaches, and later historians turned to the society, followed by the language-related and cultural historical turn. In other words: the first examined how the front was established; the second scrutinized how the soldier got to the front; while the third perspective studied how the front soldier looked at the battlefield and how he felt there. The book entitled 1914–1918, Understanding the Great War summarized the latest results and approaches of First World War researches.

There are several reasons for the emergence of the still ongoing renaissance of First World War research at the end of the 1990s, linked to the names of Jean-Jacques Becker, Gerd Krumeich and Jay Winter. By that time the First World War became “history”: the last veterans – whose recollections did not only maintain the true life experience of the world war, but also prevented it from becoming history and being researchable, since it was an ungrateful task to refute the stories of “heroes” – died. That the war has become history was shown by the fact that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, “one of the last and most dramatic political, ideological and geopolitical consequences” of the First World War disappeared. While European integration enabled the transnational examination of the “Great War”, the Yugoslav civil war drew the attention again to the Balkans, “The powder keg of Europe”, where the First World War began. Therefore the number of people wishing to learn about history turned to the topic of world war in more than usual numbers.

The book written by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker entitled 1914-1918, Understanding the Great War was published in 2000 in France and in 2006 in Hungary. The summary of the authors is not at all a work of military history: it offers approaches to the First World War taking into account new aspects with the interpretation of representations – such as the presentation of the world war as a “crusade” in propaganda, the strengthening of the Jeanne D’Arc cult during the world war – and the expressions of mourning –, which have not been analysed by historians until recently.

The book approaches the issue of violence in the spirit of John Keegan rather than “inanimate” and “puritanical” historiography in order to present a true view of the painful and bloody reality of world war battlefields, covered with mangled bodies. Keegan did not tell the story of a battle, but “smashed” it, while pointing out the shocking fact that, in the age of firearms, the most common debris removed by the surgeons from the bodies of wounded people came from the bones or teeth of soldiers beside them. “In war, bodies get injured, suffer or torment other bodies.” What is more: “the war violence is a prism in which many, otherwise invisible things are reflected.” The First World War was indeed more violent than anything ever: between 1914 and 1918, 900 French and 1300 German died a day! The British lost less people daily on average – but their names were immediately present in the loss lists published in the Times, shocking the English society. With the exception of Russia, all great powers lost more soldiers on a daily basis in the First World War compared to the Second one. However, nothing can measure up to the bloody first day of the Battle of the Somme, even in the Eastern front of World War II.

Losses were this huge in spite of the fact that wound infections had disappeared by that time from the death causes of soldiers owing to improvements in health care – making the number of victims of World War I. even more shocking:

“The opportunities for evacuation, the medical infrastructure, the opportunities for battlefield surgery – including anaesthesiology, surgical operation and disinfection –, the removal of damaged tissues when handling fractures (making it possible from 1915 to reduce the risk of gangrene and thereby the number of amputations), the detection of projectiles with X-rays, facial plastic surgery, vaccines against typhoid and tetanus, and even blood transfusions at the end of the conflict are medical opportunities that had been unknown during previous wars.”


While during the Napoleonic wars illnesses took more people than fights, from 1914, “war death” meant almost exclusively violent death. Meanwhile, the number of wounded survivors and people with disabilities increased – their care meant an unprecedented challenge to the states: the so-called “disability issue” emerged.

Lost legs and arms were replaced with artificial limbs, horrible facial injuries were recovered with rubber implants – their sight has a terrible effect even today on a photograph. The wounds suffered between 1914 and 1918 were unparalleled in the past in terms of variety and severity: “changes in war violence are first written into the flesh of ones who are at the same time the offenders, victims and witnesses thereof”. However, the severity of “injuries” was yet crowded out of the remembrance of the world war, in the view of Paul Fussell, because “one can see much more from intestines than it is proper to imagine”.

Moreover, soldiers coming home from the battlefields were not only physically injured. Psychological damages caused by the fights started to be realized during the First World War: the expression “shell shock” served as a primitive marker. Recent research has paid special attention to the extent of psychological consequences of war violence for World War I soldiers. It can be assumed that almost half of the survivors suffered from milder or more severe psychological disorders.

If we hear the word “battlefield”, we shall always realize how much it had changed by the time the First World War broke out compared to previous centuries or even millennia: the battlefield in Somme was ten times larger than the one in Waterloo. And just as the “battlefield” lost its human scale, warfare also became “inhumane”. Traditional combat values like “courage” became insignificant, man has become “material”: “with the huge improvement of firepower at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, individual abilities, even if they did not disappear completely (shown by the high loss rates of new recruits in the trenches), lost their significance. (…) The escape from the firing line will simply be a matter of luck, considering its novel intensity and the extent of territory within reach for bullets, bombs and gases.

It was a new phenomenon during World War I, called “the death of the battle” by the professional literature. Due to the increased strength of defence, the battles transformed into months of sieges, while the war “drowned into its own violence“. Ceaseless bombing turned the territory upside down, making it extremely difficult to move forward, and defenders found another cover in bomb craters. Even Hindenburg and Ludendorff were shocked upon their visit in September 1916 – this is when the expression “war of attrition” was born. After Waterloo it was still possible to speak of the “glorious battlefield”, but after Verdun and Somme, it was not.

Moreover, real “sieges” were also transformed and became all-out: while sieges had formerly had a ceremonial order, during the First World War, they fired the walls until they were completely ruined. Other “customary rights” were also abolished: while officers had previously been released from captivity for their word (even during the French-Prussian War of 1870-1871), during the First World War, they were also sent to internment camps.

Overall, the expansion of violence could be witnessed during the First World War: wounded people and the ones transporting them were also fired at. It is paradoxical that the radicalization of violence happened in a period when the Red Cross already existed and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were already concluded. This is the phenomenon called “brutalization” by George L. Mosse and that can be matched to the theory of Norbert Elias on “the process of civilization”. The thesis described in Understanding the Great War, that the “regression of civilization”, found by Elias to be the period of Nazism, in fact happened between 1914 and 1918. Mosse saw the “cultural turn” brought about by the First World War in “brutalization”. This thesis assumes a causal relationship between the all-out warfare between 1914 and 1918 and the post-war emergence of “totalitarian” systems, since mostly former front soldiers took part in extremist political movements.


However, the previously unprecedented armed conflict did not completely turn the system of norms upside down, it is proven by the intensive cult of the dead during and after the world war or by the survival of cultural life on the front. 1914-1918, Understanding the Great War stresses the significance of violence because the authors think that historiography sterilized the First World War, making it partially incomprehensible. In order to avoid it, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker cite a lot from the documents of people who participated in the fights. However, they also emphasize that historical research must be free from the “tyranny of witnesses”. They almost call us to doubt the credibility of a veteran’s recollection, since heroic behaviour is not a guarantee of reliability, and even add that “in terms of war violence, soldiers often tend to be silent about certain significant elements”. The narratives of veterans are characterized by the depersonalization of violence: we “fall” in war, but we do not “kill”.

First World War taboos included “trench cleaning”, the slaughter of wounded people and soldiers who stayed behind after the occupation of an opponent trench, or the fact that the fingers of many dead people were missing when they were found because they bit them off from suffering while dying. Homosexual relations between front soldiers and the suicide of soldiers were also taboo for decades. Exceptional representations of the world war include Otto Dix’s series of litographs entitled Der Krieg from 1924, which – even if in a concealed manner – dealt with the problem of the suicide of front soldiers.

Next time we will continue the review of 1914–1918, Understanding the Great War with the representations of the First World War.



Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau – Annette Becker: 1914–1918, az újraírt háború. Ford.: Füsli Éva. Budapest, 2006.

Balázs Eszter: A „sakktáblától a lövészárkok mikrovilágáig: az első világháború régi és új történeti megközelítései = Múltunk, 2010/3. 109-131.


Written by: Csunderlik Péter