Sunday, January 03, 2010

World War I

On the firestep in the trenches during the night, you could hear the groaning of the dying — but you couldn't go out to help them. There were rats feeding on their flesh. They were dying there, dying in misery and pain, and the rats were nibbling away at their flesh.
--Cecil Withers, British private

The air in the dugout is so foul that I sit by the entrance. Walter Mayer and Hendrich from my squad sit next to me. Hendrich has completely lost his composure. He is down on his knees and prays. Mayer loses all patience. He tells him off. In this situation a prayer is senseless... Our roof is blown apart by a 28 cm shell. Because I am sitting by the entrance, I am left unscathed, just shoved inside. Most of the men are dead.
--Walter Pechtold, German soldier

The appearance of the trench is atrocious... In places pools of blood. On the protective wall, in the communication trench, stiff corpses covered with tent canvas... An unbearable stench poisons the air... I have not slept for 72 hours. It is raining.
--Charles Delvert, French infantry captain

When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them.
--German machine gunner

The first thing I saw were two legs sticking out of the ground... There was a skull high up in a tree and helmets with bits of head in them...
--John Masefield, British visitor to the front

Some injured men are able to drag themselves to the rear, the one supporting the other, some using their rifles as crutches. Stretcher-bearers follow them in single file, carrying their burdens of suffering... Oh! The terrible explosion! With infernal violence, a shell bursts right amongst this mob and hideously tears it to pieces.
--Thellier de Poncheville, French soldier

Soon a fresh gun gets through the fire to the front. They are selected soldiers. But by midday they, too, are finished. One of them, bleeding, comes to us. The men are so apathetic that they cannot bring themselves to bandage the man.
--Walter Pechtold, German soldier

All day long they lie there, being decimated, getting themselves killed next to the bodies of those killed earlier.
--French officer

The men often cannot eat in the forward lines because of the smell of corpses, and they cannot sleep either.
--Rupprecht Maria Luitpold Ferdinand, German commander

Shrieks of agony and groans all around me... All about me are bits of men and ghastly mixtures of cloth and blood.
--Anthony R. Hossack, British soldier

These are horrendous days... The infantry have lost about half their men, if not more. Some of those who have survived are no longer human beings, but creatures who are at the end of their tether...
--Albrecht von Thaer, German lieutenant-colonel

I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces when we went over the top. All over the battlefield, the wounded were lying there — English and German, all asking for help... You couldn't help them. I came across a Cornishman, ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him in a pool of blood.
--Harry Patch, British private

Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in, we found them in layers stacked on top of one another. One company after another had been shoved into the drum-fire and steadily annihilated.
--Ernst Junger, German officer

What a slaughter. Hell cannot be this dreadful.
--Alfred Joubaire, French lieutenant

I saw men dead from exhaustion from their efforts to get out of the mud... We were pitchforked into a quagmire in the dark and there was no possibility of a man helping the one next to him... It was the worst instance I came across of what appeared to be a cruel useless sacrifice of life.
--L.W. Kentish, British officer

Under no circumstances must we relax our effort, and we must retain the offensive.
--Douglas Haig, British commander


decomposed German soldier

legless dead French soldier

dead American soldiers

wounded British soldier

Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War by Alan Kramer, 2007
The Faces of World War I: The Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur, 2007
The Pity of War: Explaining World War I by Niall Ferguson, 1998
The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War by Martin Gilbert, 2006

photographs from Corbis, Getty Images, and the Imperial War Museum London

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