The Great War, or First World War (1914-18), was not the first global conflict, but the scale of devastation of this conflict was new, with industrialized weaponry being used at length against core populations, killing perhaps as many as 20 million people, about a third of them civilians. (Note that the influenza pandemic that began at the end of the war killed tens of millions more.) Over half of the deaths came on "The Western Front," the battlefields of France and Belgium. The war itself is often described as the experiences of the soldiers, usually via the horrific conditions they experienced due to the nature of modern combat.
The combatants formed two camps, the "Central Powers" of Germany, the Austrian Empire (Habsburgs), and the Ottoman Empire, against the "Allies" of Serbia, Italy, the French Empire, the British Empire, Japan, and the Russian Empire. The Russian state collapsed in 1917, but the United States joined the conflict in that year.
Map: Animated spread of the War (to include participant countries/colonies)
Map: Zones of conflict during the war (red = major ground conflict, blue = naval engagements)
Below are global accounts, drawing on the huge number of peoples who were drawn into the conflict. Although trench warfare--fighting in a network of ditches behind barbed wire in the face of machine guns and artillery--is often seen as emblematic of the war (and indeed was where millions died, hundreds of thousands lives lost in some individual battles), the battlefield experience took other forms as well.
Napoleone Battaglia, Italian Officer, 1916
Under a rainy sky, rises the Hill of Oslavia, a mud stairway, encased between the Peuma, yellow and reddish of autumn woods, and the Sabotino, giant, bare, gray, stony, touched of autumn on the slopes below. I am on the conquered peak, where livid water pools in mud gray. In front of me rises a bank, overgrown of dead vines, such as blackened bones, and among the funereal drought of those trees the motions of my soldiers shooting at the opposing hill. On that side of the bank which is edge to a pathway, there is a stone fountain that seems to shade devoutly a dead crucified in the mud, a human cross that shows a white face of light. And from those holy stones along the whole road, up to the village ruins, still rising to the sky his half belfry, more corpses dark, Austrians all, akin to tangles of cloth, filthy with blood and mud, from which a pale hand sticks out, or a pale face with glass eyes under the livid cloudy light. And there's one who lays down with his head split and looks like he is drinking, beastly curved on the pool of blood. And more are there, their backs to the sky, as if in dying they had chosen to kneel on sacred ground. That's the last I have seen of earth and sky, the last visions I hold in my heart. Then a dark wall begins that bars the world to me, casts an eternal night in me.
That's a bunch of crooks back in Italy; but they'll pay back once the war is over … I have always told you well to keep you up, but I got to a point I need to spit it out … I have been a liar so far, that it was all make believe … they feed us stuff that even beasts don't want to look at it … I am fed up with this war and there is no beginning for peace … once we are done we'll throw ourselves on the ground … but rest assured I won't die for this rotten Italy!
The following letters come from the source David Omissi, ed., Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18 (London: Palgrave, 1999) pp. 25, 33-34, 37, 61-64, 98, 107, 118-19, 122-23, and 295-96.
Most Sepoys--Indian soldiers--who fought in global/imperial conflicts came from the northern areas of British “India”: Punjab, the areas bordering Afghanistan, and Nepal. (The British believed that certain Indians were members of ‘martial races’—the most effective at fighting—and believed most of these allegedly warlike peoples lived in the north of the colony. Southern Indian and Bengali men were believed by the English to have degenerated into “effeminacy,” resulting in their being no good for combat.) Many Sepoys agreed with this perception, and many Sikhs and Rajputs joined the army as it fit their self-image. The majority of the Sepoys were non-literate rural men, peasants of middling wealth, and many of their letters were transcribed by someone else. Some landless "Untouchables" joined; very few Western-educated Indians enlisted.
Almost 30,000 served on the Western Front in the first year of the Great War. Casualties were heavy enough in that theater that the British ran out of officers who could speak Urdu and the like, and thus command these units effectively. Even more served in the campaigns in other parts of the world, especially the Middle East and East Africa. Many served as cavalry and were instrumental in defeating Ottoman forces in Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq).
By the end of the war, more than 1.2 million Indians had participated, 2/3 of those as soldiers. The peak strength of sepoys in the army was 573,000 men at one time. They made up about 1/10 of British manpower during the war. Almost 1 million Commonwealth (British Empire) forces died, including almost 50,000 Sepoys.
Read the following letters to get the feel for soldiers' individual experiences throughout the war. How did they perceive their own positions in the war? How did they describe its events? What did the war look like through their eyes? What historical trends do their observations reveal?
Note also that colonial subject soldiers (e.g., Southeast Asians - Caribbeans - East Africans - Algerians - West Africans--see below) traveled the world to fight for their metropolitan powers, both on the Western Front and in enemy colonies--Indians were not unusual in this respect.
To Naik Rajwali Khan (in India)
20 May 1915
For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe. Write me and tell me if your regiment or any part of it comes…. I am in a state of great anxiety; and tellmy brother Muhammad Yakub Khan for God’s sake not to enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist. It is unnecessary to write any more. … Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains [in the monsoon season]. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot. … In my company there are only ten men [left]. In the regiment there are 200.
Havildar Abdul Rahman (Punjabi Muslim)
59th Rifles, France
I’ve been wounded in the head, but hope to get better soon. …lucky [to be] alive while all my brethren have been killed. … here the earth is covered with dead men and there is no place to put one’s foot. Up to now the war has been as follows – the Germans kept firing from the trenches and we from ours. But on the 9th and 10th of March we attacked the Germans. So many men were killed and wounded that they could not be counted… When we reached their trenches we used the bayonet and the kukri[bladed weapon], and blood was shed so freely that we could not recognize each other’s faces; the whole ground was covered with blood. There heaps of mens’ heads, and some soldiers were without legs, others had been cut in two, some without hands and others without eyes. The scene was indescribable.
Amar Singh Rawat
To Ghulam Hussain (in France)
If God grants life, then I shall see you again. But it is difficult, for we are plunged in great and grievous calamity. …Alas! Alas! What am I to say about myself, that would be fit to write? There is nothing but my corpse left. They have cut off the whole of one leg, and one hand too is useless. What is the use of my going to India thus? … They have given me a leg, but it is made of wood and vile. I cannot walk. … There is nothing left of me. I have lost a hand and a leg. What am I to do?
Rajwali Khan (likely Punjabi Muslim)
To Raja Sajawal Khan Lumberdar
For six months I have not taken off my boots for one second, nor taken off my uniform, nor have I had one good night’s rest. This fighting goes on day and night all the same. The Kings of England, and Belgium, France, Russia Australia are on the one side. On the other are the Emperors of Germany and Austria. But the Emperor of Germany is the greatest and most powerful of all. …The Germans have the most numerous cannons and machine guns and shells. … [At Ypres, the Allies] attacked the Germans. This attacked they repulsed by lightning, fire and smoke, blasting some to pieces and blinding others [with poison gas]. Others were killed by cannon and machine gun fire. My friend, the Germans have got the most perfect contrivances. …About half the army was destroyed. This is what happens whenever there is fighting. …At night [the Germans] send up flashlights [spotlights] which show up men two miles away. Now [our side] is preparing contrivances similar to those of the Germans. Let us hope that we will defeat them, but we can only do so when all the Kings on the face of the earth will join us…
To Jemadar Muzaffar Khan in France
25 May 1915
Furthermore, this present war has raised the question of a sort of perception and comparison of the characteristics of each race, and of their good and bad reputation, as evinced by the way in which they have carried out their duties; … For this reason, I am writing to you… my sincere friend, to suggest that two or three of your native officers should meet together and make a representation to some of your English officers…and ask them to say what is their opinion concerning our race, and the work we have done, and our loyalty. When they have expressed their opinion, you should then say ‘will your honours kindly represent our loyal behavior to our spiritual chief, showing with what self-sacrifice we Muslims have devoted our lives in carrying out our duties?’ …we may be able to present the letter to high military officers on behalf of the whole of the Muslims showing the facts of our state: there will be great advantage in this to all the followers of our spiritual guides…
Sayid Ghulam Abbas (Muslim)
… The papers have an enormous circulation [here in England]. … Even the working classes read the papers and keep themselves informed of the state of affairs in their country and the events of the war. … [The Times] devotes its efforts to the advancement of patriotism and the service of the nation and not to squabbling with its fellows …. as do the papers of the Punjab. …
When one considers this country and these people in comparison with our own country and our own people one cannot but be distressed. Our country is very poor and feeble and its lot is very depressed. Our people copy the faults of the British nation and leave its good qualities alone. We shall never advance ourselves merely by wearing trousers and hats and smoking cigarettes and drinking. … They [the English] avoid idle chatter. Their delight is cleanliness. … As for shopkeepers, everything has a fixed price. … They do not marry until they have reached maturity. … Our boys are spoilt by our evil customs.
Sub Assistant Surgeon [unnamed] (Hindu)
Off the English coast
To Malik Fateh Mahomed Khan (in the Punjab)
Our caste is very low down in the scale, just because we do not serve in the Army [normally at home, presumably]. Everyone knows I am an officer, but no one knows who the Buranas are. … The reason for this [is] that though we are a caste superior in many ways to others, we are inferior just because we are not soldiers. Now, it rests with God and with you to raise the name of the buranas. You must make a great effort and you can do it this way – by getting [Buranas enlisted]. You must emphasize this – that our caste has got to win a name by serving Government. Just look at the Biloch caste. Who used to know anything about them, and now, how do they stand? … the whole object of military service is to raise the reputation of one’s caste, and that is what we have to do.
Jemadar Sultan Khan (Punjabi Muslim)
What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us? The men of France are beyond measure good and honorable and kind…. Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas.
To Abdullah Jan (in France)
The news is that the white men here have refused to enlist, declaring that the German Emperor is their King… An Indian black man went off to preach to them. He asked them if they were not ashamed to see us come from India to help the King while they, who were of the same race, were refusing to fight for him. But really, the way these whites are behaving is a scandal. Those who have already enlisted have mutinied.
To friend (in France)
…the 130th Baluchis, the regiment of which two companies have gone from Rangoon [Burma] to the Andamans, one jemadar and one havildar [non-commissioned officesr, similar in rank to sergeants] have been shot. There is great excitement about this …
"Pathan" (or Pashtun, probably from territory claimed by present-day Afghanistan)
To friend (in France)
[Five fellow soldiers] have taken an oath with me. [Our unit] The 130th refused to go to the war. Subedar-Major Sultan Mir has been court-martialled, and all the Afridi sepoys have been put in custody [ninety].
To Shamsher Ali Khan (in France)
…There is no doubt that Bulgaria’s coming in means a prolongation of the war. May God destroy this enemy – this shameless enemy – who has ruined the peace of the world. … We are very grieved to hear of His Majesty’s [English King] fall from his horse, but it is a subject for thankfulness that he was not seriously hurt. I am rather afraid that his Indian troops did not get the honour of being reviewed by him. … What you say about the apples and pears [code words for Frenchwomen] makes my mouth water, but when one thinks that bombs are more plentiful than apples, and shells than pears, and that there are more bullets flying about than grapes, it makes one’s hair stand on end. I am sure that, just as our Indians run to pick rare fruit like this, so they face fiercely the messenger of death.
To Sowar Abdur Razzaq Kahn (in France)
Be attentive to your duty. This is your opportunity for showing your courage, when people from all corners of the world under the dominion of King George V are sacrificing their lives.. . For one who seeks promotion over the heads of others, war is the best opportunity. Promotion thus gained is the reward of courage and devotion. It is not the promotion …won in peace time by flattering …officers and putting on their socks and boots. Such conduct is the work of a coward and a slacker. You must be careful to keep out of the ranks of such people. Do not think ‘perhaps I may be shot’. No one cane escape the fate allotted to him.
Kot Dafadar Said Ahmad Shah
Northwest Territories (present-day Pakistan)
To Mangal Singh (in the Punjab)
We get everything here that we are accustomed to get in India – plenty of milk, sugar, ghi [a sort of butter], oranges and grapes [not code words for women, we think]. Every day the forces of the King continue to advance, and we expect that [soon] we shall return victorious to our native land. The Germans are so much exhausted and can do no harm whatever to our King’s army, where our King’s army inflicts heavy losses on them daily. … The Germans are reduced to misery. They have nothing to eat…
Chaman Singh (Sikh)
We have the honour to beg you that we are Afghan Afridis of Khyber. We were since a long time in British India Army 57th Regiment. At the beginning of the Great War we were sent with other Indian troops to West Front France to fight against Germany. We were engaged for about 2 years … & fought faithfully for our King Emperor against the enemy, but unfortunately again we were sent to Egypt to fight against our Religious fellows, the Turks, & our Khalifa. It was impossible according to our religion to fight against our religion. Our religion forbids us to fight against a Muslim. In the meantime our Khalifa declared a Holy War (Jihad) against the Allies & we must have fought for our Khalifate. As we were [all] English loyal soldiers, we might not fight against England but we thought it better to go over to the Turks our Muslim fellows. There they treated us like their brothers, but sent us with other war prisoners to imprisonment….
Mir Baz Khan & Mir Zamir Afridis
The following accounts come from Joe Lunn, Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A SEnegalese Oral History of the First World War (199), pp. 40, 42, 137, 165-66, 233. Like the Sepoys from India, the Tirailleurs of West Africa were recruited and deployed by the French Empire, particularly on the battlefields of France itself. The passages below show the recruitment process, wartime experiences, and the return home. Almost 200,000 West Africans fought in France, and 30-40,000 died in the conflict.
Biram Mbodji Tine, Tirailleur
Many of the young men fled from the village [when the colonial conscripters came]. ... they used to arrest their fathers [if the young men did not] come back. ... often their mothers used to say to their sons: 'You know that your name has been written [by the colonial state, and yet] you ran away. And now your father has been arrested and he will be taken prison. So go and enter the army.' And they often used to go and enter the army ... their fathers [would be] released.
Sera Ndiaye, Wolof Tirailleur
In each family [the colonial state] only took one young man, never two. And my father decided that I should go and enter the army instead of my elder brother. Because, he told me: 'If I die, your elder brother could care for the family, but you are too young for that.'
We felt very proud after the attack because the French had tried many times to retake the fort [and failed], but finally, we [the Senegalese] took it.... Adn when we were leaving the fort, our officers told us not to wash our uniforms even though they were very dirty and covered with mud. But we were told: 'Don't wash your uniforms. Cross the country as you are so that everyone who meets you will know that you made the attack on Fort Douaumont.' ...in every town we crossed, the French were clapping their hands and shouting: 'Vive les tiraileurs senegalais!' ... looking at us with much admiration.
[One day in the mess hall] I took my cup and I wanted to make 'cheers' with a French soldier who was sitting next to me. So I made the 'cheers,' [but] the soldier said to me 'don't touch my cup, you are too dirty!' ... very angry [so] I punched him and we began to fight. ... the captain told me that I was right, and he told the French soldier that he woul be punished. But afterwards, I became very friendly with the same soldier.
The war changed many, many things. At first, when we joined the army, when you had an argument or a problem with a white man, what happened? You were wrong. ... But later, those things changed. They looked into the matter and determined who was wrong or right. Before that time, the black man didn't mean anything. So that was something [very important]. The respect we gained [from] the war .... respect [continued] increasing day to day--up until the Independence Day.
Europeans also fought in some of the colonies, mainly in the Allies' effort to seize Germany's African and the Ottoman Empire's Middle Eastern possessions. The most intense colonial war took place in German East Africa. Below we have an African and British observer of some aspects of that conflict. More than a million East Africans were mobilized (not to mention Indian Sepoys, White South Africans, Force Publique Congolese, and more) for the campaign, both men and [NUDITY ALERT] women (the majority as porters, but many as soldiers), and over 100,000 died in the conflict.
Samwil Mwenyipembe, East African Christian convert in Usambara (German East Africa)
Samwill was accused by both the Germans and the British of being a spy for the other side.
2 Jan 1915. Jumbe Kijazi [a chief employed by the Germans] received a letter ... with the names of all the [British missionary] teachers ... ordering him to arrest them and send them in. 27 Jan 1915. All people were called to the Boma [colonial office], and I went to listen. Herr Klenze said, "To-day is the day of the Kaiser [German emperor], it is 26 years since he began to reign, and we have lived in peace, but now our enemies do not want peace, they are bringing trouble, we beat them well at Tanga... and the Kaiser knows this, and he send his thanks to the Akidas [African government officials hired by the Germans], and Jumbes and also to the Askaris [African soldiers], and when the war is finished, we shall live in peace and flourish under our Kaiser." 13 Feb 1915. From this time a great many men from [German-owned] plantations, foreigners [i.e., Nyamwezi from the central regions of the colony], came to enlist, in order to get food and clothes, which they failed now to get on the plantations. 15 Mar 1915. Lieutenant Wolfram addressed the askari. He said, "This war arose on account of the religions of Christians and Muhammadans [Muslims], many Muhammadans have died during the war in Europe, and the Sultan of Rum [Ottoman] has given many askari tohelp the Kaiser; so in this country every Muhammadan must be ready to help, just as the Sultan of Rum is doing, by joining the askari, or giving money...". This was said to inspirit them, for they knew nothing about the war, and in order to get a sufficient supply of askari. 5 July 1915. Filipo Mhina died at Mlingoti. Cloth cannot now be [purchased] except at a very high price; he was buried without a shroud. Many people have practically no clothing, and if anyone is seen with a new cloth he gets into trouble, and the Indian who sold it to him. 26 July 1915. The people here are being very hardily treated now, the district is like a wilderness, there are hardly any people except women and chilren. The few men who ar eleft have exceedingly hard service of porterage, and are constantly beaten.... 9 Aug 1915. Akidas are urging the people to get in their maize quickly, lest it should be lost through the war. 31 Dec 1915. The bells have been silent ... There is a scarcity of food everywhere, and people have no time to dig on account of porterage. 10 Apr 1916. We hear that a flying-ship has been seen at Tanga, causing much excitement among the Germans, and many have [left] but not the soldiers. ... many people have been impressed to build houses [for the soldiers' wives]... 31 May 1916. All the people of the land, plantation workers... were being seized all day long and they left today ... [to go south]. ... One German remained here.... 7 Jun 1916. In the morning there was much firing [of guns] English askari were there.... I found that the houses of Europeans and of the Indians had been broken, and plundered, by both [English] askari and the local poulation as well, and money and goods taken. 6 Jul 1916 Since the British entered ... people have been seized everywhere for porterage. The rails are torn up and broken, bridges broken, goats and fowls seized everywhere.... 15 Jul 1916 ...the Germans, when they returned, began to harry the country, because the people had helped to bring the English. Many people were caught and .... [the Germans] began hanging people, eight were hanged. ... A great fear was over the whole land.
Source: Samwil Mwenyipembe, Journal of August 1914 – August 1916, Rhodes House, Universities' Mission to Central Africa, Box D1-2
Francis Brett Young, British Medical Officer in East Africa, 1916
Francis Young joined the medical corps that invaded German East Africa, and he wrote a memoir of the experience, which included the same are that Samwil Mwenyipembe described above.
The idea was altogether incongruous: that we should go trampling through this land, in a cavalcade that bristled with instruments of destruction, marching south into a warm breeze with fields of rippling light and a golden sunrise on our left. ...
The 2nd Kashmiris [ed.--Sepoys] went ahead of us to cut with their kukris a way through the ‘thin bush’ and make a road more direct than the old trading track which, from what we knew of it in the past, was as likely as not to be clogged with bush which was by no means thin. ...
But no man, in after years, will visit the battlefields of Pangani. No man, unless he wander there in search of game, will seek to look upon her sinister smile in the lovely winter weather of that deadly land. Why, even if he sought for traces of our fighting, the rains of another year will have hidden them in drifted sand…in drifted sand and in the springing green which utterly overspreads all these valleys when the rains are past. A very peaceful scene … if it were not that beneath its peace lies hidden a warfare more cruel than ours, the perpetual deadly struggle waged between those lovely, wild things of which its beauty is compact. ...
“It was strange to look at this [destroyed] railway line of a metre gauge as unimportant to all appearances as any forgotten mineral line at home, and to realise that this was primarily the instrument against which we had been fighting…
Here, too, we saw the German machine-gun positions, most skilfully concealed; the bandas in which the officers had slept, the trampled circles in the bush where their askaris had squatted, littered with husks and mealie cobs.” Here, too, were the pointed roofs of native dwellings, and mealie-fields, waving high in the breath of the river. …this was indeed the first evidence of human husbandry or tilled fileds that we had seen since the long safari began, but the whole scene, in its evening peace, seemed somehow inexpressibly homely. … the huts … were empty, the plantains stripped of their fruits, the mealie fields trampled and pillaged…
... the beasts [horses and donkeys] ... now began to die in great numbers. At first we made a pyre on which they were consumed; but our sweepers were lazy with their fuel, and the heaps of charred flesh became, in the end, so noisome, that we had the carcasses dragged into the bush, a mile or more from the camp, to be dealt with by the hyenas and the vultures.
[Thrice] in the course of our journey to Handeni…we fell in with most piteous convoys of horses and mules condemned for trypanosomiasis. …many already bore that fatal swelling in the abdominal wall … wore on their necks a red veterinary ticket. …driving them back to Korogwe to die just because it would be easier there to get rid of their poor wasted bodies. ...We lay in an iron truck [traincar]… on heaps of sisal flax, from the factories at Korogwe, pile above the rotten droppings of mules. … For a day and a night we struggled up the Tanga line, and night and day, other and more important trains went clanking past us, carrying not stores nor ammunition, nor men, but only transport beasts, oxen and mules, wedged tightly in the same sort of trucks as ourselves—healthy animals being swiftly carried into a land where death awaited them…
Source: Francis Brett Young, Marching on Tanga: with General Smuts in East Africa, rev. ed. (London: William Collins Sons & Co.,  1919), pp. 44-45, 54, 106-9, 111, 261-62.
Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est" (1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.[ed.--How sweet it is to die for the fatherland.]