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I can’t tell you how awful it was,’ people may say after a terrible experience. It’s true that words can sometimes seem inadequate. But some of the people who experienced the 1914-1918 war at first hand did try to describe what they saw. Some of the following extracts you may find distressing.

I remember especially two of our fellows in a shell-hole, fear was in their faces, they were crouching unnaturally, and one had evidently been saying to the other, “Keep your head down!” Now in both men’s heads was a dent, the sort of dent that appears in the side of a rubber ball when not fully expanded by air.
Stephen Graham: A Private In The Guards, 1919

(Letter, Easter 1915) The stagnation that this siege warfare has brought about gives a superficial observer the illusion of peace. One tries to arrange for the tillage of the land, one trains the men as well as possible in mud and filth, one visits the officers of neighbouring units...Yet the war is behind everything and everyone. The starlings that winter hereabouts in hordes whistle like rifle-bullets. Everything whistles its tune of the war - the houses, the fields, men, beasts, rivers, even the sky. The very milk turns sour under the thunder of shell-fire.
Rudolf Binding: Aus Dem Kriege, published 1927

The first dead that I encountered were young men with whom, only a few nights earlier, I had been sitting round the camp-fire in the Ukrainian forest, playing cards and joking. Not much more than boys, squatting on the moss in their bright-coloured trousers, a group of them round a tree trunk. From a branch a cap dangled, and on the next tree a dragoon’s blue-lined cloak. He who had worn them hung naked, head downwards, from a third tree. The horses lay in the forest with their hooves in the air, swollen-bellied, swarming with flies. At the sight of this huge dunghill my own horse reared, so that I had to dismount to quiet her. My patrol had been sent out to relieve these friends, who now sat there together as peacefully as if they were picnicking. Only now they would never speak again, and when I thrust my hand into the hair of the youngest, his scalp slipped sideways and came off in my hand.
Oskar Kokoschka: Mein Leben, 1971 (Letter, summer 1917)

My memories of this week will be, - Blockhouse; an archway through which a sniper used his skill on us; cold; stuffy heat; smashed or sunk tanks; a gas and smoke barrage put up by us, a glorious but terrifying sight; Fritz’s shells; one sunset; two sunrises; ...thirst; gas; shrapnel; our liquid fire; a first sight of an aeroplane map.... Does it sound interesting? May God forgive me if I ever come to cheat myself into thinking that it was, and lie later, to younger men, of ‘the great days’. It was damnable... It is not fit for men to be here in this tormented dry-fevered marsh, where men die and are left to rot.
Ivor Gurney: War Letters, 1983

(A journalist’s view) For hours we drove along behind a desultory but gigantic artillery battle. Gun after gun after gun, each in its raw pit, covered with brush to shield it from aeroplanes. Sweating men staggered under the weight of shells; methodically the breech snapped home and the pointer singsonged his range; a firer jerked the lanyard - furious haze belched out, gun recoiled, shell screamed - miles and miles of great cannon in lordly syncopation. In the very field of the artillery, peasants were calmly ploughing with oxen, and in front of the roaring guns a boy in white linen drove cattle over the hill toward the pastures along the river. Eastward the world rolled up in another slow hill that bore curves of young wheat running in great waves before the wind. Its crest was torn and scarred with mighty excavations, where multitudinous tiny men swarmed over new trenches and barbed-wire tangles. This was the second-line position preparing for a retreat.
John Reed: The War In Eastern Europe, 1916

(A nurse’s view) A disastrous fire had gutted a wine-cellar; several soldiers had been burned to death; some were being brought for instant treatment. Only two of them were able to stand. They came, both of them, walking: two naked red figures. Their clothes had been burnt off their bodies. They stood side by side, raw from head to foot. Injections were ordered, but we could find no skin and had to put the needle straight into the flesh. Their arms were hanging stiffly at their sides, and from the fingertips of the men were suspended what looked like leather gloves. We cut them off with surgical scissors. They were the skin of the hand and fingers which had peeled off. We showered them with bicarbonate of soda and swathed their poor burnt bodies with layers of cotton wool and surgical lint. We laid them down on straw in an adjoining shed. In an hour or two, the cotton wool was saturated, but we could help them no further, save with oft-repeated injections of morphia, which, we prayed, would deaden their sufferings. They died, both of them, before morning. And neither of them had spoken a single word! I don’t think that anything which I had ever seen touched me so keenly.
Florence Farmborough: Nurse At The Russian Front: A Diary 1914-18

(Letter, Good Friday 1917) As night falls the monstrous land takes on a strange aspect. The sun sinks in a clear evening and smoke hangs in narrow bars of violet and dark. In the clear light the shapes of the trench stand massy and cold, the mud gleams whitely, the sandbags have a hard, rocky look, the works of men look a freak of nature, the landscape is so distorted from its own gentle forms, nothing seems to bear the imprint of God’s hand, the whole might be a terrific creation of some malign fiend working a crooked will on the innocent countryside. Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night. As the dark gathers, the horizon brightens and again vanishes as the Very lights rise and fall, shedding their weird greenish glare over the land and, acute contrast to their lazy silent flight, breaks out the agitated knocking of the machine-guns as they sweep the parapets.
Paul Nash: Outline, 1949

I’d never used a rifle grenade, but it was very useful for collecting flowers - I used to put poppies from the fields in the metal cup on the rifle. Most of the men thought nothing of flowers, but I was always aware of them growing in the midst of so much destruction. There were poppies everywhere, and a few other wild flowers, but they made that period of May, June and July 1918 unforgettably poignant. Between the devastated villages, the crops lay ungathered and I have never before or since been so acutely aware of life.
Frederick Hodges: in Tales of The Old Soldiers, 1993

It’s such a long, long time ago now, and almost everyone from that time has gone, but my dominant memories are of the machine-gun shaking in my hands as I pressed the triggers with my thumbs; of watching the enemy soldiers being hit by the bullets that I had fired; and of walking over the dead at Passchendaele. I remember at night seeing great armies of rats moving across the battlefield like a battalion. I remember that machine-gunners like us were hated by the infantry: they knew that if they were near our position there was an increased chance that they would be hit, because the enemy always tried to work out where the machine-guns were and then, of course, they shelled them.
Grant Osborne: in Tales Of The Old Soldiers, 1993



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