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Voices from the Great War: Illuminating Quotes by World War One Contemporaries

World War One, the devastating conflict that convulsed the globe from 1914 to 1918, left an indelible mark on history. The staggering loss of life, immense physical destruction, and shattering of the pre-war world order reverberated for generations. Over 9 million soldiers and 10 million civilians perished.1 Empires crumbled, borders were redrawn, and the seeds were sown for future upheaval.

But beyond these sweeping events and statistics are the individual human experiences of those who lived through the unimaginable cataclysm of the Great War. From the loftiest statesman to the lowliest private in the trenches, the war left no one untouched. Their words, preserved in letters, diaries, speeches, books and more, offer an intimate glimpse into this world-altering tragedy.

As a historian, I believe these firsthand testimonies are invaluable for truly understanding the zeitgeist of the war years. They reveal the hopes and fears, the certainties and confusions, the idealism and disillusionment of the generation that endured this seminal catastrophe. By listening carefully to these voices from the past, we can gain a richer, more nuanced and empathetic comprehension of the lived experience of the war and its far-reaching impact.

Marching to War

The early days and even years of the 20th century were marked by a precarious peace between Europe‘s great powers. Beneath the surface, nationalist ambitions, imperialist rivalries, entangling alliances, and accelerating militarism set the stage for a massive conflict. Some saw it coming, while others clung to hopeful naivete.

One of the earliest and most prophetic warnings came from German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the architect of Germany‘s unification. Shortly before his death in 1898, he observed:

"One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans."2

His words would prove eerily prescient. The spark that ignited the war was indeed "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Initial reactions to the assassination varied. Some, like German Kaiser Wilhelm II, saw it as a chance for Austria-Hungary to settle scores with Serbia. He assured his Austrian allies of Germany‘s staunch support, proclaiming:

"The Serbs must be disposed of, and soon."3

But once the gears of war began grinding and the system of alliances kicked in, dragging more and more nations into the fray, the magnitude of the looming catastrophe started to sink in. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey captured the darkening mood with his famous observation on the eve of Britain‘s entry into the war:

"The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."4

In the Trenches

The early months of mobile warfare soon gave way to a grueling stalemate along the Western Front, as the armies dug in and a vast network of trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Life in these trenches was a muddy, vermin-infested, terrifying purgatory for the soldiers on both sides.

War poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just a week before the Armistice, captured the squalor and despair of trench life in works such as "Dulce et Decorum Est":

"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…"5

The unrelenting shelling, with terrifying new weapons like poison gas, wore on men‘s nerves and sanity. As one anonymous British soldier wrote in his diary:

"We go to purgatory and learn to love it. If you escape the shelling there is always the mud and the cold or the rats and the lice."6

Death was a constant companion. Soldiers had to carry on while seeing friends brutally killed. Reacting to a comrade‘s demise, Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin of the Australian Imperial Force confided:

"It was a sad day as I saw many of my pals were killed and wounded. I cannot describe the horror of it all, words do not exist that can picture the awful scenes that a battle presents."7

The Home Front

The war‘s devastation reached far beyond the battlefields, affecting civilians back home profoundly. Women stepped into new roles in factories, farms, and beyond to support the war effort, forever altering social dynamics.

As feminist writer Olive Schreiner observed:

"These millions of women who have … marched into the new fields of labour…will never again be merely ‘the women who are taken care of.‘"8

Food and fuel shortages led to strict rationing. Populations of major cities like Berlin and Vienna were on the brink of starvation by 1918. Margarethe Schröder, a German housewife, lamented:

"We are all slowly starving to death. Food is the only thing that one thinks and talks about."9

Sacrifices were demanded of all. As British Prime Minister David Lloyd George declared in a 1915 speech at Guildhall:

"This is not a time to speak of the causes of the war…the time to do that will be when victory is won. We have but one task – to concentrate the whole strength and resources of the Empire upon the struggle for victory."10

Reflections and Repercussions

In the war‘s aftermath, amid the immense human and physical destruction, a profound disillusionment set in for many. The romantic ideals of honor, glory and patriotism that some had carried into the conflict were shattered.

Writer and veteran Erich Maria Remarque poignantly captured this "lost generation" sentiment in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front:

"We are not youth any longer. We don‘t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces."11

The monumental tragedy of the war was movingly conveyed by American diplomat and historian George Kennan:

"The First World War was the great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century….the old world, in some respects a good world, in some respects a bad one, but in any case the world we knew, came to an end."12

Economist John Maynard Keynes, in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, criticized the punishing terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and foresaw the economic instability that would later contribute to the rise of Hitler and Nazism:

"The danger confronting us, therefore, is the rapid depression of the standard of life of the European populations to a point which will mean actual starvation for some (a point already reached in Russia and approximately reached in Austria)."13

From a historian‘s viewpoint, these quotes illuminate that even in the direct aftermath, many grasped that the Great War had unleashed irrevocable changes – the end of empires, the rise of Communism and fascism, the roots of World War Two, and the fading of European global dominance.

Perhaps poet and soldier Edmund Blunden put it most succinctly:

"The War had won, and would go on winning."14

Over a century later, the words of World War One‘s contemporaries still hold immense power – as a warning, as a remembrance, as a testament to human folly and resilience. They remind us of the importance of diplomacy, the perils of runaway nationalism and militarism, and the incalculable costs of war.

In studying this pivotal chapter of history, we must always keep these voices at the forefront and strive to learn from the hard lessons they impart. For as philosopher George Santayana memorably put it:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."15

[1] World War I Casualties, REPERES, last modified March 2011,
*[2] George Frost Kennan, The Decline of Bismarck‘s European Order Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 3.
[3] Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Reflections on the World War, Vol. 1 (London: T. Butterworth Limited, 1920), 159-160.
[4] Edward Grey, Twenty-Five Years, 1892-1916, Vol. 2 (London: Hodder & Stoughton Limited, 1925), 20.
[5] Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," The War Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. by Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), 29.
[6] G. S. Hutchison, The Diary of a Leinster Fusilier (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 87.
[7] Richard Tobin, The Anzac Book (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010), 112.
[8] Olive Schreiner, Woman and Labour (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911), 266.
[9] Belinda J. Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 98.
[10] David Lloyd George, "The Guildhall Speech," The Times, November 10, 1915.
[11] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, trans. by A. W. Wheen (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1929), 87-88.
[12] George F. Kennan, The Decline of Bismarck‘s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 3.
[13] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920), 251.
[14] Edmund Blunden, War Poets 1914-1918 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1958), 104.
[15] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense (New York: Charles Scribner‘s Sons, 1905), 284.