The Combat Experience

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12


The First World War stands out as a landmark in the intensity of violence in the 20th century. It epitomizes the advent of total war, particularly by its impact on all of the societies involved in the conflict.

The concept of “total war” was introduced by some historians to describe the escalation in the practice of warfare during the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, involving the mobilization of the masses and the goal of imposing a new political or social model on another society. After the First World War, the term was reiterated by Léon Daudet and by German Marshall Ludendorff in 1936,  before being elaborated as a theory by German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt to illustrate the radicalization of violence, means, and methods in the war experience of the 20th century.

Schmitt defined total war as “the engagement of all the physical and moral resources of a nation (...) to bring about the complete extermination of the enemy, resorting without scruples to all the existing instruments of annihilation.” Historian David Bell insists on the “dynamic of radicalization,” differentiating total war from previous conflicts by its mobilization of “increasingly massive resources in the effort to destroy the enemy regime, in a progressive escalation that can only end in the collapse and defeat of one of the parties in conflict.”

The “total” character of the First World War lies in the banalization of mass destruction and the generalized habituation to it in the belligerent societies. This process is at the root of the very controversial concept of brutalization, used by historian George Mosse to explain the transfer of the experience of violence at the front to civil society and its banalization.

This learning resource file aims to summarize some of the debates concerning the characteristics of the combat experience in the First World War. 

The First World War, at the heart of numerous historiographical debates

Brutalization: A controversial, much-contested concept

The concept originated in George Mosse’s 1990 volume (translated into French in 1999), Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, in which he describes the transfer of the “war experience” into the political arena, notably in the Weimar Republic of postwar Germany, and its role in the rise of Nazism. In this thesis, the effects of the First World War on European societies between the wars shows how the war became the matrix for the totalitarian regimes of this period (the state being all-encompassing, or “total”) and during the Second World War (the paroxysm of violence).

The brutalization of societies is defined as the process by which physical or psychological violence engenders brutal behaviour by soldiers and civilians. The concept of brutalization or ensauvagement was created to convey the perception and the internationalization of war by combatants in the First World War to the point of banalizing or trivializing it. The Armenian genocide, defined as such a posteriori, was a forerunner event illustrative of the banalization of violence in societies during the First World War. According to George Mosse, from that moment onward, “the myth of the war experience (…) constructed the war as an event charged with meaning and sanctity, to the point of making it a civil religion.” He sees this sanctification of war as the deep reason for the consent to the conflict, allowing “the participants in the war to accept and 'consent' to its extreme violence.”

Brutalization or radicalization?

However, if the thesis of the brutalization of European societies during the First World War was an advance in the analysis of postwar societies, it required a more nuanced approach and remains the subject of several different, even contradictory interpretations by the community of historians.

Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, in her article, “La Grande guerre a-t-elle brutalisé les sociétés européennes?”, explains that for German historian Imanuel Geiss, the Great War simply banalized and radicalized a war culture that already prevailed during the Balkan Wars and in the violence of colonialism, and which had led to an ever-increasing dehumanization of the enemy; she illustrates her point by referring to the systematic recourse to concentration camps for civilians by the British during the Boer Wars at the turn of the century.

In consequence, the First World War took place in societies that were already accustomed to a certain brutality, which diminishes the impact of the theory of a brutalization stemming from the Great War. However, it cannot be denied that this conflict is at the origin of a radicalization and a banalization of mass killings in the wars of the 20th century. 

Consent of the combatants and the “culture of war”

At the end of the 20th century, the historians who had, in 1992, established the research centre and the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, France, were focussing on the cultural experience of the First World War and revalidating the idea of the emergence of a new level of violence in confrontations among nations, relying on the concept of the “consent” of soldiers in this conflict. To these historians, “the soldiers, like the rest of the population, largely accepted the war effort, in a consent that was part of the culture of war.” This was certainly the case in Canada, where the core of the war troops consisted of volunteers. After spring 1915, with the return of hundreds of men who had been injured in combat, Canadians could not remain unaware of the violence and brutality of the battlefield.

The Canadian war effort gradually extended to all sectors of the population. The example of First Nations Canadians is illustrative in this respect: at the beginning of the war, Native Canadians were discouraged from enlisting, as officials feared that the “Germans might refuse to extend to them the privileges of ‘civilized warfare’.” Nonetheless, many came eagerly forward to enlist, and the recruiters accepted most of them. Not long afterwards, the Canadian army authorities extended an official invitation to the members of First Nations to enlist, but as volunteers, and later, they were exempted from the obligatory conscription law (the Military Service Act, 1917). An estimated 35 percent of Native Canadians of the regulatory age, some 4,000 people in all, joined the army during the Great War, and over 300 of them did not return. This figure omits the non-status Indian, Métis, and Inuit soldiers. Accounts of the bravery of these men are part of the historical record.

Native Canadian soldiers were praised as exceptional snipers who brought down a large number of enemy soldiers in the trenches, causing the Germans to be more cautious. When the 11th British Army Corps to which the Canadians were attached, created an elite marksmanship course in December 1915, a French liaison officer wrote to his superiors that, on the Canadian front, “the best snipers were Indian and Métis” and that due to these marksmen, “the Germans couldn’t show themselves within a range of up to 1,000 metres behind their front line.”

French historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker explain the consent of the respective populations of the warring countries in large part through the dissemination of the “culture of war,” a concept that they define as “a set of representations of the conflict crystallized into a veritable system that gives war its deep meaning” which relies on “the expectation of a rapid victory,” “the heroism of the soldiers,” and the “demonized perception of atrocities committed by the enemy,” an enemy often animalized in propaganda, “brainwashing” techniques, or in the censorship process.

The “culture of war” thus refers to the mechanisms employed by men and women to understand the world at war that they are living in and to give it meaning. According to these two historians, the brutalization of the combatants by the war comes “from below,” with the combatants becoming full-fledged actors in the violence of war.

From consent to constraint: The heart of the historical debate

For Frédéric Rousseau, “the so-called consent of the soldiers was expressed within a space of extreme dependence, constant surveillance, and heightened coercion,” limiting mutinies and desertions in the first part of the war. The very use of a coercive and repressive arsenal shows that the soldiers’ consent to the war and its brutality was not generalized, nor was it motivated by patriotic effusion.

In this historian’s view, the vast majority of combatants obeyed orders more by constraint than by consent, as attested to in the numerous accounts by poilus (French infantrymen) of summary executions for disobedience at the front. He explains the perseverance of the soldiers for the duration of the war by “clusters of factors” which were (1) cultural, such as patriotism, religion, or superstition; (2) nuanced by social interactions such as comradeship or disciplinary hierarchy; (3) influenced by individual and collective practices (alcohol consumption, sexuality, letter-writing). The importance of the culture of obedience and patriotic duty was a fundamental element that contributed to the soldiers’ commitment.

Frédéric Rousseau is also opposed to the “patriotic consent school” represented by the Péronne historians. To him, the brutalization of society seems more a synonym for habituation or adaption to war and its brutality rather than consent as such.

Antoine Prost, chairman of the scientific committee of the Centenary of the Great War in France, underlined the importance of the effect of the bombing and artillery fire on the combatants in his introduction to the special edition of L’Histoire dedicated to the war. These elements, as Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer puts it, conveyed “an anonymous violence inflicted by the combatants, in which the hatred of the enemy inherent to the culture of war was rarely evident.”

From constraint to live-and-let-live

Within this same perspective, Tony Ashworth introduced a fresh vision of the combat experience through a study of the lives of British soldiers in the trenches, “inasmuch as it corresponds to a fundamental experience, not lacking in violence, which was largely shared by the combatants.” Using primary sources, Ashworth describes a live-and-let-live system that prevailed in the trenches during the First World War, in spite of the existing repressive military apparatus. His challenge of the constraint-from-above hypothesis was reiterated in Robert Axelrod’s view that this system “…flourished despite the best efforts of senior officers to stop it, despite the passions aroused by combat, despite the military logic of kill or be killed, and despite the ease with which the high command was able to repress any local efforts to arrange a direct truce.”

According to Tony Ashworth, the live-and-let-live system and its effect of limiting the violence on the battlefield are factors that help to explain both the length of the war and the endurance of the combatants. He describes the spontaneous ceasefires and the incidents of fraternization between enemy combatants at the front, beginning on Christmas Eve 1914, and “even a ritualization, (...) an exchange of ritual attacks in common accord with the enemy for the purpose of limiting casualties,” for example, when artillery would fire into no man’s land instead of at the opposing trenches. All these acts revealed the shared desire of the combatants to curtail “aggressive activity” after 1915.

The combat experience in the First World War

From violence to mass killing

Mass destruction is partly linked to the development of combat techniques and weaponry during the First World War, a war that fell squarely within the industrial era. The war arsenal was upgraded by artillery shells and new weapons such as repeating rifles that could fire cone-shaped, fast-travelling, pivoting bullets at a rate of 10 per minute, and by the generalized use of machine guns—the symbol of industrialized war—which fired 400-600 bullets per minute.

Aviation also found its place in the conflict. Asphyxiating, paralyzing, and blinding gases were used for the first time in 1915.  Quickly denounced as a violation of the laws of war, this spectre was an additional terror for the infantrymen. Notwithstanding the devastating effects of gas, 70 percent of the injuries in the Great War were caused by artillery fire (see also the “Technological and Scientific Progress” file).

Australian infantrymen equipped with gas masks at Ypres, 1916.

The infantry soldiers and the trenches became the symbols of the fighting in the war of position. According to historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, any experience of combat is first and foremost a corporeal one: “The combatant lying on the ground, in a uniform without a hint of sartorial elegance, is a combatant who is powerless against the intensity of the shelling, terrified and humiliated by his own terror.” Indeed, if at the beginning of the 20th century, “Western soldiers fought upright on the battlefield,” during the First World War, they adopted a position closer to the ground, “lying down” to protect themselves, symbols of “fragile” humanity facing military violence of a new type.

Front Lines - The Life of the Soldier (08:46)

Whether volunteers or conscripts, all soldiers bore the brunt of physical and mental hardship in trench warfare. This film tells us the story of two of them.
Directed by Claude Guilmain, produced by Anne-Marie Rocher
© National Film Board of Canada, 2008

In the accounts of combatants, the front and its battlefields are often described as a veritable “slaughterhouse” that dehumanized the combatants. Besides the violence of the fighting and the banalization of the experience of mass killing, the long duration of the offensives (Verdun, the Somme, and others) and the terrible living conditions in the trenches were also the cause of long-term psychological disturbances among the combatants, referred to today as post-traumatic stress effects.

(British) troops of the Border Regiment resting in a front line trench in Thiepval wood during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916.<br />Imperial War Museums, Ministry of Information, First War Official Collection.

Death was omnipresent in the denuded battle zones, lunar landscapes with thousands of shell-blasted craters, the territories of each camp bordered by barbed wire and separated by an arbitrary no man’s land. In the face of the deaths of their comrades, the combatants formed one of the “communities in mourning” that existed during and after the war, to use Jay Winter’s expression.

The findings from archaeological digs in northern and eastern France give a good idea of the massacre that was the Great War: “… shell craters, trenches, tunnels, improvised shelters, rubbish heaps, weapons of all calibres, but also the remains of 700,000 combatants still fossilized on the battlefield (...) who send us back an echo of the soldiers’ feelings towards the horror of the fighting.”

The 1925 painting La Guerre, by Marcel Gromaire, one of the artists who witnessed the battlefields, shows how combatants of the First World War came to be perceived as faceless cogs in a machine: the soldiers are depicted as robots of an industrial age, completely dehumanized.

Trench warfare was an obligatory passage of the combat experience of the Great War. The front line, facing the enemy lines, was the most dangerous zone. Having to endure atrocious conditions in the trenches during lengthy periods in the war of position (with the cold, the mud, the vermin, basic shortages, ceaseless shelling, and death everywhere) caused physical distress but also severe psychological trauma. Generally speaking, the soldiers suffered from psychological damage: depression, anxiety and the fear of death, the repercussions of which would last long after their return home.

Front Lines - The Trenches (09:23)

The First World War quickly transformed into war of position. The first trenches were simply holes in the ground, but they quickly became complex networks. This film tells the soldier's life in these trenches.
Directed by Claude Guilmain, produced by Anne-Marie Rocher
© National Film Board of Canada, 2008

The body count issue

The total number of soldiers killed between 1914 and 1918 is estimated to be 9 million. However, according to a recent study by French historian Antoine Prost published in February 2014, the true total would be closer to approximately 10 million killed. Prost’s research revealed that early victim counts omitted deaths caused by illness (often after the soldier’s return from the front) as well as those of prisoners of war, and did not sufficiently factor in the armies’ tendency to minimize losses. 

He shows that errors in the figures are also partly due to the general lack of interest taken in the dead by the army chiefs of staff: “What interested them were the living, and the number of men they could send up to the lines.” On the subject of American war deaths on the other hand, in his preface to the French edition of Jay Winter’s book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Prost states that the official estimate was inflated, as it included “35,000 Spanish influenza victims who had never crossed the Atlantic to fight in the war.” The reason for advancing these high figures at the time was ostensibly to highlight the importance of the American army’s role as a way of legitimizing the country’s muscle-flexing.

Prost also shows differences in the way the dead were treated according to the country involved in the conflict. Starting in 1917, the British Imperial War Graves Commission laid down cemeteries near the various fronts on the continent for the burial of dead combatants from all parts of the British Empire (English, Scottish, Canadian, Newfoundlanders, Australian, New Zealanders, Indians, etc.), acting on the principle of equal treatment for all victims. In this same period, “due to the pressure of public opinion and by the families of the victims,” the French authorities moved to “repatriate the 140,000 bodies identified and claimed to their regions of origin,” burying the rest in military graveyards.

The inauguration of the International Memorial of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette by French president François Hollande on November 11, 2014, marked a turning point in the official recognition of the sacrifice made by ordinary soldiers. The initiative for this memorial came from the Conseil Régional du Nord-Pas de Calais. It pays tribute to the 580,000 combatants of all nations who died on the soil of this region between 1914 and 1918. Built on the summit of the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette plateau, near the largest French national military cemetery, the monument, designed by architect Philippe Prost, lists the names of these 580,000 soldiers fallen in battle in alphabetical order, excluding any mention of their nationalities.

Not far from this international site is the Canadian memorial at Vimy, erected on land ceded by France to Canada after the end of the Great War. Inaugurated in the 1930s, it can be seen at a distance of several kilometres from every direction, an impressive form of recognition of the tactical importance of this long ridge overlooking the plain of Douai, territory that was taken by Canadian troops in April 1917, at the cost of over 3,000 lives. The monument itself is engraved with the names of the more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers killed in the First World War whose bodies were not recovered.

Canadian National Vimy Memorial, Nord-Pas de Calais, France.

Another poignant monument, now Canadian, is the one commemorating the slaughter on July 1, 1916, of much of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel within the first few minutes of the assault that began the five-month-long Battle of the Somme. Northern France and part of Belgian Flanders are dotted with several other Canadian military cemeteries and monuments to the fallen.

The First World War, through the experience of the combatants, may have banalized mass killing. Yet the different European societies, even though they were involved in the same war, followed different, even contradictory paths in the period between the two wars. This brings nuance to the theory of the generalized brutalization of these societies and its tenet that “the banalization or internalization of the violence of the war had a systematic impact on the political realm in the postwar period.”

This process can, however, explain the long-lasting nature of certain forms of violence, notably in Germany, Italy, and the U.S.S.R. (with the rise of totalitarianism). “In the period between the two wars, the veterans, scarred by their experience as combatants in the war, chose to either perpetrate the 'myth of war' (evoking commando action) or to reject it in favour of pacifist values." However, historians have reached a consensus regarding one thing: the combat experience in the First World War was an important stage in 20th century war, and prefigured the pushing of violence to its paroxysm during the Second World War.


Bibliography / Webography

Bibliography and Internet References

In English:

  •  Axelrod, Robert. “The Live and Let Live System in Trench Warfare in World War I”, Chapter 4 (pp. 73–87) of The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
  • Bell, David. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of War as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Dempsey James. Warriors of the King: Prairie Indians in World War 1. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1999.
  • Gaffen, Fred. Forgotten Soldiers. Winnipeg: Defence Academy Press, 2012; originally published in 1985.
  • Lackenbauer, P. Whitney,  John Moses, R. Scott Sheffield, and Maxime Gohier. Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Military. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2009.
  • Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Summerby, Janice. Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1993.
  • Winter, Jay. Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Serna, Pierre. “Comment penser la guerre totale sans la réduire à une guerre totalement française?”, comments on David Bell’s book The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of War as We Know It, with replies by Bell. 
© Réseau Canopé, 2015