The First World War Combat Experience

Introduction Scope Library of Congress Subject Headings Browsing Areas Encyclopedias Dictionaries
Atlases Individual Texts Bibliographies Journals Non-print Media Internet Resources


The First World War was one of the key turning points in world history. In a very real sense, 1914 was the actual (if not the chronological) end of the 19th Century. It was also the end of a psychic world structure which Europe and the Near East had known for over a millennium. In the aftermath of the war, empires, kingdoms, royal families, governing structures, and societal conventions which had supported the pre-war world were gone. The multinational Ottoman Turkish Empire had been divided into fledgling nation-states of uncertain validity and questioned legitimacy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict of today was partially generated by European promises given (in order to secure support for war aims) to different ethnic groups, promising them each sovereignty over the same piece of land. The multinational Austrian Empire, whose roots went back directly to the Holy Roman Empire -- the successor to Rome as the center of governance for Western and Central Europe -- had been divided into small nation-states whose intra-communal ethnic hatreds were no longer held down by Imperial power. The savagery in Bosnia today is partially an outcome of the results of 1914-1918. The German monarchy had been replaced by a weak republic which would, in turn, be replaced by a Nazi regime which came to power in part because of unresolved dissatisfaction with the outcome of the World War I. And the Russian monarchy had been replaced by a Communist hierarchy who would be one of the primary actors in global politics for the next three-quarters of a century.

World War I was, in many ways, the opening act of the global tragedy whose second act closed with World War II. The multipolar Age of European Hegemony of 1914 evolved into the bipolar Atomic Age of 1945 and the Cold War which followed it.

Those individuals who led their nations through World War II and into the Cold War were, in many cases, combatants who survived the carnage of the World War I battlefield. The lessons they drew from their World War I experience colored their outlook and guided their decisions, as it did for the mass of their countrymen who did the fighting, building, and suffering over the following half century. For some, the combat experience had enlightened them, for many others it had brutalized them, but for almost all, it had weakened the certainties which had been the underpinning of European society for centuries.

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The purpose of this Pathfinder is to provide the user a guide to materials which illuminate the combat environment experienced by those who were caught up in World War I. The United States was a relative latecomer to the war and Americans did not receive the serious psychic scars of many of the other participants, and so this Pathfinder is focused on the European experience. Since Canadian and Australian forces were also involved in the war from the start and since many of their soldiers were recent European immigrants, their experiences are covered as well. The war generated a tremendous volume of literature and Davis Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an extensive collection of World War I-related materials. The vast bulk of these materials are in book form. While Davis holds significant amounts of work on this topic in languages other than English, the majority of the English-language works are about the British experience. Except where explicitly stated otherwise, all of the materials in this Pathfinder are available at Davis Library and call numbersare listed immediately after their names in the text below.

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Library of Congress Subject Headings

Most Relevant
World War, 1914-1918--Campaigns--Belgium

(Most battles have their own Subject Headings, such as Mons, Battle of, 1914)

World War, 1914-1918--Campaigns--Eastern

World War, 1914-1918--Campaigns--France

(Most battles have their own Subject Headings, such as Somme, 1st Battle of the, France 1916)

World War, 1914-1918--Campaigns--Turkey--Gallipoli Peninsula

World War, 1914-1918--Influence

World War, 1914-1918--Personal Narratives, (by country, such as French)

World War, 1914-1918--Pictorial Works

Also Relevant
Soldiers--(by country, such as Great Britain)


Military art and science--History--War

Military art and science--Logistics (and --Tactics, --Strategy)

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Browsing Areas

3rd Floor Works on World War I are found in D501-D680
Stack 362 D505 through D577

Stack 363 D577 through D640

Stack 371 DA69

Stack 384 DC342

Stack 387 DD231

8th Floor Works on Military art and science are found in U through UH
Stack 833 U1.A1 through U27.S9

Stack 835 UA606.N91 through UF585.E9

Stack 876 through 877 Dewey numbers 940.9

(The books in the Dewey section are mostly published in the years immediately after World War I. If the reader keeps in mind the passions and prejudices of the times, these books can be useful.)

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The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th Ed. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1993.
The article on "World War I" on pages 961 to 987 in the Macropædia is both clear and concise, while being the most thorough coverage of the entire scope of the First World War to be found in any general encyclopedia. A complementary article on "The Theory and Conduct of War" on pages 650 to 653 in the Macropædia places military operations in the context of then-prevailing theories and how the experience of World War I modified those theories. [1st Floor Reference, AE5.E363 1993]

Gray, Randal with Christopher Argyle. Chronicle of the First World War. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

This two-volume ready-reference work adopts a Timetables of History approach with nine columns across each double page to show the reader what was occurring simultaneously in various areas. Tables include all the European and Near Eastern fronts as well as the conflict in Africa. [1st Floor Reference, D523.G634 1990]

Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992.

A one-volume encyclopedia which seeks to cover the spectrum of World War I in less than 500 pages. Significant sections include a survey of weaponry and their use by individuals and teams, and a glossary of then-contemporary military terms and colloquialisms. [1stFloor Reference D521.H36 1992]

Young, Peter (editor-in-chief). The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1984.

An eleven-volume masterpiece with over 340 entries by over 200 contributors. Each article is about 3000-5000 words long, and each includes a bibliography and suggested additional readings. The work contains over 5000 illustrations, reprints of contemporary accounts and diaries, special features on specialist topics, and a comprehensive listing of all available (as of 1984) English language titles on the topic of World War I. If a reader is curious about World War I, this is the single most valuable source which could be consulted. [1st Floor Reference D522.5.M39 1984]

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Dupuy, Trevor N. (Compiler). Dictionary of Military Terms: A Guide to the Language of Warfare and Military Institutions. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1986.
A good source for looking up strange, new, or confusing terms found in other sources, particularly in first-person accounts. [1st Floor Reference U24.D87 1986]

Herwig, Holger H. and Neil M. Heyman. Biographical Dictionary of World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Alphabetical arrangement of biographies of key personalities (primarily the very senior military and political figures) with bibliographic sources listed at the end of each article. [1st Floor Reference D507.H47 1982]

Lucas, James (General Editor). Command: From Alexander the Great to Zhukov; The Greatest Commanders of World History. London: Bloomsbury Publ. Ltd., 1988.

Thumbnail sketches of World War I leaders from Allenby to Samsonov on pages 144 through 169. [U51.C73 1988]

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Banks, Arthur. Military Atlas of the first World War. London: Heineman Educational Books, 1975.
The heart of this book are the approximately 300 very comprehensible maps covering all the fronts. Particularly valuable are the additional sketches of the weapons used during the War. [G1037.B3 1975b]

Gilbert, Martin. First World War Atlas. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

This book accomplishes its intention to be "an introductory guide to as many aspects of the First World War as can reasonably be put in map form." A particularly powerful map shows over 100 Commonwealth cemeteries, each with 50 to 4500 graves, in the Ypres, Belgium area. Additionally, there is a sign on the gate of one of these cemeteries with the names of 56,000 soldiers who have no known graves. [G1037.G49 1970]

Laffin, John. Panorama of the Western Front. Dover, NH: Alan Sutton Publ., 1993.

A series of "birds-eye" panoramic sketches of the front line from the English Channel to the Swiss border gives the reader a real sense for the topography of the battle area. It takes some work to understand the maps, but it can be very helpful for understanding the ground on which specific battles took place. [D530.L34 1993]

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Individual Texts

The best available sources on this subject are individual texts, and the number of useful ones is exceedingly large. The following sections are grouped into specific subject areas. An attempt has been made to select the best texts which cover the broadest spectrum of the World War I combat experience.
Troops and their equipment Battlefield experiences First-person remembrances
When courage and leadership fails Official histories Literary treatments

Troops and their equipment

The Diagram Group. Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Clear and informative diagrams of the weapons used in World War I. [1st Floor Reference U800.D55 1980]

Winter, Jay and Brian Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.

A companion book to the PBS series "The Great War", it explains the cultural milieu of the period and how it affected the soldiers. The book is abundantly illustrated with photographs not seen often in other books on the subject. It is interesting to note how the uniforms of the 1914-era soldiers look almost like American Civil War uniforms while the 1918-era uniforms are more closely related to today's late 20th century combat styles. [D522.42 W568 1996b]

Windrow, Martin and Frederick Wilkinson (Editors). The Universal Soldier: Fourteen Studies in Campaign Life, AD 43-1944. Enfield, Sussex, England: Guinness Superlatives, 1971.

Chapter 13 on pages 202-220, written by W.A. Thorburn, uses Henri Gautier, a fictional character, to describe the life and lot of a typical French soldier of the First World War. [U51.W54]

Schick, I.T. (Editor). Battledress: The Uniforms of the World's Great Armies; 1700 to the Present. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1978.

Chapter 8 on page 201 provides interesting illustrations of the uniform style of the combatants. Interesting to note is the fact that the French wore blue uniforms in the trenches. [UC480.B37 1978]

Nash, D.B. Imperial German Army Handbook, 1914-1918. London: Ian Allan, Ltd., 1980.

The best single compilation of facts and illustrations on the German Army of the First World War, including excellent discussions on their organization, tactics, uniforms, and weapons. [UA712.N37]

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Battlefield experiences

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
The seminal work on understanding the direct experience of individuals at the point of maximum danger. His description on pages 207 through 289 of what soldiers experienced during the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 has not been superceded. [D25.K43 1976]

Holmes, Richard. Riding the Retreat: Mons to the Marne 1914 Revisited. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

Built around the story of the author's 1995 horseback ride (emulating the experience of British infantry officers of 1914 when almost all of them were on horseback) through the areas where the British Army fought in Autumn 1914. This is an excellent close-up view of the outlook and experiences of the British soldiers who fought and died here. [D542.M7 H65 1995]

Baynes, John. Morale: A Study of Men and Courage. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Pub. Group, 1988.

A detailed study on the morale of the front-line soldier, focusing on how the soldiers of one British unit related to each other during six days and nights of horrible suffering in the spring of 1915, during which 70 percent of their mates became casualties. [U22.B38 1988]

Moran, Lord. Anatomy of Courage: The Classic Study of the Soldier's Struggle Against Fear. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Pub. Group, 1987.

One of the pioneering works on the effects of war on soldiers, this book is noted for its penetrating psychological insights and its literary quality. First published in 1945, it is the remembrances of the medical officer of a British infantry battalion from 1914 to 1917. [U22.3.M673 1987]

Ashworth, Tony. Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System. New York: Holmes & Meier Publ., 1980.

Based on diaries, memoirs, and autobiographical fiction by trench fighters, this book is concerned with explaining why men fight and how they performed in combat in World War I. [D523.A756 1980]

Horne, Alistair. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962.

The story of the French and German armies in their ten-month struggle along a 15 mile front during which at least 700,000 men died. Understanding Verdun unlocks an understanding of the minds of the men who fought it, and of the two armies who fatally wounded each other here. [D545.V3 H6]

Ferro, Marc (translated by Nicole Stone). The Great War 1914-1918. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1973.

An excellent view of the war from the Continental European perspective, this book uses mostly French sources and has numerous French appreciations of the reality of close combat as well as the impersonality of death delivered by artillery. [D521.F3]

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First-person remembrances

MacDonald, Lyn. 1914. London: M. Joseph, 1987.

MacDonald, Lyn. 1915, The Death of Innocence. New York: H. Holt, 1995.

MacDonald, Lyn. Somme. London: M. Joseph, 1983.

These superb books, each studying a different stage of the British Army's evolution, are in large part the personal reminiscences of the soldiers who were there. Extremely personal and occasionally brutally graphic, all three are an unparalleled view of combat from the ground level. [1914 - D521.M33 1987] [1915 - D521.M24 1995] [Somme - D545.S7 M25 1995]

Bloch, Marc (translated by Carole Fink). Memoirs of War, 1914-1915. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980.

One of France's greatest historians, Bloch served as a sergeant in the First World War, as a lieutenant in the Second, and was executed in 1944 by the Nazis for resistance activities. This is his diary of his combat experience, reflecting both his intellect and the natural confusion experienced by all soldiers. [D640.B581713]

Jünger, Ernst. The Storm of Steel; From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front. New York: Howard Fertig, 1975.

One of 20th Century Germany's great literary figures, the author has been called "the poet of machine war." Despite suffering 20 wounds, he fought on with enthusiasm until the end, feeling that war had made him a man of action and that the war "for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart." [D640.J693 1975]

Rommel, Erwin. Infantry Attacks. Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1995.

War on the Romanian and Italian Fronts from the perspective of a Lieutenant who was to become a future Field Marshal. A perspective of how individuals and troops who think themselves to be elite, act as if they are, acknowledging no physical or mental limitations. [D532.3.R6513 1995]

Wrangel, Alexis. The End of Chivalry: The Last Great Cavalry Battles, 1914-1918. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1982.

One of the few studies of Imperial Russian Army operations from the personal perspective. [D529.W73 1982]

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925.London: Victor Gollancz, 1978.

A woman's perspective. The author, later to become a leading feminist, experienced the death and dismemberment of her brothers and friends while she worked as a nurse to keep others from suffering the same fates. [D640.B715 1978]

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When courage and leadership fails

Smith, Leonard V. Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division During World War I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994.
A study of a single French division and how it evolved through combat into a mutinous organization, refusing to be led to slaughter. Well worth reading for a consideration of the relationship between officers and politicized citizen-soldiers. [D548.3.S63 1994]

Allison, William and John Farley. The Monocled Mutineer. London: Quartet Books, 1978.

A bit over-dramatized, but interesting story of the six days during 1917 when a sizable portion of the British Army rebelled against being sent again to die for nothing. [D762.E73 A44 1978]

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Official histories

British (D521.E4 1984), Australian, (D547.A8 O4), and Canadian (D547.C2 C35) official histories are very detailed and have many illustrations and detailed maps. The French (D548.A2) official history has useful primary source material for one who can read French.

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Literary treatments

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975.
A highly praised fusion of literary and historical materials into a brilliant piece of cultural history which helps illuminate how World War I is both remembered and forgotten. [PR478.E8 F8]

Forester, C.S. The General. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1936.

A superb work by the author of the Horatio Hornblower books who was also an official historian of World War I for the British Army. The book highlights the manner in which social attitudes led to staggering incompetence and useless loss of life. Hitler made it required reading for German officers before World War II. [PR6011.O56 G4]

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Falls, Cyril. War Books: An Annotated Bibliography of Books about the Great War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1989.
First published in 1930, this book is dated, but still valuable. The author, a World War I combat veteran, makes pithy comments on the works he lists and ranks each work according to its usefulness. [D521.Z99 F35 1989]

Enser, A.G.S. A Subject Bibliography of the First World War: Books in English 1914-1978.London: André Deutsch Ltd., 1979.

The title says it all. [1st Floor Reference, Z6207.E8 E58]

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There really are not any particularly useful journals on this topic in Davis. A serious researcher could use interlibrary loan to obtain relevant copies of such publications as Infantry Journal or After the Battle from U.S. military war college libraries. The following are examples of the relatively few journal sources available in Davis.

Carrington, C.E. "Time Off from Conflict: Christmas 1914." Royal United Services Institution Journal. Vol. CXV, No. 660, December 1970 : 42-43.

The unofficial truce between trench fighters during the first Christmas of the war, which higher command forbade during the next three Christmases. [U1.R8]

Wilson, John B. "Mobility Versus Firepower: The Post-World War I Infantry Division."Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College. Vol XIII, No. 3, September 1983 : 47-52.

How the war experience changed thinking on troop organization. [U1.P32]

Garros, Louis. "Les Chasseurs Indigènes à la Bataille de l'Ourcq: Premier Engagement des Marocains (Sept. 1914)." Revue Historique de l'Armee. Numèro 3, September 1952 : 69-83.

Although this journal is written in French, it can be extremely interesting if only for the rare photographs, in this case of North African troops who composed a surprisingly high percentage of the French Army in both World Wars. [UA700.R38]

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Non-print Media

Gallipoli. Directed by Peter Weir. With Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, Associated R&R Films Pty., 1981.
A remarkably true-to-life portrayal of life and death for an Australian infantryman in Gallipoli in 1915. The relationships between Australians and the English are accurate and this film is often referenced in history books about the Gallipoli fighting. [Undergraduate Library NonPrint Videocassette, 65-V226]

Paths of Glory. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. With Kirk Douglas and Adolph Menjou. Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corp., 1957.

A film adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's novel of the same name (PS3505.O1385 P37), this is a deeply unsettling story of French soldiers being executed for not having been killed in useless attacks ordered by uncaring senior officers. [Undergraduate Library, NonPrint Videocassette, 65-V356]

World War I. CBS News, 1987. Narrated by Robert Ryan.

Five videocassettes (533 minutes) of a multi-part CBS News production, this series is especially interesting for the remarkable films of historical characters. The viewer gets a real feel for the times. [Undergraduate Library, NonPrint Videocassette, 65-V4862]

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Internet Resources

The Internet changes daily and the sites listed below all warn the visitor that they are "evolving." The most valuable resources in each of the following sites are their multiple links to associated sites.

The World War I Document Archive

An archive of primary documents from the period, it also includes memorials and personal reminiscences, a biographical dictionary, an image archive, and links to other resources. The 97 links (from the Australian Archives to a Virtual Tour of the Western Front) are particularly valuable, even though several of the sites are not complete. Questions about the content of this site can be sent to Jane Plotke at the e-mail link on the home page. []

The Great War Society

A hobbyist organization whose goal is to study all aspects of the Great War and its effects on the 20th century. Includes an online journal, a students and researchers page (with reading lists), and links to other World War I organizations and sites. Questions about content can be sent to Michael E. Hanlon (email: []

The Great War Series 1914-1918

This series lists all material from The War Times Journal (an online magazine) which relates to World War I. It includes personal memoirs and galleries of "previously unpublished photographs," in addition to articles and summaries provided in the online magazine. This site is copyrighted by The War Times Journal. []

The Somme Heritage Centre & Somme Association Online

An Irish site with lots of links to other Commonwealth Internet sources, this site coordinates research into Ireland's participation in World War I. In particular, it is focused on the horrific losses suffered by Irish units during the battles on the Somme in 1916. (email: []

Trenches on the Web: An Internet History of the Great War

This very diverse site is essentially a support structure for hobbyists and re-enacters. It is full of item-specific detail and includes VRML depictions of period equipment as well as multimedia sight-and-sound reproductions of period music and places. This is one of the constantly "evolving" sites and is maintained by Mike Iaverone ( []

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Updated 24 Jan 98

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