The First World War as Sensory Experience: On the Battlefield and at Home
by Anders Yount
This paper analyzes the First World War as a unique sensory experience. Accordingly, it focuses not on the political causes or consequences of the war, but rather on how people experienced the war on a personal and cultural level. Drawing on a wide variety of individual sources, often from opposing sides, the essay highlights important commonalities that spanned the trenches of the Western Front and extended well into the domestic landscape. Specifically, the unprecedented devastation wrought by modern military technology dramatically changed the nature of armed conflict. Putting an entire generation of young men in peril, trapped by the roar of heavy artillery and surrounded by desolate expanses of ravaged earth, the First World War forced soldiers to confront the modern horrors of combat, often marking a sharp break from any romantic notions of battle that had once motivated them to fight. Beyond the front line, those on the home front were also compelled to grapple with the consequences of modern warfare, as traditional mourning rituals were violently disrupted and the need for commemoration proved especially challenging in the face of mass causalities.
As the Western Front tore its way through Europe at the onset of the First World War, nations on all sides of the conflict were forced to confront the unique horrors born by the modern world. The brutality of trench warfare shattered the expectations of soldiers and civilians alike, dispelling any prior misconceptions of glory on the battlefield. Bearing witness to unparalleled death and destruction, soldiers were forced to endure a harrowing sensory experience, relentlessly bombarded by the sights and sounds of war, all the while plagued by a sense of looming mortality. Leaving the earth ravaged in its wake, the comprehensive destruction of man and matter extended these unique sensory experiences beyond the battlefield and on into the home front, as citizens and survivors struggled with the challenges of mourning and remembrance in the face of awe-inspiring human catastrophe and endless physical desolation. In light of the overwhelming barbarity wrought by the First World War, these sensorial impressions help illuminate the ways in which civilians and soldiers experienced the war and attempted to reckon with its memory.
The gruesome severity of the First World War marked a jarring fissure between expectations and reality. Though continental Europe was not without instances of war prior to 1914, military activity was primarily the work of colonialism and imperial positioning, keeping European civilians somewhat removed from the direct consequences of warfare. Further compounding this geographic distance, popular presentations of warfare were often conflated with romantic images of honor and gallant civility, further obscuring popular perceptions of conflict. As these two forces worked in tandem, many European citizens approached the onset of the First World War with a sense of optimism, naïve to the horrors that awaited them along the Western Front. Operating on this sentimental and idealistic precedent, the stark reality of the First World War was as abrupt as it was staggering, in turn making the unanticipated sensory experience all the more dreadful.
Though not physical sensations, the psychological repercussions of shock and disbelief are evident throughout the writing of soldiers from all sides. Writing early on in the war in 1914, French soldier Henri Desagneaux described how the initial excitement of war dwindled very quickly. On August 2nd, while awaiting mobilization at a train station, Desagneaux described how the “atmosphere [was] friendly, enthusiastic” in anticipation of battle. Quickly, however, Desagneaux recognized a change in attitude, as those awaiting their deployment were confronted with returning soldiers. On August 11th, Desagneaux remarked that “Casualties [were] starting to arrive,” noting how “people [were] not so enthusiastic now as in the first days.” Spanning a period of only nine days, Desagneaux’s entries demonstrate how quickly the gruesome consequences of war became visible. In the face of popular expectations, direct confrontations with the fatal consequences of war gave way to feelings of astonishment and a sense of growing uncertainty.
Similar sentiments can be found throughout the writings of British soldiers. Fighting at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Captain T.M. Kettle expressed his own feelings of frustration and disillusionment with the war. Writing home to his brother on September 8th, Kettle told him, “If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men.” Allowing incredible destruction to be dealt at remarkable distances, the men fighting along the Western Front were continually faced with the brutal, inhuman nature of modern military technology. Emphatically endorsing peace, Kettle’s attitude likely mirrored that of many men who found themselves in the midst of the Great War, facing circumstances that were far beyond their control. Killed in battle the following day, Kettle’s desire for peace is an especially tragic example of how men began to reconsider war after it was too late.
Revealing a number of important commonalities unrestricted by barriers of nationality, the unwonted horror of the First World War often proved universal. Across the trenches of the Western Front, German soldiers were also faced with the startling brutality of war. Paul Hub, a German soldier fighting in October of 1914, expressed a number of shifting opinions throughout letters to his fiancé Maria. Beginning with a fairly positive tone as he travelled from Germany to France, Hub’s attitude quickly changed as he approached the Western Front. Describing a scene of “most gruesome devastation,” Hub very plainly said, “I didn’t think the war would be like this.” Though brief, this statement speaks volumes about the contrast between expectations and reality. As Hub illustrated the brutally indiscriminant carnage of battle throughout his writing, his feelings of surprise demonstrate the sort of visceral shock that was imposed by the conditions of modern warfare.
Contributing to this sense of shock and disbelief, the First World War gave way to uniquely horrific sensory experiences along the frontlines. As soldiers were bombarded by the relentless noise and tremble of enemy shells, they were simultaneously confronted with countless scenes of suffering and death. All encompassed by a landscape of seemingly endless physical devastation, the brutality of these sights and sounds was immediate, unforgiving of any prior misconceptions. Henry Owens, a British army doctor working along the Western Front at the Battle of the Somme, described in his diary how “[t]he whole country up here looks awful…not a single habitation of any kind to be seen…the ground torn up everywhere with shell holes.” Also writing during his time at the Somme, British Officer Captain Greenwell put forth similar images of destruction in his letter. Writing to his wife on August 17th, Greenwell described how “[t]he ground [was] ploughed up by enormous shell holes; there [wasn’t] a single landmark to be seen for miles.” Illustrating scenes of perpetual havoc and physical desolation, Owens and Greenwell reveal the visual experiences in their writings through images of almost apocalyptic measures. As unmitigated destruction continuously fell from the sky, leaving the earth scared and lifeless, the widespread desolation along the Western Front contributed to an environment of sensory deprivation, as the natural landscape had been razed in the course of battle.
Adding to the horrors of sight, the sounds of war were often just as taxing for soldiers. In his journal entries from the Battle of the Somme, Siegfried Sassoon described battle as “one continuous roar,” engulfing him in noise as “the whole earth [shook] and [rocked] and [throbbed].” Narrating the sensation of the entire earth moving beneath him, Sassoon gave the sound of battle an inescapable quality, as it could be felt just as readily as it was heard. Echoing this same sentiment some two years earlier, French soldier Paul Tuffrau described the sounds of German shells as “screaming, awesome explosions,” which “[rained] down methodically and relentlessly.” Tuffrau’s description further highlights the significance of auditory experiences as part of the larger sensorial character of the First World War. Employed by both sides, shells were highly destructive, capable of carnage on a large scale. The constant noise they created surely doubled as a sinister reminder of mortality for their potential targets. Combined with the immensity of visual chaos and the physical rupture that took place on the battlefield, the sights and sounds of the war helped to demonstrate modernity in its most terrifying form.
A surreal experience of horror and disbelief, the wanton brutality of the Great War decimated an entire generation of young men, leaving their bodies littered across the Western Front. In the midst of such unprecedented human catastrophe, matters of mourning and remembrance became increasingly significant and particularly challenging, especially as many sensory qualities of the war influenced perceptions of the past as well as subsequent efforts in commemoration. Giving way to the barren expanses of cratered earth that so violently confronted the young men of Europe, this same totality of destruction left many of them strewn across the battlefield without name or form. For many families, the search for their missing and fallen loved ones was a primary concern of the grieving process. In the wake of mass casualties, however, this undertaking often proved to be a highly bureaucratic and painstaking process, rarely providing any sure conclusions. As explained by Richard van Emdem, relying on soldiers’ first hand accounts often proved problematic due to individual inconsistencies and confusion. Citing the experiences of Robert Graves, van Emdem describes Graves’s opinion that “men who had gone through the worst of trench warfare could not remember anything truthful if that memory did not also contain falsehood.” Drawing on Graves’s explanation, it would seem that the sensations of trench warfare often clouded and distorted the memories of soldiers, leaving their own recollections inconsistent in the midst of surrounding chaos. In this way, the sensory experience of the war directly impacted the way survivors would later recall their time in the trenches, whether accurate or not.
Further complicating the matter of locating and identifying the missing, Pat Jalland explains how the term “missing” itself was often misleading, providing many families with unrealistic expectations regarding the fate of their loved ones. As “[t]housands of soldiers had no known burial place because their bodies were shattered by shells,” many soldiers labeled as missing were, in actuality, already long dead. As the nature of their death often eliminated the possibility of any bodily remains, many grieving families were left without answers or physical evidence of their loved ones. Forced to wonder about their final moments, family members found that the lack of physical remains rendered the mourning process especially difficult.
Further linking this sense of physical obliteration in the battlefield to subsequent acts of commemoration, Geoff Dyer discusses the way in which the devastation wrought by the First World War destroyed the physical markers necessary for later remembrance and mourning. Elaborating on how “[t]he Great War ruined the idea of ruins,” Dyer describes how the physical wreckage of the war was “so thorough that it seemed capable of obliterating all trace of itself.” Explaining the Romantic significance of ruins, Dyer refers to them as “monuments to transience,” serving as physical markers that link us to events and memories of the past. Facing a lack of these markers following the Great War, Dyer questions how the war was to be remembered in the absence of its own ruins. Just as soldiers expressed dismay at the wasteland they found themselves in during combat, the overwhelming sensation of absence lingered long after the fighting had come to a close. In the wake of insurmountable tragedy, this physical and visual sensory deprivation would play a significant role in how people attempted to reconcile and remember the legacy of the Great War.
Commemorative efforts often struggled to overcome the lack of corporeal remains left by the First World War. Studying the British Imperial War Graves Commission, Sonia Batten describes the ways in which the British government attempted to honor the missing through monument building. Referring to the construction of large memorial sites, Batten remarks that it was “unusual for a memorial to rely solely on its architectural power.” In the absence of physical remains, these monuments were intended to function symbolically, attempting to acknowledge the sacrifices of the many men who would never be found. Though perhaps unusual, as Batten describes them, symbolic monuments began to emerge throughout Europe. Analyzing the psychological functions of these memorials, Jay Winter points out the lasting influence of traditional mourning motifs despite the brutal modernity of the war. Rather than seeking the “sense of dislocation, paradox, and the iron[y]” of modern memory, many turned to more recognizable approaches of traditional mourning and remembrance. Noting that while traditional methods may be “less challenging intellectually or philosophically,” Winter suggests that they provide a sense of comfort, as “a way of remembering which enabled the bereaved to live with their losses.” In the face of unparalleled human suffering and physical destruction, Winter’s argument seems to suggest that many responded to the horrors of modernity by looking to the past as a source of solace.
Focusing specifically on the sensory experiences of soldiers and civilians, removed from external influences of politics or nationality, it becomes evident that the Great War was one of terrifying ramifications for all who participated. Witnesses to incalculable human loss, physical destruction, and the carnage that belied the romantic notions of the past, soldiers and civilians had to confront the true and gruesome nature of war. Forced to mediate between the ideas of the past and the realities of the present, the people of Europe faced a nearly insurmountable task in reconciling the tragedy of the First World War.
 Steven Soper, (“Rules of War,” lecture, The University of Georgia, Athens, GA, August 19, 2015).
 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 2.
 Diary of Henri Desagneaux, August of 1914, in World War I & European Society: A Sourcebook, eds. Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1995), p. 16-17.
 Captain T.M. Kettle to his brother, The Battle of the Somme, 8 September 1916, in Letters from the Two World Wars: A Social History of English Attitudes, 1914-45, ed. Ernest Sanger (Dover, New Hampshire: A. Sutton, 1993), p. 61.
 Letters of Paul Hub, October 31st, Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, eds., Intimate Voices From the First World War (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 34.
 Henry Owens, A Doctor on the Western Front: the Diary of Henry Owens, 1914-1918, ed. John Hutton (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013), p. 91.
 Captain Greenwell to Mrs. Greenwell, The Battle of the Somme, 17 August 1916, in Letters from the Two World Wars: A Social History of English Attitudes, 1914-45, ed. Ernest Sanger (Dover, New Hampshire: A. Sutton, 1993), p. 58.
 War Journal of Siegfried Sassoon, July 1st 1916, The Battle of the Somme.
 The Diary of Paul Tuffrau, 6 September 1914, The Battle of the Marne, Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, eds., Intimate Voices From the First World War (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 25.
 Richard Van Emden, The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), p. 167.
 Richard Van Emden, The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), p. 167.
 Pat Jalland, Death in War and Peace: Loss and Grief in England, 1914-1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 49-50.
 Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), p. 120-121.
 Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), p. 119-123
 Sonia Batten, “Exploring a language of grief in First World War headstone inscriptions,” in Contested Objects: Material Memories of the Great War, eds. Nicholas J. Saunders and Paul Cornish (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 164-166
 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 5
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Sassoon, Siegfried. http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-ADD-09852-00001-00007/1
Soper, Steven. “Rules of War.” Lecture, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, August 19, 2015.
Tuffrau, Paul. Intimate Voices From the First World War. Edited by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
Van Emden, Richard. The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2011.
Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995
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