For us, who know what the Great War was, it’s difficult to understand the enthusiasm the declaration of war caused in 1914. But for the young generation and the middle class all across Europe, war was like a quest. The opportunity to create the world they were dreaming of.
It is sometimes called the ‘August experience of 1914’, that enthusiasm that seemed to spread all over Europe as the news of the declaration of war reached every capital.
Lately, historians have re-evaluated that enthusiasm, but there’s no doubt that most people saw the war favourably.
The last sizable war was the French-Prussian war of 1870-71, which had been fierce but quite short. Before that, The Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 1800s were the last sizable conflict fought on European soil. In short, practically nobody alive at the time knew what a great war was like.Quest (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) For the young generation and the middle class all across Europe, the Great War was like a quest. The opportunity to create the world they were dreaming of. #WWI #HistoryMatters Click To Tweet
Neither of those wars had been fought with the modern, ‘advanced’ technology available at the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore, even if veterans could still remember the wars of the previous century, nobody imagined what this new war would be. It was unimaginable.
The attitude towards wars was also very different from how we perceived it today. For more than a century, diplomacy in Europe had solved all problems, sometimes allowing wars to break out, but in very controlled situations. Everyone had come to think this would always be so.
When WWI began, everyone expected it to be a short war. Over by Christmas, with a couple of decisive large battles. And it wasn’t unlikely. It has been speculated that if Germany had won the Battle of the Marne – which very nearly she did – the war would have basically been over on the Western Front. At that point Germany would have moved all her might on the Eastern front.
But the Battle of the Marne didn’t go that way. Armies staled in their defensive positions, and the war never moved forward.
Nobody expected that. Just like nobody expected what the trench war would turn into.
But this was in the future. In August 1914, nobody could foresee it.
The Lost Generation and its lost dreams
When we speak of the ‘spirit of 1914’, we mostly refer to the young generations.
Young people throughout Europe saluted the war with enthusiasm for reasons that are diverse and complex.
Certainly, direction was given by the governments. Many of the actions described in the press as ‘spontaneous expressions of the people’s will’ were, in fact, engineered by the government or the military to support the war efforts. All government were busy creating an atmosphere of ‘the just war’. A sense of ‘us against them’, where ‘them’, the enemy, was being demonised and stereotyped like never before.
But there were indeed deeper reasons.
In the 19th century, children from everywhere in Europe were taught to be willing and ready to fight for their ‘fatherlands’. Before the two World Wars, the relationship between armed forces, war and ‘fatherland’ was very different from today. War was terrible, but it was also glorious. It was the occasion to show one’s prowess and courage and spirit of sacrifice. Soldiers and former soldiers were highly respected members of society. The majority of wars were quite far in the past, but those who had taken part looked back on their service days with pride and spoke of the glory and the heroic deeds.
The younger generation thought it unfair that they didn’t have the opportunity to show the same courage and heroism and the same sense of patriotism. Because wars had been so rare, short and far in the past, few young people in 1914 had any real opportunity at fighting.
But above all, there was a sense that this was the opportunity to reshape the world according to their dreams. Their fathers had the opportunity to serve their country, fight in their war, and create the peace that came afterwards. Young people only inherited all of it, as it was, and wanted a chance to make it their own, shape it as they wanted. Create a new world of opportunities.
They succeeded. Eventually. But they had to go through hell, first.
BBC News – The Teenage Soldiers of WWI
The Conversation – The soldiers across Europe who were excited about World War I
Canadian War Museum – Enthusiastic Reaction to War
The World of the Habsburger – The Enthusiasm for the War
OpenLearn – War Enthusiasm
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Willingly to War. Public Response to the Outbreak of War
“It was the occasion to show one’s prowess and courage and spirit of sacrifice. Soldiers and former soldiers were highly respected members of society. The majority of wars were quite far in the past, but those who had taken part looked back on their service days with pride and spoke of the glory and the heroic deeds. “
…I am not so sure this has changed; for anyone to serve in the military, there is a certain mindset needed to be able to carry out the ultimate duty that may be required. Servicemen and women need to be ‘quest orientated’.
You know, Yamini? You comment blew my mind.
I never really thought about it, but I think you’re right. As well as I think that in the past, society at large was more open to this concept. Which leads me to wonder whether we haven’t lose something importnat together with the less desirable eagerness to fight.
It has always surprised me that hundreds of thousands of Australians volunteered. Patriotism as they saw themselves as British. A chance to see the other side of the world where their forefathers had come from. Economic circumstances – there was a major drought and employment was hard, Australian soldiers were paid well. And of course they did not know what the war would be like – unimaginable!
You summed up the main reasons why young people was happy about the war, when it first broke out.
Our understanding today is always coloured by our knowledge of what WWI was. It requires us a shift in perspective when we want to try and understand what these young people felt. Which is what history requires us most of the time and it’s her greatest gift, in my opinion.
I can’t see so many people being so enthusiastic about a world war again, especially one based on such complex and confused beginnings. It’s hard to see young men or women seeing it as a quest, now that we know the realities of the horrors of war.
That’s because we know the world wars of the XX century. But those people in 1914 didn’t know, because nothing like it had ever happen before.
Sometimes I think we should be grateful for their sacrifice, even today, because they have given us the opportunity to be better people in a better world. Though I also wonder how much we are honouring that gift.
It’s hard to imagine so many people truly believing war was a grand, glorious adventure and even wanting to die in battle. That attitude makes me think of the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which turns that jingoistic, simplistic view on its head by showing how terrible war really is.
Besides, ‘we’ know, because ‘they’ experienced.