Quotations: the lives of soldiers

These World War I quotations about the lives of soldiers have been compiled by Alpha History authors. They feature statements from contemporary figures, political leaders, military commanders, service personnel, anti-war campaigners and historians of World War I. We will update this page with new quotes from time to time. If you would like to suggest a quotation, please contact Alpha History.

“We had been brought up to believe that Britain was the best country in the world and we wanted to defend her. The history taught us at school showed that we were better than other people (didn’t we always win the last war?) and now all the news was that Germany was the aggressor and we wanted to show the Germans what we could do.”
Private George Morgan, British soldier

“The skinny, sallow, shambling, frightened victims of our industrial system, suffering from the effect of wartime shortages, who were given into our hands, were unrecognisable after six months of good fresh air and physical training… Beyond statistical measurements was their change in character – to ruddy, handsome, clear eyed young men with square shoulders who stood up straight and were afraid of no one, not even the sergeant major. ‘The effect on me’, I wrote in a letter, ‘is to make me a violent socialist when I see how underdeveloped capitalism has kept them – and a Prussian militarist when I see what soldiering makes of them’.
Charles Carrington, British officer

“The first shock was an immense surprise…. Suddenly the enemy’s fire became precise and concentrated. Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses… Isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that all the courage in the world could not withstand this fire.”
Charles de Gaulle, French officer, on the Battle of the Frontiers

“These young fellows we have, only just trained, are too helpless, especially when their officers have been killed. Our light infantry battalion, almost all students from Marburg, have suffered terribly from enemy shell fire. In the next division, equally young souls, the intellectual flower of Germany, went singing into an attack on Langemarck [but it was] just as vain and just as costly.”
Rudolf Binding, German captain, October 1914

“The whole earth is ploughed by the exploding shells and the holes are filled with water, and if you do not get killed by the shells you may drown in the craters. Broken wagons and dead horses are moved to the sides of the road, also many dead soldiers lie here. Wounded soldiers who died in the ambulance have been unloaded and their eyes stare at you. Sometimes an arm or leg is missing. Everybody is rushing, running, trying to escape almost certain death in this hail of enemy shells. Today I have seen the real face of war.”
Hans Otto Schetter, German soldier

“They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them. Each one an acute mental torture; each shrieking tearing crash bringing a promise to each man, instantaneous, I will tear you into ghastly wounds, I will rend your flesh and pulp your arm or a leg, fling you, half a gaping, quivering man and like these that you see smashed around you one by one to lie there rotting and blackening.”
Charles Bean, Australian war correspondent

“A young gunner subaltern was on his way to observe a machine gun position. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst full in front of him. The poor fellow was brought in to me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms until he died, shrieking in his agony, and said he hoped I would excuse him for making such as a noise as he really could not help it. He was a fine looking boy, not more than 19.”
A British medical officer on the Western Front

“We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trenches but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging, even waving. There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying ‘Good morning’ in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath.”
Leonard Thompson, British soldier

“At the bottom [of a shell hole] in the freshly turned earth, five bodies were spread, but in such a regular manner that you could see the shell had burst in the middle of this little knot of men, to send one in each direction, so that these bodies formed five branches… The violence of the explosion had pushed them deep into the earth. Three were almost completely driven into the lips of the crater, stuffed in like rags. The arm of one of these crushed bodies stuck straight out of the clay. The hand was intact and an aluminium ring encircled a finger.”
Anonymous Western Front soldier

“To die from a bullet seems nothing; parts of our being remain intact. But to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is a fear that the flesh cannot support – and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment.”
Paul Dubrulle, French sergeant

“I was asleep in a dugout about three hours when I woke up feeling something biting my hip. I put my hand down and my fingers closed on a big rat. It had nibbled through my haversack, my tunic and pleated kilt to get at my flesh. With a cry of horror I threw it from me.”
Victor Silvester, British soldier

“For a young man who had a long and worthwile future awaiting him, it was not easy to expect death almost daily. However, after a while I got used to the idea of dying young. Strangely, it had a sort of soothing effect and prevented me from worrying too much. Because of this I gradually lost the terrible fear of being wounded or killed.”
Reinhold Spengler, German soldier

“We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off…Still the little piece of convulsed earth in which we lie is held. We have yielded no more than a few hundred yards of it as a prize to the enemy. But on every yard there lies a dead man.”
Erich Maria Remarque, German soldier and writer

“The sunken road now appeared as nothing but a series of enormous shell holes, filled with pieces of uniform, weapons and dead bodies. The ground all around, as far as the eye could see, was ploughed by shells… Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers, stacked one on top of the other. One company after another had been shoved into the fire and steadily annihilated.”
Ernst Junger, German lieutenant

“From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious to me that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into shell holes. And now the water was rising above them, and powerless to move, they were slowly drowning.”
Edwin Vaughan, British lieutenant, 1917

“I was looking straight at [Corporal Matthews] as the bullet struck him and was profoundly affected by the remembrance of his face… He was alive, and then he was dead, and there was nothing human left in him. He fell with a neat round hole in his forehead and the back of his head blown off.”
Charles Carrington, British officer

“There is the nonsense about wounded soldiers wanting to get back from hospital to the front. I have asked the nurses, I have asked the men, I have heard them discussing it. And everyone says what everyone here knows: that there is not one soldier in 50 that wants to go back to the front. They dread it.”
Charles Bean, Australian war correspondent

“At many places along the opposing line of trenches, a ‘live and let live’ system evolved, based on the realisation that neither side was going to drive out the other anyway. It resulted in arrangements such as not shelling the latrines or attacking during breakfast. Some parties even worked out arrangements to make noise before lesser raids so that the opposing soldiers could retreat to their bunkers.”
Jackson J. Spielvogel, historian

“[We resented] the bloody munitions workers at home who were earning high wages and seducing your girlfriend. Number four platoon in the next trench, who made such a noise they woke up the enemy gunners… And of course the [general] staff, who could conveniently be blamed for everything.”
A British soldier on the Western Front

“All through the long night those big guns flashed and growled just like the lightning and the thunder when it storms in the mountains at home. And, oh my, we had to pass the wounded. And some of them were on stretchers going back to the dressing stations. And some of them were lying around, moaning and twitching. And the dead were all along the road. And it was wet and cold. And it all made me think of the Bible and the story of the Antichrist and Armageddon.”
Alvin C. York, US soldier, on fighting in Argonne in 1918

“Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
Daniel Daly, US Marine, 1918

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