Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Inside World War One? The First World War and Its Witnesses

Edited by Richard Bessel and Dorothee Wierling
German Historical Institute London, 
Oxford University Press, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

An Italian Alpini Officer Writing a Letter

In the course of the First World War, billions of letters were exchanged between the various fronts and the home fronts; millions of soldiers of all ranks, as well as doctors and nurses, wrote diaries at least over a period of their war and front activities; men and women living under occupation did the same. Afterwards, thousands of those who had lived through the war published their memories in newspaper articles, journals, and (sometimes self-published) books. What kinds of sources are these texts offering for a better understanding of the First World War? (p. 9).

This collection of essays looks at the enormous amount of "ego documents'" that have become available over the years to historians of the Great War. We may not be familiar with the term since it tends to be used more in European scholarship than in American, but ego documents are simply documents such as diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, travelogues, and military reports in which "the personal views of the author play a central role: that is, texts which provide accounts of or testimonies to the 'self' which produced them… and which relate in various ways the experiences of their authors…" (p. 8)

These documents are studied in order to find out precisely how their authors experienced and perceived the war and how they reported the information either to themselves or to others. This might seem pretty obvious to most of us, but there are many questions to be asked when studying such texts. In the case of diaries, for example, were they written on a daily basis or intermittently when time allowed? Did events described actually take place on the day they were recorded? Were they sometimes written with more reflection and hindsight than usual? Were they written with an audience in mind, such as friends or relatives? Relevant questions must also be asked of letters and memoirs. In the case of the former, for example, to what extent did censorship determine content? Memoirs and autobiographies invite even more intensive analysis since they might be written years after the fact. Thus, they could include personal interpretations and uncertain memories or even be clouded by the current situation of the author.

Hungarian Officers on the Eastern Front

The 15 scholarly essays comprising Inside World War One? examine a wide variety of ego documents, primarily from non-Western Front sources. Both provenance and content are examined. From these materials we learn, for example, of how Slovenian soldiers saw themselves as sacrificial victims, how the German occupation of Warsaw was seen by its residents (including the claim that Jews were protected from bombing by an ointment they smeared on themselves), how some Belgians felt ambivalent about being occupied, and how brutal the tsarist army was during its brief takeover of East Prussia at the beginning of the war.

Particularly interesting is the study of documents from the Alpine war, specifically the Tyrolean front: As expected, "diaries and memoirs provide invaluable insights into Austrian soldiers' perceptions of nature, mountaineering, and technological warfare in this extremely harsh environment. For the men it was a struggle as much against nature as against the enemy." (p. 125) One soldier relates how they were expected to attack a peak in broad daylight and without rifles! Rich material also comes from nurses who served in the war in Austro-Hungarian hospitals, while another essay, entitled "Front Experience and Psychological Problems: The Voices of Doctors and Patients in Case Studies and Patient Files," speaks for itself regarding its subject matter and sources.

While over a thousand published first-hand accounts by Ottoman soldiers and officers have been found, two memoirs stand out in a different way. These are accounts by two Armenians in the Ottoman Army, Kalusd Surmenyan and Yervant Alexanian. In spite of all we might expect in light of the genocide, these two men both served until the end of the war and eventually became officers. Their memoirs dramatically reveal their experiences, perceptions, and retrospection and give light on how they physically and psychologically existed in such anomalous conditions.

Other essays in the book deal with how ego documents were sometimes used as propaganda, how Italian biographies can be examined for their war story, and how one Serbian veteran's autobiography describes war life in "Yugoslav Siberia"—a derogatory term for what was then the southern region of the South Slav state. Another study deals with colonial encounters and cultures during the war, particularly with Maori, West Indian, South African, West African, and Chinese participants. "The Black Soldier's Lament" well articulates the colonial grievances felt in the war:

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Mid-day's reprieve much needed rest.
We dug and hauled and lifted high
From trenches deep toward the sky-
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.
(p. 223)

The book's penultimate article looks at "Writing of the Great War in Russia" and at how high illiteracy among soldiers resulted in most of our information coming from the officer class. Finally, the diaries and narrative accounts of Henri Barbusse and Marc Bloch are shown to reveal the many-faceted ways in which such documents can provide us with personal views of the war.

Inside World War One? is an academic project, an anthology that deeply analyzes the various structures, purposes, and effects of those genres known as ego literature. If you approach the book with this in mind you will find it a highly rewarding volume.

David F. Beer


  1. Interesting concept, the "ego document." Wish someone would apply such a standard to the American Civil War, since most of the currently-fashionable diaries and letters are taken simply as gospel, without question.

  2. In a broad sense all documents are "ego documents". A criticism of official war histories produced by governments is they present the view of the country's military to the exclusion of other viewpoints. An historian must read these documents (and examine other artifacts) with that in mind, and judge accordingly.

  3. Freud's translators did us no favors. "ego" and "Id" in the German are the ES and the ISH - literally the it and the me. Thus "ego" simply means the world as I perceive it, nothing more.

  4. Enjoyed the review. I am always on the lookout for a personal perspective. This will have to be added to my library. Cheers