Thoughts, Short Excerpts & Quotes

The Great War waged on for four long years. At the outset, many who enlisted in their country’s military felt that they were going off to participate in a “just and righteous” cause. There was a spirit of commitment to honor and nation. As the war continued, disillusionment set in for many people. Feelings of anger and frustration replaced those of valor, particularly in the face of the bloodletting that continued unabated as the conflict dragged on and on.
Below are a series of thoughts, short excerpts and quotes that come from those directly involved, influenced and affected by the war. In some cases, the passages are taken out of context, but the message still remains. In other cases, the words fit the moment. A list of possible activities to experience using this section follows.
Activities: Reacting to the Words of Others
Create a commonplace book. Commonplace books have their origin in the Renaissance as one means of coping with the information overload of that era. They helped people select, organize, classify, and remember key moral precepts. Today Commonplace Books are used to record reflections, ideas, and information that needs to be experienced and remembered.  Select a number of thoughts, excerpts and quotes from the following pages and write your own reflections for each. Consider illustrating your reflections with photographs, posters, paintings, political cartoons or post cards from World War I. Even better would be to create your own illustrations.

Design posters. Select one or more of the quotes and design a poster that can be used to convey a message you want to give to others. The design can be to commemorate The Great War or can be used to support your concern about current events.

Reader’s Theater. Use the material here to either create a reader’s theater (refer back to page 22 for details) or to incorporate the thoughts, excerpts and quotes into a single production.

Quotes and Excerpts

 Mary Allen is second from right

A soldier (who had just returned from the Western Front) was so disordered while he was going down the stairs into the London tube station, he became suddenly aware of the crowds of people coming up, he looked haggardly about, and evidently mistaking the hollow space below for the trenches and the ascending crowd for Germans, fixed his bayonet and charged. But for the women constable on duty at the turn of the staircase, who was quick enough to divine his trouble and hang on to him with all her strength to prevent his forward advance, he would have wounded many and caused danger and panic.

British pioneer policewoman Mary Allen in her autobiography

Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide.

French soldier Henri Barbusse, in his novel Le Feu, 1915

If my own son can best serve England at this juncture by giving his life for her, I would not lift one finger to bring him home. If any act or word of mine should interfere with or take from him his grandest privilege, I could never look him in the face again.

Mrs. Berridge in The Morning Post, September, 30 1914

As we take stock on the morrow of victory, we shall find that nothing of real value to the human race has been destroyed. Our dead heroes will have won immortality. Civilization will have gained new vitality. Humanity will have entered upon a richer heritage.

British Member of Parliament Horatio Bottomley in his Easter message, April 1915


I saw them tie a soldier to a cartwheel with his arms outstretched as a punishment. I also knew of men who did themselves in. British soldiers weary of sitting in the trenches who cut their throats during leave. If order hadn't been maintained, they would have deserted. They were coerced. When you're in the army, you can't just do whatever you want.

Gaston Boudry, in the (Belgian) book Van den Grooten Oorlog

I was called up in the war and sent to a hospital. I dressed wounds, applied iodine, gave enemas, did blood transfusions. If the doctor ordered: "Brecht, amputate a leg!," I would reply, "Certainly, Your Excellency!", and cut off the leg. If I was told, "Perform a trepanning!" I opened the man's skull and messed about with his brains. I saw how they patched fellows up, so as to cart them back to the Front as quickly as they could.

Bertold Brecht, German playwright and poet, 1918


If possible, the point of the bayonet should be directed against the opponent's throat, as the point will enter easily and make a fatal wound on entering a few inches, and, being near the eyes, makes the opponent flinch. Other vulnerable, and usually exposed parts are the face, chest, lower abdomen and thighs, and the region of the kidneys when the back is turned. Four to six inches penetration is sufficient to incapacitate and allow for a quick withdrawal, whereas if a bayonet is driven home too far it is often impossible to withdraw it. In such cases a round should be fired to break up the obstruction.

Guiding rule number 8 for weapons training, from the British Army Training Manual

I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on, no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case of mustard gas - the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard colored suppurating blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they will choke.

Nurse Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth

I had them placed in special rooms, nude, but with their full army kit on the floor for them to put on as soon as they were so minded. There were no blankets or substitutes for clothing left in the rooms, which were quite bare. Several of the men held out naked for several hours but they gradually accepted the inevitable. Forty of the conscientious objectors who passed through my hands are now quite willing soldiers.

Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Brook, commander of Military Detention Barracks Wandsworth, in The Daily Express, July 4, 1916

I didn't get much peace, but I heard in Norway that Russia might well become a huge market for tractors soon.

Henry Ford, when returning from his unofficial peace mission, December 24, 1915

At 8 o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workers—almost 10,000—assembled  in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht's voice then rang out: 'Down with the War! Down with the Government!' The police immediately rushed at him. For the first time since the beginning of the war open resistance to it had appeared on the streets of the capital. The ice was broken.

Paul Frolich, Berlin, May 1916; Frolich was a journalist and left wing political activist who was a founding member of the Communist Party of Germany and founder of the party's paper, Die Rote Fahne. 

There is scarcely a town or school in Russia from which boys have not run away to the war. Hundreds of girls have gone off in boys' clothes and tried to pass themselves off as boys and enlist as volunteers, and several have got through, since the medical examination is only a negligible formality required in one place, forgotten in another.

Stephen Graham in Russia and the World, 1915

Before an attack, the platoon pools all its available cash and the survivors divide it up afterwards. Those who are killed can't complain, the wounded would have given far more than that to escape as they have, and the unwounded regard the money as a consolation prize for still being here.

Robert Graves in Good-bye to All That

In the mind of all the English soldiers there is absolutely no hate for the Germans, but a kind of brotherly though slightly contemptuous kindness - as to men who are going through a bad time as well as ourselves.

British officer and poet Ivor Gurney in a letter to Marion Scott, February 1917

As a result of continuous work with these highly toxic substances, our minds were so numbed that we no longer had any scruples about the whole thing. Anyway, our enemies had by now adopted our methods and as they became increasingly successful in this mode of warfare we were no longer exclusively the aggressors, but found ourselves more and more at the receiving end.

Otto Hahn, German scientist and co-inventor of war gas

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.

American novelist and WW1 veteran Ernest Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, 1929

There was no really good true war book during the entire four years of the war. The only true writing that came through during the war was in poetry. One reason for this is that poets are not arrested as quickly as prose writers.

Ernest Hemingway, in Men at War

We had strict orders not to take prisoners, no matter if wounded. My first job was when I finished cutting some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on three Germans that came out of their deep dugouts, bleeding badly, and put them out of their misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders.

Letter from Private A.H. Hubbard

All through the war the great armament firms were supplied from the enemy countries. The French and the British sold war materials to the Germans through Switzerland, Holland and the Baltic neutrals, and the Germans supplied optical sights for the British Admiralty. The armament industry, which had helped stimulate the war, made millions out of it.
British historian C.J. Pennethorne Hughes, 1935


If the women in the factories stopped work for twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war.

French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre

However the world pretends to divide itself, there are only two divisions in the world today—human beings and Germans.

Rudyard Kipling, head of the British War Propaganda Section in The Morning Post, 22 June 1915


Independent thinking is not encouraged in a professional Army. It is a form of mutiny. Obedience is the supreme virtue.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George in his War Memoirs

 It is a commentary on modern war that commanders should fear lest the soldiers on each side become friendly. Our soldiers have no quarrel with “Fritz,” save during the heat of battle, or in retaliation for some blow below the belt. If whole armies fraternized, politicians on both sides would be sore set to solve their problems. Yet it is possible that if there had been a truce for a fortnight on the whole trench line at any time after the Battle of the Somme the war might have ended - and what would mother have said then?

Colonel W.N. Nicholson, Staff Officer Suffolk Regiment


Walking abroad, one is the admiration of all little boys, and meets an approving glance from every eye of elderly.

British officer and poet Wilfred Owen in a letter to his mother, November 1914


I said 'What are you doing here?', because I knew where his unit was and this was some distance away. And then he broke down. He said, 'I can't face it'. I said, 'Well, there's only one alternative, isn't there? You wouldn't want that.' He said, 'Yes I know that. Don't think I don't know that. There are fifteen men in the cage now, waiting to be shot'.

Army Chaplain Leonard Pearson in Roses of No Man's Land

We're telling lies; we know we're telling lies; we don't tell the public the truth, that we're losing more officers than the Germans, and that it's impossible to get through on the Western Front.

British journalist Rothermere in a conversation with his colleague, J.L. Garvin

 And all this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country's pride.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, 1914

Against the vast majority of my countrymen, even at this moment, in the name of humanity and civilization, I protest against our share in the destruction of Germany. A month ago Europe was a peaceful comity of nations; if an Englishman killed a German, he was hanged. Now, if an Englishman kills a German, or if a German kills an Englishman, he is a patriot, who has deserved well of his country.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, in a letter to the paper The Nation, 15 August, 1914

Patriots always talk of dying for their country, and never of killing for their country.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell

 At all times, except when a monarch could enforce his will, war has been facilitated by the fact that vigorous males, confident of victory, enjoyed it, while their females admired them for their prowess.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, in In Praise of Idleness


Only the dead have seen the end of war.

George Santayana, Spanish-American philosopher, in a counter to Wilson's words


In war-time the word patriotism means suppression of truth.

Siegfried Sassoon in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

The newspapers informed us that German soldiers crucified Belgian babies. Stories of that kind were taken for granted; to have disbelieved them would have been unpatriotic.

Siegfried Sassoon in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer 

I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.

Siegfried Sassoon, in The Times, 30 July 1917

Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realized that protesting against the prolongation of the War was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.

Siegfried Sassoon in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer


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.

German Musketier Hans Otto Schetter


For a young man who had a long and worthwhile 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.

German war volunteer Reinhold Spengler

When they took the Roll Call after Loos those not answering, their chums would answer: Over the Hill. Also when the post and parcels that had arrived from Home were being dished out after Loos, we new arrivals got share of the parcels that were meant for the boys who got killed.

Private Carson Stewart

In the account book of the Great War the page recording the Russian losses has been ripped out. The figures are unknown. Five millions, or eight? We ourselves know not. All we know is that, at times, fighting the Russians, we had to remove the piles of enemy bodies from before our trenches, so as to get a clear field of fire against new waves of assault.

German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, 1917

This war is really the greatest insanity in which white races have ever been engaged.

German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, in a letter to his wife, October 1914


We were not making war against Germany, we were being ordered about in the King's war with Germany.

English novelist H.G. Wells, 1914

This is a war to end all wars.
H.G. Wells* and President Woodrow Wilson; Wilson made the quote famous, but British novelist H.G. Wells invented it.


This is the end and the beginning of an age. This is something far greater than the French Revolution or the Reformation and we live in it.

H.G. Wells, in Mr Britling Sees It Through, 1916

I look upon the People and the Nation as handed on to me as an responsibility conferred upon me by God, and I believe, as it is written in the Bible, that it is my duty to increase this heritage for which one day I shall be called upon to give an account. Whoever tries to interfere with my task I shall crush.

German Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1913


Once we lead this people into war, and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.

American president Woodrow Wilson, on the evening before declaring war on Germany

Don't believe stories which you see in the papers about troops asking as a special privilege not to be relieved. We stick it, at all costs if necessary, as long as ordered, but everyone's glad to hand over to someone else. And anyone who says he enjoys this kind of thing is either a liar or a madman.

Captain Harry Yoxall, Kings Royal Rifle Corps