Let’s look at the profiles of an average soldier in World War One. We will look at the backgrounds, training, and provisions allotted to troops in the British, French, German, Russian, and Ottoman armies. We will look at their lives in the trenches, which were with very few exceptions absolutely miserable. We will also look at the terrible experiences that they faced on the battlefield, trying desperately to survive artillery barrages or poison gas attacks. Many suffered “shell shock” from the experienced, what we know today as PTSD.
Uniforms and Gear
Average height: 5’ 5”. Average weight 112 pounds . Average age: 30
Wore flannel undershirt, woolen underpants, and wool socks
Wore woolen khaki trousers with suspenders and tunic with a fold-down (or sometimes a stiff) collar. In warmer climates, soldiers sometimes did not wear their tunics.
Most wore ankle boots (“ammunition boots”) with hobnailed soles. They also used “puttees” (strips of cloth wound around the ankle and calf). These provided ankle support, kept the legs dry and kept mud and other things from getting in the boots. They were the largest textile order of the war. 852 miles of them were ordered!
Cloth “Trench Caps” were worn until 1915, when they were replaced with the steel “Brodie” helmet (modeled after medieval English helmets). They were painted a drab khaki. In warmer climates, soldiers wore a different helmet made of cork and cloth.
In cold weather, a great coat was worn, but some units also wore goat skins. Sometimes a leather jerkin was worn.
In the pockets of the tunic, each soldier carried two wound dressings…one for bullets going in and one for bullets going out. They also carried a jack knife.
Over his tunic, a soldier wore “webbing,” which had to be put on like a backpack. The webbing had pouches for many things, including a canteen, ammunition, food, an entrenching tool, a mess kit, grenades, and a bayonet. It also had a backpack with sleeping gear and other things.
Later in the war, soldiers carried a gas mask. This is part of why they were required to shave every day (except for their mustache).
Uniforms of colonial soldiers varied somewhat from the standard uniform.
The standard rifle was the Lee-Enfield Mark 3, which was the best rifle on the western front. It used a 5-bullet clip and was bolt-action, meaning it used a bolt to force a round into the chamber and had to be cocked after each shot. The rifle held two clips of five rounds.
Common foods that the soldiers ate included bacon, corned beef, cheese, vegetables, bread, and (most importantly) 2 tablespoons of rum.
Similar to the British, except at the start of the war, they wore a bright blue tunic and red trousers. They switched to “horizon blue” in 1915.
Initial headgear was a kepi (a soft cap), but they too switched to steel helmets (the Adrian helmet, which was based on a fireman’s helmet) in 1915. France’s army was the first to introduce the steel helmet. The Adrian helmet was copied by the armies of several other nations.
- Gear was all in the knapsack or connected to the belt. French soldiers did not use webbing.
Food was similar to that of British soldiers, except they drank a lot of wine instead of rum.
The most common rifle was the Lebel 8mm rifle, which was long and unwieldy. When the bayonet was fixed, the rifle was ridiculously long. The earlier versions could hold up to 8 bullets but they had to be loaded one at a time. Later, they used a 3-round clip and then a 5-round clip.
Later, some soldiers used the “Chauchat”, a semiautomatic rifle which had a bad tendency to jam.
- Uniform was field gray.
- Initial headgear was a “Pickelhaube” (the spiked helmet). They were made of leather. But a leather shortage caused by the British blockade led them to substitute other materials for the leather (felt, fiberboard, tin, and sheet metal originally). Pickelhaube had camouflage covers to hide the brass on the helmet.
- In the Spring of 1916, M-15 steel helmets replaced the Pickelhaube. It was the best helmet of the war, because it covered the entire skull (including the back of the neck). They also wore soft felt caps when not in combat.
- Gear was all in the knapsack or connected to the belt. German soldiers did not use webbing.
- The most common rifle was the Mauser Gewehr 98 (bolt action with a 5-round clip). Like the French Lebel, it was very long.
- Food: At first, German soldiers were fed as well as British and French soldiers, but as the war progressed, their rations decreased due to the British blockade. By 1918, most German soldiers were eating mainly turnip stew with turnip bread. German soldiers drank a lot of beer.
d. Other Nations
i. Russian soldiers wore a Papakha, a tall gray or brown fleece cap with flaps of wool that could be folded down over the ears and neck. Their tunics and pants were greenish khaki. They wore knee-length boots, but they were replaced later with ankle boots and puttees. They also had a large greatcoat. their bayonets always stayed on their rifles.
ii. The Ottoman army based much of its uniform on German models, but they wore khaki and a Bashlykm, which was a sort of soft helmet. Later some Ottoman soldiers wore steel helmets. The uniforms were usually of poor quality. The standard rifles were Turkish Mausers and later German ones.
iii. Austrian uniforms were similar to those of the Germans, but there was a lot of variety. Hungarians wore a slightly different uniform.
II. Battle Wounds
- Between 9 and 10 million soldiers were killed in WW1. Serbia lost 37% of its soldiers. France lost 16%. (Expand this)
- Another 13 million more were wounded.
- About half of the bodies of those killed were never found or identified. Most ended up in mass graves. Many were too badly damaged to be identified.
- Millions more soldiers were wounded. It is estimated that about 85% of battle wounds came from exploding artillery shells. Wounds caused by exploding shells were often jagged and became infected due to dirt and mud getting in them. They caused extensive damage to bone and muscles. This problem was exacerbated in the Alps, due to fragments of rock.
- Disease was common. There was “trench foot,” “trench fever” (a form of typhus caused by lice, which were omnipresent)
- Some soldiers inflicted wounds on themselves, including exposing themselves to frostbite, shooting themselves, and injecting themselves with toxins.
- Gas poisoning affected about 1.2 million men. They caused long-term damage to lungs and eyes.
III. Medical Care
- When possible, wounded would be carried off the battlefield by stretcher bearers to “casualty clearing stations” behind the front lines. Triage would be done. Some would be operated on there, while others would be evacuated to hospitals further behind the lines.
- Antiseptic care and anesthetics were greatly improved from 19th century military medicine. Blood transfusions were now possible.
- Hygiene was stressed. Delousing was done, as were vaccinations. There was even medically supervised prostitution.
- Prosthetics were commonly used. These included not just artificial arms and legs but also noses and face masks made of rubber or wax.
- Cosmetic surgery advanced. Still some soldiers’ faces could not be repaired, and many stayed secluded.
IV. Psychological Damage
- Soldiers increasingly saw themselves as expendable.
- Nearly half of all surviving soldiers experienced “Shell Shock,” or PTSD. Doctors originally thought this was a physical condition caused by the impact of shells on the brain.
- Commanders initially thought soldiers with shell shock were being cowardly or shirking their duty. Many were punished, including a few who were executed.
- Treatments were primitive. They included shock therapy and solitary confinement.
- Some soldiers went mad.
V. Capture and Imprisonment
- About 8.5 million men became prisoners of war during WW1. This is about 10% of the total number of soldiers.
- Many prisoners were killed soon after capture.
- Those who were kept in prison camps dealt with shame, squalor, hunger, and disease.
- The International Red Cross and other organizations tried to relieve the suffering of prisoners.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about World War One. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to World War One.
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