Memoirs

The First World War profoundly changed the lives of millions of people across the globe, inspiring many thousands to not only record their experiences in private diaries and letters, but to also publish articles and books about these experiences during and after the war.

Traditionally, accounts of wars had been written mainly by high-ranking officers and senior politicians in order to explain and justify their decisions and actions. Some of these memoirs became enormously successful bestsellers that shaped the public images of both author and the war under discussion for decades. Yet throughout the 19th century, due to increasing literacy rates and decreasing publication costs, a growing number of war memoirs that were written by ordinary – mostly professional – soldiers who fought in the various European and colonial wars began to appear. By 1914, most Western countries had a flourishing market for military books and war memoirs reflecting widespread nationalistic sentiments and interests in military affairs.

Mass mobilisation of the First World War turned millions of civilians into soldiers, nurses, or labourers at the front. But these events also transformed civilians back home, where profound social, economic, and political changes occurred: many women were now able (or were forced) to work in jobs previously carried out by men; residents in border zones now had to live under the occupation of enemy troops; and violent revolutions rapidly transformed entire societies. Thus it was not only military and political decision-makers or soldiers with direct combat experience who felt they could, and should, write about their lives during the war, but this also extended to those people away from the fronts. In reality, the vast majority of memoirs were published by men, often educated, middle-class officers. Nevertheless, the voices of women, as well as members of the working class or religious minorities, did find their way into printed books in the decades after the war.

The global dimension of the First World War meant that many Europeans served in campaigns in Africa and the Middle East, and that they also served alongside colonial troops of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The memoirs of these men often placed emphasis on the exoticism and exceptionalism of the overseas theatres of war, taking up themes of pre-war travelogues and imperial adventure novels when writing about civilian populations and the environment. Their descriptions and appraisals of African and Asian troops ranged from praise and genuine admiration for their valour to suspicion and racist rejection. Only very few were unprejudiced and described them as fellow comrades.

In comparison, from the hundreds of thousands of colonial troops hailing from Africa and Asia, who served as soldiers or labourers for the European colonial powers, only a small fraction wrote about their war experiences. Less than a dozen were able to publish their memoirs in the post-war period, and these were mainly military doctors or men who had received education in Europe. Although their individual circumstances differed, these men shared a privileged background, for colonial soldiers were on the whole illiterate and came from societies with oral traditions. As such, they were not able to write about their war experiences. The handful of memoirs written by by Indians, Maoris, or North Africans that do exist are therefore invaluable sources, as they present the perspectives of non-European participants of war. Whether directly or in a more subtle manner, these works address issues of race, racism, colonial relations, and injustice.

Published memoirs by participants of the First World War are only one aspect of the memorial culture that developed after 1918, with novels and films often having a greater impact. Many memoirs remained unpublished and have only appeared in archives or family collections several decades later. Despite omissions and embellishments, memoirs – individually and collectively – provide subsequent generations insight into how people tried to structure and narrate their experiences in the upheavals of war, their encounters with different countries and people, and their reflections on the irreversible changes precipitated by the war.

Daniel Steinbach