Mobility

Never before had war affected the lives of so many people across the globe so profoundly. Soldiers and civilians on all continents left their homes, voluntarily, forcibly, or out of necessity, to serve, work, and survive. This mass mobility created infrastructural and administrative challenges for all belligerent countries.

An unprecedented number of journeys were made during the course of the First World War. European soldiers travelled to the different fronts in Europe. Colonial troops from the European empires travelled to Europe, as did those from independent belligerents, like China and the USA. Simultaneously, combatants and non-combatants were sent to the extra-European fronts, for example the Middle East and Africa, where they joined local forces. These vast global trajectories were echoed by smaller movements within the different fighting zones and the countries that surrounded them.

For the majority of these men, this would be the first time that they had left their locality, let alone their home country or continent, bringing with them anticipation and anxiety. The excitement of leaving home was heightened by experiencing new modes of mass transport: motorcars, railways, and steamships. Though the often-long journey went hand in hand with physical discomfort and stretches of confinement, the monotony of the ship or railway carriage could create a sense of transition from civilian to military life.

Despite travelling to war, many compared the experience to a holiday trip: visiting foreign lands, seeing famous sights, buying souvenirs, tasting new foods, and encountering new people. Photographs of the troops during their service depicted their sight-seeing experiences, acting as tourists during their time on leave. Preconceptions and stereotypes were confirmed and challenged in the process of encounter.

Alongside military mobilisations, civilians too were uprooted: labourers were transferred to where they were most needed; inhabitants of the borderlands evacuated or fled zones of combat; and civilians living under occupation were forcibly removed. Even those civilians who remained at home became witnesses to the transformative mobility of the war. They observed labourers, soldiers, and prisoners of war stationed in their vicinity or even combatants billeted in their homes. Civilians’ interactions with these strangers ranged from hostility and mistrust to curiosity and openness.

While the war undoubtedly opened up the need for mobility for many, a lot of people were never more confined in their lives. The serving troops were subject to restrictive military regulations; many never left their small section of the front or their place of labour. The absence of wartime mobility is most strikingly evident in the thousands of men and women who were interned in camps for years during and after the war, either as military prisoners of war or civilian internees. Yet, even this enforced immobility was rarely stable as prisoners were transferred to different camps, in some cases from one country to another. Thus there was a constant intersection between mobility and immobility according to military needs and political circumstance.

Regardless of how far they travelled, people were eager to record not only military experiences but also their journeys and interactions with new places and people. Soldiers and civilians noted their detailed impressions of these encounters in diaries, letters, and postcards. Sketches made and photographs taken reflect the variety of spaces that war took people to. These textual and visual traces add an important element to the understanding of the hyper-mobility and global scale of the First World War.

Daniel Steinbach & Anna Maguire