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First World War (1914 - 1918)

The War in Propaganda and Reality

During the First World War 17 million forces' letters were written daily, by the soldiers as well as by their loved ones at home. With such a lively exchange of information. it might be presumed that both sides would tell each other about their daily lives and survival quite extensively. 

However, the fact that a description of the true conditions in correspondence was almost impossible was due to the following preventive or restrictive factors. Strict military censorship forced correspondents to suppress important information, or to encode it. Furthermore, nobody wanted to disquiet the recipient with too realistic descriptions, as they supposed that the situation was even worse than their own. Moreover, many were unable to express the horror they had endured in written language, they were simply lost for the right words. What was left were often hackneyed phrases, such as "I'm all right, hope you are, too" – a sentence that was often found on forces' postcards.The numerous photographs in circulation also utterly failed to show reality. Overwhelmingly, they depict harmless looking groups or individuals, obviously posed in front of an "idyllic" backdrop of war. Private photos which showed the dreadful reality of war were extremely rare and were banned by the censor.

The millions of picture postcards published and posted also depict an idyllic, seemingly harmless and deceptive image of war. War is shown as the battles of yesterday: dashing cavalry charges, flagged parades, a lone commander standing on a hill, looking both warlike and sad. Trench warfare is shown as a mere picnic or an idyllic exchange of love gifts which nothing can disturb; in the dugout the homely stove is burning. The war is portrayed as a children's game, in which the German soldier beats up his opponent man to man, as a kind of schoolyard scrap. They serve to illustrate the satirical rhymes: "Every shot a Russki, every kick a Brit', every stab a Frenchie'".

In a further series of cards the opponent is defamed, sometimes in a racist way. The colonial soldiers of the Allies are characterized as "convict types" and presented as „wanted" portraits, like a kind of ethnic sideshow. Russian opponents are depicted as crawling with lice and filthy (Russian economy).

It was not until the literature of the Weimar Republic that the experiences of the First World War could begin to be reappraised. The experiences of individual soldiers at the front were to stand out against the anonymity of a mass war. Interestingly, authors who were political opposites, such as Erich Maria Remarque and Paul Coelestin Ettighoffer are similarly critical. Moreover, the books of Ettighoffer, who died in Euskirchen in 1975, sold in vast numbers, as did the book by Remarque "All Quiet on the Western Front".


Letter of the mathematics student, Hans Foerster, born on 6th October 1890, fell in battle on 29th November 1916 at St. Mihiel:

Before Verdun, 1st July 1916
On 20th, 9 o'clock in the evening we advance into position. Shellfire like mad. Into what used to be a narrow pass…. Don't imagine that there's anything green about it. There are no colours except brown, grey and black – there are no shapes except shell craters. People are allocated foxholes, always 2 or 3 to a hole, each of which are 30-50 metres from the next one. I'm on the left wing with one man in a hole…. The hole is 1.40 metres deep, 1.60 metres long, 1 metre wide. All night straining to make out what's happening in front. The area we are watching is quite big. My eyes are strained – hand grenades and rifle ready; revolver loaded. – We can sleep during the day! – At 5.30 we make some coffee on a primus stove. Then lie down for a sleep. At 8 o'clock in the morning the heavy barrages begin and carry on till 4 o'clock in the afternoon. No chance to eat or stand up straight, as the shrapnel is always flying around. At 5 o'clock bombardment with the big gun until 7 o'clock. Next to us everything is getting churned up, and then something hidden comes along, which if there were any justice would leave us in peace. The stink is really awful. We aren't allowed to move, because an enemy plane is circling. We hide under tent canvas, taking care not to show our rifles or anything. We long for night to come. - The second night…
The assault. Preparation. At 4.15 we started firing at enemy lines with small arms. Gas shells. Large clouds. Some of them fell short, so we have to use our gas masks. We give the signal…: „Forward fire!". At 4.45 there's dense steam over the enemy positions. The little battery opposite us has stopped firing. Till 5 o'clock conventional shelling. The smoke disperses. The French are shooting back again. From 5 till 5.30 gas, 5.30 till 6 o'clock conventional shelling, 6 till 6.30 gas, 6.30 till 7 o'clock conventional shelling. We stand at the top and watch the action, despite the shrapnel. Our artillery increases the calibre they're using. The enemy batteries bombard our rear lines; a barrage! We hardly suffered a hit. 7.30 gas with the large calibre guns. 7.30 till 8 o'clock 38.5- to 42-cm shells. A terrible, violent spectacle. Earth blown up to heaven. The ravine is a giant cloud of steam, the smashed fragments blown high as a tower. The village of Fl. on a hill, 3 kilometres away, is a cloud of smoke. Opposite our position it looks like the world is ending. And what about us? We stand here with enthusiastic eyes and look and watch! – Then we eat our provisions right down to our iron rations, because we all need strength in the hours to come. For some of us their last bite! 8 o'clock left and right flares of certain colours. Out of the trench! Quickly move forwards over 1-2 metre deep holes and craters. There isn't a square metre that hasn't been churned up. The enemy has shown courage …. Rest in a shellhole. Getting nearer, the shellholes become deeper; some of them are up to 15 metres deep – steep shafts …. Our forty-second! Over there – the „blue-greys". They stay and shoot. So do we. Out of the hole! Forwards. On the right a hole with 4 Frenchmen; butts in the air – they raise their hands. „Retour!" we shout, and they obediently jump out, as they haven't been wounded yet, and run without weapons behind our front, where our reservists catch them …. The French flood back; on the orders of an officer they take position again. – „Hand grenades!" the shout rings out to us. Everywhere defenders are falling – others surrendering …. Going on down through the earth of the hollow. In front of us is a railway embankment, on the right a curve of the bank. At the curve 40-50 French soldiers with their hands up. A corporal still shoots at them – I pull him back. An old Frenchman lifts his slightly injured left hand, smiles and thanks me. Now it's all about the railway embankment. The slope opposite is spitting machinegun fire. We lie down and shoot. Our artillery hurls some gas over there. Massive detonations. At the signal from us „Increase the range" we carry on uphill … We're nearly at the top – but we have to wait until our artillery's range has been increased. We wait in a shellhole. 10 metres to our right in a hole stands Lieutenant A., our company commander at the time. Lieutenant A. shouts over to us: "That went well" and laughs; then he turns serious, for he sees that some people are advancing, putting themselves in danger of friendly fire. He stands up and starts to call to them – then scraps of his ordnance survey map spatter and his hands clench in front of his chest and he falls over forwards. Some people jump to his side – but after a few minutes he is already dead. Things don't stop. There's no delay….
When you see the crest of Fl. from the west, you can see a valley, whose exit turns to the right, from where you can see Verdun, or rather its outskirts. Oh, Verdun, what enthusiasm! – We shake each other's hands with a radiant expression… At 12 o'clock midday the enemy gathers for a counter-attack, we overrun them and occupy a trench 1 1/2 kilometres from the village of Fl. Artillery fire increasing. We can't stay in an open trench any more and find a dugout….
When we crawl out of our holes in the evening (23rd), we notice, to our horror, that the position was cleared at 8 o'clock, and now we of the 24th and a few of the 10th are holding the position from  500 metres. That is impossible. Lieutenant E. gives orders to go back as soon as darkness falls, as we have been forgotten. Still, around 8 o'clock our artillery starts firing into the trenches - so then we're told in broad daylight: go back. Because of the many shell craters, it is very difficult to find our way through the terrain. Lieutenant E. goes ahead and orders us to follow him at 100 metres. That's how we lose him. I take the remaining 12 men under my command: one man, wounded in the thigh, is carried along with us. So we go back under a hail of shellfire. We're parched with thirst. Everyone has to hold out, even through the puddles stained yellow by gas. After 2 hours we have travelled 500 metres. From hole to hole. – Night falls. . . thank God I have my illuminated compass, otherwise we were sure to have been taken prisoner.
Until 4 o'clock in the morning we lie in a hole and can't move forwards, as there's so much shooting at the hollow in front of us. Parched with thirst. At last it rains, and we start licking the helmet covers and the sleeves of our jackets. My throat feels dried out. – At 4.30 we arrive at our former 1st position, where Major M… sent us back to Fort D. The way there lies in a constant barrage. An N.C.O.… asks me to take him there, he has been shot in the abdomen. His bladder is about to burst; - so off we go. He is a head taller than me, and it is hard for me to support him. Because of his serious injury and the torn up paths, we can only proceed in small steps and need 4 hours to get there at 9 o'clock in the morning. It is a truly awful journey. When daylight comes, I recognize him as a former fellow student… In Fort D. he weeps and thanks me emotionally for my help. From D. we go on to B ravine. On the way there I lie for a while and lose consciousness – due to exhaustion. When a riderless horse sniffs at me, I come round again. At last with the regiment in  B-ravine, where I refresh myself with water and coffee, wash and sleep. My ordeal is over.

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