The historiography of the First World War has dealt extensively with the outcome of the armies at war between 1914 and 1918[1]. It has gradually addressed the emergence of soldier communities on the different war fronts, the evolution of military experiences within these communities and the development of types of sociability shaped by combat, with a special focus on soldiers’ degree of involvement in the war itself. Indeed, much historical research has focused on underscoring how quickly and profoundly the totalization process took hold almost everywhere during the war and, in turn, how the distinction between combatants and non-combatants became blurred, at times very quickly; this research has naturally focused on the domestic or home front.[2] Such initiatives have always strived to understand - beyond pure military mobilization - how the societies at war got politically, economically and even culturally involved in the war effort and the impact that this involvement had on each country's organization and on the working of civil society.

Conducted on a transnational scale, this research has, for the most part, not specifically addressed the military institutions and individuals that comprise them when they are removed (even briefly) from the realm of combat. This is likely a side effect of using the concept of totalization which, by favouring the analysis of topics affected by the violence of war, has tended to reinforce to the extreme the synonymy between soldiers and combatants that infused discourse during the war and united two social identities that were in part seen as separate in the 19th century. We know that this synonymy brought with it intense suspicion of the soldiers that remained (or were called to remain) behind the lines between 1914 and 1918. It is on these men - and also on some of the women enlisted in the war effort -, as well as their relationships with the civilian communities that hosted them that we shall focus here.

Nearly 74 million individuals were mobilized during the war. This mobilization effort was based on recruitment systems in place before 1914, others which were transformed under the impact of the conflict or, in some cases, that were invented to handle the great need for men that arose; together these produced the mass armies of the Great War. The model of compulsory military service established in 18th century Europe and experimented on a broad scale with mass conscription in revolutionary France was adopted in most of the countries at war, although not without tensions and tailoring that transformed the relationship between nations and armies, and redefined the very essence of citizenship in the countries involved. At the same time, the sheer scope of military mobilization transformed life behind the lines (sometimes dramatically) due to the increased presence and control of the army within civil society, via the militarization of public space and due to increased interaction with the army within such spaces. These relationships were riddled with contradictions: communities were torn between the advantages that came with hosting a large military presence and traditional concerns over extended contact between troops and civilians. How did the soldiers on these "invisible fronts"[3] experience this unprecedented situation? Can we sketch a typology of these men based on their status, past and/or future relationship with the war? Lastly, can a historian–with all of the nuance required given the plethora of contexts at the scale of a global war–measure how the conflict impacted the ties between nations and their armies? Can we talk of ties being strengthened? We will attempt to address all of these questions below.

How the War affected Recruiting Systems

Virtually everywhere, the recruitment systems in place to supply the military with men had to adapt to the constant pressure from a war that, from the outset - and particularly on the Western front -, was defined by mass death. We can identify three main scenarios that provide an overview of the solutions adopted by the countries at war to meet the large-scale human needs of modern war. The first of these was in place in the societies in which conscription existed before 1914 and in which an ideal of the armed nation had gradually taken root. France and Germany provide an interesting comparative study here since, beyond their similarities, there are noticeable differences in how they modelled conscription during the war.

After the war of 1870-1871, in both France and Germany, the army became an important component of the modern state thanks to compulsory and universal military service. Following France’s defeat, a series of laws - from the law of 27 July 1872 to that of 7 August 1913 - gradually expanded the military experience to the entire young male population, bringing the percentage of conscripts drafted from one-third to three-quarters of an age group.[4] On 1 August 1914, roughly 884,000 men were serving the country; during the war, slightly less than 8 million French citizens were mobilized in the context of the so-called “three years’ law”. In Germany, a similar system spread across the country following the wars of unification. The military law of 1888, modified on 3 August 1893, generalized the obligation to serve in the military.[5] There was only a slight increase in the number of men serving in the German army between 1899 and 1911, but this number began to increase following the Moroccan crisis of 1911; thereafter, German troops witnessed the worsening situation in the Balkans and an increase in the size of the French and Russian forces. Although the German ranks swelled less than what was recommended by the country’s general staff, the increase was nevertheless equivalent to 22 percent, bringing the number of men from 515,231 in 1911 to 661,478 after the law of 3 July 1913. On 2 August 1914, the German army was capable of mobilizing 3,820,000 men by this means. By the end of the war, slightly more than 13 million men had served in the ranks of German army.[6]

In both countries, the system was based on a very long period of military obligation, mandatory until the age of forty-eight in France since 1913 (three years in the regular army, eleven years in its reserve, seven years in the territorial army and seven years in its reserve) and until the age of forty-five in Germany (two years in the regular army,[7] five in the reserve, followed by service in the Landwehr I and II until the age of thirty-nine and in the Landsturm until the age of forty-five), which meant that the army accompanied men throughout their adult lives. The omnipresence of the army in people’s lives was compounded by the development in civil society of a network of conscription-based clubs and veterans’ associations, which were particularly numerous in Wilhemian Germany where the Kyffhäuserbund had nearly 3 million members in 1913.[8] All of this contributed to the high degree of militarization in pre-war French and Germany society. Moreover, military service was seen and experienced in both countries as a trying but ultimately rewarding school of manhood;[9] this helped make the army central to the citizen-forging process and to give it prestige amongst the different echelons of society despite the rise of antimilitarist protest in both countries during the 1910s. The same phenomenon was at work in Russian society, which adopted conscription in 1874 under the reign of Alexander II, Emperor of Russia (1818-1881) and declared 58 percent of conscripts “fit for service” in 1909.[10]

Between 1914 and 1918, it was this close-knit interconnection between civil society and military society that formed the basis upon which countries with universal conscription organized the mass mobilization of their men; the result however was not the same in all countries. It was likely in France that it reached its paroxysm. The law of 7 August 1913, whose article 33 foresaw the call-up of classes in advance, allowed the country to attain exceptionally high mobilization rates that were constantly over 90 percent of the men in each age group (86 percent for the class of 1918), with 55 to 70 percent of able-bodied men directed towards combat units.[11] Such results were the product of a veritable “manhunt” for able-bodied men conducted in the main towns of cantons by recruiting boards who pursued men “holed up” behind the lines, particularly soldiers serving in depots and departments away from the front.[12] This approach was criticized in 1918 by the doctor and soldier Georges Duhamel (1884-1966) in a chapter from his book Civilization entitled “The Fleshmongers”.[13] This was also the mindset behind an appeal to the Empire that increased the share of non-native conscripts to six percent. 170,000 Algerians were as such mobilized; in Tunisia, where conscription was theoretically impossible under the French protectorate, 56,000 men were mobilized - to cite only two examples.

There are at least two reasons why this pressure was lesser in imperial Germany, where 81 percent of men old enough to serve were mobilized.[14] The first reason is tied to the demographic vitality of the German nation which allowed it to keep its numbers up without draining the cities and countryside of all men old enough to bear arms - despite the fact that it was fighting on two fronts right up to 1918. On the eve of the war, France already incorporated 82 percent of men subject to military service versus 52 percent in Germany. Further, despite pressure from the German army in 1916 to extend military duty to all men between sixteen and sixty years old, the military law was not changed.[15] This demographic thrust helps explain, for example, why military participation rates in Berlin did not exceed 59 percent of those enrolled whereas they reached 80 percent in Paris.[16] This latitude allowed Germany to avoid having to rely on colonial troops and also to temper the scope of mass conscription given the particularly virulent distrust surrounding potentially undisciplined soldier-citizens, especially those from cities. In Tsarist Russia, the immense losses suffered during the first offensive battles in Prussia and Galicia and the defeats that followed counter-offensives in 1915 resulted in increasing pressure on the population. By September 1915, militia men had been incorporated and some non-native peoples, like the Kyrgyz (exempted prior to 1914), were also accepted, although not without some serious resistance.[17]

The second case was that of countries which, despite having a military, did not rely on conscription at the war’s outbreak, but who were forced to implement it to address the immense demands of modern war. The British state is a prototype in this respect given that in 1914 it had a regular army comprised of less than 250,000 men liable for long service[18] and was able to mobilize nearly 5.7 million men by 1918. The United Kingdom had avoided the universe of mass conscription prior to 1914 notably due to the British distrust towards all forms of state constraint, the definition of England's strategic interests in colonial terms and the need for long military service more suited to defending the Empire, faith in the power of the marine and the use of the Indian army for colonial policing. The reforms implemented in 1906-1908 by Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), the secretary of state for war, in the aftermath of the Boer War nonetheless reinforced the nation-army connection with the creation of the Territorial Force, which replaced the auxiliary troops, a kind of militia comprised of eight percent of the male population who received military training. The creation of the Officer Training Corps (OTC), connected to a territorial division, was also a move in this direction. Yet despite the increasing influence of those in favour of compulsory military service, as represented by the National Service League founded in 1902, conscription remained unpopular in 1914 and recruitment for the regular army - comprised mainly of members of the lower urban classes, notably from London[19] - was proof of this unpopularity. Following Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s (1850-1916) appeal for volunteers, nearly 2.5 million men had joined the regular army and territorial force by December 1915; the response from the Empire was also impressive. This enthusiasm needs to be nuanced through a closer sociological examination of the volunteers, however. In the United Kingdom, enlisting in the territorial force, which was based on a local recruitment scheme, allowed men to stay in the country at least until March 1915; this helped temper the sacrifice to which people had to commit.[20] The majority of imperial volunteers - notably those from Canada and Australia - were British natives who, in most cases, had only lived in the dominion for a short time. Throughout the war, only 51 percent of all men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Corps were born in Canada; in South Africa, the largest portion of volunteers were also of British rather than Afrikaner origin.[21] Volunteerism as such primarily involved men with a close connection to the United Kingdom at the start of the war.

By December 1914, 80,000 soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force had already been killed or wounded in France. The immense British casualties in continental Europe and the drying up of volunteer resources indeed spurred the adoption of conscription in January 1916. At the time, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) promised never to impose conscription on married men before all able-bodied bachelors had been called up; like on the continent, however, there was increasing pressure on the British male population and, while the first Military Service Act exempted married men and widowed men with children, starting in May 1916, married men were also called up (and conscientious objection made its appearance). In July 1917, a new law extended conscription to British subjects living abroad, as well as to allied citizens (French and Russian) residing in Great Britain. While mobilization rates in Britain were far lower than those recorded on the continent, notably in France and Germany, 53 percent of the male population old enough to bear arms[22] was nonetheless mobilized and the United Kingdom experienced a veritable mass mobilization that had deep social implications.

The upheaval was even more radical for those countries with no army or virtually none in 1914. The United States is a good example since, with roughly 200,000 men serving in the armed forces in April 1917, the American army was incapable of meeting the human needs of the war in Europe. Further, the population had shown no enthusiasm about the war (4,355 men enlisted in the ten days following the country’s declaration of war) in a country where being a soldier was not viewed as a valued profession and in which militarism was perceived as a threat to democracy.[23] The implementation of conscription, adopted on 18 May 1917, thus addressed a necessity that was not immediately nor entirely understood by all Americans. Until the war’s end, it remained deeply unpopular among large sections of the population.[24] The first call-up of 500,000 men on 1 September 1917 did not garner keen interest and incidents were even reported in several places across the country, like New York, as well as in Montana and Oklahoma, where farmers took up arms against authorities in August.[25] These problems subsided however by late 1917 as the intense patriotic propaganda effort, which was not devoid of violence aimed at rebellious individuals,[26] began to take root. By the end of the war, the United States had relied largely on conscription to build an army of 4.8 million men (including volunteers).[27] Other countries had a similar experience (albeit of less spectacular proportion), like in parts of the British dominion where conscription was adopted despite the fact that there was no solid military tradition, for example in New Zealand in July 1916 and in Canada seventeen months later; in the latter, there was a great deal of resistance in francophone Quebec where riots caused four deaths on 1 April 1918. In the end, very few of the countries at war avoided conscription, like Australia which, although it had adopted it for peace time before the war, refused to extend its use to foreign wars and stuck with volunteerism. In total, 413,000 Australian volunteers served in Europe during the Great War.

The Territorial Logic behind Recruiting

The shift from peace to war deeply affected the way recruiting was organized and created a first change in the relationship between countries at war and their armies. In the countries that had universal conscription before 1914, recruiting tended to be based on a decentralized territorial framework, as illustrated by the French and German models. Following the defeat of 1871, the French Republic had made sure to disseminate across the entire country regiments from the army corps, which had a great deal of freedom in how they organized themselves within their respective spheres of influence. There were twenty-one military regions in 1914, including one that corresponded to Algeria (the nineteenth). These regions divided the country into a fairly uniform grid,[28] with a few zones on the Eastern front that nonetheless had a more concentrated regimental presence; here, just three army corps - the 6th (Châlons-sur-Marne), 20th (Nancy) and 21st (Epinal) - included 22 percent of the line infantry and 35 percent of the cavalry. Of the eleven new regiments created in 1913, nine were for the East.[29] In imperial Germany, where a similar decentralized scheme existed, the territory was divided between twenty-five army corps (the corps of quarter-guards, army corps from I to XXI and three Bavarian army corps); except for the first of these, all had a territorial base. The XII and XIX corps as such corresponded to the territory of the Kingdom of Saxony; the XIVth corresponded to the Grand Duchy of Baden and Upper Alsace all the way to Colmar.[30]

These groups relied on recruitment that was regional and even, in some cases, local. In France, the regionalization of recruitment was ramped up after 1889, like in the 1st army corps (Nord and Pas-de-Calais) which, by the early 20th century, recruited almost entirely locally, except for its engineers and heavy artillery. One part of units recruited locally following the military law of 1905, which made it possible for married men and widowers with children, income providers, those who already had a brother serving in the army and those omitted from the previous classes to serve locally.[31] There was nevertheless a system for territorial redistribution which allowed densely populated regions to supply zones that were either less populated or required greater military presence. That is why there were many Bretons from the 10th and 11th regions serving in the military government in Paris, whereas some Parisian recruits were sent to regiments in the East as part of a transfer of some of the contingent from the west to the east.[32] This was encouraged by High Command, which was eager to move Parisians - reputed as undisciplined - away from the capital’s regiments. The federal organization of the German army prior to 1914 was similar in several respects to the case above. It was broadly decentralized and recruited regionally. This allowed Berliners, for example, to serve primarily in the regiments of the IIIrd army corps (Brandenburg), which was based in the Land around Berlin, and for Bavarians to enlist in the three corps of the Bavarian army which benefitted from a greater degree of autonomy within the Reich. Only units of the elite guard, and notably the 1st Prussian regiment based in Potsdam, recruited nationally, although in reality many Berliners served in its ranks.[33] In both countries, locally-rooted regiments had for the most part become an integral part of their host cities’ identity.

The Great War in part upended these structures. Beyond the disorganization experienced in certain countries at war following their invasion - like in France, for example, where the entire operations of seven military regions had to be moved behind the lines when the war began,[34] the massive human losses recorded, notably on the Western front, threw a cog into the well-greased wheels of peacetime. In France, regional recruitment declined over the course of 1915: for example, in 1915, all of the 1,825 soldiers mobilized in the 146th infantry regiment were from the 20th region (Nancy), but by 1916, there were only 281 from the region and the rest were all from other regions.[35] The “nationalization” of recruitment was conceived in order to balance military needs across the country. The same process occurred in Germany where Bavarian troops, for example, were mixed with other German contingents right from the summer of 1914.[36] The process certainly played a role in strengthening national cohesion, but it may also have worked to dilute the local identity of units and loosen their ties with host communities. In this respect, the creation in both Germany and France of regimental depots that were moved from the interior closer to the front lines in order to facilitate the training of recruits by commissioned personnel experienced in modern war[37] also likely accentuated this distance.

Things were quite different in the United Kingdom at least until 1916. The pre-war British regimental system relied on local recruiting designed to build cohesion between officers and soldiers; each regiment had special ties with the local community, county or town for the recruitment of regular soldiers as well as territorial reservists. This symbiosis between the army and society formed the cradle of British mobilization in the regular army, auxiliary forces and, even more so, within the numerous Pals Battalions of volunteers rooted for the most part in a single location and in its sociability networks, as illustrated by the nine battalions created in Northampton during the war.[38] Regional recruiting resisted longer in England than in continental Europe and until 1916 none of the other European countries at war likely had such a locally-defined war experience.[39] The adoption of conscription and the deadly battles of 1916 led to homogenization, however, and a gradual dissipation of the local nature of units. Roughly 25 percent of Londoners as such served in London divisions; 75 percent were homogenously spread across the rest of the army.[40]

In most of the countries where the war spurred the creation of a national army, the European model of conscription was transposed and a relationship was created whose terms were set precipitously, as the American example reveals. Conscription was coordinated by General Enoch Crowder (1859-1932), but it was decentralized in each state, which was responsible for registering all men between the age of twenty-one and thirty years and for training the required contingent. The first registering of men for military service took place on 5 June 1917 and involved nearly 9.6 million young men. There were no barracks for the men mobilized during the first call-up in July and the construction of military camps to house them would not be completed until Christmas. This problem was temporarily resolved by rapidly mobilizing the first conscripts to Europe.[41] In the end, most of these American soldiers ended up living amongst the French civilian population before they were sent to the front.

Militarization behind the Lines

Mass mobilization worldwide also resulted in a militarization behind the lines as home fronts were transformed to address the all-consuming needs of the war. Although they were indeed spared from combat, these areas were by no means pockets of tranquillity. They were subject to the rhythms of the war front and sought to adapt to the constant pressure imposed by the logic of totalization.

To begin, there was constant pressure on all of the soldiers behind the lines, in depots and in the central administration, in order to manage the multiple services required by the war (e.g., the supply corps, medical services, general staff and recruitment). In France, these men were mainly in the capital and in provincial cities. They were closely monitored and their surveillance increased starting in 1915, just as the management of mobilized men began to demand a more robust military and civil bureaucracy. Employees working in the depots (e.g., secretaries, accountants, orderlies, armourers, tailors, stock keepers, nurses and orderly-soldiers that belonged to the officer corps) were the prime targets of a recovery policy aimed at supplying the army with more men; this process was particularly prevalent in France for the reasons outlined above. Numerous measures were taken throughout 1916 to cut back on staff (elimination of one company in each infantry depot in May; a reduction in guard positions, deemed to be useless, and a shortening of the rest period between two tours of duty in July; the use of electric fences to replace sentinels in front of factories and strategic sites in December; and a broader reliance on typewriters in depots), which scaled back the number of soldiers tied up working behind the lines from 251,000 in August 1916 to 190,000 in 1917. This relative “demilitarization” of depots occurred alongside a turn towards civilian workers, and notably women, whose presence was encouraged starting in December 1916 to fill recording secretary or accountant positions, as well as to work as stenographer-typists, telephone operators, workers, stock handlers and linen keepers in particularly busy depots.[42] The British army proceeded similarly and recruited 41,000 women before the war’s end to serve as nurses, cooks and secretaries within the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The American army posted its “canteen girls” in French train stations to serve sandwiches and coffee to soldiers passing through;[43] in total, 20,000 American women volunteered to serve abroad.[44] This first access to employment for women during the war worked to transform the home front in some respects, although the transformation was not radical.

More profound was the upheaval imposed on (mainly urban) spaces that had to adapt to the at times exponential growth in demands from the armies at war. The development of administrative and health services, and the search for accommodation for troops resulted in both the occupation of numerous buildings made available or requisitioned by the army, notably in large European capitals, and the construction of new buildings hastily erected. The war and mass mobilization as such provoked an upheaval of the urban and peri-urban landscape in some countries, and especially in France, which hosted the British and American troops and as such had to contend with the arrival of millions of men.

In the United Kingdom, a large number of soldiers quickly became visible for the first time, without time for the required infrastructure to be built. The flow of volunteers was not entirely absorbed by the departure of the expeditionary corps to France in the autumn of 1914; this departure did free up some space in the at times quite dilapidated barracks of the regular army, although space nonetheless remained insufficient. The British army therefore had to organize accommodation for a large share of its volunteers in facilities made available by local authorities, philanthropic organizations and, above all, in private homes. Roughly 800,000 men - the equivalent of the combined population of Edinburgh and Leeds at the time - were sent to live in private homes during the winter of 1914-1915, thus creating an entirely new interface between the army and civilian population.[45] These men were trained in specific centres that were spread across the country (the 9th and 14th divisions were concentrated in and around Aldershot; the 12th division in Colchester; the 10th division in Dublin and the Curragh, Ireland; the 11th division in Belton Park near Grantham; the 13th division in Salisbury) but which were nonetheless full well beyond capacity. This bottleneck was not resolved before the spring of 1915 when the first barracks were built; by the autumn of 1915 there were enough barracks to house 850,000 men. One of the largest complexes was located in Catterick, Yorkshire, and could accommodate nearly 40,000 men.[46]

On the continent, the accommodation of British troops was also improvised in France and Belgium, either in camps along the English Channel, requisitioned public buildings (e.g., schools, asylums, hospitals and convents) or in people’s homes. The arrival of the American army in the spring of 1917 posed a further challenge in this respect. After receiving initial training in make-shift camps in the United States, the large American units travelled to France where they were meant to complete their military training before going to the front. The flow of men that needed to be absorbed by French cities in the interior was considerable and created an entirely new situation. 200,000 Americans as such arrived in the port of Saint-Nazaire, chosen as the headquarters of the first American army base in France. The base stretched from Saint-Nazaire to Brest and also included supply and medical facilities in the zone between Les Sables d’Olonne, Poitiers, Tours and Brest. The base was so large that it covered no less than eight French departments that were directly affected by the American presence in late 1917 (the Morbihan, Côtes-du-Nord, Ille-et-Vilaine, Loire-Inférieure, Maine-et-Loire, Vendée, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne departments) and five in June 1918.[47]

The Americans’ arrival drastically transformed the landscape of the cities and towns chosen by the army, as well as the daily life of their inhabitants. In Saint-Nazaire, where most of the troops were based, Americans filled all non-occupied facilities and all useable buildings, both public (like the boys’ school turned into a 1,000-bed hospital in July 1917) and private (like the Grand Hotel which served as headquarters for the base’s general staff; or the Hotel de la Plage, in Sainte-Marguerite, which was turned into a convalescent home). Nine camps with a capacity to accommodate 60,000 men were built, the largest of which was in Bois Guimard, west of Saint-Nazaire, and served as the main camp for American troops when they arrived, were on leave or were departing. The density of the military’s presence reached new, extremely high levels. While in cities like Saint-Nazaire, soldiers made up about one-third of the total population in November 1918, it was far more than this in the surrounding villages which were quite literally submerged. A few kilometres east of Saint-Nazaire, Montoir was chosen for the American army depot; the town’s 1,000 permanent residents lived in direct contact with over 10,000 soldiers in November 1918.[48]

The creation and development of medical facilities, which were a major interface between the military and home front, were among the most tangible signs of the war visible behind the lines. All of the countries at war had to deal with an afflux in the number of wounded men, the scope of which had not been anticipated. The large European capitals were particularly affected by this veritable medical challenge. In Berlin, 253,000 wounded men were treated in the city’s hospitals during the war, primarily at the Rudolf Virchow hospital or the nearby Busch military hospital. It is estimated that there were 5,000 men being treated at any given time in Berlin’s hospitals.[49] The city of Vienna had 260,000 wounded men to deal with in March 1915; this inundation weakened the social fabric of the Austrian capital, and things only got worse as the war progressed.[50] The situation was also tenuous in London and its suburbs where there were only about 1,500 beds at the start of the war, mainly concentrated at the Herbert Hospital in Woolwich and at Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital. From the outset, it was necessary to use civilian hospitals that were intended for use by the territorial force. Four hospitals were as such trained for mobilization and a fifth was built in Saint-Thomas in early 1915; despite this, there was still insufficient capacity to deal with the wounded as well as convalescing men, who were sent to public buildings, philanthropic institutions and private homes requisitioned for medical use.[51] It was this perpetually tedious equilibrium that the young Vera Brittain (1893-1970) experienced as a voluntary nurse at the First London Hospital from September 1915 to September 1916.[52] In France, the region around Angers was spared from combat and so was particularly attractive as a host area for wounded and convalescing soldiers. Between 50,000 and 60,000 soldiers were treated, mainly in Angers, Saumur and Cholet, where public authorities requisitioned all available public and private buildings (e.g., schools, monastic buildings and private homes). Eight clinics as well as forty-four hospitals and asylums for convalescing soldiers were also built to address the ever-growing needs.[53]

The militarization of the home front was further amplified by the presence of soldiers on leave behind the lines. Although their numbers fluctuated, the presence of soldiers for the most part in direct contact with the civilian population was particularly common in the large European capital cities, where soldiers gathered but also sought distraction from the war. The French capital was a point of convergence not only for Parisians, but also for soldiers from other, invaded parts of France, as well as colonial and allied soldiers; Paris was undoubtedly the most important furlough centre in all of the countries at war. It could host between 5,500 men at its lowest point in April 1916 and 38,500 men in July 1917;[54] in comparison, the British capital could accommodate at least 20,000 Londoners and other British, imperial and allied Belgian and Canadian soldiers. The presence of soldiers on leave in Berlin was less visible since there was a smaller proportion of Berliners mobilized and leave was granted more rarely than in France or the United Kingdom.[55] In order to remedy the complete saturation of accommodation for soldiers on leave, measures were taken to relocate furlough centres; such measures were reinforced further in France following the crisis of mutinies in the spring of 1917 in an attempt to distance soldiers on leave from the capital and stave off their allegedly toxic effects on discipline. It is as such that the Parrains de Reuilly facility located within the Reuilly barracks in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, which in January 1917 had already received 45,000 men on leave, was transferred out of Paris from May to November 1917, to Aix-en-Provence and the French Riviera. Colonial troops were sent to Toulon. These decisions corroborated with the pre-existing policy of relegating certain categories of soldiers outside of the Paris region. It is as such that non-native soldiers were generally sent to the South of France, to camps located in Marseille and the surrounding area (Fréjus, Saint-Raphaël), near the main port of call for ships sailing to the colonies; the presence of such soldiers within the Parisian war infrastructure, like the Foyer colonial (13th arrondissement in Paris) or the Foyer du Soldat Musulman (Muslim soldiers’ centre), was fairly rare.[56]

The intensification of the war led to an even greater military presence behind the lines and also to a reshaping of the army’s ties with the civilian population. Before the war, the military’s presence had been synonymous with prosperity due to the economic advantages that came with meeting the material needs of troops. But it also worried inhabitants who were concerned about the disruption to public order and moral problems caused by being in contact with a young male population often bored by the idleness of garrison life. Between 1914 and 1918, these two aspects of the relationship with the civilian world were often exacerbated, particularly in zones where there had been little military presence before 1914 and then a massive arrival of soldiers with which to contend. In the United Kingdom, host communities were eager to the attract the new army: on the Scottish coast, for example, holiday resorts vied to win the creation of Welsh Army Corps camps in the autumn of 1914.[57] Similarly, the cities in Western France that hosted the largest share of the American army did everything in their power to facilitate the arrival of troops, hence the speed with which they settled into cities like Saint-Nazaire and Nantes. At first, soldiers were quite well received by inhabitants, many of whom housed troops in the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1914. American soldiers, too, were initially viewed warmly by the French population,[58] but over time the troops came to be viewed with increasing suspicion, which led the initial enthusiasm and good will to give way to a gradual disenchantment and even outright hostility in some cases. Several factors help shed light on this shift which nonetheless did not apply to all contexts behind the lines.

Increases in the cost of living tied to the strong demand that came with the presence of troops was one recurring civilian complaint, like in the Anjou region where the population blamed price hikes on the presence of soldiers.[59] The main causes for discontent among the civilian population were tied to material disruptions that came with the massive arrival of troops (the deterioration and congestion of streets and roadways, noise, etc.); discontent related to the requisitions imposed on owners, as was the case in Saint-Nazaire; and the inconveniences that came with people having to accommodate soldiers in their homes, a practice that remained commonplace in the United Kingdom throughout the war. In Vienna, material shortages and hunger, combined with the flow of mainly Polish and Jewish refugees in 1914 and of those from the Italian front the following year, also created a lot of resentment amongst the civilian population.[60] This was all in addition to the traditional distrust bestowed upon groups of young males who, moreover, were uprooted, often poor and in search of distraction and pleasure. This distrust was in part justified since in many cities soldiers were commonly involved in petty theft that further fuelled inhabitants’ discontent. In France, soldiers on leave were frequently involved in theft and the swindling of goods useful to soldiers (e.g., shoes, clothing or weapons), jewellery, cash and bicycles, as well as food and drinks not paid for at cafés and restaurants.[61] The consumption of alcohol and use of prostitution also went hand in hand with the military presence, especially in the large European capitals where clandestine prostitution exploded.[62] Everywhere, the morality squad ramped up its surveillance of restaurants, bars and all recreational areas where there was a concentration of temptations for soldiers. In Vienna, prostitutes registered with the police were banned from such areas on 1 December 1914.[63] In smaller cities like Saint-Nazaire, over 300 cafés were transformed into brothers and the areas surrounding camps swarmed with prostitutes.[64] In the United States, the Sherman camp in Chillicothe, Ohio, was guarded by patrols of female volunteers in an attempt to stave off such vice.[65] In the United Kingdom, authorities in Portsmouth and Plymouth recorded a stark increase in venereal diseases starting in November 1914 due to the rise in prostitution around barracks and camps.[66] Cohabitation with soldiers fuelled civilian anxiety about a population that was deemed hard to control and potentially dangerous since it was armed and suspected of propagating immorality. Even the outspokenness characteristic of the way soldiers talked[67] was dreaded for its deleterious effects on acceptable behaviour: in Angers, for example, a father filed a complaint with the city’s military authorities in July 1915 after his family surprised a group of soldiers singing songs with obscene lyrics.[68] Such disturbances were likely less and less tolerated as the war drew on, and notably when host communities began to realize, towards the end of the war, that they were going to lose the advantages that came with the presence of troops on their territory. In the Loire-Inférieure, for example, disenchantment towards the presence of American troops became predominant starting in late November 1918, concomitant to the relaxing of discipline that followed the armistice; in the Anjou area, vandalism to American buildings in September 1918 and several deadly brawls pointed up the rise in reciprocal hostility.[69] While not enough research has been conducted at the different scales across the countries at war to provide an overall assessment of how civilian perceptions changed over the course of the war, it nonetheless appears that the war exacerbated the ambiguity that underpinned relationships between civilians and soldiers.

Being a Soldier behind the Lines

Let us now focus on the experience of soldiers that had to spend time behind the lines, even if only briefly. Was their situation as enviable as those experiencing the harsh realities of survival at the front imagined or alleged? Several different scenarios need to be examined.

There was a stark decline in the conditions under which recruits underwent accelerated military training in several countries and particularly at the start of the war: material conditions were often difficult due to a lack of equipment and sufficient weapons compared to the pre-war period. In Germany, for example, the Ersatz battalions that were in charge of training recruits and reservists behind the lines were overwhelmed by the flow of mobilized men. The situation remained tenuous until the creation of depots at the front in 1915 in charge of taking over after an initial four-week training period. In March 1915, the Ersatz battalion of the 179th infantry regiment still had only 166 standard rifles and eighty-one bayonets to train 1,386 men; further, this training was in part done by old Landsturm officers who were out of touch with the realities of modern war.[70] In the United Kingdom, the camp life that was imposed on a large number of men unaccustomed to living in the outdoors resulted in a dramatic increase in morbidity in the autumn and winter of 1914: in the quarters of Salisbury plain, for example, 29,000 sick soldiers were recorded each month from October to December 1914.[71] The massive incorporation of civilians who were entirely unfamiliar with the army and the constraints inherent to barrack life also led to incidents that underscore the cultural shock experienced by recruits and their families. For example, in August 1914, barracks in the London borough of Hoxton were attacked by hundreds of women who wanted to express their incomprehension over why the men of the 17th London were required to sleep at the barracks. In December 1914 and January 1915, 250 men from the Welsh Territorials were reported illegally missing because they had gone home to tend to their land.[72] Such incidents point up the brutal and massive acculturation required of civilians to adapt to the demands of military life.

In this respect, it is not certain that changes during the war to how training was given to recruits in any way reduced the burden they had to bear. In Germany, where changes were made earliest to adapt to the realities of modern combat, the strictest forms of military exercise - particularly drills - were scaled back over the course of 1915 to allow for more off-site exercises on diverse terrain, fortification work (which soldiers did not enjoy), daytime and night-time shooting practice and the use of weapons for close combat (grenades and grenade launchers).[73] Such training was designed to better prepare men for the harsh reality of life at the front. A similar programme was implemented in France starting in 1916 and in the United Kingdom in 1917;[74] it was considerably more condensed than the pre-war version[75] and was likely an extremely trying physical and psychological experience. The only things that palliated the difficulty of such initiation were the less systematic use of drills and the attention placed on the moral education and well-being of soldiers, notably in the British and German armies in 1917.[76]

In many ways, the depots in regions behind the lines were constantly under pressure: they were in direct contact with the civilian population and therefore needed to model the image that the army wanted to convey. In France, such depots were omitted from disciplinary changes that aimed to redefine authority within units at the front and offer a greater degree of flexibility. Here, the finicky and arbitrary discipline so criticized before the war remained strictly enforced. It was even tightened during the spring of 1917 due to fears about maintaining order behind the lines. In depots and garrison towns, soldiers, convalescing men, those awaiting a posting and especially men on leave suspected of being able to foment insubordination upon their return to the front were placed under strict surveillance. Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) and his cabinet pressured the military regions to increase the surveillance of soldiers and maintain an irreproachable attitude. This was such that over the course of 1918 a veritable reversal occurred in the way discipline was enforced: the front moved towards greater freedom in the exertion of authority whereas disciplinary vigilance reached new levels behind the lines.[77]

Although the soldiers mobilized in occupations behind the lines were protected from the duress of the front, they were nonetheless viewed with constant suspicion by those at the front and had to deal with accusations from civilians who accused them of being in an enviable position and of being safely “holed up” behind the lines. Being perceived as such most surely had an effect on these men. The Carnets de guerre (war diaries) of one such soldier, warrant officer Edouard Coeurdevey (1882-1955), a thirty-two year old who served as an administrative clerk from August 1914 to August 1917, offer precious insight into this experience. His writing reveals the torment of a soldier torn between his fear of the trenches and his own self-loathing, left to deal with the guilt-provoking gaze over those around him. On 15 March 1915, he mentioned the “sacrifice of being useless”[78] and on 13 June 1916, when he asked to take advantage of the possibility available to remain behind the lines like one of his comrades, he wrote: “I answered like he did before the lieutenant, and now I’m ashamed. Would it not be easier to be a man?”[79] For Coeurdevey, this conflict subsided only - to his utmost relief - when he was posted to a combat unit in the Chemin des Dames sector in August 1917.

While this French soldier’s experience obviously does not apply to all, and particularly not across all of the countries at war, there are other signs that underscore the difficulty experienced by soldiers behind the lines when they were in contact with and confronted by the watchful gaze of the civilian population. Wounded and convalescing soldiers, as well as those on leave, were particularly mindful of wearing their military decorations in public (when they had any) in order to prove their conformity with the norms of wartime - which, in turn, also fuelled a black market for war medals. There were also a few cases of soldiers behind the lines getting harassed or attacked by men on leave, although such acts were rare.[80]


There are still many facets that need to be explored in order to understand the consequences of the militarization that was imposed (at times very quickly) on places and individuals behind the lines in order to meet the insatiable needs of the war. In many of the countries at war, particularly in Europe, an unprecedented intimacy was forged between the army and civilian population. Such close quarters stoked tensions between these two groups whose interests only converged up to a point. This had a profound effect on civilian communities in areas where troops were based - an effect that was both more intense and more ambiguous than ever before.

Odile Roynette, Université de Franche-Comté

Section Editor: Pierre Purseigle

Translator: Jocelyne Serveau