Violence and death were omnipresent on the fronts in the First World War, and the soldiers had to face this practically every day. The fear of being wounded and their own deaths was constantly present, as was the visual presence of death in the form of “fallen” enemy soldiers and their own comrades. Moreover, they were constantly confronted with violence and death in combat and the actual act of killing; such experiences were completely new and extremely dramatic for most of the recruits of 1914.
During the First World War the relationship between troopers and officers was marked by great class differences and the conflicts this generated. Within the ranks as well, tensions flared up time and again, often because of the predominant mix of nationalities in the Monarchy Army.
‘Everyday life’ on the front was structured into variously intensive intervals of time. There were periods marked by extremely strenuous activity and high-risk potential, but also times when the soldiers could experience “relative peace and quiet, and [even] relax.”
To protect the troops against weather conditions and the foe, the aim was to build shelters that were as well-constructed and as practically appointed as possible. In practice, this ambition could be realised only with limitations; all depended on the scene of military operations and climatic/geographical conditions and whether the troops were moving, thus advancing or retreating, or were stationary in the “Stellungskrieg”, in trench warfare.
The appearance of Imperial-Royal soldiers radically changed shortly after the war broke out, most of all because of the shortage of suitable raw materials and the impractical uniforms worn until then.
Provisioning on the front and at home was one of the central topics in the Feldpost (military postal service) correspondence of officers and troopers alike. It contains questions and worries about the adequate nourishment of the families at home, likewise recurring requests for food, tobacco, fresh underwear, warm clothes, boots and so forth. Meanwhile the letters were dominated by detailed descriptions of the daily bill o’ fare and the portions and rations. Above all, as the four war years wore on, the correspondence of the normal troopers increasingly featured descriptions of shortages, the poor quality of the food, and of hunger.
The First World War lasted four long years; it was not only a long war but it was also fought in very different theatres. For many soldiers of the Monarchy this meant moving around in unfamiliar lands and coming into contact with the resident population.
One of first momentous experiences for the recruits was saying farewell to their families and relatives at home-town railway stations throughout the Monarchy.
In summer 1914, probably no one in the Habsburg Monarchy could imagine what effects the coming war would have and what measure of suffering it would cause. And probably only very few thought that the “Gang nach Serbien” (the move to Serbia), as a retaliation campaign, would last more than four years, or that during this time, all in all, around eight or nine million men would be mobilised (the statistics diverge in the literature). They make up that anonymous and nameless collective whose everyday life on the fronts of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy has never received sufficient attention. Because until quite recently, with few exceptions, there has been only a laggard attempt to pose questions in Austrian historiography about the everyday experiences, awareness, sense of purpose and interpretations in particular of the normal trooper.
Julius Meinl, chairman of the food concern of the same name, was one of the few people to realistically anticipate the disastrous food and supply situation in the Austrian half of the Monarchy and to deduce from this that Austria-Hungary needed to embark as soon as possible on peace negotiations.