Outbreak of the war
End of the war

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.

In the great majority of letters sent home by the soldiers to their relatives, descriptions of their acts of killing were usually left out. Besides the official censorship by the Monarchy’s military apparatus, the soldiers’ own so-called self-censorship played a great role. This prevailed firstly out of consideration to those they loved at home, but on the other hand it also derived from ideas and (self-)interpretations of a “soldierly manliness”. The experiences and the fact of living every day with the violence of war, suffering and death were usually very difficult to write about in letters, which is why there is little mention of the wounds and death of comrades. This applies as well, states Christa Hämmerle, to Austrian literature commemorating the First World War, where “explicit references to the ‘craft of killing’, hand-to-hand combat and the palpable physical and mental consequences which the soldiers had to cope with, are rare [...].

Death in war wore many masks. It could appear in the form of illness, or in the mountains being buried alive in an avalanche or falling, or being mortally wounded by gunshot. The historian Benjamin Ziemann has shown that the artillery was the weaponry mainly responsible for wounds and deaths among the soldiers on the Western Front. Thus 76 % of all wounds suffered by French soldiers came from artillery gunshot, a frequency that according to surveys in 1917 also applied to the soldiers of the German Army.  Meanwhile artillery soldiers were exposed to less risk of being killed than for example infantry soldiers. Statistics for Austria demonstrate that the infantry had by far the highest losses. Alone by March 1915, 70,497 men from the ranks of the infantry were dead, 358,480 wounded and another 369,548 missing. By November 1918 these figures had risen to 330,226 dead, 1,364,161 wounded and 822,535 missing.

Regardless of how a soldier was wounded or killed, all ‘losses’ – and this meant not only the loss of a human life, but also of ‘fighting power’ through wounding, sickness, imprisonment or being missing – were recorded in lists that were then sent directly to the War Office.

In principle all the dead on one’s own or opposing side were to be secured, identified and buried. This was not only for hygienic reasons as protection against disease and epidemics, but was also a last tribute and gesture of honour for the fallen. This succeeded very rarely, and many of the “fallen for the Fatherland” could not be identified or were simply no longer identifiable. Likewise, many of them remained without a final resting place, as documented by the Tyrolean Kaiserjäger Johann Mittermaier in his diary: “The fallen were lying everywhere. Gruesome corpses, decaying or shrunken, with cramped hands and feet and gaping mouth. (…) One evening, in the pallid light of the moon, Leutnant P. ordered us to clear this mountain peak (…) of the corpses. On the saddle, a steep, deep ravine yawned upwards towards the north. The dead were to be dropped down there. Two men grasped a corpse under the knees and armpits, led it to the brink and swung it over and down. No one mentioned identification.”

Translation: Abigail Prohaska





Brandauer, Isabelle: Menschenmaterial Soldat. Alltagsleben an der Dolomitenfront im Ersten Weltkrieg 1915–1917, Innsbruck 2007

Die Habsburgermonarchie und der Erste Weltkrieg. Bd. XI, 2. Teilband: Weltkriegsstatistik Österreich-Ungarn 1914 – 1918. Bevölkerungsbewegung, Kriegstote, Kriegswirtschaft, bearbeitet von: Rumpler, Helmut und Schmied-Kowarzik, Anton, Wien 2014, Tabelle 25: Verluste nach Waffengattungen 1915-1918, 187–189, hier: 187

Hämmerle, Christa: Soldaten, in: Labanca, Nicola/Überegger, Oswald (Hrsg.): Krieg in den Alpen. Österreich-Ungarn und Italien im Krieg, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2014, im Druck

Rauchensteiner, Manfried: Kriegermentalitäten. Mistzellen aus Österreich-Ungarns letztem Krieg, in: Dornik, Wolfram/Walleczek-Fritz, Julia/Wedrac, Stefan (Hrsg.): Frontwechsel. Österreich-Ungarns „Großer Krieg“ im Vergleich, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2014

Reimann, Aribert: Wenn Soldaten vom Töten schreiben – Zur soldatischen Semantik in Deutschland und England, 1914–1918, in: Gleichmann, Peter/Kühne, Thomas (Hrsg.): Massenhaftes Töten. Kriege und Genozide im 20. Jahrhundert, Essen 2004, 307–319

Überegger, Oswald: Verbrannte Erde und „baumelnde Gehenkte“. Zur europäischen Dimension militärischer Normübertretungen im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Neitzel, Sönke / Hohrath, Daniel (Hrsg.): Kriegsgreuel. Die Entgrenzung der Gewalt in kriegerischen Konflikten vom Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert, Paderborn/München/Wien 2008, 241–278

Ziemann, Benjamin: Soldaten, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, 3. Auflage, Paderborn/München/Wien 2009, 155–168



„explicit references to ...“: quoted from: Hämmerle, Christa: Soldaten, in: Labanca, Nicola/Überegger, Oswald (Hrsg.): Krieg in den Alpen. Österreich-Ungarn und Italien im Krieg, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2014, in the press

„Thus 76 % of all wounds ...“: figures quoted from: Ziemann, Benjamin: Soldaten in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, , 3rd edition, Paderborn/München/Wien 2009, 157

„Alone by March 1915 ...“: figures quoted from: Die Habsburgermonarchie und der Erste Weltkrieg. Vol. XI, 2nd part vol: Weltkriegsstatistik Österreich-Ungarn 1914–1918. Bevölkerungsbewegung, Kriegstote, Kriegswirtschaft, edited by: Rumpler, Helmut und Schmied-Kowarzik, Anton, Vienna 2014, table 25: Verluste nach Waffengattungen 1915-1918, 187

„The fallen were lying ...“: Mittermaier, Johann: Der Schrecken des Krieges. Die Erinnerungen eines Südtiroler Kaiserjägers aus dem 1. Weltkrieg, Brixen 2005, 51, quoted from: Brandauer, Isabelle: Menschenmaterial Soldat. Alltagsleben an der Dolomitenfront im Ersten Weltkrieg 1915–1917, Innsbruck 2007, 259

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    The industrialised war

    The First World War called for an enormous amount of material. The armies had to be equipped and fed. The battles would not have been possible without the manufacture on an industrial scale of arms and other strategic products. Only through the total mobilisation of all available resources was it possible to keep the huge war machinery going.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Experiences of violence

    While some of the front soldiers experienced the “storm of steel” as the apotheosis of their own masculinity, most soldiers suffered on account of their physical and/or mental injuries. The destructiveness of modern mechanical warfare and the mental strain caused by the days and weeks in the trenches, the constant noise of the artillery and the sight of seriously wounded and mutilated comrades produced not only an army of war wounded but also masses of soldiers suffering from war neurosis.

  • Object

    Personal war testimonies

    For a long time, the First World War was narrated only from the point of view of prominent personalities or generals. The way in which the people of the Austro‑Hungarian Monarchy experienced and survived it remained unheard. Personal documents like this diary give us new and diverse insights into how individuals experienced, understood and felt about the war.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?