Today it's exactly 94 years since it ended. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It was called the Great War and happened on several continents, on the ground, at sea and in the air.
It involved guns, machine guns, tanks, ships, submarines, bayonets, planes and shells. And trenches.
Everyone thought it would be over in four months – a victory of patriotic glory and the troops home by Christmas 1914. It ground on for four relentless and bloody years killing over 20 million people (mostly soldiers, but also civilians), and severely wounding 21 million.
It killed a generation of men in countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria, and Russia. Several other countries such as Australia, New Zealand , the United States, Turkey and South Africa suffered heavy losses. More than 7 000 South African soldiers were killed, mostly in the Battle of Delville Wood and the Battle of the Somme (both in 1916).
No proper burials
In many battles, the dead were so numerous they could not be buried properly, and shallow graves are still being found today in and around the famous battlefields.
This deadly war, although shorter than World War II and fought on fewer fronts, had a higher military death ratio than the Second World War (of every two men who enlisted, one was either killed or severely injured). In the latter 72 million people died, but almost two-thirds of them were civilians.
World War 1 was a war of trenches, of mustard gas, of shell shock, of trench foot, rats, lice, stench, cholera, Trench Fever and snipers.
Prolonged exposure to the kind of stress endured in the trenches brought a new kind of condition: shell shock. It was mostly characterised by uncontrollable shaking, nightmares, flashbacks, severe mental problems and an inability to function in any normal way. We now know this as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but doctors then thought the soldiers had some sort of physical nerve damage caused by being on the battlefields.
The military had other ideas, especially in the first part of the war. In fact, they executed 306 of their own soldiers (mostly PTSD sufferers), for what they considered to be cowardice. These soldiers only received an official pardon in the year 2006, and then only after a relentless campaign by their families.
The hell in the trenches
Trench warfare was by no means a new thing – it is a strategy that has been around for many centuries. Both sides dug trenches, and in between was a section referred to as no man's land. Often, it was as wide as 500m, but in some cases it was as narrow as 7m. The goal was to overrun the enemy’s trenches, and vanquish them. Going "over the top" of the trench – necessary if you were going to charge the enemy’s position – basically meant death.
But old war methods and new weapons were not a winning combination: the use of machine guns and shelling meant casualties were extremely high. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for instance, the British lost 20 000 soldiers – and “gained” almost no land.
Disease and death
But many other conditions characterised life in the trenches.
Chemical warfare in the form of gas – mustard, phosgene and chlorine – caused burns and severe lung damage, often resulting in death. Gas masks provided a limited protection.
Head wounds were common, a consequence of exploding shells and artillery attacks. Snipers picked off soldiers on both sides – very often youngsters on their first day in the trenches, who could not resist the temptation to look over the side of the trench.
Rats and lice caused endless problems for the soldiers. Rats were attracted by food, but also by decaying flesh. They spread infection and contaminated the food. Lice infestations caused endless itching and, it was only discovered by the end of the war, a condition called "Trench Fever". This was initially thought to be a heart disease. Symptoms included severe pain and fever, and soldiers could take up to three months to recover.
Conditions were unsanitary, with open latrines dug into the backs of the support trenches. Cholera did the rounds among the soldiers. The stench in the trenches was caused by a mixture of rotting flesh, faeces, dead rats, mustard gas and lime, which was spread around the latrine areas.
The trenches were open to the sky, so they filled up with water when it rained. In certain places the water table was also high, causing trenches to flood – often up to a metre or more deep. In fact it was not unusual for soldiers to drown in the trenches. More common, though, was trench foot, a nasty fungal infection, caused by long-term immersion in cold and unsanitary water. These were the days before antibiotics and when trench foot turned into gangrene, which happened frequently, death often followed.
Viral and bacterial infections were common. Food was poor, sleep was intermittent, exposure to the elements was common, and constant stress depleted the soldiers' ability to fight disease.
Eight million soldiers became prisoners of war between 1914 and 1918. In general, conditions in the camps were much better than during World War II, and the chances of survival were higher than at the frontlines. But starvation was a real problem. In Russia 20% of the POWs died.
The 1918 flu (a type of bird flu, it was recently discovered) was spread across the world by returning soldiers at the end of the war. It ended up killing a further 22 million people worldwide.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated November 2012)
Sources: bbc.co.uk; Durham County Record Offices; Wikipedia.com; firstworldwar.com