Coercion and Consent in the Belligerent Armies, 1914-1918

Author Pavlina Bobič
Theme(s) World War I, morale, courage, coercion
Period(s) 1914-1918
Status Final version












Pavlina Bobic, University of Birmingham


In recent historiography, the problem of combat motivation in the First World War has shifted its focus from motivation from above to the "dynamics of battlefield" (Watson, 2008). From this perspective, soldiers' personal values are explored in the context of their military performance while drawing on both traditional (psychological) theories and the latest discoveries centered on the innate resilience possessed by every individual. Without neglecting the military and strategic aspects of soldiers‘ determination (or rejection) to fight, the new approach presents the many facets of human determination in the soldiers' direct experience of the effects of modern warfare.


The question of how the military front was sustained - and understanding what drove the soldiers to fight - has recently become one of the major points of inquiry in the First World War historiography. Historians have employed various sociological and philosophical theories to challenge the hitherto prevalent view of the significance of the will of the high command and instead highlighted the “dynamics of the battlefield” (Watson, 2008) and combatants’ inherent personal value systems that decisively shaped their military experience. The (traditional) psychological approach has argued that soldiers’ were incapable of comprehending and articulating their combat experience and focused on the study of mental disorders (i.e., shell shock in particular) suffered by the minority of combatants, while overlooking the resilience of the large majority of soldiers and civilians. Most recent historiography has, however, relied on modern psychological research and essentially concentrated on the considerable innate resilience possessed by human beings, thus questioning the previous depictions of vulnerable and helpless men supposedly trapped in the dehumanizing experience of war.

The article outlines several key issues that are particularly relevant for a broader examination of coercion and consent in the belligerent armies in the First World War. They may be used as a starting point for a much more detailed analysis of each particular question. Most of the archival sources are drawn from the literature listed below and offer a basic overview of some of the most interesting collections. They encompass cabinet papers, military reports and plans, as well as numerous ego documents that might be especially valuable for researching the issues related to the question of human determination or failure to fight under the strain of war, and the interconnectedness between military and home fronts. 

Major Research Issues

War of endurance and war of attrition

The main characteristics of trench warfare during the First World War were immense casualty rates on all warring sides, long duration and indecisiveness. Whereas the Western front stalemated from November 1914 till March 1918, the German early victories in East Prussia gave way to more decisive military successes of Central Powers on the eastern and south-eastern fronts. Although the inadequately armed and militarily ill-prepared Austro-Hungarian armies largely depended on German support, the Habsburg forces were still able to mount a relentless defence against Italy on Isonzo front. What sustained the soldiers‘psychological resillience in what some of them described as a "war without end" and seeming futility? How important were the connections between the military and home fronts? The initial - and overwhelming - short-war illusion in Europe was soon superseded by a war of endurance and attrition, which set forth the hitherto little-researched questions of military coping strategies embedded in the effects and challenges of new technologies but also in the mood in the interior of all belligerent countries.

Bundesarchiv-Militärisches Archiv Freiburg

Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv München

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Archiv der Landespolizeidirektion

Combat motivation in the trenches: anatomy of courage

Lord  Moran, who served in the  Royal Medical Corps in the First World War, wrote in his seminal work The Anatomy of Courage: "The mysterious quality we call courage is will-power, self-sacrifice, call it what you will, that inspires men to hold their ground when every instinct calls upon them to run away" (Moran, 1945). Shell shock, battle fatigue, or post traumatic stress disorder – psychological  damage – can be produced in most people if sufficiently stressed over enough time. Modern war is characterised by deep and sustained stress and combat exhaustion in a mental sense can be as debilitating as physical wounds. The questions are therefore the following: What is the breaking point or the limit of human endurance? What constitutes human courage? Could we argue that there is also an anatomy of hatred? How do armies respond to the continuous task of maintaining the men's morale in the field? These problems are essential to our understanding of not only the First World War, but of any armed conflict and of the (potential) transformation of the soldiers' psyche.

The latter raises another important question. The role of sacrificial ideology in the men's motivation to fight is inherently related to the impact of (political) ideology on the war's mass killing and escalation of revolutionary violence that continued to 1918 and beyond. Did rising nationalisms in the hinterland play a role in the enthusiasm – or lack of it – to fight? If so, who were the soldiers patriots for? In addition, an analysis of pre-war sacrificial rhetoric and symbolism is essential to understanding the subtle layers of people's readiness to actively participate in (and hence prolong) the conflict. From the very onset of hostilities in 1914, religion played an important role in inflaming and sustaining patriotic feelings amongst the civilians and troops alike, while legitimising the great European war as essentially just. The impact of religious establishment(s) and beliefs as well as other intellectual means to adjust to the experience of combat on the front should be incorporated in the examination of the soldiers’ overarching motives to fight and of their perception of the war. In addition, the study of actions and status of military chaplains across the belligerent armies reveals both interconnections as well as frictions between church and state with far reaching consequences in the post-war era. Ego documents would in this regard offer a deep insight into people's expectations as well as frustrations in view of the disappearing age of "golden security". 

The National Archives Kew

For the consultation of documents on how certain visible individuals perceived of the war and how they tried to either undermine or support the war effort in their country, the following resources may be of interest.

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Kriegsarchiv Wien

A particularly relevant document in this regard is "Studie über die südslavische Frage und ihre Rückwirkung auf die Armee" (Kriegsarchiv, AOK/Evidenzbüro 1917/1918). 

Regional Archives Maribor

This collection contains a large volume of legal files that include the last letters sent from the soldiers to their families.

Historical Archives Ljubljana

Command and consent in combat

It has been argued that peacetime class relations generated the basis for good relationships between officers and their men in the British Army. On the other side of the spectrum, problematic social peacetime divisions presumably caused much damage within the German military hierarchy. The multinational Austro-Hungarian Army, however, showed a high level of cohesion during the conflict, which was all the more remarkable given the pre-war national tensions in Franz Joseph's empire that strongly resonated in the Army. Further research is needed to shed light on the dynamics of the relationship(s) between officers and their subordinates, particularly in multi-faith and nationally-mixed units, as well as the "Weltanschauung" of the officer’s corps that indirectly shaped their military leadership from the battalion level downwards.

The National Archives Kew

Sources in the Austrian State Archives are extremely rich and varied but the following selection of collections may provide some useful material for the questions regarding military strategic planning, army reports, reports on the popular mood in the interior of the monarchy and among the troops, political actions tackling the national issues across the Habsburg empire, characteristics of individual soldiers and military chaplains, and personal papers of a number of prominent Habsburg officers. 

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Kriegsarchiv Wien

The following collections in the State Archives Pazin contain papers on the work of various associations in local communities in Istria and provide an insight in everyday life during the war along with the ensuing relationship between civilian and military spheres. 

State Archives Pazin

State Archives Zadar

Archives of the Republic of Slovenia

For more ego document resources and a methodological reflection on them, see the Archival Research Guide on 'Private Memory’

Nationality and language issues in multi-national armies

The war significantly increased political and national frictions in the multinational empires and had an impact on the soldiers' military performance. Recent scholarly works have focused on the extent to which language differences in these armies acted as a cohesive (or disruptive) force in individual units. Language became a marker of loyalty or disloyalty while both phenomena reflected wartime antagonisms. Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian armies were long accustomed to a number of languages in their units. Moreover, both the Entente and Central Powers engaged in coalition warfare, which compelled them to deal with foreign (allied) troops and languages. Both warring sides also acted as the occupying forces in foreign speaking territories. POWs likewise raised the question of language, culture, and new dimensions in their relationship with the locals. Language was a marker of national identity but also the point of potential rupture in communication between (and within) the military on the one hand, and civilians on the other. While focusing on multinational armies and the growing power of nationalism(s) as a threat to military discipline, historians should be cautious when evaluating the numbers (and significance) of military deserters. This may be especially relevant when drawing on their ethnicity - or the numbers and occurrence of atrocities - because the histories of such events reveal a range of causes for their occurance.

The view of authorities:

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Kriegsarchiv Wien

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Allgemeines Verwaltungsarchiv

Collections of the Ministerium des Innern also contain a file of documents on the (perceived) attitude of Slovenians about the war entitled "Haltung der Slovenen im Kriege". 


Croatian State Archives Zagreb

Regional Archives Maribor

Victory and collapse: the road to demobilization

The economic blockade of the Entente and strict food rationing in the Central Powers further exacerbated social and political crises in these countries. By 1918, the domestic situation became hopeless. The German military debacle on the western front in the summer of 1918 led to near collapse and the end of the German course within the Austro-Hungarian leadership. Demobilization, which was accompanied by political and social upheavals across the defeated empires and the newly formed national states that grew out of dismembered Austria-Hungary (questioning the people's beliefs and expectations at the collapse of the ancient empire, which still calls for a detailed comparative analysis), also brought about immense problems to the career of often deeply supranational officers. Bewildered and despised, they faced the existential question of where and how to survive after the disintegration of the empires they had served.

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv - Kriegsarchiv Wien

Croatian State Archives Zagreb

The following collections consist of numerous documents that capture revolutionary upheavals in Southern Styria and Carniola (Slovenia):

Regional Archives Maribor

Archives of the Republic of Slovenia


  • Moran, Charles McMoran Wilson. The Anatomy of Courage. London, 1945.
  • Watson, Alexander. Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German Army. Cambridge, 2008.

Printed primary sources

  • Altrichter, Friedrich. Die seelischen Kräfte des Deutschen Heeres im Frieden und im Weltkriege. Berlin: Mittler, 1933.
  • Andrassy, Juraj. Kritički pogledi na teoriju o narodnoj suverenosti. Zagreb, 1927.
  • Brown, William. Psychology and Psychotherapy. London, 1921.
  • Conrad von Hötzendorf, Franz. Private Aufzeichnungen. Erste Veröffentlichung aus den Papieren des Chefs des k.u.k. Generalstabs-Chefs, edited by Kurt Peball. Wien: Amalthea-Verlag, 1977.
  • Kautsky, Karl. Die Deutschen Dokumente zur Kriegsausbruch 1914. Published for the German Foreign Ministry, ed by Walter Schücking and Max Montgelas. Berlin, 1922.
  • Otto, Ernst. Die Kriegstagebücher im Weltkriege. Archiv für Politik und Geschichte, 1925.
  • Reichsarchiv. Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918. Die militärischen Operationen zu Lande, 14 vols. Berlin, 1925-44.
  • Wild von Hohenborn, Adolf. Briefe und Tagebuchaufzeichnungen des preußischen Generals als Kriegsminister und Truppenführer im Ersten Weltkrieg, edited by Helmut Reichold and Gerhard Granier. Boppard am Rhein, 1986.

Secondary sources

  • Artl, Gerhard. Die österreichisch-ungarische Südtiroloffensive 1916. Wien, 1983.
  • Deak, Istvan. Der k.u.k. Offizier 1848-1918. Wien, 1991.
  • Goltz, von der Anna. Hindenburg. Power, Myth, and the Rise of the Nazis. Oxford, 2009. 
  • Holzer, Anton. "Augenzeugen. Der Krieg gegen Zivilisten. Fotografien aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg." in: Fotogeschichte, vol. 85/86 (2002):. 45-74.
  • Jahn, Hubertus F. Patriotic Culture in Russia during World War I. London, 1995.
  • Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus. London, 2002.
  • Mulligan, William. The Creation of the Modern German Army: General Walther Reinhardt and the Weimar Republic 1914-1930. Oxford, 2004.
  • Österreich-Ungarns letzter Krieg, published by the Bundesministerium für Heerwesen und vom Kriegsarchiv, 7 Text und 7 Beilagenbde. Wien, 1930-1983.
  • Plaschka, Richard Georg, Mack, Karlheinz, editors. Die Auflösung des Habsburgerreiches. Zusammenbruch und Neuorientierung im Donauraum. München: Oldenbourg, 1970.
  • Plaschka, Richard, et al. Innere Front. Militärassistenz, Widerstand und Umsturz in der Donaumonarchie 1918. 2 Bde, Wien, 1974.
  • Rauchensteiner, Manfred. Der Tod des Doppeladlers. Österreich-Ungarn und der Erste Weltkrieg. 2. Aufl. Graz, 1994.
  • Regele, Oskar. Feldmarschall Conrad. Auftrag und Erfüllung 1906-1918. Wien, 1965.
  • Stargardt, Nicholas. The German Idea of Militarism: Radical and Socialist Critics, 1866-1914. Cambridge, 1994. 
  • Steglich, Wolfgang. Die Friedenspolitik der Mittelmächte 1917/1918, Bd. 1. Wiesbaden, 1964.
  • Taylor, S.E, Brown, J.D. "Illusion and Well-Being. A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health." in: Psychological Bulletin vol. 103, No 2 (1988): 193-210.

Relevant articles in 1914-1918 Online

Thematic Survey Articles

Regional Thematic Articles

Encyclopaedic Entries

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