The Great War in Words: 21 Quotes by Contemporaries of World War One

The Great War was the first truly global conflict. The First World War marked all those who had a hand in it or experienced it in any way. Technology had changed warfare in such a way that it enabled unprecedented death and destruction, and the economic impact of the war was as unparalleled as the butchery.

Such a monumental event naturally had far-reaching cultural effects. Just as art embodied the Great War, so did the words of those who lived concurrent with the conflict.

Here are 21 quotes by significant figures who lived at the time of the First World War.

Quotes on the Build Up

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World War One Quotes 5

The Leader’s Perspective

World War One Quotes 5

World War One Quotes 5

World War One Quotes 7

World War One Quotes 8

World War One Quotes 9

Perspectives From the Front

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Kanonier of the 111 Bavarian Corps, Artillery, Gerhard Gürtler

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Reflecting on the War

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 Full Text Version:

  1. There has been a constant tendency on the part of almost every nation to increase its armed force. British Prime Minister The Marquess of Salisbury, 1898
  2. Since it came into existence, our party has not given to the German army a single man or a single penny. German Social Democrat Wilhelm Liebknecht, 1893
  3. We cannot afford to leave out any recruit who can wear a helmet. Theobald Bethmann-Holwegg, 1912
  4. A great moral victory for Vienna, but with it, every reason for war disappears.” Kaiser Wilhelm commenting on the Serbian response to Austria-Hungary’s Ulitmatum 1914.
  5. Should the worst happen Australia would rally to the Mother Country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling. Andrew Fisher, Australian politician, August 1914
  6. The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life time. Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary, 1914
  7. If the women in the factories stopped work for twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war. French Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre
  8. I didn’t get much peace, but I heard in Norway that Russia might well become a huge market for tractors soon. Henry Ford, returning from his unofficial peace mission, December 24, 1915
  9. I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it. Winston Churchill in a letter to a friend – 1916
  10. This war, like the next war, is a war to end war. David Lloyd George, c.1916
  11. We’re telling lies; we know we’re telling lies; we don’t tell the public the truth, that we’re losing more officers than the Germans, and that it’s impossible to get through on the Western Front. Lord Rothermere 1917
  12. Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide. French soldier Henri Barbusse, in his novel “Le Feu”, 1915
  13. For a young man who had a long and worthwhile future awaiting him, it was not easy to expect death almost daily. However, after a while I got used to the idea of dying young. Strangely, it had a sort of soothing effect and prevented me from worrying too much. Because of this I gradually lost the terrible fear of being wounded or killed.  German volunteer, Reinhold Spengler
  14. These two men got drunk and they wandered away and got caught. They laughed it off. They thought it was just something or nothing; but they were court-martialled and they were sentenced to be shot, subject to Sir Douglas Haig. He could have said no, but he didn’t. So they were shot. They were described as being killed in action. Private of the West Yorkshire Regiment, George Morgan
  15. In the newspapers you read: “Peacefully they rest on the spot where they have bled and suffered, while the guns roar over their graves, taking vengeance for their heroic death”. And it doesn’t occur to anybody that the enemy is also firing; that the shells plunge into the hero’s grave; that his bones are mingled with the filth which they scatter to the four winds – and that, after a few weeks, the morass closes over the last resting-place of the soldier. Kanonier of the 111 Bavarian Corps, Artillery, Gerhard Gürtler
  16. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene. Ernest Hemingway, in ‘A Farewell to Arms’, 1929
  17. I also knew of men who did themselves in. British soldiers weary of sitting in the trenches who cut their throats during leave. If order hadn’t been maintained, they would have deserted. They were coerced. When you’re in the army, you can’t just do whatever you want.  Gaston Boudry, in the Belgian book ‘Van den Grooten Oorlog’
  18. There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere. Private R.A. Colwell, Passchendaele, January 1918
  19. World War I was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied, So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought.  Ernest Hemingway.
  20. During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it. They took their places wherever assigned in defense of the nation of which they are just as truly citizens as are any others. Calvin Coolidge in a letter to Charles Gardner 1924.
  21. We do not like to be robbed of an enemy; we want someone to have when we suffer. … If so-and-so’s wickedness is the sole cause of our misery, let us punish so-and-so and we shall be happy. The supreme example of this kind of political thought was the Treaty of Versailles. Yet most people are only seeking some new scapegoat to replace the Germans.  Bertrand Russel in Skeptical Essays

Alex is a history student at King's College London focusing on Europe and the Near East in the Middle Ages. He currently works writing and editing content for madefromhistory.