A history book will tell you that the First World War was started due to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and a tangled mess of alliances and defensive treaties criss-crossing Europe. And, of course, many of those countries had been vaguely itching for a fight for a while, each feeling like their super-modern weaponry made them unstoppable.

But these seem like poor motivators for a kid from London or a husband from Berlin to go to war. In World War 2, there were many famous motivators on each side of the conflict, such as the German resentment of the Allies for their post-war treatment or the American fury after Pearl Harbor.

Maybe I'm underestimating the potency of those alliances in the mind of the common citizen, but it seems like "I'm going to enlist because one of my government's allies was attacked by one of my government's enemy's allies because some random guy from one of my government's enemy's allies' countries was shot" isn't enough to get many people to leave their wives and girlfriends.

When the boys marched off to war in 1914, or perhaps more importantly when the later boys joined the front in 1915 or 1916, what were they fired up about? Surely we have interviews or letters, or even biased propaganda, outlining the issues that the soldiers of each side considered the most important reasons for continuing the fight? The French were presumably fighting to defend their homeland and the Serbians and Austrians no doubt felt the assassination hit quite close to home, but what about the average German or British or Russian or American or Turkish or Italian soldier in the trenches? What were the issues that they felt were the most important reasons to fight?

Or were they actually just THAT fired up about "king and country"? What did contemporary chroniclers such as Erich Maria Remarque ("All Quiet on the Western Front") or Robert Graves ("Goodbye to All That") have to say?

  • By the way, WW I isn't the first war where monarchs and their families have something to do with the stated reason for the war.
    – user69715
    Oct 28, 2014 at 21:11
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    You make it sound like 18-year-olds have some kind of choice. What happens in reality is that a 35-year-old tells you to report to such-and-such place or you will be fired/imprisoned/whatever. The world is run by old guys, not 18-year-olds. Oct 28, 2014 at 22:03
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    Yeah, because 18-year-old males are known for never having passionate opinions about anything, especially war. I didn't ask about why conscripts went along with their conscription, I asked about what motivated the volunteers to volunteer.
    – Nerrolken
    Oct 28, 2014 at 22:06
  • People don't go to war for a single event. Actually, people were much enthusiastic about ware at the begining of WWI than WWII. Most countries and empires had great plans how to be even bigger, richer and they pushed these plans through propaganda to the common folks, together with some nationalistic naiv reasoning what the nation/empire deserves and how the others make this impossible. Nationalistic pride is big part of propaganda in practically every country, even now.
    – Greg
    Oct 29, 2014 at 3:13
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    @Nerrolken Nowhere in your question does it say anything about "volunteers". The vast majority of soldiers were conscripts and their motivation was pretty simple: don't get thrown into jail for failure to enlist or shot for desertion. Oct 29, 2014 at 18:28

3 Answers 3


This is only a partial answer:

Even when conscription wasn't a factor there was enormous social pressure to enlist. Those who refused were accused of cowardice. See for example the Order of the White Feather, a movement of civilian woman, often young and attractive, who were encouraged to present a white feather to any man of fighting age seen in public not in military uniform. The white feather was a public accusation of cowardice. The order was started in Britain at the outbreak of WWI by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald and was so successful and so zealous that it was necessary to provide civil servants and honourably discharged soldiers with badges so that they weren't publicly shamed. It also spread well beyond Britain.


  • 1
    Also, I'd recommend Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast series 'Blueprint for Armageddon' to get at your broader question, why did the society go along with this. It does a great job of giving the context and showing how pivotal WWI in particular was in changing the modern view of war and about individuals submitting to authority and to the demands of the society.
    – jim
    Nov 5, 2014 at 1:46
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    Fascinating. I just read through that Wikipedia article, and yeah, that's pretty messed up. But very on-topic for the question. +1
    – Nerrolken
    Nov 5, 2014 at 1:49
  • Military gender equality would stopped that feather movement right quick. Handy thing to give a feather if you'll never receive one yourself. Nov 5, 2014 at 2:11
  • +1 for Carlin. Great examples, especially from US and Roosevelt jingoism
    – DVK
    Nov 10, 2014 at 15:39

In both France and Germany there was mandatory conscription, so both countries had as large an army as they could afford. It was a crime to fail to enlist if you were ballotted into the army. Both countries publicly glorified the army and soldiers as patriotic entities. Also, the pay was better than many starter jobs available to young men at that time.

Britain's army was entirely voluntary until 1916. The government used patriotic propaganda and organized recruiting to enlist soldiers. A typical technique was to enlist young men from particular companies, areas or schools all at the same time, creating a sort of peer pressure for the groups to enlist and fight together. As in Germany, patriotic fervor was a prime motivation in addition to the pay.

The United States generated a range of patriotic propaganda to encourage enlistment, but this was completely insufficient, so that when the US entered the war it was necessary to forcibly conscript soldiers. For example, in 1916 the president appealed for 1 million volunteers and less than 100,000 enlisted. Therefore, after war was declared in April 1917, it was immediately followed in May by compulsory conscription and it was made a crime not to report to the army when summoned. By this time all the other major belligerents had done the same thing.

As the war dragged on, both enlistment and desertion were serious problems to the extent that mass executions by firing squad were carried out on both sides. Robert Graves wrote about his experience in his famous book, Goodbye to All That, "I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived at Le Havre in May 1915 and read the back-files of army orders at the rest camp. They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion. Yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons, answering a question from a pacifist, denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of His Majesty's Forces". Note that this was just one rest camp, out of hundreds, and that was in 1915, before conscription had even started.


Every nation had its own "pet peeve" which had to be addressed.

  • France: Alsace-Lorraine and redress of humiliation of Franco-Prussian War
  • Germany: the great nation is being cheated out of colonies!
  • Austria-Hungary: the great nation is being insulted by a Balkan upstart
  • Russia: Pan-Slavism, the Straits
  • Britain: the Hunns are threatening the civilization

As you mention yourself, the common expectation was a quick triumph, and such atmosphere is quite conductive to militant patriotism flaring up.

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    That's what I mean: those "pet peeves" make sense for the nation and for its leaders, but are those really the reasons why Frank the baker from Hamburg signed up to fight? Because Germany deserved colonies? Were Pan-Slavism or the Turkish Straits enough to make the man on the street in St Petersburg enlist? Conscripts will fight just because they have to, but when people volunteered to fight in WW1, were those the reasons they did, or were there more practical factors (like compelling salaries, enlistment perks, racial/religious fears, social programs, etc) that influenced enlistment rates?
    – Nerrolken
    Oct 28, 2014 at 21:15
  • @Nerrolken Never underestimate the jingoism and susceptibility to propaganda of the common person :p
    – Semaphore
    Oct 28, 2014 at 22:10
  • @Semaphore Hahaha fair enough. :)
    – Nerrolken
    Oct 28, 2014 at 22:11
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    In France, kid in school would sing song about Alsace-Lorraine. When the first train departed, every one though war would be over in one month and the soldier left "a flower in their rifle". It didn't took much to persuade people. Except the leftist, but one of the most influential of them was assasinated shortly before the start of the war.
    – MakorDal
    May 25, 2016 at 13:53

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