The RIBA Journal maintained a roll of honour throughout the war, printing the names, ranks and regiments of RIBA members who had joined up. As the war progressed the roll of honour recorded the names of members, members’ sons, and RIBA staff killed in action, listed as missing or wounded. It also recorded military honours and promotions.
In addition to their roll of honour, the AA Journal also published letters from its members on active service, which gave an insight into life in the armed forces. A long running series by W.H. Ward described his experiences of life in army, of the front line, and his comments on points of architectural interest as he travelled in Belgium and France.
I have often wondered what the sensation of being in the midst of battle was, and find that there is hardly any, at least in such a battle as this, which is carried on over one’s head without one’s taking any part in it. Of course the suddenness and loudness of some of the explosions make one jump, but I do not think that anyone really felt frightened. It may very probably be different when one sees shells falling quite close, dealing death, wounds and destruction. So far one only gets rather bored with the enforced inactivity and cramped position, and so accustomed to the continual racket that one forgets it altogether and it does not even keep one awake.
W.H. Ward, 2nd Lieut., 10th(S) Batt. West Yorkshire Regt, somewhere in Belgium, 4 August 1915
AA Journal, September 1915, ‘Letters from the Front’, vol. 31, pp.71-78
Image: Design for carvings on a war memorial, showing soldiers engaged in trench warfare, 1920
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
The RIBA Archives Collection has a small number of war diaries which give members’ impressions of war on both sides.
London County Council architect Tom Owen Thirtle, writing in his 1928 memoir The Great Stupidity, commented on the lack of understanding of the impact of war. Like many he thought it would all be over in a matter of months. In 1915 he joined the 2/1stLondon Field Ambulance of 58th London Territorial Division and went to France early in 1916. He described his early experience as almost enjoyable:
It was a man’s life. Good air and plenty of it – rough, good food, good companions and warm clothing, work enough to keep us fit. What more could we want really? Only that beastly war to occasion it all.
A few months later the “entire desolation and destruction” that was the Somme dominated his life:
Frightful casualties resulted during 48 hours, 2000 stretcher cases alone were handled….30% must have died before they got to base….. before the day was out the floor of the dugout was a mass of blood and mud and bits of human beings.
He reflected on how being an architect had framed his way of seeing:
The unimaginative man was to be envied. My civil life jobs called for visualising everything that was to be, foreseeing the whole construction and design of a building in advance. This became a habit and I visualised too much, saw only too plainly in the wounded what it would be like on one’s own case.
Image: Design for carvings on a war memorial showing an injured soldier on a stretcher, 1920s
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
The RIBA Archives Collection also includes a war diary which shows that fighting on the German side was similarly grim. Eugene Kent (Kaufman), a German Jewish architect, who left Germany after the Nazis took power in 1933, served in Prussian Guard during World War I and fought on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. He was staying with his sister in England in summer 1914, and noted the change of mood in England and a similar atmosphere in Germany:
I suddenly felt a stranger, an outsider in England and I broke off a stay which had been planned originally to for on for a few more weeks…….The newspapers in Berlin spoke of the ‘encirclement’ of Germany, of ‘perfidious Albion’ and of the ‘Erbfeind’ across the Rhine…..I was gripped, like the majority of people there, by the wave of enthusiasm and patriotism.
He himself was called up to the Prussian Guard in November 1914 and a diary entry for February 1915 describes the march to join the fight against the Russians:
Always on and on through deep endless snow. All willpower needed to carry on
A few days later he was at the frontline: “…still on and off we heard enemy fire and bullets swishing across close above our heads. I do not feel afraid – in fact I have the (somewhat mad) feeling I am “gefeit” – nothing can happen to me – magically….”A few days later he was sent hospitalised with exhaustion and frozen feet.
In 1916 he transferred to the Western Front and fought in Belgium. He describes the rotation of troops: 10 to 12 days in the front line, 10 to 12 days in a reserve trench a hundred yards back, then 2 to 3 weeks away from the trenches in second reserve. In May 1917 he was promoted to corporal and took advantage of the increased freedoms to travel and visit “architectural treasures”. But always he returned to trenches: “…front line trench again, almost incessantly under heavy mortar fire, which destroys great lengths of our section of trench…terrible devastation all around.”
Eventually volunteers were not enough to maintain the war effort. Conscription was introduced at the beginning of 1916. By April 1918 the Architects War Committee reported that nearly all men of military age in the profession were either serving in the armed forces or working for the Government. (RIBA Journal, April 1918, vol. XXV-XXVI, p.137)
RIBA war memorial