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Methodology: Apprehending War Experience - Proceedings (1)

Proceedings of the Paris Seminar “Understand the Soldier's Experience: Methods, Interests and Limits”

13 December 2017, Université Paris IV, Maison de la Recherche
Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

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World War I

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1The seminar organized by Etienne Boisserie, Centre de l’Europe médiane, INALCO & Isabelle Davion, SIRICE, Université Paris-Sorbonne is part of the 2017-2018 workshop cycle: “Austria-Hungary from the Great War to peace treaties: new tools and new approaches ». Within the framework of axis 5 of the LabEx EHNE and UMR SIRICE, this cycle of workshops which has a methodological purpose, is meant to bring together French researchers and Central European colleagues, mostly from the “new generation”. It aims to revisit the history of Austria-Hungary between 1914 and 1919 in the light of new approaches and new tools.

2The participants of the December 13th seminar were :

  • Dr Rok Stergar (Department of History, University of Ljubljana), historian of the Habsburg Empire in the long 19th century; specialist of WWI and the history of nationalism;

  • Dr Sante Lesti (University of Pisa) has defended a phd thesis supervised Ph. Boutry “In hoc signo vinces. Pratiques des consécrations des soldats au Sacré Cœur dans l'Europe de la Grande Guerre, 1914-1919” & in co-tutelle with the Scuala Normale Superiore di Pisa;

  • Pr Béatrice Heuser (University of Reading) discussant. Her last book is Strategy Before Clausewitz: Linking Warfare and Statecraft, 1400-1830. Series: Cass military studies. Routledge: Abingdon, Oxon 2017. War is at the centre of her research interests, with a particular focus on why people go to war and how they wage war, what means they choose (or reject) and what strategies, and how they justify them. 

Santi Lesti: Is there a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History of the First World War?

3The title of the presentation is inspired by an article written by Franceska Trivelatto (Yale University) published in 2011 in the journal California Italien Studies1 “Is There a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History? ”. Some arguments used by the author of the article can be – according to Santi Lesti – applied to the war : “this approach does not take the context for granted ; it forces us to reconstruct the context (local, supranational). It allows the connection between different phenomena : religion, sexuality, dreams etc. ”.

  • 2 As an example for the French terrain, would like to point out the work of Nicolas Mariot (...)

4The research conducted by Santi Lesti is focused on Guerrino Botteri. Guerrino Botteri was born in Trieste the 5th of July 1887 in a popular milieu, but he became a teacher and enjoyed a particular status in this milieu. He got married to Selmo Ongari just before the outbreak of the war. Through different primary sources from Trentino (Autonomous region of Trento in Italy) such as letters to his wife, to his friends, through his wife’s letters and Guerrino’s diary, Santi Lesti analyses the life of the Italian speaking soldier in the war2.

5Answering the question asked by his presentation title, Santi Lesti thinks that there is or rather there should be a future for microhistory in the Age of Global History of the First World War for three main reasons:

  • Microhistory provides a new approach to some classical issues such as war enthusiasm and the nationality problem related to the Austro-Hungarian Empire;

  • Microhistory provides a consistent approach to some emerging issues such as daily life, religion, the experience of writing, the history of emotions, love, sexuality, and the experience of time;

  • Microhistory allows us to bring out some new issues such as the experience of dreaming.

War enthusiasm and nationality problem

6Such issues are framed into the history of the couple : Guerrino Botteri belonged to a nationalist milieu ; before the war he was participating in a cultural nationalist league but during the war, he was not interested in it any more. Through her letters, his wife is stimulating him to discuss it (“you are fighting for a government which is not yours”) allowing us to differentiate cultural loyalty from political one.

Daily life

7It is sometimes very difficult to find sources to understand how the soldiers concide their time at war. Guerrino wrote letters to his wife, to friends, family, to his brother-in-law, and a personnal diary : all documents allow us to confront different narratives of the same experience.

8Let’s mention the conference Etienne Boisserie organized on the experience of writing : “Writing at War, writing the War. Soldiers and Civilians of Austria-Hungary in the Great War”, 13-14 octobre 2016, Paris3 as well as of Claire Morelon’s work who has conducted a study of daily life in Prague during the First World War and in its immediate aftermath, exploring the experience of war both within urban contexts and on the home front4.


9Religion is a couple’s issue : Selma and Guerrino share their religious thoughts and feelings ; they even share their theological reflections :

“If He, who is infinitly wise – He that is unfortunately being either invoked in an extremely sad manner, or blasphemed under the weight of pain -, does not prevent the fatal clash between so many armed men, it is because He will get a bigger good out of it – the bigger good that comes from the stronger condition of a people that has experienced death”. Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino (Trento). Archivo della scrittara populare, Bocceri Guerrino i Selma (1). Letter from Selma to Gerrino. The letter is sent from Vermoglio on September 1st, 1914.

10“Does not prevent”: in other words, God is just permitting it. This question was the subject of a great theological debate at that time. Although their correspondance does not mention what they were reading on that subject at that time, we know that they both had a personal chaplain.

11Religion works also, as a couple’s issue, as a means of enduring the situation:

“Fiat Voluntas Tua [Thy will be done!] These are the profound and meaningful words that we murmured forcefully yesterday evening”. Ibidem, Letter from Selma to Guerrino on August 1st, 1914.

12That way they remember the engagement that they have taken.

The experience of time, the popular perception of war time

13War time can be experienced as a moment of rupture in the individual and collective experience of time:

“Little by little, the world seems not to be what it used to be – do you believe that it will be as it used to be? ”. Ibidem , Letter from Selma to Guerrino on January 15th, 1914.

14War time as an immobile present.

“And so the days go by – days that are eternal, in their nullity”. Letter from Guerrino to Selma on August 11th, 1914.

15But it can also be a parenthesis:

“I kiss you – the past, the present and the future myself”. Letter from Selma to Guerrino on January 8th, 1915.

The experience of dreaming

16Guerrino Botteri and is wife dream a lot and share their dreams :

“We come back to the trenches. I dreamed : a disconnected dream. I had lost my wife. My bonds with the Earth were broken : I wanted the most cruel battle, I wanted to see the eternal Love, and to find my life partner again. A cannon shot awoke me. It was dark : I was at war. It was better this way. The sleep comes back, so does the dream. I was consecrated priest. Husband and priest : a horrible situation that raised a wall of prohibition between two great, infinite loves – infinite in their infinite difference : I was suffering ! A shove from a fellow soldier freed me from the nightmare”. Diary entry of October 17th, 1914.

17With reference to what he dreams (“I was consecrated priest »), let’s specify the Selma was going to be a none before they married.

“Tonight I heard screaming the twos and the threes and it seemed to me that they were calling me to the battle, I was seeing arms, cannons, fire, and my dreams are alike…”. Letter to Selma from Guerrino on August 19th, 1914.

“Now I know what the war looks like, I dreamed of it”. Letter from Selma to Guerrino on August 14th, 1917.

“Tonight I slept quietly, a long sleep (as you can see, your writings calm me). I fell asleep, rocked by the sweet warmth of your memory. If I were next to you, I would always be half-asleep, because [when I am] with you, I rest even when not asleep. You dream of children, don’t you? I do the same. I have one or two of such dreals each night. The other night [I dreamed that] I had a 30 cm tall baby boy and a 10 cm baby girl that started to run as soon as they were born – and they ran so fast that I couldn’t reahc them. Do you know where they ran to? To Balzano, searching for dad. The morning after the dream, I had to laugh”. Letter from Selma to Guerrino on March 31st, 1915.

“Dream of me again, I want to be with you always, I want to talk to you always…”. Letter from Guerrino to Selma on October 20th, 1917.

“Ino, I seem to see you, alone, in the calm of the night, spending your hours on watch writing to me”. Letter from Selma to Guerrino on September 9th, 1914.

18Selma and Guerrino are interested in proving to each other that they are connected, at least with their soul. Guerrino is happy to be dreamed by his wife.

Rok Stergar: Studying Soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

To theorize - up to a certain level

19Historians, begins Rok Stergar, like to use a lot of quotes ; therefore he allows himself to quote the American historian Kerwin Lee Klein5 who said “many ‘working historians’ treat theory as a mysterious blackbox filled with occult instruments6. Rok Stergar does not think he is quite like that. He reckons that historians need to try to theorize our practice somewhat; to reflect upon what they do. To reflect on their practice. The examples he uses in the presentation are based on his research on Austro-Hungarians soldiers. His research is actually focused on nutrition, on food, therefore some of his examples will deal with those questions.

20The first question historians need to ask themselves is what sources can they use to grasp the experience of the soldiers, to grasp how they experience the war. The first material historians have to use are the “ego-documents”: the letters, the memoirs, photos, movies etc. Then the question arouses : what can we get out of these sources? One thing is clear: there are hundreds, and thousands of letters, diaries and if we wanted to read them all, we could spend our career just reading them!

Rare testimonies of “ordinary men”

21Yet there is something that historians have to be aware of. It is that “ordinary men” are still under-represented in research studies especially when we are taking about diaries and memoirs. There are several reasons why it is so. The so-called “ordinary men » were usually ordinary soldiers and they had little time to write. They were occupied with a lot of tasks whereas officers usually had time for themselves. They could use it to write.The second reason is that ordinary men had less experience with writing. They were often literate but they were not used to write. They wrote very short letters and postcards.

22That is why there are less diaries and memoirs written by theses “ordinary men”. Most of them belonged to the working class and they had little time to write after the war. They had to work for their living. Writing their memoirs was not something they could afford to do. Plus there was little interest from the publishers who only started to be interested in the memoirs of ordinary men after World War II.

23The first publications we get after World War I are mostly from officers from the middle class – and of course from generals, high-ranking officers. The Gis, the working class came much later. But if we are talking about the unpublished sources, especially letters, there “ordinary men” are much better represented. There is a massive amount of letters. But not all of them are collected. A lot of new collections of documents have started in the recent years on the occasion of the World War I centinary. Some special initiatives focus on correspondance, etc.

24They are going to be put online in the next few years. Letters are going to be more available and we are going to be in a position to grasp the soldiers’ experience.

The Austro-Hungarian fieldwork : a twofold problem

Many languages

25As far as the Austro-Hungarian Empire is concerned, there is no gathering of war letters. The difficulty remains in the fact that very few historians master all the languages spoken in the Empire. All the historians struggle with that. Of course they are trying to overcome this obstacle and collaborate to complement their research findings.

Low level of literacy

26Futhermore, if one compares the situation of Britain, or France to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, or Romania for instance, we have to admit that the literacy rate is much lower. To make it short, the sources we can used are note equal. We have to be aware of these differences.

27Let’s take the case of Hans Kohn (1891-1971)7, as an example. He was an historian and lawyer born in Prague, who was active in Zionist organizations. He published extensively on questions of nationalism and related topics. In World War I, he became a prisoner of war and was interned in Samarkand and Khaborovsk, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk in Siberia / Soviet Union until 1920. He studied while he was imprisonned, had books sent to him by his family and the Red Cross. He was an officer from the middle class and his experience is not the one of an ordinary POW in a Russian camp who’s familly could not afford to send books or money so he would not suffer hunger. He had a lot of free time, learned languages. He was even appointed in a university in Siberia for a year.

A letter is never a simple description of events

  • 8 M. Roper, The Secret Battle. Emotional Survival in the Great War, Manchester University Press, Manc (...)

28Michael Roper8, shows how the same author wrote about the same events at three different times in three different places. Diaries, letters, the unpublished sources are also a litterary genre, even a postcard is a rethorical document. We write what not only because we want to say something but also because we are framed by literary conventions.

29Furthermore, a letter from the front is not just a description of events, it can also be an effort to reestablish gender hierarchy or as Marco Mondini9, among others, has shown in his analyses: it can be an effort to confort those back home; it can be lots of things10.

The meaning that lies beneath the words

30The meaning that lies beneath the words is not always what we expect. In practice what does that mean? For instance, writing about bayonnettes and how much fun it was to use the mis a pure invention intended to the readers of the memoirs or to the family back home or the fiancée. We know from research that bayonnettes were rarely used effectively. It was something to be used in training, in propaganda. It is something people wrote about, but very rarely used effectively.

31Another example from Rok Stergar’s own research on nutrition - tell your family back home that you have enough food might means differents things:

  • that you are getting enough food indeed;

  • it can also mean that you don’t want your family to worry especially if back home the family has not enough food - there are known cases of Austrian families starving.

32Complaining of the food situation might be a way of hoping to get some food in the next parcel from home!

33When an officer writes in his memoirs that his soldiers are very well taken care of, this might mean that :

  • they are indeed very well taken care of;

  • or that he thinks they are very well taken care of;

  • it might also fulfill his need to appear as a good care taker, father of his soldiers (important feeling for the middle class).

The soldiers’ inability to see the big picture

34The final thing that is important to mention, is that we should be aware that the ability to tell is something that should not be assumed. There is always too much history to describe. There is simply too much to see. For instance if you are looking through a window, you have to omit something. One might concentrate on a specific angle because he likes it. The effort to describe everything is not going to work. The same is to apply to the war. There is simply too much going on during the war. The soldiers don’t always see the bigger picture.

35Let’s consider the so called dichotomy between the front line soldiers and the rear soldiers and officers. A recurrent speech is that front-line soldiers are risking their blood for the Fatherland while the ones in the rear are doing nothing. It is probably true that sometimes there was not much to do. But the description are such because the front line officers and soldiers are simply not aware of the risk the rear personnel is taking: the food carriers are more exposed than the front line. These presuppositions come from societal norms: frontline soldiers are risking their lives, rear soldiers are not. The frontline soldiers are simply not aware of the risk the food caterers are taking to bring them the food.


36As Rachel Duffett has shown in her book The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War 11, writing about food was often a substitute to write about emotions, because it is something you don’t do12. It is very true for the British people, especially the middle class. For instance, the family will not express their love in a letter but will express it with a parcel of food.

A question of perception

37Experiences are by their very nature a question of perception : something good for a person is not good for another one. As Joanna Bourke13 wrote a few years ago, killing is not something soldiers are willing to do but some enjoy it14. Some of the soldiers found war great fun. Some soldiers in 1914 were complaining about the poor food when they got in the barracks. Others were pretty happy and gained weight.


38How do we analyse all these different elements ? We have to generalize, even if it is micro history. We should go beyond these “ego-documents”. To do so, we should use as many sources as possible (photos, movies etc.). Always compare: if in a diary you find that the food was good, compare it to other memoirs from the same period and see what they think. Go beyond personal perspective.

39Knowing about the Bohemian lands might help understand why Czeck soldiers were unhappy about food in 1914 : they would not eat meat everyday; actually the world population was not eating enough at that time. In the army, they could eat meat, and even gained weight.

40The context is very important if you want to understand the experience of the soldiers in World War I. A final example about the need of context: knowing the composition of the British and the French army helps us to understand why the British had more hard time with the food than the French during World War I: French soldiers came from the countryside and knew how to find food, how to catch a fish, a frog, how to hunt a deer, to prepare it ; as for British soldiers, they were urban poors and did not know how to cook, because most of them would eat out as they did not even had their own kitchen at home.

Pr Béatrice Heuser, discussant

41For Béatrice Heuser, sources are very difficult to evaluate. What is striking is that there are national patterns but also variations of national patterns.

42There is also an enormous culture of non-dit. A culture in which the sentence “I love you” is displaced in a multitude of other things, in many elaborate ways to say “I love you”: for instance “do you have enough food?” The film “The Trench”, - directed in 1999 by William Boyd and which portrays a group of young British soldiers on the eve of the Battle of the Somme in the last 48 hours -, is a good illustration of non-dit. The entire action of the film takes place in a trench. Only one guy is asking questions: the youngest. He is met with compassion. But no one ever answers his questions, because everyone knows the answers; the outcome is clear, there is no need to elaborate. The film is about the fact that the most important things can not be said.

Examples of Sources (from the Editor)


Europeana collections:​portal/​fr/​collections/​world-war-I

ICRC historical archives, 1914-1918 Prisoners of the First World War:​


Bildarchiv (Photo Archive), The National Austrian Library An online archive of multiple photo collections, including Europeana Travel, Rübelt-Negativarchiv and Esperanto, containing tens of thousands of photos:​default.aspx?card=bildarchiv&ausstellung=1695764


Database of the 1.3 million who died for France in the First World War:​en/​article.php?larub=80


More than 700,000 records relating to WWI, as well as photos, films and audio recordings were made accessible on a new portal on the Federal Archive's website:​


UK National Archives:​first-world-war/​

British Library​world-war-one

Supported by over 500 historical sources from across Europe, this resource examines key themes in the history of World War One. Explore a wealth of original source material, over 50 newly-commissioned articles written by historians, teachers' notes and more to discover how war affected people on different sides of the conflict.



A database of 140,000 digitised Russian diaries from 1700-2000, including many written during the First World War :​


New York Public Library / World War I Photograph Albums and Postcards​collections/​world-war-i-photograph-albums-and-postcards#/​?tab=about

Local or Private Initiatives Worldwide – Memoirs & Diaries​diaries/​ (private initiative) (GB)​ (Germany)​index.php/​Main_Page (item III diaries)​letters/​france-belgium-1917/​

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1 Volume 2, Issue 1, [Editor’s note].

2 As an example for the French terrain, would like to point out the work of Nicolas Mariot and his letters to his wife very close to Santi Lesti’s approach: N. Mariot, Histoire d'un sacrifice. Robert, Alice et la guerre, Seuil, 2017 as well as J.J. Becker, Ph. Besnard, A. Riley, Ch. Prochasson, Un ethnologue dans les tranchées (août 1914-avril 1915). Lettres de Robert Hertz à sa femme Alice, CNRS Editions, 2002.

3 Programme of the conference [Editor’s note].

4 ( [Editor’s note].

5 [Editor’s note].

6 K. L. Klein, From History to Theory, University of California Press, 2011 [Editor’s note].

7 Guide to Hans Kohn collection [Editor’s note].

8 M. Roper, The Secret Battle. Emotional Survival in the Great War, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2009 [Editor’s note].

9 [Editor’s note].

10 [Editor’s note].

11 [Editor’s note].

12 R. Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2012 [Editor’s note].

13 [Editor’s note].

14 J. Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare, London: Granta and New York: Basic Books, 1999 [Editor’s note].

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Electronic reference

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, Proceedings of the Paris Seminar “Understand the Soldier's Experience: Methods, Interests and Limits”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 18 | 2017, Online since 17 January 2018, connection on 06 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski


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