History Ph.D. Dissertations


Baptisms of Fire: How Training, Equipment, and Ideas about the Nation Shaped the British, French, and German Soldiers' Experiences of War in 1914

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Douglas J. Forsyth (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Nathan Richardson (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Stephen G. Fritz (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Beth A. Griech-Polelle (Committee Member)


Training, equipment, and ideas about the nation shaped the British, French, and German soldiers' experiences of war in 1914. Though current scholarship contained works that examined each of those topics separately or in combination, little research investigated the connection in a comparative model from the perspective of the soldiers. This work analyzed the British, French, and German soldiers of World War I during the initial phase (August – November 1914). This critical period of the war proved an excellent way to test these ideas. The project relied heavily on combatants' personal accounts, which included archival sources. The troopers experience with initial combat served as a test. How those soldiers reacted suggested the connections with training, equipment, and ideas about the nation.

The results supported the theory that the professionalism of the British soldier and the French soldier's devotion to nation and comrade outweighed the German Army's reliance on both equipment and the doctrine of winning at all costs. Nationalism, equipment, and training influenced soldiery. German equipment provided an edge, but it was not enough. Not only did nationalist sentiment among soldiers exist at the beginning of World War I, three different conceptions of nationalism were present. British and especially French nationalism proved stronger than the German variety, as demonstrated by the ordeal of combat. Professionalism in soldiery mattered; the British proved this point. A British nation existed, and it included soldiers of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Ideas about the nation as well as training led to success, but they also led to atrocities. Such was the case of the German Army. Camaraderie played no small role in all three combatants.

Larger conclusions stemmed from this work. Dissimilar ideas about the nation influenced soldiers differently. Divergent types of training experiences yielded distinct results. Camaraderie proved to be the most important component of effective soldiery. Disadvantages in equipment had a negative impact on the psyche of soldiers. German barbarism demonstrated the dangers of nationalism as well as the mentality of winning at all costs.