The Great War and the People who had to Live with it

by Kevin Laney

Soldiers resting in a Galician village

In studies of World War One, it is common to focus on the Western Front while ignoring the East. In my own experience, every time I was taught about World War One in school, the only times Eastern nations were mentioned were the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Russia’s withdrawal from the war while the rest of the lessons were devoted to trench warfare and watching the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front. This left the entire eastern theater of the war in the dark for me.

Because I am most interested in military history, I decided to focus my research on how the battles, campaigns, and occupations of the war affected Eastern Europeans, from soldiers to civilians. I have always heard about trench warfare in the West and the conditions those soldiers had to live in, and how civilians in Western countries had to live with Total Warfare and shortages of supplies. This research gave the chance to see what life was like on the other side of the war and how that was similar or different to what I have been taught about the West.

I chose “The Great War and the People who had to Live with it” as my title because my project covers how the war affected Eastern Europeans and how they dealt with the daily struggles that came with life on the front or under occupation.


One way in which the war affected Eastern Europeans was through occupations. Throughout the war, various foreign powers occupied regions of Eastern Europe for periods of time. The people living in these regions had to adapt to a new ruling group and the daily changes that accompanied that. During the War, the German Army occupied a section of Poland in the Tannenberg campaign and swiftly moved to establish a military

Map of the Ober Ost territories

government over the area known as the Ober Ost. [2] The lives of the people living in Ober Ost quickly changed as the Germans sought to increase their control over the area. Some of the most notable changes included heavy restrictions on their movement, a requirement to be documented and carry identification at all times, as well as forced cleaning to treat lice and other ailments. [3] These disruptions and changes to their daily lives demonstrate how occupying armies had a great impact on Eastern Europeans.

Uncertainty about Loved Ones:

In addition to sometimes having to live under foreign occupation armies, East European citizens had to live with the constant uncertainty over the fates of loved ones who were fighting in the war. Letters written between soldiers writing home to a Galician village and their families reveal how those who were left behind constantly worried about their loved ones, and how they would worry if a letter were delayed or a reply did not get reach them, fearing the worst. [6] Some civilians would even reach out to government officials for news of family members. Charles Vopicka, a United States ambassador to the Balkans during the war, recollected how after a battle he would have to read through letters by concerned parents begging for news of their child’s survival. [5] These letters show how the uncertainty over the fates of loved ones fighting in the war constantly loomed over East Europeans as they tried to go about living their lives.

Prisoners of War:

Another way in which some East Europeans experienced World War One was as prisoners of war. Many of the soldiers fighting the war were captured and sent to various Prisoner of War camps throughout Europe. How they were treated and what life was like for them often depended on who captured them as well as what nationality they were, as well as their rank. Ambassador Vopicka described how he personally inspected a Serbian prisoner of war camp. He described that the prisoners were treated well and cared for, although punished severely if they attempted to escape. [5] Otherwise, they were fed well and the officers were free to pursue interests such as painting and sculpture. This is just one of the many potential experiences of East European prisoners of war. Many were less fortunate and were forced to perform hard labor or some other punishment during their tenures as prisoners.


Soldiers on the Front:

Finally, the soldiers who fought the war had a variety of experiences based largely on where they had to fight. In letters written to their homes, Galician villagers reveal how they were primarily concerned with their families living in occupied territory. [6] These soldiers expressed concern that their families were safe and still able to make a living without them being there to help them. While many families in Eastern Europe had to live with the uncertainty over the welfare of their loved ones fighting the war, these Galician soldiers had to worry about their families as they fought. In addition to this, the letters reveal that the soldiers often fought in rather separate conditions. Many of the armies were multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. This created barriers between the soldiers, and many of the Galician soldiers described how it was hard to become friends with their many of their comrades but how they would quickly bond with any fellow Galicians they served with. [6]

As the war dragged on, some East European soldiers experienced supply shortages and setbacks that created a demoralizing atmosphere for them. For Bulgaria, the Battle of Dobro Pole was the final setback which led to their defeat. In this battle, their highly demoralized army was defeated by Allied forces. The Bulgarian soldiers had become so demoralized because of shortages of ammunition, weapons, food, and clothing. [1] The lack of these basic necessities, in the face of the well supplied Allied troops, led to many Bulgarians losing hope in their cause and deserting. On top of these shortages, many of the Bulgarians were unhappy about having to fight alongside their Ottoman allies. Bulgaria had been at war with the Ottoman Empire shortly before the outbreak of World War One, and many of the Bulgarian soldiers remembered their former enemies. [1] These conditions led to the Bulgarian army being defeated and, shortly thereafter, Bulgaria’s withdrawal from the war.

A Depiction of German Soldiers during the Carpathian campaign

Some of the most unfortunate soldiers of the war experienced the battles in the Carpathian Mountains. These battles were particularly brutal for the soldiers fighting because of the conditions they had to live in. The area was freezing cold and covered with snow, and the East European troops, under the Austro-Hungarian army, were undersupplied. Many soldiers died of starvation, exposure, or disease during this campaign. [4] This exemplifies one of the most horrifying experiences war; as East European soldiers struggled to survive against the elements.


Eastern European citizens had a wide variety of experiences during World War One, often depending on their location, social status, and nationality. One of the most universal experiences was fear over the well-being of loved ones and family caught in an occupation or a battle. Studying these experiences offers an important view into an otherwise unmentioned part of the story of World War One.



[1] Hall, Richard C. Balkan Breakthrough: The Battle of Dobro Pole. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010. Digital file.

This source details the Battle of Dobro Pole, a battle in which a severely demoralized Bulgarian army was defeated by Allied forces. This is an excellent source for describing the experiences of Eastern European soldiers who have already been affected by the trials of war and are fighting in yet another battle as their morale continues to fade. This is a great example of one of the many experiences of Eastern European soldiers during the war.

[2] Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

While this book is largely told from the perspective of the German Army, which does not help me for this project, it does also give descriptions of the lives of East European civilians during the occupation. These descriptions, even through the eyes of the German military, help give an idea of the experiences of Eastern Europeans during the Tannenberg campaign.


[3] Showalter, Dennis E. Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, 1914. Washing D.C, US: Brassey’s, 2004.

This book details the Tannenberg campaign from the perpective of the German military. While I want to limit my study for this project to the experiences of Eastern Europeans, this book still gives helpful glimpses into the lives of Eastern European citizens during this time. One example of this is a description of how ethnic Germans in East Prussia welcomed the invading German Army because German sources meant a source of cheap farm labor other than ethnic Poles or Russians.

[4] Tunstall, Graydon A. Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010.

This describes the fighting in the Carpathian mountains, in which many soldiers died from exposure to the elements during the harsh winter. It provides insight into the horrors and difficulties of the war for soldiers on the front in some of the worst battles of the war.

[5] Vopicka, Charles J. Secrets of the Balkans. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally and Company, 1921.

This is an autobiography written by a United States ambassador to the Balkans during World War One. It contains some descriptions of eastern European military experiences and how the trials of war affected soldiers as well as some accounts of parents inquiring about the welfare of their children on the fronts.

[6] Zayarnyuk, Andriy. “War Is as Usual: World War One Letters to a Galician Village.” Ab Imperio 4 (2010): 197-224.

This article analyzes a collection of letters written by Galician soldiers during World War One. These letters were written during various stages of the war by soldiers stationed in various positions and on various fronts. This provides a unique perspective into the lives and thoughts of ordinary eastern European soldiers during the war.