After conscription, the barracks are the first stop on the soldiers’ journey to war. In this site of transition civilians become soldiers. The recruits go through 2 to 8 weeks of physical training in the basic training program. They learn how to march, how to handle guns and bayonets, and how to adopt military behaviour patterns and ways of thinking. This is especially important because they must adapt to the military hierarchy. During their education the recruits live and work predominantly in the barracks where their daily routine is strictly regulated. Walls and a guarded gate separate the world inside the barracks from civilian life.
Most of the soldiers of the First World War are conscripted. They are recruited in the order of their year of birth. Furthermore, posters are published to call on young men to volunteer. Such mass mobilisation changes face of public life and affects the private home life of the family. Patriotism is encouraged but propaganda also plays on feelings of guilt: anyone who tries to withdraw from conscription must expect harsh penalties. The British Army, however, consists solely of volunteers up until 1916. “Persuade your man to go!” is the slogan used in recruitment campaigns.
From Civilian to Soldier
He was in a metamorphosis in a strange manner: The blessed city slicker takes the 'second train', as it needs to be so, his body is straightened, and his widely-read mind learns simplicity. Through the barracks comradeship between upper and lower was formed until death in only a few weeks.
Thus writes the poet Gotthardt Günther in his diary about his transformation into a soldier. Like him a lot of recruits are trained in barracks after their conscription or enlistment. On arrival they must give up their civilian clothes and dress in uniform: – this is the first symbolic act of becoming a soldier. The second symbolic act is to have their hair cut.
The basic training programme begins with training in the handling of guns and bayonets and with physically fitness. Just as important as gaining this expertise is learning military behavior and ways of thinking. The soldiers learn absolute obedience and subordination to the military hierarchy. The soldier must relinquish his identity and become a part of the military unit. Time for eating, sleeping, washing – every activity is pre-planned and the whole day is structured. But after dinner the soldiers have spare time, and then they flock to the pubs, bars and cafes nearby.
By the left!
After a couple of weeks training is completed and the recruit leaves the barracks as part of his military unit. The successful completion of training and the transition from in identity from civilian to soldier are celebrated through parades or the marches to the train station. Once at the front, however, the structured everyday life of the barracks is replaced by the chaotic reality of war. Instead of the fussy cleanliness of the barracks rooms, the mud in the trenches determines soldiers’ daily lives and completely new hierarchies and rules emerge.