Accomodation of two soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army, Army, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, In Copyright

Introduction

Behind the lines is an area between the front and the home. It is the area which is militarily occupied but where no fighting takes place. Here the army provides support services to combat forces as well as military management of occupying forces. Moreover, it is a place of rest for soldiers’ in-between battles at the front. This area connects the front and the home, the chaos of the war and the maintenance of order, danger and normality. It is a place of a great variety of changes.

Occupation

During the occupation of conquered territories a military administration is established which regulates everyday civilian life and cohabitation. After destruction by the war, the administration has to ensure security and reliability. At the same time, it must gain the trust of the local population because the occupying forces rely on its co-operation. In addition to logistical and administrative tasks , the military administration is responsible for the maximum exploitation of resources. Resources include not only material goods but also human effort that is commodified by means of forced labour. The social system of peace is adapted to the requirements of the war: schools are converted into military hospitals, churches into stockrooms and train stations into transfer sites. Even though no battles take place in the occupied territory– except for guerilla warfare – the war is ever-present as civilian and military worlds merge. The occupied land and the local population are aligned to the war and the whole society is militarised.

The Serbian population is asked to support the army of occupation, November 1915, Kragujevac, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
The Serbian population is asked to support the army of occupation, November 1915, Kragujevac, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
 A multilingual poster warns the soldiers from enemy spies behind the lines., 1916, K.u.k. Feld-Buchdruckerei der 4. Armee, Kowel, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
A multilingual poster warns the soldiers from enemy spies behind the lines., 1916, K.u.k. Feld-Buchdruckerei der 4. Armee, Kowel, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark

Spare Time

Between phases of combat soldiers can find an apparently safe shelter in the rear lines. There they have time for meditation and recovery, contemplation alone or with comrades. They can socialise with the local population. Hence the land behind the lines bridges the spheres of active warfare and something like the normal course of life. Official entertainment gains importance: theatres, cinemas and events foster sociability, jolly the soldiers along and enhance morale. At the same time, barriers between hierarchy and equality are dissolved; whilst “basket-chairs for the top-ranking officers and their guests” are available in the cinema at the front, at social events “they remain to the last and dance with everybody”. Writing letters regularly and other personal activities, such as taking care of the horses are very important for soldiers. Activities like these express the contradictions of ‘proper functioning’ on the one hand and discrete thinking and action on the other. In addition they show the change from aggression to desires for peace. Thus, attitudes to the enemy and to the civilian population change. In moments of loneliness it is important “to have a dwelling between human beings”. A German soldier in France writes “I’m sauwohl (colloquial for very-well), because I ended up in paradise. My horses and I live with two women, one of whose husband is in combat and the other arrested in the Netherlands, and I’m living ‘bon’”.

Soldiers have practiced feats, 1914 Il giornale del soldato, Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico, In Copyright
Soldiers have practiced feats, 1914 Il giornale del soldato, Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico, In Copyright

Return to Order

For the soldiers, the area behind the lines is a haven of order after the chaos of everyday life at the front. Uninterrupted sleep and better food support soldiers’ recovery from life in the trenches. This phase of regeneration is essential to enable the exhausted soldiers to fight again. Time spent behind the lines is also marked by the attempt to return to a soldierly ideal from which the men have become distanced in combat. By means of bathing, shaving, delousing and the cleaning of uniform it is possible to restore this ideal, at least for a short time. The soldiers’ conduct is also subject to scrutiny. For example, excessive alcohol consumption, common at the front, is regulated behind the lines. In the rear lines soldiers do not have leisure time. Time has to be used wisely and everything is regulated; soldiers are kept busy with tasks like mending their equipment, for example. The aim is to keep the soldiers under control and to reconstitute the military discipline which suffered during combat. To the same end field exercises are arranged. These were perceived as absurd by the battle-tried soldiers, a British soldier commenting: „Had a bit more drill today. Must not forget how to form fours, very necessary in a trench 3 feet wide".

British Infantry at drill during a rest from the trenches, 6 September 1915, Bout de Ville, France, The British Library, Public Domain Mark
British Infantry at drill during a rest from the trenches, 6 September 1915, Bout de Ville, France, The British Library, Public Domain Mark
Regulation of hosting soldiers behind the lines, 16 January 1915, Ljubljana, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Regulation of hosting soldiers behind the lines, 16 January 1915, Ljubljana, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Austrian soldiers cleaning their uniforms behind the lines, 1917, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Austrian soldiers cleaning their uniforms behind the lines, 1917, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark