A different perspective?

The BBC drama The Passing Bells tells the story of two ordinary young men who volunteer to fight for their country during World War One.

The series follows the fortunes of German farmer's son Michael Lang and English delivery boy Tommy Edwards, as their experiences unfold over the five years of the war. What would life have been like for a German foot soldier, or 'Landser'?


The patriotic adventure

The Passing Bells

Michael Lang and family from The Passing Bells

Many Germans believed they were going to war to defend their fatherland.

Unlike Britain, Germany had a tradition of compulsory military service, so men aged between 17 and 45 were ready and prepared for the call-up.

This system allowed Germany to mobilise a large body of men, many already trained, within a short space of time. Young men like Michael were encouraged to do their duty for their homeland and, as with many British Tommies, went off to war with enthusiasm.

Read more about The Passing BellsThe Passing Bells: A British soldier's tale


Planning for a quick war


Kaiser Wilhelm II (L) with Field Marshal von Hindenburg and General von Ludendorff (R)

Kaiser Wilhelm (centre) with Field Marshal von Hindenburg and General von Ludendorff.

German strategists had prepared plans for an invasion of France prior to 1914 and so many Germans, like Michael, expected a swift and successful war.

The Schlieffen Plan envisaged an invasion of France via Belgium, leading to the early capture of Paris. Germany was a young state, formed in 1871, and looking to confirm its rising status as a European power. It was led by an ambitious kaiser, Wilhelm II, who was impatient to achieve national success.

Follow a timeline of the events which led to war

You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.

Kaiser Wilhelm II to German troops, August 1914


On the Eastern Front

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German and Russian soldiers clash in a scene from The Passing Bells. Warning: contains disturbing scenes.

A German soldier was likely to find himself on one of two fronts: facing the British and French allies in the west or the Russians in the east.

While the Western Front soon became bogged down in trench warfare, fighting on the Eastern Front was less static and if anything more bloody. Michael and his comrades would have travelled east by train. Once at the front they would have found themselves outnumbered, but better equipped and better marshalled than the Russian army.

It is impossible for our working people to maintain their full strength if they do not succeed in obtaining a sufficient supply of fat.

Paul von Hindenburg, German statesman


Shortages at home


Men and boys waiting in line at a postwar German soup kitchen in a market hall in Berlin

Food shortages in Germany lasted until after the the war had ended.

Returning home on leave a German soldier would have soon noticed his family suffering from the effects of a British blockade on food and supplies.

As each side embraced total war, the stranglehold on Germany was already being felt in 1915 with families having to go without. Rationing was introduced, soup kitchens sprang up to feed the hungry and substitute (ersatz) food was developed. More people aged between 16-60 were put to work to boost production but malnutrition would later lead to an increase in German cases of scurvy, dysentery and tuberculosis.


From attack to defence

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In this scene from The Passing Bells, Michael and Erich argue as the German army retreats.

If in 1914 Michael had seen himself fighting an offensive war to protect his homeland, in 1916 he would have found himself on the back foot.

At Verdun, in north-eastern France, in a battle which raged from February to December, Germany went on the attack against the French. But as the year went on the Germans were gradually pushed back. From the summer onwards the German soldier at the Somme would have felt like he was engaged in a bitter defensive struggle.

Learn more about the German Front experience

Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death?

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front


The horror of the Somme

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German casualties at the Somme were estimated at 500,000, with British at 420,000 and French at 200,000.

While the British suffered terrible losses on day one of the Somme offensive in July, German casualties rose steadily as it became a war of attrition.

Huddled in underground shelters the German infantry largely withstood the Allies' initial seven-day bombardment. As the months passed, the Landser would have found himself under continual artillery fire, and accustomed to mud, blood and death. Food and drink was scarce. Under orders to retake any lost ground, German losses grew. By November more than a million men on both sides had been killed or wounded, with German casualties outnumbering British. Yet the Germans had not buckled.

A German army veteran recalls the Somme bombardment


Prisoners of war

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Former prisoners of war recount their wartime experiences.

Prisoners of war were taken by both sides from the outset of the war. The first German POWs arrived at a camp in Dorchester, Dorset, in August 1914.

By the end of 1917 the number of German military prisoners of war stood at almost 120,000, with 165 camps across Britain and Ireland. With the exception of officers, POWs could expect to be put to work in construction or farming. They were paid for their labour. Oberleutnant Gunther Pl├╝schow was the only German POW to escape from the UK mainland and make it all the way back to Germany. He made it out of Donington Hall camp in Derbyshire in 1915.

Discover what happened to German POWs in Dorchester



The Passing Bells

German soldier in the trenches, from The Passing Bells

By 1917 German soldiers in the front line were both outgunned and outnumbered.

As the war went on conditions worsened in the German trenches and this undoubtedly affected morale.

Continual Allied shell-fire caused a steady stream of casualties and took its toll on the nerves. Food and drink became increasingly scarce and of a poor standard. To bolster defences in the wake of the heavy casualties suffered in the previous year, the German high command brought in new men and strategies, and improved command structures.

What did World War One sound like?

I haven't spent four years watching people I loved die all around me to drop my rifle and run home.

Michael Lang in The Passing Bells


In retreat

National Library of Scotland

British troops pose at a captured German position in WW1

Hun, the slang British term for German, was adopted after Kaiser Wilhelm II urged his troops to 'behave like Huns' to win the war.

The German offensive in March, codenamed Michael, proved very successful. But for the German soldier this was his last great advance of the war.

The push won a great stretch of territory but came at a heavy cost in terms of German lives lost. The arrival of American troops along the Western Front turned the tide and soon German soldiers began to face the inevitability of defeat. Desertion became rife and in the face of the Allies' decisive Hundred Days onslaught German defences crumbled.


The legacy of defeat


A dejected German soldier at the end of WW1

The defeat weighed heavily on some German shoulders.

Defeat after four years of war took a heavy toll on Germany. Almost two million men had been killed, with around four million more wounded.

Many of the soldiers who survived the fighting harboured bitter feelings towards their government which they felt had prevented them from winning the war. Returning home they and their families faced extreme shortages and an economy in turmoil after a war which had cost the nation some $40 billion.

The Ending of World War One, and the Legacy of Peace

There is but one hope, and this hope is embodied in the national groups which desire our recovery

Erich Ludendorff, German infantry general