ritish soldiers lined up in a narrow trench during World War I[GETTY]
It stretched in a brown squiggle from the North Sea to Switzerland and some said it was Godforsaken. Others believed that Moloch, that demander of human sacrifice, ruled there. Mere mortals called the place the Western Front. Or, more usually, “The Trenches”.
The first trenches were “lying trenches”, shallow scratchings in the dry earth of August 1914, from which a soldier could fire a rifle when prone. Then the Germans, after being bested in the epochal Battle of the Marne, retreated to the Aisne River, where they dug in and dug deep. Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, ordered the Tommies to spade-away likewise in September
The French poilus followed suit. By December the trenches were a continuous 450-mile set of parallel excavations from Nieuport to Freiburg, with the warring sides separated by No-Man’s Land. Where the frontline was hotly contested, such as at Ypres and Verdun, artillery contests turned trenchland into a miles-wide expanse of mud, as featureless as the face of the Moon.
In a perfect world a British frontline trench was, as per the Field Service Pocket Book (1914), 7ft deep and 3ft 6ins wide making it largely impervious to snipers and plunging artillery shells. Alas, the geology of Flanders was imperfect: The high water-table led to trenches disconcertingly filling up with water.
Paradoxically, many a Flanders “trench” was built on the surface of the earth, as a bemused Private WG Birley found on arriving at Ypres: “The trenches were not literal trenches at all but were in reality sandbag fortifications all above ground.”
In the trenches soldiers lived like troglodytes
However constructed, the frontline trench had, behind it, a support trench and a reserve trench, each of them “kinked” into separate bays so that a bomb blast or an incursion by the “Boche” could be contained in a small area.
Connecting the frontline, support and reserve trenches to the rear, where there were billets and stores and HQs, were communications trenches. Trenchland was a maze of semi-underground channels.
Junctions were marked by signposts, some of which made directional sense (Sword Trench ran into Scabbard Trench), some of which encapsulated trench history; Hellfire Corner told its own story. To navigate the trenches troops were issued with maps. Even so, men got lost.
In the trenches soldiers lived like troglodytes. Home was a “funk hole” or a dug-out excavated in the side of the trench, which doubled up as bomb shelter when German shells thundered down.
During a big-time German “hate”, the crowded dug-out, never fragrant anyway, gained another distinctive odour; the smell of fear.
Close encounters with the fauna of the earth were inevitable everyday occurrences. Rats, which feasted on the abundant corpses, were both prolific and large.
Lieutenant Robert Graves, when sitting down for a meal in his dug-out, recalled: “We always ate with revolvers beside our plates and punctuated our conversation with sudden volleys at a rat.” Soldiers who used brilliantine, the wetlook gel of its day, on their hair soon stopped the habit. The rats licked it off at night.
If anything body-lice or chats were even more maddening. In spare moments soldiers sat round cracking the miniature grey scuttling lobsters between finger and thumb nail talking as they did so, hence the origin of “chatting”.
Sleep in the dug-out, with gnawing rats, itchy lice and the scream of German shells, was never easy. Private Harry Drinkwater, a former shop assistant, reckoned on “approximately an hour’s sleep a day” in December 1915, what with the cold as well: “It’s not the Germans we’re fighting it’s the weather.”
Sanitary arrangements could be primitive. Frank Richards and his muckers in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Ypres in 1914, “used empty bully-beef tins for urinating in, throwing it over the back of the parapet”.
Then it occurred to them that the spiked German helmets kept as souvenirs would make excellent “latrine buckets”. Established trenches sometimes had lavatories of prodigious depth; one loo on the Somme was deep enough to fire captured German rockets down.
Mud, inglorious mud. Sidney Rogerson at the fag-end of the Somme battle, found a perambulation along the trench to be “like walking through caramel”. A minute a yard was pushing the speed limit and anyone or any beast wandering ever so slightly from an established route could drown in the sucking mud. Mud infiltrated everywhere.
When we look at First World War memorials we imagine the dead to have perished in battle, yet the discomforts of the trenches took their toll too. Men fell prey to disease on a medieval scale. In 1917 alone 6,025 British soldiers were admitted to hospital with dysentery, 15,214 with nephritis, 1,660 with TB, and 21,487 with frostbite.
Stretcher bearers struggling through the mud near Boesinghe, August 1, 1917 [UNIVERSALHISTORY/REX]
Eight luckless Tommies managed to contract anthrax.
How did men survive the horror of the trenches? In the first place, there were comforts for body and mind. Napoleon’s dictum that an army marches on its stomach held true for the British Expeditionary Force.
If “ration” was usually a euphemism for Maconochie’s (tinned meat and vegetable stew) and jam, food was at least plentiful. Many a working-class lad ate better in his trench than he did in his tenement.
“Scoff” was always nailed home by a “gasper”. Everybody smoked, all the time, with Woodbines the favoured cigarette, though such curious wartime brands as Glory Boys and Ruby Queen, with green tobacco, were easier to obtain.
Smoking could kill you in more ways than one; the lighted end of a cigarette was a beacon to Hun snipers. The dutiful Lance-Sergeant Hector Munro, better known as the writer Saki, shouted to a subordinate: “Put that bloody cigarette out!” These were Saki’s last words. The sniper’s bullet went marginally wide, putting a crimson hole in Saki instead of the errant smoker.
Death on the Western Front was cruelly capricious. All men could do to protect against whimsy was pray and/or find a charm to wear. Shops back in Blighty were only too happy to oblige with lucky rabbit’s feet. For a price.
When it rained, platoons in the trenches were given a rum ration of a quarter-gill per day. A good commander made sure it rained every day in his particular bit of trench. The rum was doled out after dawn “stand-to”, the hour at first light when everyone lined up, rifles ready, for a “Boche” attack.
A British soldier keeps watch on 'No-Man's land' as his comrades sleep [PA]
Usually the Germans did not come; raids and battles were rarities. Trench life was, for the most part, a round of work, kit inspections, sentry duties, with the day closed by evening “stand-to”.
Some survival aids in the trenches were unapparent and intangible. Comradeship and humour were liferafts. Then there was the uplifting pleasure to be had in simple things, such as observing the birds around them.
By definition No-Man’s Land, which could separate the combatants by half a mile or more, was an excellent avian refuge because humans avoided its barbed-wire entanglements. “If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be,” one Scottish soldier wrote about the Western Front.
Trenchland in summer could be surprisingly pleasant. Lieutenant Alexander Gillespie made a little flower garden at the back of his Ypres trench and lay there enjoying the blooms. Unofficial truces existed up and down the line. For days there might be quiet on the Western Front, save for a lazy shell or two.
One major reason nearly nine out of 10 British soldiers survived the Great War is that trenches did their job of protection. Also, contrary to the widespread belief that Tommies were left in the trenches until they died, went mad or wrote poetry, HQ constantly rotated soldiers between the trenches and billets, between action and rest.
When Captain Charles Carrington of the Royal Warwickshire consulted his 1916 diary, he found that just 65 days had been spent on the frontline.
The rotation schedule sometimes put soldiers in the frontline in time for a “show” of Somme or Passchendaele proportions and then soldiers discovered the true horror of the trenches: not being in them but getting out of them, and going “over the top” into battle.
There was nothing glamorous about trench life. World War 1 trenches were dirty, smelly and riddled with disease. For soldiers life in the trenches meant living in fear. In fear of diseases (like cholera and trench foot) and of course, the constant fear of enemy attack.
Trench warfare WW1 style is something all participating countries vowed never to repeat and the facts make it easy to see why.
Constructing WW1 Trenches
The British and the French recruited manpower from non-belligerent China to support the troops with manual labour. Their most important task was digging the trenches in WW1.
140,000 Chinese labourers served on the Western Front over the course of the First World War (40,000 with the French and 100,000 with the British forces). They were known as the Chinese Labour Corps.
No Man’s Land
The open space between two sets of opposing trenches became known as No Man’s Land because no soldier wanted to traverse the distance for fear of attack.
The climate in France and Belgium was quite wet, so No Man’s Land soon became a mud bath. It was so thick that soldiers could disappear into it never to be seen again.
Hell on Earth
There were millions of rats in ww1 trenches. A pair of rodents could produce as many as 900 young a year in trench conditions so soldiers attempts to kill them were futile.
80,000 British Army soldiers suffered from shell shock over the course of the war. That’s approximately 2% of the men who were called up for active service.
World War 1 trench warfare was so intense that 10% of all the soliders who fought were killed. That’s more than double the percentage of fighting soldiers who were killed in the Second World War (4.5%).