If you ask someone to tell you what they know about the First World War, one of the first things that comes up is ‘soldiers in trenches.’ The trenches are undoubtedly one of the key and defining elements of the period and there has been much written about them. This blog post will be a explanatory piece about life in the trenches for those who lived and fought in them.
Trench warfare started at some point in late 1914 and continued until the German Spring Offensive in 1918. The trenches stretched from Nieuport in Belgium, to the Swiss border, approximately 440 miles in length. Trenches were initially created by the Germans, who after the failure of the Schlieffen plan in the early stages of the war, needed to ensure that ground already taken in France and Belgium was held by them for the duration of the war and to give the troops a place to hold on to this ground as usually armies did not carry out fighting in the winter period due to poor weather conditions. The Germans chose the ground carefully in which their trenches were to be dug. In many areas on the Western Front, the Germans gave up ground taken in order to gain the better position for their trenches – with the better positions usually being on higher ground. The Allied trenches that then developed as a result were dug as close to the German trenches as was feasible. Unfortunately for the Allies, this meant that in most cases, they had the worst positions – generally below, and in sight of, the Germans.
The first trenches had previously been ditches or shell holes, that over time, were linked together to form trench lines, most often done under the cover of darkness to protect troops. The average depth of a trench would be the height of an average sized man with his hand held up above him – the tip of his fingers being the top edge of the trench. It would take 450 men (approximately two companies worth) about six hours to dig around 250 metres of trenches. In trench construction, you don’t just dig down, you build up; particularly in an area with poor drainage or water issues such as the Ypres Salient. You build up by either piling the spoil on the top of the trenches or by filling up sandbags to be placed on the top. This building up provides further protection to the troops. However, this does result in being unable to see out of the trenches. This meant that fire steps had to be constructed in order to fire over the front of the trench – this is called the parapet. The rear of a trench was called the parados – ‘dos’ coming from the French word for back – the back of the trench. The parados was constructed to be higher than the parapet. There are two specific reasons for this. The first being that the spoil provided an element of camouflage for the troops in the trenches – it would break up silhouettes of soldiers who may have to look about the parapet, like sentries (sentry duty explained further below) or firing weapons when the enemy was advancing. The second reason was a tactical one, being that if the enemy took your front-line trenches and troops had to withdraw to the support trench, the enemy would be unable to fire over the parados, which would delay the advancing enemy. The width of the trench would be about the length of a rifle – the main reason for this being that during an artillery bombardment, it was less likely that there would be a chance of a shell landing directly in the trench itself.
British trenches were different to their German counterparts in a few ways. German trenches were generally better developed due to the reason given above of obtaining the better positions. For the British, as trenches were not supposed to be permanent, there was no reason for them to be sophisticated in design or comfort. British trenches were shaped like battlements on top of a castle, making them more visible whereas German trenches were shaped like the letter S. This made manoeuvring casualties, supplies and troops easier to do. Whilst differing shapes, the whole premise was the same, that if enemy troops managed to get into your front line positions, they would be unable to shoot down the length of a trench and would need to negotiate every bend and corner in order to advance, which is much more difficult when the trenches are curved or cornered, not straight. Another difference was the use of boarding on the base of the trenches. British trenches had ‘A’ frames and German trenches used duck boarding – both of these were used in order to help water drain away where possible and to keep troops feet out of the water – this would be for medical reasons as discussed below
Another key feature of trench construction was protection from the enemy in the form of barbed wire. Barbed wire was designed purely as an obstacle, with an average depth usage of 30 metres in front of the trenches. The wire was placed in such a manner that it would slow the enemy from getting to the front-line position. Machine guns would then be placed in strategic positions in order to have a maximum effect on the enemy troops advancing who were trapped or caught in the barbed wire during the advance. Before an advance, artillery was utilised in order to cut the wire with shrapnel shells, but this was not always effective.
Day to day life in the trenches followed the same sort of pattern with the exception of battles taking place. For British troops, their days started and ended with Stand To. For an hour before and after first and last light, troops in the front-line would stand ready and waiting with their kit and weapons prepared. This happened because dawn and dusk were the most likely times that an attack would commence, due to the fading light providing some form of cover for the attacking troops. During this time, troops would have a shot of alcohol, usually rum and would be watching and waiting, ready to go. After it was clear that there would be no attack from the enemy, the troops would stand down. From there, daytime activities followed a routine. Troops would clean their weapons in smaller groups, so that there were always troops ready in case there was a surprise attack. Breakfast would then be delivered from the rear areas in containers; usually being bacon, fried bread and tea, which always had a petrol taste to it, due to the tea being brought up in jerry cans. Troops had to remember to not drink all of their tea, they needed some to brush themselves and clean their teeth. If possible, troops would try and get some more sleep, as the only tasks that could be carried out during the day were tasks in the trenches themselves. The troops could write letters to their loved ones, maybe play a card game or two. However, there were two tasks that were of vital importance that needed to be carried out regularly – delousing and foot inspection. Foot inspection was of vital importance to the troop’s health. The feet had to be regularly checked in order to make sure that trench foot was not taking hold. Trench foot is a condition that develops in cold, damp and unsanitary conditions and can occur in as little as 13 hours. Affected feet may become numb and turn red or blue a result of poor blood supply. As the condition worsens, feet may also begin to swell, and the flesh may start to decay and become infected. If left untreated, the wounds came become gangrenous, which may require amputation. It was of vital importance that this was prevented as a normally healthy soldier is lost if the wound requires amputation, meaning the loss of a soldier when numbers were needed. So, it became important to carry out regular foot inspections, usually undertaken by an officer. At each inspection, every soldier had to take off their boots and socks and have whale oil applied to the feet as this was an effective way of preventing trench foot. Soldiers were encouraged to ensure that they had at least one spare pair of socks thy could change into in case of wet weather and to use talcum powder, to keep the feet dried out.
It is well known that lice were a massive problem in the trenches, coming from the rats that scuttled around the trenches and easily passed around due to the proximity of the troops to each other. The lice would lay their eggs in the seams of the troop’s uniforms; near to the warm, moist parts of the body such as the armpits and the groin area! The eggs would hatch, and it would then become very unpleasant for the soldier wearing that uniform. One technique that was used in the trenches to get rid of the eggs before they hatched, was to run a candle or small flame along the seams of the uniforms – with the intense heat causing the eggs to pop rather than hatch. Soldiers would sit around doing this together in order to share the flame, and this activity eventually became known as ‘chatting’ believed to come from the Hindi word for parasite ‘chitt’. This is just one example of how the First World War has had an impact on the language we use today, which will be covered in another blog post.
Whilst all this was going on in the day, the trenches truly came to life at night-time. After stand to at dusk, troops would then prepare to carry out large scale tasks. A significant task would be the wiring party, whose job was to repair or put out new wire. This was a noisy job and always drew attention so was not a popular task. There were also three different types of patrol that were undertaken. Reconnaissance – three or four men who were tasked with looking at German positions. Listening – men tasked with getting as close to the German lines as possible, listening for digging, wiring, talking etc. And the last was the fighting patrol – which could be anything from ten men in a section to a thousand in a battalion who would engage the Germans, maybe to disturb a position or to get prisoners to obtain information from. All of this activity could be reciprocated by the Germans and so it was required that sentries be posted throughout the day and night. Sentries would be at their post for two hours, with there being a rotation every hour so one man was fresh. This was a dangerous job as sentries kept their heads about the parapet during the night so that they had the best view – a good example of the use of the parados to protect from the view of the enemy. During the day, this was simply not possible, and periscopes were used. Not only was sentry duty a dangerous job but arguably the most important in the front line. As such, it was considered a serious offence if you were found asleep whilst on duty, an offence which carried the death penalty under martial law. Only two soldiers were actually executed for this offence – Privates Thomas Downing and Robert Burton, both of 6th South Lancashire Regiment. Some troops would take measures in order to prevent themselves falling asleep, a popular one being the resting of the rifle with the bayonet on directly underneath the chin so if they started to drop off, they would feel the business end of a bayonet!
A common misconception of trench warfare is that troops spent months in the front line. This is not the case. Soldiers did not spend most of their time fighting; in fact, as one veteran said time in the trenches was ‘90% sheer boredom and 10% fear.’ Whilst there was slight variations depending on the unit, on average, a soldier would spent four/five days in the front line, four or five days in reserve trenches, which were slightly less chaotic but you had to be prepared to move forward in case of an enemy breakthrough, and then four or five days behind the lines – which I will cover in another blog post. This of course varied, particularly in times of battle.
Whilst I have tried to explain the conditions in which the soldiers lived; I feel it is best explained by the men who experienced these conditions themselves. The extract below, is from the diary of Harry Drinkwater who joined as a private at the start of the war, serving with the Birmingham Pals, eventually ending the war as an officer, and having won the Military Cross.
Sunday, December 19
No words can adequately describe the conditions. It’s not the Germans we’re fighting, but the weather. Within an hour of moving off, we were up to our knees in mud and water.
The mud gradually got deeper as we advanced along the trench.
We hadn’t gone far before we had to duck; the enemy were sending over their evening salute of shells. To move forward, I had to use both elbows for leverage, one each side of the trench. After about one and a half hours of this, we reached the firing line. Later, I groped my way to our dugout. What a sight.
Imagine a room underneath the ground, whose walls are slimy with moisture. The floor is a foot or more deep in rancid-smelling mud.
Monday, December 20
The trenches are in a terrible condition — anything up to 4ft deep in mud and water. We’re plastered in mud up to our faces.
Our food – cold bacon, bread and jam – is slung together in a sack that hangs from the dripping dugout roof. Consequently, we eat and drink mud.
Tuesday, December 21
Heavy bombardment at about 11am. Heard a fearful crash. The next dugout to ours blown to blazes, and our physical drill instructor Sergeant Horton with it.
I helped dig him out. But before we could get him anywhere, he’d departed this life – our first experience of death. I’m tired out, sick of everything.
‘Til next time!