Life in the Trenches of World War One
Created | Updated Jan 18, 2011
Following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the then superpowers of Europe decided to carve up France because Germany wanted it for themselves, and Britain and its allies opposed this idea. In September of 1914 German commander General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered the construction of defensive trenches to ensure that the Allied forces couldn't overrun his own men. The Allies responded in kind and two long trenches were dug from the coast of France to Switzerland, which was soon dubbed the Western Front. The trenches mostly ran alongside each other, and varied from a distance of over a kilometre to as little as 15 metres apart, such as at Hooge, near Ypres1.
Soldiers who thought that joining up for the good of their country was all guns and glamour were to be proved horribly, horribly wrong. Instead of dashing about on horses, or fighting in the beautiful fields of Europe (and meeting lots of nice French girls to boot), the soldiers found themselves facing their enemies from inside a big hole in the ground. The trenches soon became extremely inhospitable and terrible places and aside from the fact that some bloke a few yards away was trying to kill you in a variety of ingenious ways, there were many other things to contend with.
Parasites and Rodents
In the cramped conditions many parasites thrived. Lice, notoriously hard to get rid of, were a never-ceasing problem; they bred in the seams of uniforms and caused the occupants to itch. All the soldiers could do was to burn them out with a match. Some men shaved their entire heads to avoid a dreaded nit infestation. Lice could also cause Trench Fever, a blood-borne infection caused by a bacterium known as Bartonella quintana. The symptoms are similar to influenza, with increased pain and a high fever and only rest, usually away from the front-line, could assure that the condition could be treated. Full recovery usually took up to twelve weeks, but because the pesky lice were not actually identified as the culprits of Trench Fever until 1918, some men it was assumed, had just a high fever associated with another illness. As such, many succumbed to the disease whilst recuperating away from the trench due to inadequate medical treatment.
Lice hunting was called 'chatting'. In parcels from home it was usual to receive a tin of supposedly death-dealing powder or pomade, but the lice thrived on the stuff.
-Private George Coppard, from With A Machine Gun to Cambrai
Frogs also made their way into trenches. Normally found in shell holes filled with water, they thrived in the base of trenches and could cause a man to slip and fall. Normally this wasn't such a problem, but if a fellow soldier just happened to be sharpening his bayonet and you slipped on a frog and fell on him, you could end up with a nasty case of stabbing. Pests such as slugs and horned beetles invaded the sides of the trenches, but worst of all were the rodents. Millions of brown and black rats gorged themselves on human remains, both in and out of the trenches, and there were reports of rats as big as domestic cats. Corpses, it seemed, were not all the rats ate, as they would often supplement their diets with fresh rations, or even nibble on a living toe or ear while a soldier slept! Some men made pets of the animals as company, while others returned the favour:
Would you like some rat au vin to help you think?
- Private Baldrick, from Blackadder Goes Forth
While at the outset of the war most soldiers were supplied with hot meals from Field Kitchens (although the word 'hot' may not be entirely accurate, and come to think of it, perhaps 'meal' isn't right either), during the winters there was a decline in food available so soldiers soon had to rely on their rations. However, there was a daily allowance of rum to those on the frontline, and the Red Cross sent food parcels too, which was lucky as rations were not all that appetising.
Field rations consisted of hard, dry biscuits as opposed to fresh bread. The soldiers had tins of corned beef, which was named bully beef, after the French word for boiled - 'boillir' (pronounced boo-lay-err). They also had rations of jam and tea. Mostly the food came from tins or packets or was salted for preservation, as there was no way to keep fresh food properly. A good trench cook could hunt down something tasty though if all that was left were dry crackers.
One thing puzzles me, Baldrick. How did you manage to get so much custard out of such a small cat?Fresh water was also often a problem. It had to be brought up to the trenches and often was kept in big tanks which, as you could imagine, was not very hygienic. To make matters a little better, there were cigarette and tobacco rations regularly. Although a cigarette didn't offer any nutritious value, smoking one helped take your mind off of your hunger.
- Captain Blackadder, from Blackadder Goes Forth
Other examples of the lack of hygiene were that the men could not wash while they were in the trenches as there was limited access to running water. A lavatory (or latrine) often consisted of a large bucket in a side trench. However, this was a very vulnerable position to be in as the enemy could sneak up behind the unwitting soldier while he was 'occupied'. Soldiers who were aware of this danger in the trenches would sometimes opt instead for the 'in the hat' method2. Due to the cramped conditions, and the constant upheaval of land from shelling, dysentery3 was a common ailment too.
No washing or shaving here, and the demands of nature answered as quickly as possible in the handiest and deepest shell-hole.
- Guy Chapman, from Vain Glory
Another factor that depressed the troops was the abysmal weather. The bitter cold could claim digits to frostbite, and the heavy rain flooded the trenches and turned the soil into thick, slimy mud. The trenches sometimes filled with water up to the waists of the less than impressed soldiers. This submersion of the feet for long periods of time led to a terrible condition called 'Trench Foot' - a fungal infection that could turn septic, resulting in amputation. Thus a clean dry pair of socks and a decent pair of boots was something akin to heaven on Earth.
Our trenches are ankle deep in mud. In some places trenches are waist deep in water.
- Private Livesay, from a letter to his parents, 1915
Dead bodies littered the surrounding land, a constant reminder to the soldiers of their own mortality. Continuous artillery fire was heard from both sides of the trenches. This indecent noise was enough to drive anybody mad, which indeed it did. Often called 'shellshock', and now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder, the constant firing and banging of the artillery shells caused some men to go a bit loopy, and resulted in them being unable to go 'over the top'4.
Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades -- words, words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.
- from All Quiet on the Western Front
Reduced to shivering wrecks these soldiers were not tolerated at the time. Many high-ranking Army officials (and doctors) didn't recognise shellshock as a medical problem during World War One, and treated those suffering from it as cowards. Punishment was often harsh, and known to include things like taking the bolts from the rifles, and in some extreme cases tying the poor men to the wheels of artillery guns.
All this fungus, death and disease caused another problem: a putrid, aggravating smell which might also have also contributed to the madness. One man was reported as being found stark naked, running through the countryside. Soldiers who refused to fight were often court-martialled, and in some cases sentenced to death.
How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.
- Neville Chamberlain
One of the major fears was of poison gas. While tear gas was first employed by the French, it wasn't until the 22 April, 1915 when the German Army used this new type of chemical warfare (chlorine gas in this instance) at the battle Ypres in an offensive capacity. The main types were:
Chlorine - a terribly smelly (think swimming pools) and irritating gas, it would burn at the throat and lungs, make the eyes water and could even lead to suffocation.
Phosgene - not unlike chlorine gas, its chemical make-up meant that there was less coughing, so more of the poison gas could be inhaled.
Mustard (Yperite)- first used by the Germans in 1917, this colourless and odourless gas caused symptoms similar to eating mustard, except much, much worse. That is, watering eyes, burning of the throat and lungs and blistering of the skin (both externally and internally). Because of it being highly undetectable, first symptoms were usually noticing your mate beside you coughing and spluttering. Unless of course he'd just caught a cold.
The use of gas took the Allies by surprise and caused widespread panic: but often, when the wind changed direction, the gas was redirected from whence it came. Soon both the Allies and the Germans were using gas as a weapon, and gas masks were a common sight. William Pressey recalls being gassed at the Messines Ridge on 7 June, 1917:
I was put into an ambulance and taken to the base, where we were placed on the stretchers side by side on the floor of a marquee. I suppose I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lungs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth.
Boredom was another thing that irritated the troops. There were many menial tasks to keep them occupied though. These included filling sandbags, mending barbed wire, repairing the duckboards on the floor of the trench and the draining of trenches. Trenches had to be rebuilt after heavy rainfall or an explosion. Soldiers also had to take it in turns to be on sentry duty meaning they had to stand on the fire step of the trench and wait for the enemy to make a move. Due to the constant bombardments and the sheer effort of trying to stay alive, sleep deprivation was common. This was dangerous because if you fell asleep you could be caught and severely reprimanded by your commanding officer; or, if you were really unlucky, you'd end up dead.
In the last four days in the trenches I don't think I'd eight hours' sleep altogether.
- JB Priestley, in a letter to his father in 1915
Other things to look forward to in order to make the days seem shorter was the regular troop rotation to take you off frontline duty, cleaning of your weapon (a nigh-on impossible task in the middle of winter in a mud-filled hole in some French field), daily inspections, patrols and raids into No Man's Land5, and mining (the fancy word for digging a bigger trench, or making the one you've just dug and was now filled with mud, deeper). Of course, if all else failed you could play cards or football6, read letters from home, look at dirty postcards or etch your loved one's name into the only dry bit of wood you could find with your slowly rusting bayonet.
Was It All Bad?
Up until now the conditions that have been explained in this Entry are mostly those that affected the soldiers in the frontline trenches. Soldiers spent only a few weeks on the frontline; the rest of the time was spent in support trenches or holding camps well behind the lines. R & R (rest and relaxation) was looked forward to, but you knew as time went on that you'd be rostered back to the frontline in no time. To sum up though, the trenches of World War One were not pleasant places to be. Mud, rats, lice, the horrid smell, the toilets (or lack of them), the food, boredom, gas and death. The soldiers had it all.
My arms have mutinied against me – brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back's been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a 'stand-at-ease'.
- Wilfred Owen, poet and soldier