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Life in the Trenches, the Great War

Updated on February 27, 2012
Douglas Haig
Douglas Haig
French soldiers, eating in mud covered clothes
French soldiers, eating in mud covered clothes

Life in the trenches -The Great War

An introduction to trench warfare;

Trench warfare and construction dates back as far as Roman time, two opposing forces become locked in a stalemate on the front line separated by a stretch of land between their fortifications. It was a gruelling, long drawn out hard fight in which many casualties were taken on both sides.

Trench warfare in WW1 was no different, trenches were about 12ft deep and dug in stepped or zigzagged shapes, they had mud banked up on the side facing the enemy called the parapet and barbed wire ran the whole length of the trench. Wood slats were put across the floors to help with the drainage and the sides had wire and or sandbags against them for support and protection.

Mornings began with 'stand to' where soldiers were woken before dawn and placed on guard ready for an early enemy attack. After this cleaning of their equipment and rifles were next ready for inspection from the orderly officer before breakfast was eaten.

Maintenance of the trenches was important, things included refilling sandbags, repairing the wooden slats of the floor and draining any excess water as to avoid any trench walls collapsing. During the rest of the day movement was kept to a minimum as to avoid drawing fire from enemy snipers. Evening falls and stand to is repeated, as soon as night comes troops could start to get supplies from the rear and carry out more maintenance under the cover of darkness, relief units were sent in also and this process could take hours to be completed. Threats in WW1 trenches came in many forms. Some casualties or deaths would come from enemy sniper fire, artillery shells, mortar or machine gun fire. Others would come from diseases, lice and rat infestations were rife and and were the major source of infections. Trench foot caused by the conditions was another problem, turning gangrenous causing amputations. Trench life was done in cycles with men serving up to two weeks at a time before being relieved but in some cases it was not heard of for men to have spent closer to twice this long before getting the chance of moving to the rear line. WW1 raged from 1914 until 1918 and the lack of progress made by either side especially on the Western front really showed how trench warfare during WW1 had drawn this great war into a stalemate.

Soldiers advancing into no man's land
Soldiers advancing into no man's land
French soldiers, after battle
French soldiers, after battle
Soldiers taking a break during the day
Soldiers taking a break during the day
Soldiers, preparing for a gas attack
Soldiers, preparing for a gas attack
Trenches at Petersburg
Trenches at Petersburg

World War 1 trenches

The FNG. So to speak;

It would have been a daunting trip for any new soldier no matter their age and don't forget this was a time where paperwork was not always looked into and few actually had an document of identity. Many soldiers would have been under the age of 17, if you said you were old enough and signed up you were in. It was rare for it to be questioned as boys as young as 14 in those days would be able to pass off as men so long as they said as little as possible. Many would of joined for the money, or for reasons of being able to have a gun, others may have had family already on the front or even lost some. Either way for the new soldier entering the trenches for the first time the experience would not of been the glorious image of battle they had been sold. One of the first things they would of noticed would have been the smell. Rotting bodies and livestock were in most places laid out until they could be moved as often the number of deaths would out stretch the ability to manage it. Shallow graves would have been dug as and when they could along with those surviving who had been unable to wash for weeks and had only dug in toilets. This would have been on top of the smell of blood, cigarette smoke, wet clothing, mud, old deployed gas and even sandbags that had begun to rot. A lot for anyone to take in and many especially the veteran recruits and even those under age would find themselves up along the firing squads wall for abandoning their posts in an attempt to get home.

Lets have a look at trench warfare in detail;

Although being a great source of protection for soldiers and civilians alike much like fighting in any land based setting. Digging in and taking cover is a priority. But an unlikely series of events would turn the average military trench from their friend to their foe. One of the most common issues was hygiene. Although not all but most trenches cut off at the front of the line or far ends of a controlled area would only be resupplied or their soldiers rotated every so often. One of the biggest killers was infection. Minor and serious infections alike could seethe best of soldiers taken out of action. During World War 1, all sides of the conflict would dig in to hold their ground often installing traps and other protective measures such as barbed wire, pit falls and explosives. Look outs would also wrap barbed wire around their helmets as to not give themselves away while looking over the top of a line to the enemy trenches. Without question being made out of the land themselves and little more the trenches would have been dirty and infection and illness contained well within those conditions lead to many soldiers became ill quickly. Aided by overcrowding in both shelter and the lines themselves. Common flu, colds, stomach upsets and diarrhoea spread very fast indeed. Rain would often hammer down on the lines leading to the trenches becoming filled with water, made dirty from the mud and other factors such as human waste, blood, early biological weaponry that may have been launched into the lines and far much more. Many soldiers would get trench foot within days of joining the fight in the trenches. In fact it is well said that many deaths on the front actually came from the likes of infection and gangrene rather from the direct damage of a shell or round being fired and hitting a person. Much of the ammunition on both sides of the conflict would have been sitting around in the trenches like their owners for a long time. Getting covered in all kinds of bacteria meaning an accidental form of biological war was being fought with soldiers often surviving the impact of a projectile but later dying from the added infection caused by whatever a bullet would have been carrying when fired.

Australian forces standing by a captured German gun point
Australian forces standing by a captured German gun point

World War 1 trenches

But it would not only of been bullets and the soldiers alone who spread the disease and infections around their fortified lines, although fungal infections such as trench foot and trench mouth were common. Parasites such as lice and fleas would have been a common sight within the trenches. Often laying on uncovered food or the wounded. They also would spread Dysentery, typhus and cholera. Needless to say, rats would have been a common sight as well.

The attitude towards the war; The people, the food and the fighting

As the horror stories from the front reached ears and eyes back home. Fewer people wanted to join up and fight for their countrie. Not for fear of the enemy but for the unwillingness to put themselves through what was being reported as some of the worst conditions known at the time. The conditions would have been horrendous this is obvious. Food would in many cases of been few and far between with supplies coming in as and when they could reach the lines and not always when they should. Although it is well noted that some soldiers and trenches were not hurt by this that much but those on the front lines would of found themselves especially in the thick of battle unable to get much needed supplies such as food, ammunition and medical essentials to them when it was needed. Often food served would either of gone bad or be stone cold. Many of those who survived and noted their memories in published works spoke of the rare joy that a hot meal such as bacon with a little bread or just a simple hot flask of tea would bring. For most though they talk of the cold food, the mold growing on supplies and one of the most common meals. Melted lard on bread. For soldiers, who fight on their feet and their stomachs this must have been very disheartening indeed. Although it was not completely hopeless. There were chances for real food such as canned corned beef and biscuits. In the early days of the war soldiers were fed very well getting meat and bread daily. But towards the end and as the army grew as new soldiers were drafted in that ration was decreased even more. In some cases soldiers especially those at the far edges of the controlled area would only get fresh food once or twice a month. What fresh food did get to them, baked or cooked before leaving the control area would most likely of gone bad by the time it arrived anyway. For example a shipment of bread or food not tinned could take up to a week to reach those at the far ends of the lines. Meaning bread would of gone stale, meat rotten and milk spoiled. For those lucky enough to be within a good travel time the food on the front would not of been that bad at all. It would have been better to be an officer behind a desk rather than a “Tommy” on the front as far as dinner goes.

As for life and the daily grind for the people within the trenches much of it would be spent waiting for orders to come down from the top. Often hours away from the front. Soldiers would have little more to do other than daily duties which in some of the hardest hit lines would have been allowed to slip, scout and lookout rotations and maybe a game of cards. Death itself was a constant feature for those who were in the trenches. The medical complications in a time when those medical treatments and medicines we take for granted today were still a long way off. From raids, enemy fire, friendly fire, suicide, court marshal executions and even accidents. Death would have always been around for someone. One thing many people do not think about when they are given the question of how would people of been killed in the trenches? Is actually an obvious one, many soldiers who were unlucky enough to be in the wrong shelter or dug out at the wrong time would of found themselves buried alive. From an extensively big bomb blast or just the roof giving in to the elements. Many men met their end at the hands of little more than their own trench. Rats as mentioned above drew most soldiers into a constant battle all of their own. Eating food rations, spreading infections and using just about anywhere as a toilet these vermin would have been in many a soldiers mind a bigger issue than the person waiting for them on the other side of the lines holding a rifle. Often found running through dug outs and climbing on soldiers while they slept. Men would take to trying to kill them using every day objects such as axes, spades, rifles and even cats. Without wanting to waste ammunition which would have been in short supply in many areas. Rats were feared for one very clear reason. They would eat human flesh. That sounds like a line right out of a horror film I know. But one thing that is clearly documented by those who survived is the fact that soldiers and medical staff alike would often find rats feasting on fallen soldiers who were ready to be moved out for burial. There are even accounts of soldiers, still very much alive being bitten in the night as they slept causing infection and in a few rare cases even death from being eaten alive. As in some areas the weather was so bad, the air so cold that men would actually not feel the animal eating away at their frozen and numb legs or arms until it was too late. It was not only the inhabitants of the trenches that the men came to hate but also their own clothing. Lice would way eggs in the lining of dirty overalls causing them to become uncomfortable to wear, causing itching and added infections to open or new wounds. This would often lead to the feared trench fever which would strike a person down suddenly and often without warning leading to extreme pain and a high flu like fever. If a soldier was to recover they would need to be moved off the lines and even then it could take up to three months for them to back to a fighting fit state once more. Many men would shave their legs, heads, chests and arms in order to avoid other parasites such as “nits” or head lice covering their bodies.

World War 1 trenches

The fighting was some of the hardest and bloodiest of any military conflict. On top of all the noted medical conditions the weapons used were just as ruthless and soldiers taught to kill without mercy would of added stress to an already awful situation. Along with the obvious weaponry used one thing feared above all else, even shells was gas. The first forms of gas were actually deployed by the French it is a common misunderstanding brought on from years of war films that allowed people to believe that it was a German invention. Although they themselves were the first to really study the uses of gas in a combat situation the French were the first to use such tactics. They would fire an early form of tear gas at Germans soldiers. But if anything this was like throwing ideas at the enemy. The Germans quickly went to work developing their own versions of various gases and would be the first army to use chemical weapons on the large scale. The threat of gas attacks became so great that allied forces were issues very crude and basic gas protection masks and a rubber like door was added to most trenches in the event of mustard gas being deployed. Out of all the poisons tried and tested this was one of the most feared. Mustard gas would have been fired into trenches by artillery shells. It is a very dangerous chemical for a number of reasons for one it has no smell, mustard gas is completely odourless. It would be distinguished by the serious blisters that it cause to exposed soldiers and would damage not only their skin but also their insides as it was breathed in. Although the gas masks given out did little to help this kind of weapon as it not only effected the insides but the skin was also in danger too. Masks would come in to play a great role in the defence against other German chemicals such as chlorine or phosgene based gases. It did however have a small yet devastating backfire for the Germans. The mustard gas could remain potent in soil, especially wet trench soil for weeks. Meaning for it to be fired in and then soldiers to follow it in order to capture a line would either have to be spaced months apart or risk the damage to their own forces.

All images within this article are from the public domain, information can be found here

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    • Rufus rambles profile image

      Rufus rambles 5 years ago from Australia

      My great grandfather fought in World War One - this hub is very interesting as it gives me more insight into the conditions he faced. If you are interested I have transcribed and scanned letters he wrote to his mother while in the trenches and at various rest camps on my hub. Thanks for this insightful hub.

    • R9139 profile image
      Author

      R9139 5 years ago

      Hi Rufus, thanks for reading. You should put those letters into a Hub that would make for a very interesting read :)

    • Rufus rambles profile image

      Rufus rambles 5 years ago from Australia

      Thanks R9139 - Yes all the letters are in my hubs. You can view them at this link: https://hubpages.com/literature/RufusRambles

      Thanks again!

    • R9139 profile image
      Author

      R9139 5 years ago

      Thanks, I had not had time to go over your work yet I will take a look :)

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      A fascinating hub and a very moving one as well. I think when people look at old photographs and film it looks bad enough, but most of us have no real idea of the other things that made this kind of warfare a hell on earth - the things that you've highlighted so vividly in your hub.

      Many years ago, I looked after two elderly gentlemen who had come into hospital. I got to know these men very well and liked them a lot. In addition to their medical conditions however, they both had deep psychological scars from the WW1. The older of the two had been diagnosed in later life with 'shell shock' and he had never really recovered from this after the war - maybe because it was not understood then. So even after surviving the hell on earth, the scars that were left made the move back into civilian life very, very hard. so thank you for highlighting the horrors that these guys went through.

      A wonderful hub + voted up awesome!

    • R9139 profile image
      Author

      R9139 5 years ago

      Hi Seeker thanks for reading :)

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Absolutely first class. Your research is plain to see. Such a mass of information clearly given. Thank you!

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 5 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      You've sure painted a vivid picture here.

      The lack of proper hygiene and the rats -- those two things even without an enemy across the field, rain, hunger, fatigue, lice and all else -- even without those -- would put a great many of us in a very bad psychological state. Rats eating human flesh....that's incredible. This article is really enlightening.

      All the more reason we need to truly be thankful for the freedoms we have which came through the ultimate sacrifice of others.

    • EJ Lambert profile image

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I'm amazed the military commanders of the time didn't at least consider using amphibious warfare as a way to outflank the Germans from the north near the Belgium front. The British certainly had the sea power and could've avoided so many unnecessary casualties during those fruitless assaults from 1915 to 1917. I can't imagine what life was like for those guys in the mud-soaked trenches, knowing they were charging right into the teeth of machine gun and artillery fire with little to no hope of a breakthrough. What a waste.

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