Trench Life

Trench Life

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Trench Life


The idea of trenches first started in the battle of Marne in September
1914. The Schlieffen Plan had just failed and the Germans were forced
to retreat back to Germany. The German commander, General Erich von
Falkenhayn, was unhappy with this and decided that his troops should
keep the parts in Belgium and France that they had gained at all
costs. He ordered the Germans to build trenches to provide protection
from the advancing French and British troops. The British and French
troops found it impossible to break through, and to protect
themselves, built trenches to counter attack the Germans. After a few
months, these trenches had spread from the North Sea to the Swiss
Frontier.

The trenches were made up of different sections, the front line trench
was usually seven feet deep and six feet wide as it was so deep there
was a fire step so the soldier could see over the top of the trench
and fire. The trenches were not made in a straight line; as if an
enemy shell was fired into a trench then it would explode outwards
killing all the men in a straight line. If it was not straight, but
zig-zagged, then only the men next to the shell would be killed, or
badly wounded. Behind the front line were support and reserves
trenches. The three rows of trenches covered between 200 and 500 yards
of ground. Between each of the trenches would be communication
trenches, which were used to transport men, food and equipment between
the trenches.

Along the floor of the trenches were duckboards, which were there to
protect the soldier's feet from the muddy ground, which was created by
the winter weather. In front of the trenches was a long line of barbed
wire. This was to stop the enemy attacking on foot. The wire was often
very tangled up and could not be moved. It was very underestimated in
its strength as when the officers decided to go on a major offensive,
they were often stopped by the barbed wire, and then shot by the

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enemy. As trenches were built like this, nearly all the battles fought
were defensive. Along the trenches were dugouts were the soldiers
slept, socialized and ate their meals. These dugouts were cramped most
of the time and a lot of diseases were passed on through them. They
were normally filled with sandbags for the protection of the soldiers.
Also there were ammunition ledges, which the soldiers used to keep
spare ammunition when they needed a quick refill. It was the
difference between life and death for some soldiers. At certain places
along the sides of the duckboard were fire steps. This was where a
soldier stood to fire at the enemy.

Being in the front line was extremely dangerous and many of the
casualties occurred in these trenches. The soldiers did not spend all
their time in these trenches since they had a 32-day timetable: they
could spend up to eight days in the front line where they were at risk
of injury or death during an offensive. Then a further eight days in
the reserve trench incase of an emergency attack. The other sixteen
days would be spent away from the battlefield in a nearby village or
town. This timetable was almost certain to change in the case of an
offensive taking place. In this case, soldiers may spend up to six
whole weeks in the trenches before relief. Because they stayed for so
long in the trenches at one time, living conditions became unpleasant
and dangerous. Other than when a major action was underway, trench
life was usually very dreary and hard physical work. The main enemy
was boredom, and the loss of concentration - leaving oneself exposed
to sniper fire, for example - could prove deadly. Whether a infantry
man was in the line or out of it, unless he was a specialist such as a
signaler he would inevitably be assigned to carrying, repair or
digging parties, or sent under cover of dark to put out or repair
barbed wire defenses. Men would be posted as lookouts or sentries,
often in saps dug a little way ahead of the main fire trench. At dawn
and dusk, the whole British line was ordered to 'Stand To!' - which
meant a period of manning the trench in preparation for an enemy
attack. Many shells were fired into the trenches and would explode
inside badly injuring countless soldiers every day. It was found that
over one third of all casualties occurred in these trenches. It was
not uncommon for a man to spend much more time in the front line since
one regiment once stayed there for 51 days at a time.

Living conditions were absolutely awful in these trenches. They were
ridden with mice, which contaminated or ate, any food that was
present. They caused disease to spread to all of the soldiers, and in
some cases, causing death. Another feared disadvantage of trenches was
lice. As clothes could not be kept clean, they came in there hundreds
and got into the garments of soldiers. They laid their eggs in the
dressing, multiplying as they went along. The lice resulted in sores
that were mostly accumulated around the neck, wrists and ankles of the
soldiers. This also caused epidemics of typhus and trench fever. It
was possible to get rid of the lice by lighting a candle and passing
it along the seams of your clothes. This would kill any lice as well
as any eggs. The deep muddy ground was what a lot of soldiers had to
keep their feet in most of the time, despite there being duck boards
to prevent this from happening. This led to notorious trench foot,
which made the foot change colour then swell to an abnormal size. When
this happened, the foot usually had to be amputated. To stop this from
happening, the soldiers were forced to rub their feet which the foul
smelling whale oil and to change their socks everyday. This was an
example of how desperate soldiers were to get out of fighting, but it
was clear that having the choice of losing their legs or their lives,
many would chose legs.

"There was a danger of getting of getting trench foot, and they had to
rub a sort of whale oil on their feet to prevent it. Lots of blighter
avoided doing that if they knew that if they got trench foot they
would be sent down the line."

Sergeant J. Haddock, quoted in N.Jones, ' The War Walk', 1983

Overall, the diseases caught from the trenches caused a lot of death
to the soldiers than enemy fire or the war itself.

If there were a way to get out of battle, then the soldiers would take
it. Getting wounded in course of duty-'copping a blighty'-was
recognized by everyone as a good way to get out of battle. If a
soldier was found out to have conflicted a wound, they would be
severely punished, sometimes even shot dead.

The food available to the soldiers was a particular target for jokes.
The sausages they ate were known as 'barkers' because they were known
to have a high dog-meat content in them. They also called cheese
'bung' because of the constipation it caused them. The food they got
was mainly tined. Corned beef, maconochie (a mixture of meat and
vegetable stew,) cheese, bread, jam and biscuits were all common
meals. Fresh fruit and vegetables were rare, sometimes soldiers had to
go hungry. Tea was the most common and favourite drink although it was
not like home tea. Getting water to the soldiers was hard because it
is heavy to carry so soldiers collected rainwater and melted ice.

The trenches were thought to be a way of driving a man insane. This
was not very true. The soldiers managed to keep their sanity by having
some ways of entertainment. The alternative names they came up for
food was one way to keep themselves cheerful. They often played cards
or dressed up as women in theatrical events. Otherwise, the thought
and experience of battle would be too much misery for a soldier and so
these ways of entertainment would keep them sane.

In spring and summer, there was a high likelihood that there would be
an offensive started, but in winter, the conditions were much worse.
The rain turned the area into a vast sea of mud. It was constantly
cold and a lot of walking would be done during winter across much of
the land. Summer brought other discomforts such as the rats, flies,
lice and the inevitable diseases. In addition to this, all of the
soldiers faced the continual danger of artillery shells, snipers,
trench-raids, and the predictable going 'over the top'.

The life of a soldier in a trench was very harsh and not at all easy.
There was the fear of battle and insanity and the discomfort of the
diseases, rats and lice. The food was poor, since it was mostly
tinned, and fresh fruit was rare. The sight of seeing fellow soldiers
dying in the blink of an eye was a horrific thing to experience. They
managed to keep themselves sane by their almost eccentric techniques
of entertainment. Trench warfare might be history but those who lived
through it would never forget it.
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