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%).
Trenches and life within those trenches have become an enduring topic from World War One. Throughout the war millions of soldiers experienced and endured the horrors of trench warfare. Some wrote down for posterity what these experiences were and as time has moved on from World War One more and more of these written documents – frequently in the form of a diary – have come to light. Others wrote about their experiences in book-form. On the British side “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves is considered a classic. For the Germans, “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich von Remarque was considered to be such a potent anti-war book that Hitler banned it. Over the years both books have sold in large numbers. In recent years “The Last Fighting Tommy” by Harry Patch gave an evocative account of trench life at Passchendaele. Others who wrote about their lives in the trenches did not achieve the fame of Graves or Remarque but their accounts are equally as valid. As recently as 2006 a trench diary kept by Private Bert Camp was discovered by his grandsons while the letters written home from the trenches by Private Freddie Noakes were published for the first time in 2010.
However, regardless of who wrote what about the trenches, all have one consistent theme – the horrors experienced by the men who had to live in them.
All of the soldiers who fought in trenches would have had a good idea of what a good trench was like and what constituted a bad trench. Frank Richards wrote about his experiences in trenches:
“A good standing trench was about six foot deep, so that a man could walk upright during the day in safety from rifle-fire. In each bay of the trench we constructed fire-steps about two feet higher than the bottom of the trench, which enabled us to stand head and shoulders above the parapet. During the day we were working in reliefs, and we would snatch an hour’s sleep, when we could, on a wet and muddy fire-step, wet through to the skin ourselves.
If anyone had to go to the company on our right in the daytime he had to walk through thirty yards of waterlogged trench, which was chest-deep in water in some places.
The duckboard track was constantly shelled, and in places a hundred yards of it had been blown to smithereens. It was better to keep off the track when walking back and forth, but then a man had to make his way sometimes through very heavy mud…..wet snow had begun to fall, which turned into rain and some parts of the land were soon a bog of mud to get drowned in.”
Bruce Bairnsfather experienced trench life in the early stages of World War One.
“It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches. Everything was strange, and wet and horrid. First of all I had to do and fix up my machine guns at various points, and find places for the gunners to sleep in. This was no easy matter, as many of the dugouts had fallen in and floated off downstream.
In this, and subsequent descriptions of the trenches, I may lay myself open to the charge of exaggeration. But it must be remembered that I am describing trench life in the early days of 1914, and I feel sure that those who had experience of them will acquit me of any such charge.
To give a recipe for getting a rough idea, in case you want to, I recommend the following procedure. Select a flat ten-acre ploughed field, so sited that all the surface water of the surrounding country drains into it. Now cut a zig-zag slot about four feet deep and three feet wide diagonally across, dam off as much water as you can so as to leave about one hundred yards of squelchy mud; delve out a hole at one side of the slot, then endeavour to live there for a month on bully beef and damp biscuits, whilst a friend has instructions to fire at you with his Winchester every time you put your head above the surface.
Well, here I was anyway, and the next thing was to make the bets of it. As I have before said, these were the days of the earliest trenches in this war; days when we had none of those “props” such as corrugated iron, floorboards, and sand bags.
When you made a dug-out in those days you made it out of anything you could find, and generally had to make it yourself.”
Some British soldiers found that captured German trenches were better built than British ones – as H S Clapham wrote after a successful attack on a German trench in Y Wood.
“When I dropped into the Hun trench I found it a great place, only three wide, and at least eight feet deep, and beautifully made of white sandbags, back and front. At that spot there was no sign of any damage by our shells, but a number of dead Huns lay in the bottom. There was a sniper’s post just where I fell in, a comfortable little square hole, fitted with seats and shelves, bottles of beer, tinned meats and a fine helmet hanging on a hook.”
August Hope wrote about the horrors he experienced.
“It was 9 a.m. and the so-called trench was full of corpses and all sorts of equipment. We stood and sat on bodies as if they were stones or logs of wood. Nobody worried if one had its head stuck through or torn off, or a third had gory bones sticking out through its torn coat. And outside the trench one could see them lying in every kind of position. There was one quite young little chap, a Frenchman, sitting in a shell-hole, with his rifle on his arm and his head bent forward, but he was holding his hands as if to protect himself, in front of his chest in which there was a deep bayonet wound. And so they lay, in all their different positions, mostly Frenchman, with their heads battered in by blows from mallets and even spades, and all around rifles, equipment of all kinds and any number of kepis. The 154th had fought like furies in their attack, to revenge themselves for the shellfire.
A heap of five corpses lay just this side of the barrier; we were constantly having to tread on them to try to squash them down in the mud, because, in consequence of the gunfire, we couldn’t get them out of the trench. Our feelings gradually became quite blunted.”