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 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.
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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.