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Life in the Trenches
Indeed, the Great War - a phrase coined even before it had begun - was
expected to be a relatively short affair and, as with most wars, one of great
movement. The First World War was typified however by its lack of movement,
the years of stalemate exemplified on the Western Front from autumn 1914 until
spring 1918.
So what was life actually like for the men serving tours of duty in the line, be they
front line, support or reserve trenches?
Daily Death in the Trenches
Death was a constant companion to those serving in the line, even when no
raid or attack was launched or defended against. In busy sectors the constant
shellfire directed by the enemy brought random death, whether their victims were
lounging in a trench or lying in a dugout (many men were buried as a consequence of
such large shell-bursts).
Similarly, novices were cautioned against their natural inclination to peer
over the parapet of the trench into “No Man's Land.” Many men died on their first
day in the trenches as a consequence of a precisely aimed sniper's bullet. It was
estimated that up to one third of Allied casualties on the Western Front were
actually sustained in the trenches. Aside from enemy injuries, disease wrought a
heavy toll.
Rats, Lice and Worse
Rats in the millions infested trenches. There were two main types, the
brown and the black rat. Both were despised but the brown rat was especially
feared. Gorging themselves on human remains (grotesquely disfiguring them by
eating their eyes and liver) they could grow to the size of a cat.
Rats were by no means the only source of infection and nuisance. Lice were
a never-ending problem, breeding in the seams of filthy clothing and causing men to
itch unceasingly. Even when clothing was periodically washed and deloused, lice eggs
invariably remained hidden in the seams; within a few hours of the clothes being
re-worn the body heat generated would cause the eggs to hatch.
Lice caused Trench Fever, a particularly painful disease that began suddenly
with severe pain followed by high fever. Recovery - away from the trenches - took
up to twelve weeks. Lice were not actually identified as the culprit of Trench
Fever until 1918.
Trench Foot was another medical condition peculiar to trench life. It was a
fungal infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions.
It could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. Trench Foot was more of a
problem at the start of trench warfare; as conditions improved in 1915 it rapidly
faded, although a trickle of cases continued throughout the war.
The Trench Cycle
Typically, a battalion would be expected to serve a spell in the front line.
This would be followed by a stint spent in support, and then in reserve lines. A
period of rest would follow - generally short in duration - before the whole cycle of
trench duty would start afresh.
In reality the cycle was determined by the necessities of the situation.
Even while at rest men might find themselves tasked with duties that placed them
in the line of fire. Others would spend far longer in the front line than usual,
usually in the more 'busy' sectors. As an example - and the numbers varied widely a man might expect in a year to spend some 70 days in the front line, with another
30 in nearby support trenches. A further 120 might be spent in reserve. Only 70
days might be spent at rest. The amount of leave varied, with perhaps two weeks
being granted during the year.
...And the Smell
Finally, no overview of trench life can avoid the aspect that instantly struck
visitors to the lines: the appalling reek given off by numerous conflicting sources.
Rotting carcasses lay around in the thousands. For example, approximately
200,000 men were killed on the Somme battlefields, many of which lay in shallow
graves. Overflowing latrines would similarly give off a most offensive stench.
Men who had not been afforded the luxury of a bath in weeks or months
would offer the pervading odor of dried sweat. The feet were generally accepted
to give off the worst odor. Trenches would also smell of creosol or chloride of lime,
used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection.
Add to this the smell of cordite, the lingering odor of poison gas, rotting
sandbags, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke and cooking food... yet men grew used to
it, while it thoroughly overcame first-time visitors to the front.
Weapons of War: Poison Gas
Poison gas was probably the most feared of all weapons in World War One.
Poison gas was indiscriminate and could be used on the trenches even when no
attack was going on. Whereas the machine gun killed more soldiers overall during
the war, death was frequently instant or not drawn out and soldiers could find
some shelter in bomb/shell craters from gunfire. A poison gas attack meant
soldiers having to put on crude gas masks and if these were unsuccessful, an attack
could leave a victim in agony for days and weeks before he finally succumbed to his
First Used by the French
Although it is popularly believed that the German army was the first to use
gas, it was actually first used by the French. In the first month of the war,
August 1914, the French fired tear-gas grenades (xylyl bromide) against the
Germans. Nevertheless the German army was the first to give serious study to the
development of chemical weapons and the first to use it on a large scale.
The debut of the first poison gas, however - in this instance, chlorine - came
on 22 April 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres. The effects of
chlorine gas were severe. Within seconds of inhaling its vapor it destroyed the
victim's respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks. The Germans' use of
chlorine gas provoked immediate widespread condemnation, and certainly damaged
German relations with the neutral powers, including the U.S. The gas attacks were
placed to rapid propaganda use by the British although they planned to respond in
Following on the heels of chlorine gas came the use of phosgene. Phosgene
as a weapon was more potent than chlorine in that while the latter was potentially
deadly it caused the victim to violently cough and choke. Phosgene caused much
less coughing with the result that more of it was inhaled. Phosgene was later
adopted by both German and Allied armies. Phosgene often had a delayed effect;
apparently healthy soldiers were taken down with phosgene gas poisoning up to 48
hours after inhalation.
Mustard Gas
Remaining consistently ahead in terms of gas warfare development, Germany
unveiled an enhanced form of gas weaponry against the Russians at Riga in
September 1917: mustard gas (or Yperite) contained in artillery shells. Mustard
gas, an almost odorless chemical, was distinguished by the serious blisters it
caused both internally and externally brought on several hours after exposure.
Protection against mustard gas proved more difficult than against either chlorine
or phosgene gas. The use of mustard gas - sometimes referred to as Yperite - also
proved to have mixed benefits. While inflicting serious injury upon the enemy the
chemical remained potent in soil for weeks after release: making capture of
infected trenches a dangerous undertaking.
Diminishing Effectiveness of Gas
Although gas claimed a notable number of casualties during its early use,
once the crucial element of surprise had been lost the overall number of casualties
quickly diminished. Indeed, deaths from gas after about May 1915 were relatively
rare. It has been estimated that among British forces the number of gas
casualties from May 1915 amounted to some 9 per cent of the total - but that of
this total only around 3% were fatal. Even so, gas victims often led highly
debilitating lives thereafter with many unable to seek employment once they were
discharged from the army. Gas never turned out to be the weapon that turned the
tide of the war, as was often predicted. In large part this was because of the
increasing effectiveness of the methods used to protect against poison gas.
Innovations in its use were quickly combated and copied by opposing armies in an
ongoing cycle.
Casualties From Gas - The Numbers
British Empire
Total Casualties
Weapons of War: Machine Guns
Machine guns inflicted appalling casualties on both war fronts in World War
One. Men who went over-the-top in trenches stood little chance when the enemy
opened up with their machine guns. Machine guns were one of the main killers in the
war and accounted for many thousands of deaths.
Crude machine guns had first been used in the American Civil War (1861 to
1865). However, tactics from this war to 1914 had not changed to fit in with this
new weapon. Machine guns could shoot hundreds of rounds of ammunition a minute
and the standard military tactic of World War One was the infantry charge.
Casualties were huge. Many soldiers barely got out of their trench before they
were cut down.
Weapons of War: Tanks
The tank had an interesting role in World War One. The tank was
first used at the little known Battle of Flers. It was then used with
less success at the Battle of the Somme. Though the tank was highly
unreliable – as one would expect from a new machine – it did a great
deal to end the horrors of trench warfare and brought back some
mobility to the Western Front.
Weapons of War: Submarines
In 1914, the Germans introduced the submarine as an effective warship. The
submarine’s primary weapon against ships was the torpedo, an underwater missle.
In January of 1917, the Germans announced that they would sink any ship, without
warning, found in the seas around Great Britain. This policy was known as
unrestricted submarine warfare. In 1915, the Germans sank an American
passenger ship, The Lusitania, killing 1,198 people. The Aamerican public was
outraged and President Woodrow Wilson pressured Germany to end their policy of
unrestricted submarine warfare. However, in 1917, Germany resumed this policy
and sank three American ships, thus pushing America to enter WWI.
Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae – 1915
McCrae was a 42-year-old physician in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. He
died of wounds in 1918
World War I Propaganda
Governments often use propaganda during wartime. Propaganda is one-sided
information designed to persuade, to keep up morale and to encourage people to
support the war. What are these propaganda posters trying to promote?
The Western Front - A Bloody Stalemate
The area in northern France where much of the fighting between the French
and the Germans took place was known as the western front. Forces on the
western front soon became deadlocked. Each side dug miles of parallel trenches in
order to protect themselves from enemy fire. This set the stage for trench
warfare, where soldiers fought each other from trenches instead on open fields in
hand-to-hand combat. The space between opposing trenches was known as “no man’s
land.” As a result of trench warfare, armies traded huge losses of life for pitifully
small gains in land. The Western Front became a “terrain of death,” that
stretched 500 miles from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.
Major Battles and Casualties of WWI
Battle of the Marne (September, 1914) - The first major battle of the war.
After the Germans almost reached Paris, the Allies regrouped and launched a
counter-attack against the Germans in the Marne river valley outside of Paris. The
Germans are forced to retreat. This was a significant battle because it ensured
that the Germans would not obtain a quick victory over France. The two sides soon
settled into a stalemate and trench warfare.
Battle of Verdun (February, 1916) – The Germans launch a massive attack
against the French outside the town of Verdun. Each side lost more than 300,000
Battle of the Somme (July, 1916) – The British attempted to assist the French
in their battle against the Germans at Verdun. The British attacked the Germans in
the valley of the Somme river northwest of Verdun. In the first day alone, 20,000
British soldiers were killed. By the end of the battle, each side had lost more than
half a million (500,000) troops.
Battle of the