39: Life in the Trenches


This week we look at what it was like to live in the trenches, and what the battlefield looked like, in 1915.



“A pervasive stench, created by unburied corpses, excrement and seven million sets of waterlogged clothing and boots, unchanged for weeks, overhung the Western Front from Switzerland to the sea. Along five hundred miles of rival defenses, some men occupied precarious mountaintops among the blasted pines of the Vosges, while others sheltered behind breastworks along the Yser canal, where it was impossible to entrench.” Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings. Hello everyone, and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 39. This week I would like to thank two listeners who left reviews on iTunes this week Schmyman and blw-at-longwood, thank you for the positive reviews. If you enjoy the show consider leaving a review on iTunes to help spread the word. This week we are going to take a short break from the story of events of the war to cover a few topics around what it was like to live in the Trenches in 1915. Life in the Trenches was different for all sides in the conflict and this episode comes with the disclaimer that most of what I will discuss is primarily focused on the Western front. The war wasn’t the first time trench warfare had happened, but it was by far the most elaborate and large scale use of them which hasn’t been seen since. This resulted in a very unique situation for the troops at the front which wouldn’t be fully grasped and handled during the war. So today we will discuss a bit about the battlefield that the troops were living in, before looking at how they managed to survive in the conditions. Then I will hit on two quick topics, medicine and tours of duty. I will close the episode with some of the more horrific conditions that the troops experienced. Throughout all of the episodes we have covered some of these topics occasionally but I wanted to have a single episode to dedicate to them since the life of soldiers in the trenches is the greatest lasting legacy of the war. I have covered some of these topics in piecemeal discussions during other episodes, but there will be a lot of new information even for History of the Great War veterans.

It goes without saying, but it is also an important place to start the episode by saying that the armies and commanders in Europe in 1914 were not at all prepared for the trench warfare that they would find themselves in almost immediately. They were still under the mindset that the battles would be much like those found during the Franco-Prussian War or earlier wars where maneuver, flanking, marches, all would be key to properly positioning their armies so that they would the greatest advantage. This also meant that the equipment and training that the troops had were all built around these facts. Cavalry was still seen as an integral part of the order of battle and the artillery that the troops had was all designed around the fact that it would be constantly on the move, only setting up temporarily to shell and enemy before moving to a new position. In an era where all mobility for artillery was provided by horse teams this put hard limits on the size and type of artillery that was available. While this is an obvious example there were less obvious examples as well like a lack of gun cleaning equipment. When men found themselves stuck in trenches instead of on the open march it is obvious that there would be a greater number of instances of guns getting dirty or muddy. They also lacked proper digging equipment. Most troops might have had a portable entrenching tool, think of a foldable shovel, but since trenches were seen as temporary protections the presence of more formidable shovels, let alone picks to break up harder ground, was not guaranteed. While the soldiers were not provided with everything they needed, the certainly were not without a lack of stuff. The soldiers in 1914 were going into battle carrying a lot of stuff, 100 pounds at times, that is 45 kilos for our non-American listeners. I consider myself reasonably fit, but I don’t think I could make it more than a few miles with 100 pounds on my back. G.J. Myers in A World Undone does a brief overview of what you might find in the packs of these men “common soldiers, whenever they moved, even when sent off on long marches or across no-man’s-land in daylight assaults, carried a ten-pound rifle, at least 150 rounds of ammunition, bottles of water, an overcoat, a blanket with ground cloth, a trenching tool, days of rations that were not to be opened without an officer’s permission, a “pocket primus” miniature stove with fuel, a mess kit with mug and cutlery, and whatever else they could manage, from socks and underwear to shaving gear, toothpaste, bandages, and books.” Now part of this, it should be said, was the fault of the men. They didn’t understand the real situation they were in any better than the commanders behind the lines and so the men, at least at the beginning, took far too much personal equipment into battle. Simple things like books and keepsakes from home. These types of items were generally discarded later.

By the middle of 1915 the battlefield had been evolving for almost an entire year which, of course, brought changes. By this time there were around 5,000 men per mile of front on the Western Front, or about a man per foot of the front which is just a staggering amount. Imagine having a line of people standing shoulder to shoulder, for hundreds and hundreds of miles. With this level of manpower it wasn’t necessary to have them all in the front line and ready to fight at all times, a sizeable part were almost always designated to jobs to change or improve the lines. How these improvements were done varied from place to place along the line just like the terrain in those areas varied. Back when we were discussing the battles around Ypres I believe I mentioned the fact that they couldn’t dig very deep due to the high water tables in the area. If much more than a shallow ditch was dug the risk of it being flooded with water was very high and this wasn’t the only area along the front that this could happen. There are a bunch of stories, especially during the spring and fall when the rains were the heaviest, of soldiers on both sides sitting on top of their trenches instead of inside of them to escape the water. This type of activity only happened early in the war, later in the war it would just be far too deadly. This is just one example of a reasonably common practice of showing yourself above the trenches during the first few months of the war until the snipers really took over the battlefields between large scale attacks. Snipers were essentially just designated marksmen, sometimes provided with guns with telescopic sights, whose goal was to punish any person who exposed themselves above the trenches during the daylight. The snipers were extremely deadly and you see a lot of really funny instances of snipers trying to conceal themselves on the battlefield to provide for better lines of fire. This was in simple forms like camoflage and the precursor to modern day ghillie suits to more elaborate schemes that involved things like fake trees. So the soldiers in these wet areas couldn’t dig down very deep, but they couldn’t show themselves above ground so what they did was just build up walls of sandbags to provide some protection. You see similar practices where the ground was stony or just plain rocks like in the southern parts of the front near the Vosges mountains. One item that was missing from my mental image of the trenches was the fact that in these areas where there was a parapet built up out of sandbags they had to build up the wall in the back of the line just as much as the front. I guess I always pictured it as one wall with men covering behind it but infact it would be two parallel walls. This makes a lot of sense when I thought about the fact that the artillery would be landing all over the place, not just in front of the line. In between the two less than ideal digging regions were the areas where most of the fighting would happen and where the classic idea of trenches would be seen. It was, for the most part, drier in these regions and they had soil that was more workable so that the men could dig trenches down into the ground easily, while not having them fill instantly with water or collapse. This is where you see firing bays and steps, dugouts, and sap trenches going out into no-man’s-land. So what I want you do to is picture in your mind that sort of classical set of trenches that most people have seen in movies or television shows or on the internet and keep that picture in your mind. Are the trenches in reasonably straight lines? If so, that is bad, make them all zig-zagging and crooked. One of the early lessons learned by the engineers was that the trenches were better if they were narrow and constantly zig-zagged. This seems a bit counter intuitive, if you are digging a ditch for example you want that thing to be as straight as possible but if you are digging a trench that an enemy is going to try to take this method has some problems. First of all it allows for artillery and grenade fragments to cause maximum damage as they travel down the trenches. A straight trench is also far easier for an enemy to capture because all it takes it one well placed machine gun to turn a previously protective trench into a shooting gallery for as far as the gun can shoot. A crooked trench made it more difficult for a small group of enemy soldiers to cause damage all along the line and made it more difficult to for them to take large sections of the trenches. The trenches were also made as narrow as possible. The most important purpose of the trench was to protect from artillery fire and by making the trench as narrow as possible the amount of vulnerable space where the artillery shells could hit was reduced as much as possible. The best way to picture the trenches is like a big zipper running along the battlefield with a bunch of right angles that caused the trench to swerve back and forth. I have put a few pictures up on the website so that you can really understand what I mean.

The trenches on the western front were generally a few hundred yards apart, sometimes more, sometimes less, there were even parts of the line that were only 100 feet apart which seems a bit ridiculous. As a bit of comparison, it wasn’t unheard of for lines in the east to be several thousand feet apart. There also wasn’t just one line of trenches, that would just be far too easy. When viewing aerial photographs of the trenches they look like a confusing mess, maze like and almost impossible to navigate, which is actually pretty accurate. The British for example had the front line, then a support line a few hundred yards behind it, then a reserve line a few hundred yards behind that, so three lines. Then they would have a bunch of communication trenches between the lines to connect them so that troops could move between the lines without being exposed to fire. And then between the lines you would have a bunch of dead end trenches, these would be created for all kinds of reasons, maybe it led into a dugout, maybe it was part of a trench line that was replaced by a newer set of trenches, maybe it led to a latrine, really you just never knew what you were going to find at the end of a trench and this caused a ton of confusion. It was not at all uncommon, and you see this especially often when completely new units come into their first set of trenches, for troops to get completely lost while trying to get up to the front line. And of course, just in case the mental image of a big grid of trenches in straight lines popped into your head, remember all of these trenches were zig-zagging to and fro. This system, of course, didn’t just pop up over night and it took awhile for it to be developed. In early January 1915 Falkenhayn told the German commanders to make a strongly fortified front line on their section of the front and that front line was to be held at all cost. He also told them to dig a secondary line of trenches should the troops get pushed out of the first set. Some generals, and not just German but British and French as well were hesitant to dig second and third lines of trenches because they thought it would make it too easy for their troops to fall back during attacks. It would actually take a direct order from Falkenhayn to his commanders to fix this hesitancy on the German side and by the end of 1915 the German line usually had 3 trenches each just as prepared as the one in front of it for defense from attack. Especially as the British and French kept slighting altering how they were attacking this defense in depth became more and more important.

Now I have just one more piece to add to this mental picture of the battlefield. The classic thought of the world war 1 battlefield is of the completely destroyed landscapes at places like Verdun, or on the Somme, or at Passchendaele after the epic battles had occurred there but for the most part this isn’t how the front line was in 1915. There were exceptions, places like Vimy Ridge were already really beat up by the end of 1915 but most of the battlefields along the front were not nearly as broken. There were things like trees, houses, entire villages that still existed behind and even between the trenches. These areas were slowly being beat down by the shelling but they were still standing for now. This fact, combined with the static nature of the front meant that some landmarks gained notoriety with the troops while they were still standing and kept their names long after they ceased to actually exist. Woods and houses were still used to denote areas on the front line in 1918 when their namesakes sometimes didn’t even make it out of the first year of the war. I think all of that information gives a pretty good picture of the battlefield, many many trenches, none of which were straight, some of which weren’t even underground, coupled with some real live trees, and maybe even a few fake ones, and a house or two. Hopefully you have a solid picture in your mind of what a trench system of may have looked like during the war, but what about the actual life of the soldiers who were occupying them?

Well, of course, it varied, but mostly due to whose army you were in instead of where you were stationed. Part of this was due to the different mindsets between each different participant in the conflict. During the retreat after the Battle of the Marne the Germans had been able to pick their ground that they wanted to defend, which was generally the highest ground in the area and they were very dedicated to defending it. The British and French troops just sort of found themselves digging in where the Germans had put them and while this mindset changed later on they saw their trenches as staging and jumping off points for the next offensive instead of long term living areas and while they of course still created them out of shear necessity they often ended up being a bit less inviting than their German counterparts. This increased effort by the Germans early in the war would pay off for them almost instantly not just in terms of protection but also just in quality of life. All along the front, but particularly from about Verdun and northwards the Germans had a tendency to dig many deep shelters that were completely impervious to allied artillery shelling. Some of these dug outs were even fully furnished with bedding and other bits of furniture, some of them even had electricity. These were joined by trenches with machine gun posts that were also heavily protected with trenches that were lined with a wooden walkway and walls to prevent cave ins. When compared with the British and French trenches early in the war, that were often little more than ditches dug wherever they were stationed, the difference is staggering. When the attacks managed to reach the first line of German trenches there were almost always comments in the diaries of the attackers about how awesome the German trenches were. One thing to keep in mind was that all along the front the line was not completely static and the trenches were constantly being remade. Whether it was through improvements to existing trenches or through fixing problems caused by shell fire or enemy action both sides were constantly digging, redigging, widening, strenghtening, or doing something to their sector of the line. In May 1915 six million sandbags were shipped over the channel to British troops and these were used to make improvements to the trenches that were never going to be perfect. If there is one absolute truth about troops fighting the first world war is that they were all getting very good at digging. While the German lines were often superior to their enemy’s in Catastrophe 1914 Max Hastings also claims that the Germans ate far better than their British and French counterparts. Each side ate differently with the British giving their troops biscuits, bread, jam, vegetables, bacon, and the somewhat famous bully beef. Bully beef, for those who don’t know roughly resembled corned beef which is just salt cured beef that is generally boiled and then cured in a salt heavy brine. The Germans were similar but their rations featured a heavier reliance on potatoes and other vegetables. All three sides issued alcohol rations to the troops at the front with Wine for the French, brandy for the Germans, and Rum for the British this was used both to help with morale and to help calm the men’s nerves during their long days at the front. One thing I want to make very clear, and if this is the only fact that you retain from the episode then I think it is worth the effort, the generals did not get the troops drunk before attacks. This is a rumor that makes a round through internet circles every year or so and it is absolutely, one hundred percent false. The alcohol ration was generally increased the night before an attack, but not nearly enough to get the men drunk, again it was used in this case strictly as a way to calm the men’s nerves which right before an attack were strung so tight that there was always concern they would break. So I just wanted to completely get the rumor that commanders were driving drunken men across no man’s land because that was the only way they could get them to attack. One of the great comforts for the men, other than that hit of alcohol in the morning was the delivery of mail. The French, British, and Germans were all pretty good at delivering mail right up to the front line with it often being second only to rations in the minds of the men. The British postal service were somewhat famous for their ability to get the mail up to the men with daily newspapers being delivered just a few days after they were released while at their peak 12.5 million letters were sent from back home every week. These letters brought not only news and information from back home but also gifts. Food was often one of the favorite gifts that a man could get at the front lines. With the food lacking the good tasting attribute any food from home, especially sweets, was seen as an amazing gift. Things like newspapers and letters from home served another purpose as well, to break up the monotany of trench life. The British for example had Stand-To at dawn, breakfast at 7, lunch at 12:30, tea at 4, dinner at 7, sleep by 9:30, day, after day, after day of the same routine will become extremely boring so anything to keep the men busy was important. While the mail was one part of this equation the commanders also did their best to keep everybody busy. Patrols, sniping, local attacks, trench improvements were all activities that were done on days where no large attacks were planned. During the night Trench Raids often took place, something that I will be dedicating an entire episode to later in the year. However, even with all of these fun activities to keep the men busy it very quickly became apparent to everyone that the troops could only stay in the line so long.

The fact that troops couldn’t fight forever was of course a well known fact, there are limits to physical endurance after all. But the new part of this concept during the first world war was that not only could troops not fight all the time, but they also couldn’t even be in the front lines all the time. This included the front line of sections of the front which were considered “quiet” sections. Even the pieces of the front without large scale attacks experienced artillery fire, small raids, shooting, etc. on a daily basis and extended exposure to this environment slowly wore the soldiers down. This forced all of the armies to look at ways to rotate men so that they could have a break. On the western front this meant that for the most part men spent no more than a week in the front line before moving back to a secondary line, then after another week they would move back to the reserve line, then for a week out of the line all together. This meant that the troops were only under the highest of stresses for a week out of every month or so which even though it seems like a small amount was more than enough. A condition that would not be well known at the time of the war but we now know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reared its ugly head early and often in World War 1. The medical officers of the day didn’t really know what it was and it ended up getting the name of shell shock. The story of men with shellshock is a tragic tale, with it often being misdiagnosed as simple cowardice. I personally consider it one of the most important stories of the war and I will be doing an episode dedicated to it later this year. While the primary reason for these rotations was the shear physical and mental endurance of the men there was also the concern about the troops getting too friendly with each other across the trenches. The French General de Gaulle would say ‘Trench warfare has a serious drawback: it exaggerates this feeling in everyone – if I leave the enemy alone he will not bother me … It is lamentable.’ and General d’Urbal, the leader of the Tenth Army at Artois would say ‘Please note that men who stay too long in the same sector become familiar with their neighbours opposite. This results in conversations and sometimes visits which often lead to unfortunate consequences.’ These are two French examples but most of the commanders shared similar thoughts. The men were also supposed to get leave away from the fighting every once in a while and this really varied from army to army. Part of the reason for the French mutiny in 1917 is because it had been years since some French had an extended leave. When the stars did align for the troops and they did get a bit of leave they had quite a good time. I thought this was a good statistic, after a period of leave 80 out of ever 1000 men of the BEF had contracted a venereal disease. Obviously the British were finding a way to have fun in the French cities that they visited, if they didn’t get to go back home that is. In every war there is sort of a tension in the armies between the front line troops and troops whose job places them in the rear. When the troops would go on leave the men at the front would often had some hard feelings when they saw how the non frontline troops of the army was living. Gunner Wilhelm Hillern-Flinsch would write this in his diary during a period of leave ‘In the rear they are living exactly as in peacetime and indeed do not notice the war. Infantry and pioneers bear the brunt of it all, as I see it. They wear funeral shrouds day and night. Look at my poor troopers, marching up the road on their way to be pulverised in waterlogged trenches. No, decidedly in this war there is no equality in the sufferings endured by the different combatants at the front.’ These feelings were just exacerbated due to the levels of suffering and hardship on the front lines, a zone that often only extended back as far as the artillery shells could be fired. This would be the last war where aerial bombardment, which would bring the suffering of the front to entire countries, was not the force that it would be in later wars.

One of the problems that the men at the front had was that of medicine and hygiene. The front lines would only very rarely fall under the definition of sanitary which caused many problems in terms of diseases. The men usually did their best to keep things sort of clean. Latrines were often setup in dead end trenches that had been created especially for that purpose but these weren’t always accessible so sometimes soldiers would just relieve themselves in bully beef tins or something similar and chuck it out into no man’s land or sometimes into a shell hole. These places aren’t the worst spots for human waste, until a shell hits it and it turns into a biological grenade. In these kinds of conditions diseases were rampant as we discussed for a bit during our discussion of the Gallipoli campaign. The types of diseases often varied based on the weather on the front at that time. When it was cold and wet problems like Trench foot, which is a fungal infection from constantly cold and wet feet, or trench mouth, which would cause the teeth to fall out, were joined by more common diseases like the flu or rheumatism. When it was warm it was just as bad with tons of fever outbreaks and just about every kind of insect carried disease that you can think of making an appearance at the front. Two constant companions for the soldiers were rats and lice. Rats were literally everywhere, with all of the decomposing bodies and other food sources they had a veritable feast for the four years of the war. Stories of lice are almost constant in every soldiers account of the fighting. Here is one soldier discussing the problems with trying to get rid of lice “With heavy rains each day forcing us to stay inside our billets, our primary occupation was hunting lice. Each of us carried thousands of them. They found a home in the smallest crease, along seams, in the linings of our clothing. There were white ones, black ones, gray ones with crosses on their backs like crusaders, tiny ones and other as big as a grain of wheat, and all this variety swarmed and multiplied to the detriment of our skins. And these lice bore in as well on the tough skin of a rude peasant as on the soft skin of an effeminate Parisian. They made no distinctions among levels of society. To get rid of them, some rubbed themselves all over with gasoline, every night; others carried sachets of camphor, or powdered themselves with insecticide; nothing did any good. You’d kill then of them, and a hundred more would appear.” All of this discussion is just about living at the front and everything just got worse if you were injured even if you could somehow make it back from the front this was still a time before antibiotics so gangrene and other infection based ailments were a huge killer.

Reading stories of men suffering from diseases like gangrene, or left injured on the battlefield, or any other horrible stories everyone sort of has to come to terms with the fact that when reading histories of the war you will sometimes come upon descriptions of absolutely horrible things. General de Gaulle would say ‘What is this conflict but a war of extermination? A struggle of this kind, which in its range, significance and fury goes beyond anything that Europe has ever known, cannot be waged without enormous sacrifices.” These types of sacrifices went beyond the actual fighting and were required on a daily basis from the troops. In his book Poilu Corporal Louis Barthas would discuss a his experience on a burial detail “The dead men were divided into lots, and we drew for them by squad. For the 13th Squad I drew a lucky hand. We only had six corpses to get rid of and they were very close to the trench. We got the work done quickly. You pushed the cadaver into a shell hole, tossed a few shovelfuls of earth on top, and on to the next one.” Burying the dead was bad enough but then when a trench would move and the digging would start it was not uncommon to unearth previously buried bodies. Private Jack Mackenzie would write in a letter back home “We relieved our fourth battalion, these are the trenches which they lost so many men in capturing, it is just one vast deadhouse, the stench in some places is something awful, the first thing we had to do was dig the trenches deeper & otherwise repair them & we came across bodies all over the place, you know the Germans occupied these trenches nearly the whole winter and have been losing heavily & had to bury their killed in the trenches, there were legs and arms sticking out all over the place when we arrived but we have buried the most of them properly now. The ground behind us us [sic] is covered yet by dead Camerons and Germans who fell on the seventeenth of May & we go out at night & bury them, it is a very rotten job as they are very decomposed, but it has to be done.” These types of experiences would absolutely have an effect on the men who experienced them Francois Mayer would write in 1914 “We no longer take heed of the dead – we care only for the living, That is what debases this human sacrifice. No one has seen anything who has not seen war, eaten beside corpses on which the crows are preying, laughing and chatting with our comrades as we do so. It is utterly terrifying.” This type of coping mechanism was almost to be expected when you think about what the men were experiencing. I have read countless accounts about these types of horrors that the men experienced. Of the piles of dead bodies decomposing in the heat, of unearthing previously dead bodies, of living in the dirt and the filth for weeks at a time. I could quote for you a hundred different stories but I can’t possibly imagine the smell, the sights, or the horror that the men experienced on a daily basis. To just be in the trenches for any amount of time and not go mad and to be able to stay there and keep fighting requires a type of resolve that I only hope that I could summon. Unfortunately for everyone involved the horrors of 1915 were bad, but they were going to get worse.