the smell, rotting bodies in shallow graves, men who hadn't washed in weeks because there were no facilities, overflowing cess pits, creosol or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection. Cordite, the lingering odour of poison gas, rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke, and cooking food. Although overwhelming to a new recruit, they soon got used to the smell and eventually became part of the smell with their own body odour.
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.
The cold wet and unsanitary conditions were also to cause trench foot amongst the soldiers, a fungal infection, which 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.
MORE ON TRENCH WARFARE
Trench Warfare developed due to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. When Germany realised that they would have to fight a war on two fronts, and that this meant that they would have to split their already small army in two, Count Von Schleiffen, Chief of the German General Staff, devised a plan which would solve this problem. The plan involved invading France through neutral Belgium and catching them off-guard. They would then defeat France within six weeks and be ready to fight Russia, who by this time should have mobilised their army. However, the plan failed, and this led to the introduction of trench warfare.
Trench Warfare was a form of field fortification, consisting of parallel rows of trenches. During World War 1 trenches had begun to appear by late 1914. On the western front, trenches ran from the Belgium border to the Swiss Border, and they soon became home to millions of soldiers.
The front line directly faced the enemy, who would usually be between 200-800 metres away. The space in between the front lines of the defenders and the attackers was known as "No Man’s Land".
The front line was protected by barbed wire, which was secretly erected or amended during the night.
Behind the front line were the "reserve trenches", also known as the "second line" or the "support trenches". These were the second line of defence and they were used if the front line was captured by the enemy.
Sometimes, there was even a third line of defence. These were known as the "communication trenches" and they ran over 1km back to safety. All things going up the line, such as fresh troops, water, food, mail, ammunition, etc, had to use these lines. Also, wounded soldiers went in the other direction to hospitals.
Almost all trenches were deep enough for a man to stand up straight without being seen by the enemy. However on the occasions when they weren’t deep enough the men had crouch or crawl all day long, for if enemy snipers saw so much as a hair on the soldiers head, they would blast the soldiers head right off.
The mud that was dug out of the trench was piled up in front to form a parapet, which helped to protect from bullets. Sandbags were also used as reinforcements.
The "firing step" was another feature of many trenches. These were used only at night, for obvious safety reasons, by sentries, but they were also used in battle when troops were shooting.
Trenches were formed in zigzags, as opposed to straight lines. This was to prevent attackers from shooting straight down the trench, and it helped to reduce the effects of blasts from shells. It also meant that it was more difficult for the trench to be captured as the enemy had to fight round each corner to capture more and more of the trench. Another method of slowing down the process of the enemy capturing the trench, were barbed wire doors, which were common in trenches. When open they fitted into gaps in the side of the trench, but when they were closed they were lethal. They were situated at intervals along the length of the trench.
Wet weather made the trenches become very muddy, very quickly, so flat planks of wood called duckboards were laid end-to-end along the ground, and were then nailed together. These helped to provide a floor, which could cope with the soldiers walking on them from day-to-day. As these did not sink into the mud, they soon became a common sight in British trenches.
Living conditions in trenches were very basic and extremely unhygienic. The troops slept in little holes cut out of the side of the trench known as "dug outs".
Planks and sandbags were used to support the roof of the dug out in an effort to make them safer, as there was a huge risk that the roof could fall in on the soldier. This risk was greatly increased if shells had weakened the trench. Planks were also placed on the ground in the dug out to provide a hard wood base for the soldier to use as a bed. Blankets were hung over the front of the dug out to give the soldier a bit of privacy, but they did not however, give any protection against shell splinters.
Living conditions for the soldiers were also very wet. The soldiers often had to stand with water up to their ankles, sometimes even their knees, and this caused them to suffer from a condition called "trench foot". This was a condition in the feet where they started off by wrinkling up like when you’ve been in the bath too long, but as time goes on, blisters developed and the pain for the soldiers was immense. Although the troops were advised to rub whale oil on their feet regularly it didn’t do a lot of good. They were also supposed to change into dry socks regularly, but rain and mud just made them wet again.
The trenches were a perfect place for germs to thrive. Any diseases caught by soldiers were spread easily from one to another.
Likewise, there were no antibiotics for the wounded, and their wounds often went septic. This in turn led to gangrene.
Unhygienic living conditions in trenches were to blame for many deaths. Probably the main cause of death due to living conditions in trenches was the rapid spread of disease, but wounds infected with gangrene could also be fatal.
In the trenches, each day was much the same as the last. Nothing really ever changed, unless there was a battle.
At first light, the order "Stand down!" was given and knowing that the threat of a night raid was over, the sentries could relax.
Breakfast for the troops usually consisted of, if not bacon, at least a cup of tea. The cooking in the trenches was done on small fires made of scraps of wood found usually in local ruins.
The troops were rarely hungry, unless due to shell damage, the communication trenches were damaged and the ferrying of food up and down the line was temporarily prevented. However although there was usually enough food to go round, the choice was rarely varied.
The usual selection was tinned "bully beef", a loaf of bread to be shared among up to 10 men, and jam, which was usually Tickler’s plum and apple flavour, which the men soon got fed up of. Occasionally there was an abundance of cheese, but this caused constipation and the men thought that it was a deliberate attempt to ease the problem of trench toilets.
In case of an emergency, there was always a supply of hard biscuits, but these were like cement and caused immense problems to men with false teeth – they had to soak them in water!
By mid-morning most of the troops were at work. The day-to-day work consisted of repairing damage to the trench, filling sandbags, carrying supplies, running errands, etc… The most common task carried out by soldiers was cleaning their weapons. Every soldier possessed a Lee Enfield rifle and it was their duty to keep this thoroughly clean to prevent it from jamming at a vital moment.
Daily medical checks were also part of the soldier’s daily routine. Every soldier was crawling with lice – in their hair, on their body, in their clothes. Occasional de-lousing took place but this rarely did any good because the lice always seemed to find a safe hiding place in the folds of clothes.
Another problem which soldiers dealt with was water. In the trenches water was usually brought to the front line in petrol cans, and chloride of lime was added to kill off bacteria. The chloride of lime however, gave the water an awful taste.
In winter, water was less of a problem because snow and ice could be melted. Occasionally, however, bodies were found frozen in the ice, and this could cause the soldiers distress.
Obviously, when asked what the most life consuming aspect of the soldier’s daily routine in the trenches was, the reply would have to be the battles. But these were not daily occurrences. Also life threatening, however was the risk of catching disease from contaminated food and water.
TACTICS OF ATTACK IN TRENCH WARFARE
In World War 1, there were three main ways of attacking.
The first tactic I am going to discuss is bombardment. This was probably the most common tactic. The idea of bombardment was that the attackers used shells to destroy the opposition’s communication trenches as well as the front line – this was to prevent reinforcements from reaching the front lines. They then went "over the top" of their trenches and approached the opposition across No Man’s Land in the hope that when they reached the opposition’s trenches, all the enemy soldiers would be dead, the barbed wire would be destroyed, and they could successfully capture part of the trench.
However this was rarely what they found. The reality was that the German’s had dug their trenches so deep that they had sufficient protection from the shells. The Allies had not predicted this and were surprised to find the German’s still alive, the trenches and the barbed wire still intact and the German artillery not destroyed.
Another method used was called the "Creeping Barrage". This was a very well developed tactic, which comprised of the British firing guns and shells, and the soldiers went creeping behind the shells. The shellfire caused the Germans to be too scared to leave their trenches, allowing the British to capture part of the trench. However there was one drawback to this tactic - if the cannon was not on target then some of the British men might be killed.
The third tactic that I am going to mention involved the soldiers digging a tunnel under No Man’s Land in an effort to reach the enemy without being seen and therefore catching them off guard. However, this was not a very effective tactic due to the fact the opposition could hear the digging and they too began to dig. This led to them meeting in the middle, and a battle was fought underground.
These tactics all resulted in many deaths from shell fire, machine gun fire, etc… But they were necessary for the war to eventually come to an end. Perhaps, if the plans had been made more carefully, then fewer deaths would have occurred, but no one could foresee the extent to which the deaths went.