First World War Myths Lies and Distortions

Part 3 - The Endless Horror of the Trenches

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Officer conducting a foot inspection

The young, patriotic volunteer of 1914 would be given some rudimentary training, shipped to one of the Channel Ports and then marched to the front line, singing a jaunty song. He would then go into a flooded, filthy, rat-infested hole in the ground where he would stay until November 1918, if he survived. He would suffer from lice and “trench foot” and fed on a paltry diet of bully beef and dry biscuits. When he wasn’t being constantly gassed or shelled, he would have to go “over the top,” into a hail of machine gun fire, his life thrown away by the uncaring generals and staff officers, whom he would never see. Those are the stark facts, aren’t they because Mr _______ said so?

The BEF of 1914 was comprised of regular soldiers and trained reservists. They certainly would have done a lot of marching, but not up to the front line. They would have been moved to the reserve areas by trains or one of the hundreds of London buses shipped out to France to act as troop carriers. These regulars would have had to fight anywhere in the world and they routinely marched twenty miles a day or double that if a forced march was required. They were very tough and very professional. The reservists did suffer and it was not uncommon to see them on the sides of the roads with bleeding feet. With training and experience, they would become tougher and fine soldiers. Unlike the French and German armies, British soldiers rarely sang as they marched. It was a waste of breath that was needed for marching, boots, boots moving up and down again.

After the early 1914 war of manoeuvre turned into a static war of attrition, safety was found by digging trenches. The British soldier was no stranger to digging trenches, as they had plenty of practice in South Africa, such as the Siege of Ladysmith and other colonial adventures. A well-constructed trench system would provide shelter and enable troops to move around unmolested. They could carry out personal admin, eat, sleep and use his personal weapon from cover. At first as manoeuvre was still the intent, trenches were temporary and makeshift, using the lie of the land and drainage ditches. Later, they would become more elaborate with fire steps, bunkers, dugouts and drainage, as the two sides moved into a war of attrition.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Cross section of a trench system

The construction of the type of trench was dependent on military doctrine. The French doctrine was of constant aggressive action, where the offensive was king. French trenches were a launch pad for the attack. The Germans believed in function with meticulous construction, firmly believing that defence in depth was the key and any fool could be uncomfortable. As the Germans tended to occupy the higher ground, digging down into the water table wasn’t such a problem for them and their trenches had better drainage. They used deep bunkers reinforced with concrete and even the heaviest barrages could not prevent their troops emerging unscathed to meet an attack, such as the Somme Offensive of 1916. The British doctrine tended to follow that of the French, but in certain areas that remained static, the trenches became more permanent. It was a typical British compromise, however, it was the British view that the war could be won by “Sitzkrieg,” and the only way to prevail was to winkle the Germans out of their defensive positions and push them back to Germany.

There were three lines of trenches: the front line being the firing line and from where attacks were launched. The distance between the opposing lines of trenches was sometimes as close as twenty yards, but more normally 200 to 500 yards. Where possible the trench lines were built on the reverse slope, away from enemy observation and direct fire. If a shell landed in a trench, the force of the explosion could be funnelled up and down, so the trenches had doglegs built into their construction.

Behind the firing trench was the observation and communication trench, which allowed commanders to survey their area of responsibility (AOR). This was where the commanders’ dugouts were usually located. The sides of the trenches had to be shored up to prevent the sides from collapsing in wet weather. Initially wood was used and later corrugated iron, although a shell could turn this reinforcement into a flying guillotine. Rolls of barbed wire were staked in front of trenches to impede and funnel attackers into the killing zones. The third line of trenches were the reserve trenches, where reinforcements were held. All the trench lines were served with communications trenches moving forwards. These labyrinths could be a confusing place for the new arrivals, so they were given familiar names such as Park Lane, Oxford Street and Hyde Park Corner. Trench maps were regarded as secret and not allowed in the front line.  During offensives, trenches or saps were often dug out into no-man’s-land so that the advancing troops had less killing ground to cover.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Modern aerial view of a trench system

Despite perceived wisdom, cleanliness and hygiene were strictly enforced. Disease had always been one of the dangers of soldiering, as the English found out to their cost during the Siege of Harfleur in 1415. The average soldier produced 2.4 lbs of faeces and urine a day, a ton per week for a company. Latrines were constructed behind the reserve trenches, deep pits with wooden bench seats on the top. Once it was full the latrine was marked with “foul ground” warning signs and another on dug. These pits were 16 feet deep and usually constructed by engineers. There were of course separate latrines for officers, SNCOs and Other Ranks.

Rats were attracted to ration stores and the horse lines as well as unburied bodies in no-mans-land. These bodies were buried where possible and in quieter moments, the Germans allowed burial parties to go about their business, because rats weren’t choosy about which side they decide to cohabit with. Unlike the French, the British did not bury their dead in the trench parapet. Lice could be a problem where men live in close proximity.in the fire trenches, where they could not wash and when coming out of the line, men had their clothing fumigated.

The usual front line routine was for an infantry battalion to man the forward and support line, with half of those in support billeted up to a mile to the rear. The numbers in the firing line and support lines varied, according to the threat level. Usually it was two companies forward with two in reserve. Later it became common practice to have the fire line lightly held, with the majority held in the reserve line, to reduce casualties from sniper and sporadic shell fire.

British soldiers did not spend four years in the firing line, or even at the front. The battalions were rotated from firing line back to support line and then back to billets some miles behind the front. These billets were requisitioned civilian houses or barns and sometimes huts erected by the engineers. Troops in these billets would train and play sport and bath houses were available as were field brothels for the French and Germans. French law prohibited the sale of alcoholic spirits to the military, but plenty was available, hence the numbers of field Court Martials for drunkenness. A battalion could normally expect to spend ten days per month in the trenches, although clearly this would depend on the strategic and tactical situation at the time.

This constant rotation placed a great deal of work on the support and staff officers. There was always a danger that an attack would take place during a rotation and that local knowledge would be lost when troops moved out of the front lines. However, it was felt that the increase in fighting effectiveness and morale, outweighed the risks of having so many men to cover these rotations. The British Army never suffered a major collapse in morale on the Western Front, unlike the French and German armies.

The Army grew enormously and between August 1914 and June 1916, the BEF increased from four infantry divisions to fifty-eight. This put a great strain on the training units and it would be fair to observe that the British New Army of 1916 was not ready to bear the brunt of the Somme Offensive. The planning of 1915 was for a joint British/French offensive in the Somme, with the French army bearing the brunt of offensive operations. However, the German attack at Verdun put paid to the plans and General Haig was bounced by his senior partners in the alliance, for the BEF to bear the brunt of the fighting at the Somme. By 1917 the training of the British Army was exceptional and it probably finished the war in 1918 with a better-trained army that it had started with in 1914.

Venereal disease was a natural result of allowing troops in the reserve areas so much freedom and many of the French lady-folk were rife with it. The British took the view that these bestial urges could be controlled with a healthy diet, access to spiritual welfare and plenty of vigorous exercise. The RAMC treated 153,531 cases of VD on the western front. The equivalent of an infantry platoon in every infantry battalion caught VD. While it is easy to point the finger at French women, only forty-five per-cent of cases were contracted in France. The Army didn’t want to punish sufferers for fear of driving the disease and those suffering from it underground, when it could be treated and the soldier returned to duty. While it was acknowledged as understandable for an OR to contract VD, it could be the kiss of death for an officer. He would be required to resign his commission, a form of dishonourable discharge, with all the peace-time ramifications this entailed, and made the former officer likely for conscription. One wonders how many decided to keep their affliction a secret and suffer the consequences.

The water table is high in Flanders and even in good weather, water appears after a few feet of digging. The winter of 1914-15 was cold and wet and many trenches flooded and many men suffered immersion foot, gangrene due to lack of circulation in the lower limbs. Before a rigid regime of foot inspections was introduced, many soldiers suffered from it in one way or another and many would continue to suffer in later life. The remedies were the rubbing of whale oil on the feet before going into the trenches, thigh-high rubber waders and mechanical pumps to drain the trenches. By late 1915, trench foot had been largely eliminated, except in the few cases of battalions new to the front. Notably, cases of immersion foot were proportionally much higher in the Falklands War of 1982 than during World War One.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A severe case of immersion foot

While an Army may not exactly march on its stomach, a balanced and nutritional diet is essential for maintaining troops and ensuring they are fit enough to carry out their duties. A balanced diet was produced and support and administrative staff took great efforts to deliver food to soldiers, wherever they were located. The British Army strived to provide a soldier in the front lines with 4,193 calories per day. This was less than the French but more than the Germans provided their troops. But the quality of the French rations were so poor that it caused mutinies in 1917. The Germans had problems maintaining their rations once the RN blockade started to bite.

Hot meals were usually brought up to the front at night and contained where possible 18oz of fresh meat and bread. Soldiers did complain about the monotony of the dried biscuits and processed cheese, but they seldom went hungry, unlike other armies. During offensives, they would have to rely on bully beef and biscuits, but they were generally fed much better than those back on the home front. Great efforts were made to produce a special Christmas Dinner and all detachments were visited by their commanding officers, who often served the men with their dinner.

Daily ration from planning guidelines

20 ounces of bread 1/10 gill lime if vegetables not issued
16 ounces of flour instead of above ½ gill of rum
18 ounces of fresh or frozen meat
3 ounces of cheese maximum of 20 ounces of tobacco
5/8 ounces of tea 1/3 chocolate – optional
4 ounces of jam 4 ounces of oatmeal instead of bread
½ ounce of salt 1 pint of porter instead of rum
1/36 ounce of pepper 4 ounces of dried fruit instead of jam
1/20 ounce of mustard 4 ounces of butter/margarine
8 ounces of fresh vegetables or 2 ounces of dried vegetables

A good indicator of the general healthiness of an army is its sickness rates. Before the war a rate of 0.3% was regarded as the norm. In 1914 on the Western Front it was 0.26%, 0’25% in 1915, 0.13% in 1916, 0.15 in 1917 and 0’16% in 1918. The conclusion must be that despite the privations of life at the front, the British Army was comprised of fit, healthy and well-fed men, a credit to their Army and the country that bore them, shaped them, made them aware.
 

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