Trench Warfare in the First World War
When the Germans attacked in Belgium they quickly beat the armies defending the borders and managed to get into France very quickly. The British and French generals, uncertain about how to stop the German advance decided to ‘dig in’ and ordered the construction of Trenches to act as a barrier against the attack.
The soldiers dug a hole about a meter wide at the bottom and two meters
deep. Boards were placed on the ground to act as drainage. On the side of
the trench facing the enemy a ‘fire step’ was cut into the wall. This was for
soldiers to shoot from. Sandbags were placed at the top of the trench. This
would stop the trench caving in if a bomb went off nearby. It also provided
more protection from bullets. In front of the trench Barbed wire was rolled out.
Both sides soon found that they could stop an enemy attack by digging trenches and setting up machine guns. Trenches soon became a permanent feature of warfare and the trench lines changed little in three and a half years. Sandbags protected the soldiers from bullets and shrapnel. Barbed wire was set up to delay any enemy advance. The ground between the trench lines became pock-marked with shell craters.
The British developed the tank to destroy machine gun positions, cross rough ground and go through belts of barbed wire.
This was difficult to cut. Shelling usually only tangled it up. It spread men out in a line.
These mowed down men with intersecting crossfire.
This was very effective in slowing down heavily-laden attackers. It was not so effective against troops in trenches.
The best trenches saved soldiers from all but a direct hit. Shells churned up the ground, destroyed drainage systems and made attack very difficult.
Lack of secrecy
The enemy could easily see when extra supplies were brought up for an attack.
These could rush reinforcements to a threatened spot very quickly. Aeroplanes were not powerful enough then to delay rail traffic by any great amount.
Attack at walking pace
Men could only advance at walking pace.
Lack of experience
Generals had never fought this way before and could not think of ways of
breaking through the trenches
These were to stop enemy artillery destroying a whole line of trench and to
prevent successful attackers being able to fire along a long length of a trench.
These joined lines of trenches.
These led nowhere and they were built to confuse and slow down the enemy in the event of a successful attack.
These were built for miners and snipers.
These were tunnels driven under enemy trenches so that explosives could be placed under them and detonated.
No Man's Land
This was very difficult to cross because of the belts of barbed wire, shell holes and very swampy conditions when it rained.
The Trench: Important points
Advantages: easy to make, easy to defend, cheap to build, don’t need lots of men to defend them.
Disadvantages: wet, cold, hard to get in an out of without being seen by the enemy. Trenches were very dirty and unhygienic as there was no running water or flushing toilets.
Some of the problems faced inside the trenches.
1- Body Lice
Men in the trenches suffered from lice. One soldier writing after the war described them as "pale fawn in color, and they left blotchy red bite marks all over the body."
They also created a sour, stale smell. Various methods were used to remove the lice.
A lighted candle was fairly effective but the skill of burning the lice without burning your clothes was only learnt with practice. Where possible the army arranged for the men to have baths in huge vats of hot water while their clothes were being put through delousing machines. Unfortunately, this rarely worked. A fair proportion of the eggs remained in the clothes and within two or three hours of the clothes being put on again a man's body heat had hatched them out.
As well as causing frenzied scratching, lice also carried disease. This was known as pyrrexhia or trench fever. The first symptoms were shooting pains in the shins and was followed by a very high fever. Although the disease did not kill, it did stop soldiers from fighting and accounted for about 15% of all cases of sickness in the British Army.
Source B: Private George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)
A full day's rest allowed us to clean up a bit, and to launch a full scale attack on lice. I sat in a quiet corner of a barn for two hours delousing myself as best I could.
We were all at it, for none of us escaped their vile attentions. The things lay in the seams of trousers, in the deep furrows of long thick woolly pants, and seemed impregnable in their deep entrenchments. A lighted candle applied where they were thickest made them pop like Chinese crackers. After a session of this, my face would be covered with small blood spots from extra big fellows which had popped too vigorously. Lice hunting was called 'chatting'. In parcels from home it was usual to receive a tin of supposedly death-dealing powder or pomade, but the lice thrived on the stuff.
Source C: Private Stuart Dolden wrote about his experiences in the
trenches after the war.
We had to sleep fully dressed, of course, this was very uncomfortable with the pressure of ammunition on one's chest restricted breathing; furthermore, when a little warmth was obtained the vermin used to get busy, and for some unexplained reason they always seemed to get lively in the portion of one's back, that lay underneath the belt and was the most inaccessible spot. The only way to obtain relief was to get out of the dugout, put a rifle barrel between the belt and rub up and down like a donkey at a gatepost. This stopped it for a bit, but as soon as one got back into the dugout, and was getting reasonably warm so would the little brutes get going again.
2. Trench Feet
After the war, Captain G. H. Impey, 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, wrote about his experiences of trench life.
The trenches were wet and cold and at this time some of them did not have duckboards and dug-outs. The battalion lived in mud and water. Altogether about 200 men were evacuated for trench feet and rheumatism. Gum boots were provided for the troops in the most exposed positions. Trench feet was still a new ailment and the provision of dry socks was vitally important. Part of the trench was reserved for men to go two at a time, at least once a day, and rub each other's feet with grease.
3. Trench Rats
Many men killed in the trenches were buried almost where they fell. If a trench subsided, or new trenches or dugouts were needed, large numbers of decomposing bodies would be found just below the surface. These corpses, as well as the food scraps that littered the trenches, attracted rats. One pair of rats can produce 880 offspring in a year and so the trenches were soon swarming with them.
Some of these rats grew extremely large. One soldier wrote: "The rats were huge.
They were so big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself." These rats became very bold and would attempt to take food from the pockets of sleeping men. Two or three rats would always be found on a dead body. They usually went for the eyes first and then they burrowed their way right into the corpse. One soldier described finding a group of dead bodies while on patrol: "I saw some rats running from under the dead men's greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. My heart pounded as we edged towards one of the bodies. His helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured and from the yawning mouth leapt a rat."
Source A: Punch, 1916
Source B: Stuart Dolden, 1920
The outstanding feature of the trenches was the extraordinary number of rats. The area was infested with them. It was impossible to keep them out of the dugouts. They grew fat on the food that they pilfered from us, and anything they could pick up in or around the trenches; they were bloated and loathsome to look at.
Some were nearly as big as cats. We were filled with an instinctive hatred of them, because however one tried to put the thought of one's mind, one could not help feeling that they fed on the dead.
Source C: George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)
Rats bred by the tens of thousands and lived on the fat of the land. When we were sleeping in funk holes the things ran over us, played about, copulated and fouled our scraps of food, their young squeaking incessantly. There was no proper system of waste disposal in trench life. Empty tins of all kinds were flung away over the top on both sides of the trench. Millions of tins were thus available for all the rats in France and Belgium in hundreds of miles of trenches. During brief moments of quiet at night, one could hear a continuous rattle of tins moving against each other. The rats were turning them over.
What happened to the rats under heavy shell-fire was a mystery, but their
powers of survival kept place with each new weapon, including poison gas.
Source D: Richard Beasley, interviewed in 1993.
If you left your food the rats would soon grab it. Those rats were fearless.
Sometimes we would shoot the filthy swines. But you would be put on a charge for
wasting ammo, if the sergeant caught you.
Source E: Frank Laird writing after the war.
Sometimes the men amused themselves by baiting the ends of their rifles with pieces of bacon in order to have a shot at them at close quarters.