Typified by its lack of movement and stalemate from late 1914 onwards, the 1914-18 Great War was a war of attrition where both side dug in along a 400-mile corridor that stretch from the Franco-Swiss border to the English Channel ports of Flanders. The trench warfare that resulted was alien to both sides and brought with it new challenges not just from the point of view of the fighting, but also from the aspect of simply trying to live.

So what was life actually like for the men serving in the trenches of the 1914-18 Great War?

For the average infantryman serving in the trenches of the 1914-18 Great War life followed a pattern of rotating in and out the trenches in a cyclical fashion, often called the ‘Trench Cycle’. This would consist of: -
  • A spell in the front line.

  • A stint in the support lines.

  • A period in reserve.

  • Rest.

They would rotate between the three lines and the time spent in each section varied from sector to sector. In the busier sectors of the front, soldiers would spend far longer in the front line than normal and less time at rest. Thus the time of the cycle was determined by the prevailing situation and often when supposedly at rest men might find themselves tasked with carrying out duties that placed them in the ‘line of fire’.

A typical trench cycle we be two weeks at in the frontline, a week in the support lines, two weeks in reserve and one week at rest. In a year the average infantryman could expect to spend 4 months (about 120 days) in the front line, with another 2 months (about 60 days) in nearby support trenches, a further 4 months might be spent in reserve and only 2 months or so would be spent at rest. The period at rest would generally include any leave if indeed any was granted. The amount of leave varied greatly and one counted themselves luck if they got two weeks during a year.

The Daily Routine

Life in the trenches followed a daily routine when it was not interrupted by an attack or raid against the enemy or defending against the enemy when they attacked. The routine was: -

Stand To at Dawn The daily routine began with the morning ‘stand to'.  An hour before dawn those that were sleeping were woken up by the company orderly officer and sergeant. Everyone then fixed bayonets, took up their positions with the infantrymen climbing up on the fire step, and readied themselves to guard against a dawn raid by the enemy. Both sides carried out their respective ‘stand to' and despite the knowledge that each had prepared itself for raids or attacks timed at dawn, it was at this time that many of the planned attacks were carried out.

As the light grew, this daily ritual was accompanied by the ‘morning hate'. This was when both sides relieved the tension of the early hours with indiscriminate machine gun fire, shelling and small arms fire into the mist to their front, which made doubly sure of safety at dawn.

Breakfast and Weapon Cleaning Following stand to the men would have their breakfast and clean their weapons. Breakfast would be brought up in containers from the field kitchens and the weapon cleaning would be done in shifts, with only a portion of the men cleaning their weapons at any one time.

Inspection Breakfast would be followed by the daily inspection by the Platoon Officer and Sergeant. Weapons would be checked to ensure that they were clean and serviceable as would the men's clothing. Often this inspection would include a ‘foot inspection' looking for signs of ‘trench foot'.

Trench Foot was a 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. Some 20,000 casualties resulting from trench foot were reputed to have been suffered by the British Army alone by the close of 1914. As conditions improved in 1915 it rapidly faded, although a trickle of cases continued throughout the war.

Daily Chores Inspection over the Platoon Sergeant and Corporals would assign daily chores to each man. This could be the filling of sandbags, the repair of duckboards, pumping out the water that had gathered in the bottom of the trench, digging latrines, or any number of other tasks designed to maintain their section of the trench that could be carried out below the level of the trench parapet.

The Daily Boredom With the close proximity of the enemy's trench movement was restricted during the daytime to what was essential only, thus when the men were not engaged in carrying out a task of one kind or another they soon settled into the persistent round of daily boredom. With their daily chores complete, the men were free to attend to their personal tasks such as cleaning and repairing their personal equipment, reading or writing letter home and preparing their meals. When not doing these they would snatch whatever sleep they could although it was seldom more than a few minutes before they were detailed another task.

Stand To at Dusk The onset of dusk saw the ritual of ‘Stand to' repeated with everyone fixing their bayonets, taking up their positions and readying themselves for an enemy attack or raid.

Re-supply and Maintenance With the onset of darkness the men would be ordered to ‘stand down' and the nights work of re-supply and maintenance would begin. Men would be sent to the rear to fetch rations and water whilst others would be on sentry duty. Sentry duty was never more than two hours as there was a real chance that a man would fall asleep at his post. Falling asleep on duty was considered to be a serious offence for which the penalty was ‘death by firing-squad.

Patrolling, Listening Posts and Wiring Parties The onset of darkness also brought with it the need to patrol no man's land, man listening posts and send out wiring parties. The patrolling was meant to dominate no man's land to prevent the enemy mounting a raid during the night. On occasions a patrol would meet an enemy patrol in the darkness. They would each be faced with the decision of whether to fight or simply let the other pass by. If fighting was the choice this would be hand-to-hand as to fire a weapon would invite a burst from the enemy's machine guns.

The listening posts were there to stop the enemy sneaking up on you. The wiring parties were sent out to repair or enhance the barbed wire defences in front of the trench.

Relieving the men at the front

It was during the night that the men in the frontline were relieved.  Relieving units would wind their way through numerous lines of communications trenches, weighed down with equipment and trench stores.  This weary and tiring process would often take several frustrating hours.

Living with Death on a Daily Basis

It has been estimated that up to one third of all Allied casualties on the Western Front were actually sustained in the trenches. To the men serving in them death was a constant companion, even when no raid or attack was launched or defended against. Death in the trenches came in many disguises: -

Death by enemy shelling 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 of those who to fall victim to the shelling were buried as a consequence and some even buried alive. Of those buried alive many were rescued by their comrades, but other suffered a very unpleasant death indeed.

Death by Sniper All soldiers in the trenches soon learnt to curb their natural inclination to peer over the parapet of the trench into No Man's Land. To do so was to invite a well aimed sniper's bullet and many of the new men died on their first day in the trenches as a consequence.

Death by Disease Aside from the deaths caused by the enemy, disease wrought a heavy toll.

Living with Vermin

Another aspect of living in the trenches was the companions that occupied the trench alongside of their human partners. These were the vermin that brought with them all manner of disease and discomfort. These vermin came in many shapes and forms: -

Rat Infestation Rats in their 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.

Men, exasperated and afraid of these rats (which would even scamper across their faces in the dark), would attempt to rid the trenches of them by various methods: gunfire, with the bayonet, and even by clubbing them to death. It was futile however, as a pair of rats could produce up to 900 offspring in a year, spreading infection and contaminating food.

The rat problem remained for the duration of the war (although many veteran soldiers swore that rat's sensed impending heavy enemy shellfire and consequently disappeared from view). They were also for many the overriding feature of the trenches that lingered in their minds long after the war had finished.

Lice Lice infestation was the norm in the trenches - it is estimated that up to 97% of officers and men who worked and lived in the trenches were afflicted with lice.  It was decidedly a trench phenomenon.  Men who returned home on leave were not likewise affected and the end of the war in November 1918 brought an end to the problem of infestation.

Body Lice 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.

Head Lice Many men chose to shave their heads entirely to avoid this particular scourge.

Lice caused Trench Fever, a particularly painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever.  The Lice sucked the blood of one host who was infected by trench fever and then quickly succeeded in spreading the fever to each successive host. Recovery away from the trenches took up to twelve weeks and Lice were not actually identified as the culprit of Trench Fever until 1918. Trench Fever, although not usually life-threatening, was often highly debilitating and resulted in a trench casualty rate of up to 15%.

Frogs Frogs by the score were found in shell holes covered in water; they were also found in the base of trenches, these brought with them waterborne diseases as well as spreading other diseases.

Other vermin Slugs and Horned Beetles crowded the sides of the trench.

The Smell

And finally, no overview of life in the trench would be complete without mentioning the one overriding aspect that instantly struck anyone visiting the lines - the appalling smell. Beside the smell of general decay, this was the result of numerous conflicting sources including: -

Rotting Flesh The dead lay around in their thousands.  For example, approximately 200,000 men were killed on the Somme battlefields, many of which lay in shallow graves. It was often impossible to bury the dead immediately following a battle and they would lie out in no man's land for days before they could be dealt with. In addition many died in the shell holes that filled up with water or simply sank into the glutinous mud. The stench of rotting flesh was a constant theme to life in the trenches.

Overflowing Latrines Added to this was the stench of the overflowing latrines. The men would try to fill these in and dig new ones, but after a short period there was no room let to put a new one in.

The Stench of Humanity Then there was the stench of unwashed humanity. Men who had not been afforded the luxury of a bath in weeks or months would offer the pervading odour of dried sweat.  The feet were generally accepted to give off the worst odour. Then there was the smell of cigarette smoke and cooking food.

The Smell of Disinfectant Trenches would also smell of creosol or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection.

The Smell of Battle On top of all this was the smell of cordite, the lingering odour of poison gas... yet men grew used to it, while it thoroughly overcame first-time visitors to the front.


© Ian R Gumm, 2009


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