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20 October 2014
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Trench Warfare
What was life like for the average soldier on the Western Front?

A typical British officer dugout, © IWM

Men might have different experiences of life on the Western Front depending on their rank and role. For example, it was the job of the Officer to lead night patrols, to organise the men and to relay orders from High Command. It is said that they were treated better than ordinary soldiers as they had small 'dug-outs' in trenches where they would eat and sleep, better food and might be more readily excused from front line duty if they were wounded or ill.

Shell-holes often doubled as trenches as the land was repeatedly bombed, © IWM

In general all soldiers followed a basic routine shaped by 'stand-to' at dawn and dusk, when poor visibility made enemy attacks more likely. In the morning this lasted roughly an hour after which rifle equipment was cleaned, breakfast served and daily tasks assigned. Tasks might include repairing duckboards, draining trenches, and reinforcing trench walls damaged by rainfall. Wherever possible men tried to catch a little rest or attend to more personal matters such as writing letters home.

It was at evening stand-to that work began in earnest. In this time supplies of food and ammunition were brought from the rear lines, barbed wire defences were repaired, men were rescued from no-man's land to be treated or identified, and reconnaissance work was undertaken. In theory men did a stint in the front line followed by a short spell in support, before moving to the reserve trenches. After a short rest period the pattern started again. In reality this system of rotation and leave depended on the demands of battle.

Thinking Point: What do you think was the worst part of trench life?

The boredom and grind of the daily routine was endured in the most appalling living conditions. For example, apart from the constant threat of enemy snipers, poison gas, shells and machine-gun fire there was the difficulty of getting hot food to the front lines, so men had to rely mainly on basic food rations. These rations consisted of bully beef, tea, hard biscuits and bread, which was often stale by the time it reached them.

Mud was reported to be waist-high at Passchendaele, © IWM

In the winter, the ground was frozen and hard, in autumn rainfall turned the battlefields and low-lying trenches into mud baths. In some parts the water reached waist height. This could cause 'trench foot' where the feet would swell and in some cases turn gangrenous and need amputating.

Captain Ulick Burke MC, wrote:

'The conditions were terrible. You can imagine the agony of a fellow standing for twenty four hours sometimes to his waist in mud, trying with a couple of bully beef tins to get the water out of a shell hole that had been converted to a trench with a few sandbags. And he had to stay there all day and all night for about six days. That was his existence.'

Corpses could not be buried quickly enough, and were often dislodged by shelling, © IWM

Conditions were no better in the spring and summer months when lice, rats and flies thrived. The rats could grow to the size of cats feeding off men's rations and the plentiful supply of rotting corpses that were littered around no-man's land. Lice were not only a source of irritation and discomfort but also carried the threat of trench fever. To make matters even worse there was an ever-present stench caused by the open latrines, rotting bodies and the chloride of lime used to combat the threat of disease.

What effect do you think trench warfare had on soldiers?

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A - Soldiers might try to get sent home by pretending to be ill or by giving themselves 'Blighty Ones'.

B - Some men suffered a complete mental and nervous collapse unable to cope with the strain of warfare any longer.

C - Others refused to obey orders, resorted to desertion and in extreme cases, committed suicide.

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