Experiences on the Western Front

The development of the Western Front

In the first few months of the war, fighting took place over great expanses of land – there were even cavalry charges with men on horseback using swords to attack the enemy.

By the late summer of 1914, the German army had fought its way to within sight of the Eiffel Tower. But it failed to capture Paris or force the French to surrender. Once halted, the Germans started digging trenches for their soldiers to shelter in from enemy fire. The French and British also dug trenchs. They was necessary as defence from the German machine guns, a weapon which had been under-estimated by the British Army.

 British soldiers in a trench
British soldiers in a trench

Eventually, a network of trenches stretched for 400 miles from the channel coast to the border with Switzerland. This became known as the Western Front. The war of movement was at an end. For most of the next four years neither side managed a decisive breakthrough and the Western Front became deadlocked in trench warfare.

The trench system

Trenches were usually about seven feet deep and six feet wide. Duck-boards were placed at the bottom to protect soldiers from problems such as trench foot. Soldiers made dugouts in the sides to give them some protection from the weather and enemy fire. The front-line trenches were also protected by barbed wire and machine-gun posts.

No man's land and soldiers on foot make their way across
Soldiers crossing no man's land

Behind the front-line trench there were support and reserve trenches. The three rows covered between 200 and 500 yards of ground. Communication trenches were dug at an angle to the front-line trench and were used to transport men, equipment and food supplies.

Experiences at the front

Men were only meant to spend a few days at the front line before being rotated back to reserve trenches and to rest and recovery positions. However, soldiers often spent much longer at the front. For instance, the Black Watch once served for 48 days without a break. After about 14 days behind the lines troops knew that soon they would return to the front-line.

The conditions on the front lines were horrendous with soldiers complaining of itching from lice bites, sharing trenches with rats and living with the constant fear of imminent death. Boredom was a major factor, but soldiers also had to cope with the possibility of sudden painful death or wounds, either by sniper fire, artillery fire or going 'over the top' into battle.

The kilt worn by many Scottish soldiers had severe disadvantages in these conditions as it harboured lice in the folds. It was also extremely thick which meant that it was too warm in the summer months. Worse than that, it was difficult to dry in the autumn and winter.