Conditions in the trenches during WW1 on the Western Front
During World War One, the soldiers living and fighting on the Western Front suffered not only tremendous losses in life, but also suffered the imaginable, appalling, and quite unacceptable conditions that they did.
By the time the Western Front had been established, and trench warfare was a mundane fact for those involved, the Great War was static. There was little progress made, attacks and offensives were futile, and the new weaponry available meant that it was near to impossible for any troops to advance. Every man involved wanted to get out, and to return home. Some were so desperate that they intentionally injured themselves, although in the British trenches if someone was believed to have done this deliberately, they were Court Marshalled, and executed for cowardice. The soldiers were sent into the front line by the railways, although the men never actually knew where exactly they were heading; all they knew was that they were moving east.
Those lucky enough to join the Royal Flying Corps, or RAF as it was later called must have been from a wealthy, public school background, and were nearly always officers. The RFC were considered the upper class of the military, and there were limited spaces. The RFC were primarily used for enemy artillery spotting, and aerial bombing using the Vickers’s fighter. Some men were even sent into the trenches to tell the officers there whether or not the planes flying overhead were friend or foe. The RFC had a luxury life compared to that of the trench soldier.
Being on the front line was every man’s worst nightmare, and the environment they were being sent to every man’s hell. The fighting armies were separated by a famous strip of land called “No Man’s Land.” It varied in width from a few yards to up to a mile. At some times, the enemy were within shouting distance, and at other times, you didn’t even know which direction the enemy were in. there was, as you can imaging, a great sense of disorientation. No Man’s land was plastered with craters from the artillery, barbed wire, unexploded shells and mines, and the many dead bodies that had collected. It was what the soldiers in the trenches innocently looked out onto daily, until the day the whistles blew, and they “went over the top”, only to get mowed down by machine-gun fire. Many men died before they even went over the top, however. The constant artillery fire and bombardment was enough to claim the lives of nearly one third of all the fatal casualties of the war.
Every day in the trenches followed a strict regime:
Every day, half an hour before dawn, there was a ‘stand to’. For one hour, the soldiers in the trenches would stand against the parapet, waiting for an enemy attack. Of course, the Germans were doing exactly the same, so the ‘stand to’ was very rarely successful in any way of defending from an attack, as there simply were no attacks! Some men died as a result of making themselves an obvious target to the enemy snipers, by standing up too tall, and poking their head out of the trench cover.
In the trenches, there was no proper, cooked food. The soldiers were rationed to simply biscuits and cheese. They were also provided with jam, but no bread. A common breakfast meal was jam on cheese, and hard biscuits soaked in tea, as hot meals were only sometimes available to the officers in the trenches. Water was also in short supply, so the soldiers used their tea to shave, and wash their faces.
Millions of rats infested the trenches and tormented the soldiers day and night. Men were deprived of sleep due to rats running across their faces, and many men died due to the diseases they carried. In total, 2.5 million men died in battle, and 3.5 million died of disease in the trenches.
The trenches were man made, dug out by the soldiers, and especially at the start of the war, before Christmas, the trenches were bog pits, and consisted of waist high pools of water, and mud. Some men drowned in the waters, and others were sucked down by the boggy mud, and quick-sand like terrain.
The troops sang songs to boost moral, but these lost their touch when, during an advance, you saw your best friend get shot in the head by an enemy machine gun. The men were made to carry around with them all 60lbs of kit, including their own personal belongings, and even their shaving kit. On top of this was the weight of their helmets, and their rifles.
All in all, the conditions the men were fighting in were very poor, and the generals sitting behind the front line, giving the orders to attack, and to keep moral high could not even begin to comprehend what their own men were going through.