The daily routine of front line service varied from the mundane to the dramatic. A typical day would begin with 'stand to arms' at dawn, with all men manning the front line trench. Weapons would be cleaned, a tot of rum and breakfast consumed. Day sentries would be posted, with other men allowed to sleep until lunchtime. Meals would often consist of tinned food, sometimes served cold. In the afternoon trenches would be repaired before 'stand to' again at dusk. Activity intensified at night. Men would leave the trenches to repair parapets and barbed wire, to go on patrol across no man’s land and sometimes to raid German positions. Sentries would be on guard throughout.
This routine varied and was punctuated by danger. In active sectors both sides would engage in aggressive raiding and the fire of artillery, machine guns and snipers would be more prevalent. By contrast, some sectors were quiet and relatively passive, with a 'live and let live' mentality. A soldier’s experience depended on this variety. It also depended on the theatre in which a soldier served, with differences in the weather, terrain and nature of combat all affecting day-to-day experience.
A unit would spend a few days in the front line, followed by periods in reserve and rest. Away from the line men were engaged in training and labour. They would benefit from a bath and a full night’s sleep, regular hot meals and even some time to themselves. Another of a soldier’s pleasures was post from home, helping maintain a connection with loved ones. Leave was usually granted once a year.
Here are 14 objects from life at the front.
1. Food rations
Food rations were an essential part of a soldier’s daily life and the amount and quality of food could have serious implications for morale. This tinned beef and vegetable stew, known as ‘Maconochie’ after the company that made it, was a familiar aspect of the British soldier’s diet. It was largely detested by soldiers, particularly when it could not be heated up. Soldiers often had complaints about the monotony of their front line rations.
Smoking was a widespread habit during the First World War and cigarettes were issued as part of standard rations. Cigarettes were seen as a simple and familiar pleasure that helped calm the nerves and boost morale, making life at the front more tolerable. This tin of cigarettes belonged to Private Albert Tattersall, who served with 20th Battalion, The Manchester Regiment (5th City Pals). Tattersall died on 3 July 1916 of wounds sustained during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
3. Army biscuit picture frame
Sergeant M Herring of the Army Service Corps made this picture frame from a British Army issue biscuit, a key component of front line rations. The notoriously hard biscuits were frequently carved to create souvenirs or mementoes. These keepsakes were of great personal value to servicemen, reminding them of the loved ones they left behind when they volunteered or were conscripted. This frame holds a photograph of Herring, his wife and twin children, Barbara and Lawrence.
4. Writing case
During the First World War, the British Army Postal Service despatched over two billion letters. Receiving letters from loved ones kept soldiers connected to their homes and was vital in maintaining morale. For soldiers, writing letters could be therapeutic and an important leisure activity that prevented boredom. However, some men did not share all of the realities of their war experiences with loved ones they thought might worry. This writing case belonged to Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Heneker, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.
5. Playing cards
Rest and relaxation were vital to maintaining the health and morale of servicemen. Games and other activities provided temporary distraction and card games were some of the most universal forms of recreation for soldiers. This pack of miniature playing cards is associated with the war service of Second Lieutenant F G Hasler of the Royal Field Artillery (RFA).
The Mills Equipment Company produced equipment for the British Army during the First World War. They were unable to keep up with the increased demand to provide an unprecedented number of recruits with the canvas equipment set or ‘webbing’. A leather set was devised as an alternative, but kept the same basic components of the 1908 canvas pattern – waist belt, support braces, ammunition pouches, bayonet sheath, entrenching tool cover, water bottle, and haversack. The 1914 pattern pictured here was used on all fronts throughout the war. Like the earlier pattern, it was designed to form a continuous piece that could be slipped on or off like a coat.
7. Rifle pull through
Cleaning and maintaining weapons was a daily chore for soldiers. This item is a rifle pull through made of cord weighted on one end and looped on the other. A piece of cloth was attached to the loop and pulled through the rifle barrel, cleaning any residue inside. This one belonged to Private Jack Finnigan of the 6th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who served in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) during the war.
8. Entrenching tool
Trenches first came into widespread use following the end of mobile warfare on the Western Front in 1914. They provided soldiers relative protection against the firepower of increasingly lethal weaponry. This entrenching tool, used for digging, was carried by all non-commissioned ranks in the British Army as part of their personal kit. It can be broken down into two parts and stored on a soldier’s equipment belt when not in use. They were sometimes used as weapons in hand-to-hand combat.
9. Steel helmet
The introduction of new weapons and the improved performance of existing ones forced armies to develop better protective equipment. Before steel helmets became standard issue in 1916, the British Army issued soft cloth caps that offered no protection against artillery, machine gun and rifle fire. In the relative protection of a trench, a soldier’s most vulnerable area was his head. The British steel helmet, shown here, was particularly designed to offer increased protection from shrapnel and other projectiles falling from above. Although not impenetrable, it decreased the number and severity of head injuries.
10. Mosquito net
The First World War was the first major conflict in which British deaths in battle outnumbered deaths caused by disease. This net was issued to British troops to protect them from mosquitos and other insects that could spread diseases such as malaria. This danger was more common in fighting theatres in Gallipoli, East Africa and the Middle East, where the proportion of non-battle casualties was generally higher than on the Western Front.
11. Gas mask
Chemical weapons were first used on a major scale by the Germans in 1915. Early gas masks were nothing more than cotton pads soaked in chemicals or canvas hoods with glass eyepieces and a rubber tube through which a soldier could breathe. But as chemical weapons developed, so did protective equipment. The Small Box Respirator mask pictured here was first introduced in August 1916 and became standard issue the following year. On the Western Front, death rates from gas were relatively low – about 3 per cent – but the physical effects were highly unpleasant and it remained a pervasive psychological weapon.
12. Lee-Enfield Rifle
The iconic Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle (SMLE) Mark III was introduced in 1907. It was standard issue to British and Empire forces during the First World War and continued to be used throughout much of the twentieth century. It proved to be an effective weapon, especially as it could withstand the wet and muddy conditions of the Western Front. A sword bayonet could be attached to the barrel for close quarter combat.
13. 13-pounder shrapnel round
This cross-section shows the interior of a British 13-pounder shrapnel anti-personnel round. When the shells exploded, lead balls were propelled at a high velocity, causing serious or fatal injuries. During the First World War, modern weaponry was used on an unprecedented scale. Fighting on the Western Front was dominated by artillery, which caused more casualties than any other weapon and was central in the development of trench warfare. Soldiers, seeking some protection from the bombardment, dug in as a defensive measure. The use of shrapnel declined following the onset of trench warfare, as high explosive shells were increasingly used to try and break the stalemate on the Western Front.
14. Field dressing
This British First Field Dressing pack was issued as part of a soldier's kit. Containing two field dressings, it gave men the means to provide limited medical care to themselves or others when medical personnel were not close by. Soldiers were given instruction on how to apply these dressings to limit blood loss. This would help keep men alive until they could be treated by trained medical staff.