Monday 4 June 2018

That bloody great thing’d come up there and stand up on its back legs and gnaw something like that, you know. I used to line the sights up and give them one round of ball, bang! Blow ‘em to nothing.

For most people, the phrase ‘First World War’ conjures up images of deep, waterlogged trenches and mud-spattered soldiers. But what was trench life really like? In this episode, those who survived it describe their experiences. The trenches could be a shock to those who knew little about them in advance. Walter Hare of the West Yorkshire Regiment first went into the front line in December 1916.

We moved to the right, I remember, got into a church yard – a cemetery – and then dropped down into a trench. And I couldn’t believe it; I was knee deep in mud for a start. I’d never been told about the Somme and the mud on the Somme, it was all new to me. Well we sloshed down this communication trench and we passed a support line and then we went further up and got to what was the front line. And then that was the first we knew about trench warfare – we were told we hadn’t to show our heads above the parapet because there were snipers and they would get us if we did, you see, so we had to be careful. It was a bit of a shock because I could hear shells exploding and rifles and machine guns going, and I thought, ‘Well, I shan’t be here above five minutes.’ It depressed you a bit; just I’d not been warned about it, you see, I’d no idea what it was like.

By the end of 1914, lines of trenches snaked across the Western Front, stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier. They varied in quality and sophistication, but British private Walter Spencer described a typical construction.

We had duckboards chiefly in the firing line, not much in the communication trenches because the communication trenches were generally fairly good. Well we had sandbags on the top of the trench between us and the enemy to stop the fire, of course. Very little wire netting; there was barbed wire out in the front of the trenches, usually about 20 yards in front of the front line trench. Generally speaking – it varied a little – but it would be somewhere about 2 yards wide and it was erected on posts as far as possible, or was just left out what we called stranded in kind of circles.

Those manning the trenches would modify them according to their own needs, and even add some personal touches, as William Holmes of the London Regiment remembered.

Every trench was originally built by soldiers with sandbags which were, I suppose, about 18 inches long and about a good foot wide. They were filled with ordinary soil and tied and put one on top of the other to make a wall, if a wall was wanted, or any other construction that wanted to be big enough to take a sentry looking over. They’d make a little platform right from the ground upwards, you see. And the funny thing was, what we used to laugh about, was at the end of… the beginning of every long trench was a name of a famous London street, every one had it. And if you come to a place where you turned round you had to call it Piccadilly Circus or something like that. But they all had their names, all the trenches did.

Charles Ward of the Middlesex Regiment commented on the necessity of adapting trenches to local conditions.

Trench system: in the front line you could have an ordinary trench, or if the ground was soggy you had, you built barricades of earth and rubble. And trenches could be all sorts of shapes and sizes according to how they’d originally been built and how they’d been knocked about by the enemy.

Battle of Albert. Officers of the Royal Engineers in a communication trench. Rearmost officer wearing Other Ranks tunic. Unidentified headquarters sign in background. 1st July 1916.
Battle of Albert. Officers of the Royal Engineers in a communication trench. Rearmost officer wearing Other Ranks tunic. Unidentified headquarters sign in background. 1st July 1916. © IWM (Q 66)

At intervals, dugouts were built into the trench walls, to provide cover and a place to rest. Victor Polhill explained how they were made.

To make these things, you cut a piece out of the trench about 3 foot wide and about 4 or 5 feet deep into the side of the trench. Put a piece of boarding or something on top and perhaps a piece of something that might keep the wet out, and then piled the earth on top of that and in front you left a piece of blanket or something, so that the front could be excluded from the wind. And also the, if you had a candle in there at night time, the enemy wouldn’t notice it, the light in there. So at night time, the first thing you did when you got in this little bivvy place was to light your candle and you suddenly felt much warmer than you did outside; it made an enormous difference, the light.

Trench systems were built elsewhere besides France and Belgium, but were by no means standardized across all fronts. For British private Harold Boughton, the trenches in Gallipoli were inferior to the others he served in.

The trenches were most, oh horrible things to be in and, as I say, very often you had nothing at the back at all. And of course, when they started shelling these things that we’d built up in the front, they were soon knocked to pieces and all hands in building them up again to get some protection. There were no dugouts, great big dugouts, as there were in France, you just had holes in the side of the trench if you were lucky, or just built up some of this rock and then put some corrugated iron if you could scrounge any over the top of it to get any shelter. And as for sleeping, well you just lay in the bottom of the trench or on a little firestep that you might have been able to make, that was the only place where you got any rest.

There were differences, too, between the trenches built by each nation’s front-line troops. Harold Oxley, of the Middlesex Regiment, compared British, French and German trenches.

Taking the French trenches first, we found when we took over the French trenches in the Kemmel area they were very much deeper than ours, but not kept in the cleanliness and order one would expect to find from taking over from a similar, what shall we say, infantryman to another infantryman – they weren’t in a similar condition to ours. They were dirty and the latrines at the back weren’t in a similar condition to ours as regards keeping clean. The German difference was that they would be reinforced with a kind of wattle fencing – wattle construction – the breastworks would be reinforced with those. But you didn’t find it with the British trenches, they’d simply be sandbagged.

While serving with the South Lancashire Regiment on the Western Front, Ted Rimmer was able to see how superior the German dugouts were.

We were in the advance to the Hindenburg Line, talking about dugouts, and we got to the Hindenburg Line and you ought to have seen dugouts they had. They were like hotel rooms, they were all fitted out with special pumps and everything – tables and everything there, you know, not like ours! Ours were just simply dugout earth and sort of, what you slept on was a wire netting mattress, just wire netting in our dugouts, they were deep big dugouts. But they were marvellous their dugouts, they had tables and all that and laid out with stuff on them!

Open to the elements and dug deep into the ground, trenches often became a muddy quagmire. British NCO James Payne recalled one of the problems this caused.

There were sandbags criss-crossed which the French had built, and you put your foot down and you got trapped, and you couldn’t get out. And we’d got one man, Mills, he was 6’ 4” and he was one of our old friends and he said ‘Sarge, I can’t move!’ So we got hold of him, pulled him out, left his shoes and his trousers in the trench and then we walked him back to headquarters and got him another pair of trousers. And that’s how it went on the whole time we were in that trench.

Daily routine in the trenches varied, but was often uneventful. James Pratt served with the Gordon Highlanders on the Western Front in 1915.

The average day in the ordinary bit of the trenches was just by the way doing nothing! Except perhaps filling a few sandbags to strengthen a bit of the parapet of the trench. But of course there had to be always somebody on sentry go all the time, on each section of the trench. Apart from that, trench life was extremely dull. You simply slept and wrote letters, except when you were on that sort of duty.

The congested interior of a dugout 15 feet below ground. Steel girders support the ceiling with heavy uprights. Men are crowded in two layers.
The congested interior of a dugout 15 feet below ground. Steel girders support the ceiling with heavy uprights. Men are crowded in two layers. © IWM (E(AUS) 1129)

For French NCO G. Fenetrier, trench life was similarly monotonous.

Our life was this: from the beginning of the day until the night, we were eating – sometimes some bread, chocolate, cheese – and smoking, firing at the Germans.Sometimes we received a few bombs. And that was the life.

Meal times were an important part of a soldier’s day. Ernest Jones, who served in Salonika, recalled how food was issued to the large numbers of front line troops.

Sometimes you’d go down if they’d bring it to the end of the trench, you see, because there were different communication trenches coming in, you see, and you’d go to the end and help to carry the things and then the orderly man would distribute them, you see. As you carried it along, whatever the meal was or anything of that, the orderly man did the dishing out. Except at night when we had hot soup at 12 o’clock, that was in the winter – midnight – we had hot soup in the winter. Pea soup, always pea soup, and it was always cold. But it was hot when you drank it because there was so much pepper in it!

Harold Mayhall of the Durham Light Infantry didn’t have the best memories of his Western Front diet.

Oh, that’s a sore point: rations were very poor. The rations when you went up in the trenches and you couldn’t get rations up! You’d try to brew tea and you couldn’t, it was always cold and probably the water was all tasted of petrol because it came up in petrol tins – which were never cleaned out properly – and the tea was half petrol and cold. The food, they were supposed to give you some bacon, well you were lucky if you got a piece of bacon it was all cold and greasy. I mean you couldn’t get any. If you were out of the line they’d cook some bacon and you could, they’d let you have – you’d get a piece of bread and dip it in, that was that, or you could have a tiny bit of bacon without dipping your bread in, that was all you got. And the cooks, probably if a man was a chartered accountant they’d make him a cook or something like that because it was always square pegs in round holes, you know. They couldn’t cook; we used to say they couldn’t boil water without spoiling it or something. The food was terrible.

But Arthur Smith of the Royal Fusiliers enjoyed the food that the orderly handed out.

He divided it up between the officers, the officers’ servants and then the platoons. And then you would get possibly a tin of bully beef between the four or five of you.  You might get some pork and beans which we, being new, liked very much. Not much pork, only a sliver of fat but lots of beans. But we, being new to it, loved them and gobbled it down marvellously. We thought that was wonderful.

There was often a shortage of fresh water.George Harbottle outlined the difficulties this caused.

Well I mean, just a question as to what your men fished out but occasionally you would get a petrol can of water. The water had a pretty smelly taste about it and often the shell-hole water was better than that. We generally managed to shave with a safety razor and often enough if you’d had some tea and there were the dregs of the tea was about all you had to – the warmest water you could get to use for lather.

As well as food and water, soldiers were given other very welcome rations – described by British private Bill Smedley.

Rum ration every morning, in an 18-pounder shell cap protector, the size of an egg cup. It was brass with a piece of wire on from an 18-pounder shell and that was your measure, about an egg cupful. They’d measure this out and you’d have to drink it while you was before him. But I used to keep, I couldn’t drink mine, it was too strong – ’cos I never drank – I used to keep mine for my tea. Cigarette ration was I think 40 every fortnight, Flag cigarettes they were, Woodbine. I didn’t smoke many because I used to save mine and swap it for food with the chaps that really went mad for cigarettes, for a smoke. Oh there’s no doubt about it, very soothing a cigarette.

Sleeping in the trenches could be a challenge – as Charles Quinnell found out.

You slept by sitting on the firestep. You’d try and find a dry sandbag to sit on and you’d sit there with, you’d put your overcoat over your head and try and make a tent of it. And you’d huddle down under that just sitting down. But it was a very, very broken sleep.

Living in the unsanitary trenches, soldiers soon suffered from the effects of body lice. Percy Webb of the Dorsetshire Regiment remembered the first time he felt them.

I was in the trenches at Le Transloy, and I suddenly realised that I began to itch and swing my clothes round my body where I was, you know, trying to… and of course you’d just swung your clothes round your body and you’d scratch and scratch and scratch. And the men that had been out there longer than I had were used to it, you see. Well they always said that the lice was more active on a new body, a fresh body, if you understand what I mean, than they were on people that’d had the lice for a long time! You see they were most destructive things, lice were. And I think that was one of the biggest humbugs of the British Army, lice in the trenches.

The troops shared the trenches with huge numbers of rats, attracted by dead bodies and food waste. James Harvey was one of many plagued by them.

Rats were common, very common, you didn’t dare leave a bit of food about or else there’d be swarms of rats round you. And all the time you didn’t attack them, they didn’t attack you. But on one occasion where we got a bayonet and stuck one; needless to say we got out of that place quick! There were thousands of rats, must’ve been thousands, the number I couldn’t count them – didn’t stop to count ’em! Didn’t matter what part of the line you was in, you’d got these rats. One of our men who was asleep, and had his forehead all bitten by them. Oh yes, he had to go into hospital special for it.

Thomas McIndoe had a solution to the vermin problem.

Always creating problems they were, they’d eat the outside of a man’s ration bag, his iron rations that was given to you to survive on if you didn’t get any grub anywhere. They’d be through the bag and the biscuits as well, they’d eat the lot. That bloody great thing’d come up there and stand up on its back legs and gnaw something like that, you know. I used to line the sights up and give them one round of ball, bang! Blow ’em to nothing.

Serving with the French Army, Ernest Karganoff found trench life as unpleasant as his British counterparts.

Then we were transferred to the front of Champagne where we had to suffer from rain, mud, louses and rats. The trenches were very poor, half destroyed. I remember that a part of the parapet was made of – beside the sacks of sand – of dead soldiers. Our canteen was rather far away, about three miles and we had to wait every evening for our meals, which came usually cold the only way we could warm it is to use a candle.

Unsurprisingly, the poor conditions often led to ill-health among the troops. William Collins, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, dealt with many instances of what became known as trench fever.

The men sitting in the line were not so well off as us, as we were, because we were on the move. But a man sitting in a trench is there and he has very limited movement and we had cases of men coming down with a temperature. And I noticed that the medical officer marked them all with the same letters – PUO: Pyrexia of unknown origin – that was just a fever, you see. And they couldn’t attribute it to any particular source, but of course it was the conditions, no doubt, that caused it. The standard symptoms of a fever: they all had temperatures, they all had temperatures of around about a hundred. And of course they went down as casualties, to hospital.

Despite the hardships, trench life brought men together. William Holmes fondly recalled the comradeship that developed in his part of the line.

I can honestly say that nothing that was ever we were made to do ever gave us any feeling of resentment. We knew we were there to do that job and our patriotism, we were so fond of our country – everybody – and we were like a lot of brothers together. You wouldn’t think, although we were all come from different families and that and we’d hear all them talk about their families and that. But we were ourselves was just like a lot of brothers, all the time. We were just like a band of brothers.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

Related Content

Trench mortar ammunition behind the lines. Acheux, 28th June 1916.
First World War
Voices of the First World War: The First Day Of The Somme
Episode 23: The Battle of the Somme is one of the most famous military events in British history – synonymous with huge loss of life and costly failure. After months of deadlock on the Western Front, a joint British and French offensive was planned to break through the German lines north of the River Somme in mid-1916. 
The interior of a cabin below deck with several wounded sailors, most swathed in bandages, laid out parallel to one another across the floor. They are tended to by three orderlies and one naval doctor who is standing on the right and has a stethoscope round his neck. Two of the orderlies are lowering a wounded man on a stretcher to the floor in the background.
First World War
Voices of the First World War: Jutland
Episode 22: The Battle of Jutland, on 31 May 1916, was the only major confrontation between British and German naval forces during the First World War. 
An Australian soldier writes a letter home from his billet on the Somme front, 1916.
© IWM (E(AUS) 30)
First World War
Voices of the First World War: News From The Front
Episode 21: In an age long before mobile phones and the internet, those who served in the First World War relied upon letters to keep them in touch with their loved ones at home.