Friday 1 June 2018

It was necessary to have some spirit, because we knew that above the trench, just above, it was death…

As mobile warfare came to an end in 1914, both the Allied and German armies built trenches as a means of defence. They were much simpler than those that existed later in the war. British private Marmaduke Walkinton described one.

When one first went in, it was quite a deep trench so that you could walk about in it without your head showing about to be shot at. And when you wanted to shoot there was what we call a firestep, which was just a bit that hadn’t been dug quite so deep so that you stepped up about a couple of feet or so and then you could see to shoot over.

The conditions of the trenches varied. British NCO James Pratt was stationed near Kemmel in Belgium in early 1915.

Those first trenches we had I think had been French – that area had been French trenches. And of course the French were a little bit casual because the back area was generally a sort of latrine – they used it as a latrine – and also they had been very casual in burying their dead.  In fact one trench I had, I had a boot showing out of the side of the trench and on investigating I found there was a Frenchman attached to the boot…

For J Reid, an NCO in the 6th Gordon Highlanders, life in the trenches was exhausting.

The routine then was that we were in the front line for four days, and then we were relieved after four days. But the four days we were out we were up every night! And you were up to your stomach in water; sitting in a trench to your stomach in water, and your rifles was getting plugged up with mud. Of course the Germans were just the same as us you see, we knew that. They were just the same as us.

But in some cases the German trenches were already better than the British – as officer Peter Jackson found out during the Christmas Truce of December 1914.

I went inside the German trenches down to the German officers’ dugout. I’d never seen anything so fantastic in my life as the German dugouts.  Ours, we simply had no dugouts they were just mud and filth. But the Germans’ dugouts were about 20 feet deep and they had electric light in there, they had everything!  I noticed their trenches were covered with slats so they could prevent themselves getting muddied up. Our men when they came out were smothered up from head to foot in mud.  The German officers when they came out their boots must have been polished by their batsmen til they shone as if they were going on parade.

Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier in January 1915.
Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier in January 1915. © IWM (Q 51569)

Living in the open left soldiers vulnerable to the freezing winter weather, as British private Henry Williamson recalled.

When the frosts came we could walk about on the hard ground and we could also sleep. But our boots froze while we were sleeping – it was painful. So some of us would walk about at night and swing the arms to keep warm. And the overcoats, the greatcoats, of course were frozen and the yellow clay that was on them was frozen too, very hard to get it off, it was a great weight. Being stiff as boards, we just hacked the skirt off about two feet up the skirt with bayonets and walked about in short coats.

As well as the cold, the troops had to live with mud and rain. British private Charles Colthup was posted to France in January 1915.

Plenty of mud and water, and we had no gum boots at that time. I mean your boots were good and of course you had puttees, you see, went up your legs to your knees. We came across some French soldiers, I don’t know what they were doing up there I don’t think they were far away, but they had thick felt boots and a kind of rubber outside. I thought to myself, ‘I wouldn’t mind a pair of them.’

Living in the cold and wet led many soldiers to get trench foot. George Ashurst described recovering from this painful condition in a Belgian hospital.

A doctor used to come round in the morning and just feel at your toes, you know, feel at your feet. And he’d say, ‘How are you this morning?’ ‘Oh not so bad, sir.’ And all the time he’d a needle, and we didn’t know that for quite a while.  He had a needle and he was shoving it in your toes. Well, you never moved. You didn’t feel it you see. The doctor knew when you jumped; he knew that your feet were getting right. When he pricked them with his needle and you jumped he knew life was there again. Then, ooh, painful, terrible.

If you just caught your toes then it’d make you scream. We used to have to go to the toilets on our hands and knees, I tell you. A nurse didn’t help us or anything. And I’d be going down this aisle, you know, and a fellow’d be coming back on his hands and knees. And when we got together we’d [barks] have a bit of a dog fight. Nurses used to laugh at us!

The trenches only offered so much protection against enemy fire – as British private A Cochrane witnessed.

On my second visit to the trenches in the morning there was what they used to call the pom-pom, a German gun they used to bring up to their trenches with a view to popping them into our trenches.It used to go ‘pom’ from their side and arrive into ours with a ‘pom’. Well they used to enfilade us starting on the left hand side and coming along, and on this particular morning one reached right to the side of me and the fellow on sentry go there just watching the no man’s land to see there was no movement by the Germans. And this shell from the pom-pom arrived and blew half his head off. Well that was my initiation into death which was very unpleasant and disturbed me quite considerably.

Soldiers were also at risk from enemy snipers. Canadian private George Hancox’s regiment sought a solution to this deadly danger.

Main casualties during the first tours in the line were caused by enemy snipers. And it was realised that something would have to be done about that and a sniping section was formed in our regiment. These were almost entirely men who’d been big game hunters and were crack shots with rifles, they were used to stalking and if they had any kind of a target at all they’d be sure to hit it. They picked out spots where they would get good observation on the enemy lines and would watch, say, a weak point in the parapet where it was shallow, and as soon as a German went by they would let him have it. It’s very hard to say how many they got but I think they paid the Germans quite well for any of our men that they shot.

Larger attacks soon began again. French infantry officer G Fenetrier remembered what happened when soldiers were ordered to leave their trenches.

The attack was like this. Always early in the morning, we received an order to get up and we had to drink a good glass of coffee with rum. It was necessary to have some spirit, because we knew that above the trench, just above, it was death – death by the bullets; by the bombs; by all the things which were waiting for us.

A number of larger attacks took place in the early months of 1915. German artillery officer Herbert Sulzbach fought in one such battle.

Well the Battle of Champagne started about the middle of February and lasted for nearly four weeks. The Allied armies, in this case the French armies, threw wave after wave of soldiers towards our lines and we fired shells absolutely day and night. For part of the time we were in amongst our guns and then we were ordered to go to observation and it was one of the most unpleasant jobs to get from the battery to the infantry lines because this, lets say 2 km between the artillery lines and the infantry lines were under fire day and night. So we crawled and we threw ourselves into the grass, or into a trench and then we arrived at the front and there we seemed to be rather safe.

Two German soldiers in curtained-off bunkbeds. The top soldier is Herbert Sulzbach. The entire collection probably depicts the service of the German 5th Field Artillery Regiment von Podbielski (1st Lower Silesian) - Feldartillerie-Regiment von Podbielski (1. Niederschlesisches) Nr. 5.
Two German soldiers in curtained-off bunkbeds. The top soldier is Herbert Sulzbach. © IWM (Q 93701)

For British troops, like Walter Becklade, the Battle of Neuve Chappelle in March 1915 marked the start of a new year of fighting.

Eventually we had to go over the top and we went on so far but we didn’t meet the enemy because they’d gone on too far and we were called away on our left to occupy another trench. And this was about dinner time – or dinner time as we thought it would be, we were beginning to get hungry – and I thought we’d have some bully beef.

So I got the tin opener in my hand all ready to open this tin of beef when a shell burst and I felt a terrific bang on my right arm which caused me to drop the tin opener in the mud; I never found it again. I realised – I didn’t realise at the time actually that I was wounded until the blood started coming down and running off the end of my hand.

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. 

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