In the Trenches and In the Trenches II the grinding down of the war from one of open manoeuvre to that of mutual entrenchment played a part in the length of duration of the war. What was it really like; I've often found myself wondering, to live in such conditions?
First, we need to separate ourselves from images of trenches that we've been subject to in popular films and television (more about media misrepresentation of the war in a future post) even many contemporary photographs were staged and as such not truly representative of actual living conditions on the front line. Trenches were rarely as neatly constructed or well maintained as we would like to think. There was a standard doctrine on how to construct defensive positions, but often suitability of the land; time and material available and enemy interference dictated how entrenchments were laid out. In fact, many parts of the Flanders area in Belgium where the Canadian Expeditionary Force spent much of the war is so low lying and has a high water table that many works there were developed by "digging up" rather than digging in. As deep trenches would be likely to flood, walls of wood, sandbags or other material were built upon natural land features for the men's protection. Quite aside from neatly engineered textbook positions, trenches very often were a Boschian experience; collapsed in parts from artillery, choked with muddy effluence and the prospect of disinterred remains were quite common. The struggle was to attempt to maintain the trenches as best they could be, and hygiene was a primary concern, but often that was an impossible task. Traffic in and out of the line was also tightly controlled, but could become muddled and jammed during times of crisis-bringing up quick reserves to press forward an attack or counter enemy incursion; falling back from overwhelming offensives (fairly common during the "Kaiser's Battles of spring 1918).
Despite a well developed system of rotating units in and out of the front line, so that troops would never be at the front for extended periods of time and allowed to rest, when at the front, men were exposed to the weather, enemy shells and mortars as well as snipers and raiding parties at any given time regardless of there being major offensive actions in the area or not. Certain areas could be quiet for extended periods, while others experienced constant enemy attention. Exhaustion was common and a bedlam of noise a constant distraction. Routine and discipline helped to keep men focussed and attentive. Each day would begin with
stand to every morning at first light....that every soldier was either on the fire step or ready to get onto it...weapon loaded and ready to fire....(After standing down) would be improving the trench, pushing saps out towards enemy lines, digging sleeping bays into the bottom of the trench wall or in the command trench, or sleeping to order....Much time was spent keeping weapons clean and serviceable, and there was an inspection by officers and NCO's of every man's rifle at least once each day, usually after breakfast
We can read in Will Bird or Donald Fraser's accounts as well as other good first person sources on what it was like to exist in a subterranean world, cluttered by detritus, a blank and burned landscape where death was a constant factor and disease close to hand. We can never truly know, however, what a bleak land looked like to eyes seen in colour, the sounds of shells and scrape of spades, the smell that must have been beyond vile, the taste of tea tinged with petrol from being carried in interchangeable canisters, the feeling of damp feet and present dread that the next "one" might be yours. It's a wonder, then, how men ( mind you from a time where everyday life was more a hardship than we can easily understand) endured these conditions. But thank goodness they did.