LIFE IN TRENCHES AND TRENCH WARFARE WW1
Image: Indian troops being transported towards Ypres.
In October 1914, 20,000 troops from the Indian sub-continent arrived in Flanders -ill equipped for a European winter. One regiment arrived wearing shorts! To help combat the effects of standing in flooded trenches, the Indian Corps were issued with Vaseline. While this helped prevent frostbite, ‘Indian’ soldiers were more likely to succumb to flu and pneumonia or even measles and mumps, which were not common in their homelands. Feeding the Indian corps also proved problematic as the staple food of the Tommy included tins of pork and beans and bully beef but these were taboo to most. The army’s initial response was to round up as many goats as they could find. By the end of the war ginger, garlic and turmeric were widely available and curry was on the menu.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 30th October 1914
Soldiers in Shorts!
Image: Leeds Pals in training. The pipes were gifted by a local benefactor.
On 13th November 1914, the Leeds Pals took delivery of their first khaki uniforms. Like most soldiers in Kitchener’s army, they had spent months training in the clothes they wore on the day they enlisted. It was not uncommon to see self-conscious men on route marches or exercising in suits and bowler hats. Officers had to source and purchase their own outfits while uniforms for other ranks were procured by committees through local suppliers and within a budget set by the War Office. One short, stout gentleman had to endure the embarrassment of parading in blazer and boater long after his comrades were kitted out. No-one thought to order a uniform to fit him! The men took great pride in wearing khaki but it was several more months until wooden rifles were replaced by proper weapons.
Kit for the Pals
LIFE IN THE TRENCHES
Having begun the process of ‘digging in’ during the previous week, the Germans were now developing their fortified positions into trench systems with reserve and communication trenches. They were also digging to the left and right along the River Aisne and within a matter of months their front line would stretch around 500 miles, from the English Channel to the Swiss border.
Opposite them the French and British were also digging trenches sometimes as close as 60 yards from the enemy. We can therefore confidently talk about trench warfare having begun. The trenches of both sides were primitive; devoid of many of
Trench Warfare Begins on the Western Front
The British public eagerly sought information from the front but censorship was rigorous. Journalists could not get close to the action and officialdom restricted them to bland reports that paraphrased official press releases. The Government appointed two official cameramen but their images were not for public consumption and British troops were not allowed to possess cameras (though some did). The British press was only allowed to use photographs of civilians or foreign troops and this created an information vacuum. This was filled by newspapers such as ‘The War Illustrated’ whose artists drew images based on eye witness accounts or hearsay. Their depiction of events was often romanticised. For example this artist’s impression of a British front line trench bore little resemblance to reality.
Newspapers Clamour for Front Line Images
WHILE AT REST
With the war becoming static, British soldiers had time for activities other than marching and fighting. Improvised baths were established using canvas sheets stretched over bails of straw, and anyone who possessed a decent pair of scissors was pressed into becoming a company barber.
British Troops Enjoy a 'Normal' Routine
Image: British soldiers enjoy a drink in an estaminet (cafe)
On 24th November 1914, a group of hungry British soldiers sat in an estaminet in Armentieres where they had enjoyed a meal of ‘Pompadour Fritz’ (pommes de terre frites). The weather was distinctly wintry with the cold wind bearing flakes of snow and so their egg and chips was well received. Less well received was the bill or rather their change. The British had not yet come to terms with the local currency and some business owners were quick to exploit their ignorance. This particular group called upon a friend - who claimed to know the lingo - and his exchange with the owner went like this. ‘Parlez vous francais?’ the soldier asked. The surprised Frenchman replied, ‘Mais oui’. The irate British soldier then followed with, ‘Then why have you not given my friends the right change?’
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 24th November 1914
SUPPLIES AND RATIONS
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 13th November 1914
Images: Today the buildings of Ypres resemble those of pre-war days, but for four years they looked more like broken teeth.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - October 1914
Ypres Becomes 'Wipers'
On 17th December 1914, the British fought hand to hand for possession of a sea of mud. The area they contested was north-west of Ypres and just south of the coastal strip deliberately flooded by the Belgians. Damaged drains and heavy rain made the ground a quagmire. Inevitably mud got into the firing mechanism of rifles causing them to jam. Unable to shoot bullets soldiers resorted to use of bayonets and rifle butts. On this day, one Colonel wrote: "The ground on which we are fighting is awful. There is a crust about a foot thick which is comparatively good, but underneath there is bottomless mud. Men standing in trenches four or five feet deep are almost unable to get out, and gradually sink until it takes several men to extricate them."
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 17th December 1914
'We are Fighting in Bottomless Mud!'
Image: Trench foot
With its high water table and heavy rainfall, Flanders was not a good place to dig trenches. Scooping out mud and water became a major task while keeping dry was well-nigh impossible. December 1914 was also incredibly cold and frostbite and trench foot became major hazards. The puttees that were wound round their lower legs shrank when wet and reduced circulation, feet swelled and the pain became excruciating. Pte. Len Smith recalled that it was not unusual to see men cry with pain. At the end of a tour of duty, boots might have to be cut off and sometimes also toes.
Men Cried with the Pain
Image: A typical British officer had good breeding, a public school education and a family connection to the military.
In 1914, the life expectancy for officers at the front was a mere 6 weeks and so demand for Second Lieutenants (entry level for an officer) far outstripped supply! Decision makers were forced to think beyond the traditional view that ‘officers make gentlemen and gentlemen make officers.’ Teachers were considered ‘temporary gentlemen’ and a third of all teachers killed in the Great War were officers. Retired soldiers were ‘dug out’ but many had little understanding of modern warfare and in any case they were too few. Any sort of military experience was valued. Denis Reitz was once in charge of a Boer commando unit but was given a commission in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. If it was not absolutely essential for an officer to be rich, it was certainly very important. A young officer earned less than £100 per year and this was insufficient to pay his bills which included food, drink and his uniform. Cavalry and Guards regiments were the most expensive as officers needed to buy uniforms for different occasions, own several horses and were under pressure from their peers to ‘live well’.
Life Expectancy at the Front - 6 Weeks!
Image: As winter set in soldiers suffered pneumonia, frost bite and trench foot. However few cases of common cold were reported.
On 16th November 1914, a group of soldiers from the Cameronians sat down amid sleet and snow to a meagre breakfast. They each had three hard army biscuits and a spoonful of jam but each tin of corned beef had to be shared between four. Food was in short supply and so too was fuel and winter clothing. The government exhorted British women to urgently knit scarves, socks, gloves and balaclava hats for the troops while the army sought to issue each soldier with a goatskin overcoat.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 16th November 1914
Whether it came in a tin or in a cube, tea was always welcome in the British trenches. It would be brewed in a ‘Dixie’ (as shown) which was rarely washed and would have been used for other meals and also for shaving. The water for the tea would have been delivered to the front line in former petrol cans and would have been cloudy through the addition of chloride of lime – used for purification. Milk was usually of the thick, sweet, condensed variety – the sort used for fudge. Sugar was already present either in the can or pressed into the cube of tea. To heat the brew the soldiers first had to find a level and dry area. Thin shavings of wood were used for the fire in order to minimise the amount of smoke – in case this attracted some hostile action from the enemy. Inevitably the tea took an age to reach an acceptable temperature but was it worth the wait? Soldiers reckoned that they learned to appreciate it more than ‘the finest champagne served in a crystal glass’!!
Petrol Flavoured Tea Anyone?
In early 1915, holiday homes along the French coast were turned into hospitals including that of the Rothschild family at Deauville (above) which was used for convalescent officers. With drugs in short supply, some wounded soldiers were plied – for the purpose of pain relief- with champagne and brandy. Hundreds of Britain’s stately homes were also turned into makeshift hospitals such as Dunham Massey near Manchester. Here the Stamford family put their art treasures and carpets in storage and set up 25 beds. During the war around 300 ordinary Tommies (no officers) were treated here for shell shock and trench foot as well as the effects of gas. Operations took place in the entrance hall and on one occasion a soldier had a bullet removed from his brain.
You Need Painkillers? - Brandy Perhaps?
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - September 1914
It quickly became apparent that too many British soldiers were dying from minor wounds that would not have proved fatal in previous wars. The problem was gas gangrene - a bacterial infection that spreads quickly through the body. The root cause was the heavily fertilized Flanders soil and in particular, horse manure and the various bacili it contains. This got onto the soldier’s clothes (some had not had their uniform washed since they crossed to France) and when a bullet or shell fragment entered the soldiers body, filthy fragments of cloth were introduced. The French tended to cut away more infected flesh than British surgeons and washed the wound with a saline solution and had far fewer casualties as a result.
Why Are So Many Dying?
Image: A British trench near Ypres, December 1914
On the 23rd December 1914, snow fell across the Western Front and temperatures plummeted. The Flanders weather was a fickle foe and the battle faced by front line troops was keeping warm. One soldier woke up and thought he was paralysed as he couldn’t move his arms. The explanation was simple - his saturated coat had frozen! Home knitted scarves and gloves were delivered in vast quantities and the men were receiving so many pairs of socks that these were often discarded after being worn only once. A fire would have been welcome but a column of smoke would generally welcome an enemy mortar shell.
Paralysed By Fear or Another Enemy...
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 23rd December 1914
The winter of 1914-15 was incredibly bitter and the men were desperate for warmth. In one sector, on one night both Germans and British climbed out of their narrow trench so that they could walk up and down and beat their arms about their bodies. No-one fired a shot. In early January 1915, a group of freezing Tommies shifted a brazier (holed bucket) from into their dug-out to keep them warm at night. They were found in the morning - apparently sleeping peacefully -but actually dead through asphyxiating fumes from the coke (smokeless coal) they had burned.
Gassed Last Night
Freezing weather gave the British soldiers a chance to wage war on a different foe. Chats (lice) infested their clothing, fed on their blood and made them scratch incessantly. One trick was to take off your shirt after dark and drape it over the nearest strand of barbed wire. Once it was stiff with frost the shirt was retrieved, and as many ‘dead’ lice as possible were brushed off. However it seems that the cold merely stunned the parasites and they became active again as soon they were warmed up. To make matters worse they were now hungrier than ever!
Chatting With Their Mates
Image: Cartoon depiction of suicide by German soldier/artist Otto Dix.
“Self inflicted wounds weren’t uncommon on the Western Front”, wrote soldier / poet Siegfried Sassoon, “ and brave men had put bullets through their own heads ... especially when winter made trench warfare unendurable.” The equally renowned Robert Graves recounts, “I flashed my torch on him and saw that one of this feet was bare. I shook the sleeper by the arm and noticed the hole in the back of his head. He had taken off the boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with one toe; the muzzle was in his mouth. ‘We’ve had several of these lately’ said one of his officers. Then he said to another, ‘Don’t forget to write to his next of kin. Usual sort of letter, tell them he died a soldiers death, anything you like. I’m not going to report it as suicide’.”
An Unendurable Winter
OFFICERS AT THE FRONT
Image: Private cars belonging to officers as well as their chauffeur’s were common sights in France.
Prior to the outbreak of war, many Territorial Army units might be considered to be more like social rather than military groups. One of the first such units to arrive in Belgium was the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars who had been rushed across at the beginning of October as part of ‘Winston’s Little Army’. On 12th October they provided General French’s bodyguard in the French town of St. Omer. Outside H.Q. was a line of private cars which the rich young officers had brought with them. One night, while on guard duty, a sentry presented arms to a smart chap in
Toffs at War
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 12th October 1914
the familiar features of trench warfare such as barbed wire, sandbags and dugouts. It has been estimated that at the height of the conflict around 20,000 miles of trenches were in use. This figure includes front, reserve and communication trenches. Trenches were not invented in 1914 as they featured in the Boer War, American Civil War and even earlier conflicts.
In October 1914, Ypres was the only major Belgian town as yet unoccupied. German cavalry had come and gone and soldiers of the British 7th Division were digging the first trenches of the notorious ‘Ypres Salient’. They found it hard to pronounce Belgian place names and came up with their own alternatives. Ypres was pronounced ‘Wipers’, Ploegsteert became ‘Plug Street’, Wytschaete was known as ‘White sheet’ and so on. Other difficulties became obvious as they began to dig. Almost immediately the rain began to fall and the clay soil quickly turned to sticky mud. Furthermore, the low lying plain has a high water table and their new trenches began to fill with water. On their left, soldiers of the Belgian army were digging in along the banks of the River Yser to complete the line of trenches that ran from the Channel to Switzerland.
Church parades resumed and sometimes with a competitive edge. One British unit sang as loudly as they could to try to drown out the German church parade that was taking place less than half a mile away. The British came second in this ‘battle’ as the Germans had the advantage of a brass band.
Images: Unkempt British soldiers, an open air church service behind the lines in France.
sparkling uniform who turned out to be – not an officer – but his chauffeur. A favourite pastime of these young officers was to drive or be driven as close as they could to the front - only turning back when they attracted enemy rifle fire.
Image: Men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, winter 1914-15
Records show that on the 21st January 1915, the mascot of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Regiment – a goat - died of heart failure. The diarist presumed that the demise of this poor animal was prompted by the protracted cold spell. Despite constant sub-zero temperatures, and the driving snow - British front line troops had to carry on with the daily grind of ‘putting France in sandbags’. By their labours these men had helped create around 20,000 miles of trenches on the Western Front by the end of 1915. In January there was still a disinclination among the Tommies to believe that these miserable ditches would also be their homes. However it was the policy of the British high command to keep their men in discomfort to encourage an offensive spirit. Meanwhile a few hundred yards away the Germans were preparing underground barracks, bakeries and hospitals often with running water and electric lights. The miserable British soldier had to provide his own ‘funk’ hole dug into the side of the trench with nothing but a sheet between himself and the elements.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 21st January 1915
Putting France in Sandbags
The trench coat has remained fashionable for 100 years. It was created in response to a request from the British government for a coat for officers. The standard woollen great coat was not popular, as although it was warm when dry, it could become very heavy when saturated with water and plastered with mud. The heaviest recorded weighed a leg buckling 78 pounds (26 kilos)! The burberry trench coat
Burberry - The Height of Fashion 1915
The trench coat was a huge hit. Stocks may not have been available in Berlin in wartime but Burberry’s London and Paris branches did brisk business. Indeed they even had to open up fitting rooms in Flanders to help deal with demand from British army officers. In Britain the trench coat became essential civilian wear for both men and women. It was popular because of its
was labelled ‘for officers only’ and had to be purchased from gents outfitters. It was made from gabardine – a new material that had been successfully tested in extreme environments including the hot South African veldt and arctic expeditions. It had design features that made it especially suited for those with rank such as the epaulettes on the shoulders for officers insignia and the D-ring on the belt that was for attaching equipment such as a map case.
style, practicality and of course its association with heroism and patriotism. In 2012, the family of Humphrey Bogart took court against Burberry claiming illegal use of an image of the Hollywood star in an advert. The matter was settled amicably.
In 1915, Women’s magazines carried adverts for men’s clothing such as the Wilkinson Sword bullet-proof jacket. With the life expectancy for junior officers in the front line a mere 6 weeks manufacturers recognised that mothers and wives were desperate for ways to protect their loved ones. The value of this stylish garment is hard to measure as only survivors could pass comment. The advert boasts that its tempered steel lining could stop a revolver bullet but most Germans were equipped with Mauser rifles and most injuries were inflicted by artillery shells.
A Wilkinson Sword bullet-proof jacket was bought recently from a junk shop. The garment had two dissimilar tears in the back; a bloodstained gash that suggested that it had been pierced by a large chunk of shrapnel and a slice that suggested it had been cut by a scalpel. The fact that the jacket was for sale in the U.K. might suggest that the owner of the jacket survived but private property of dead officers (including uniforms where purchased from outfitters) was generally returned to his family. One of the best options for bullet proofing was recently tested by the Royal Armouries, Leeds. This was layers of silk which from the early 1900’s was made into bullet proof vests for crowned heads. Archduke Franz Ferdinand forgot to wear it on the day of his assassination - but as he was shot in the neck, it would not have saved him.
Paris Fashion Week - Full Metal Jacket
‘Sky pilots’ was the nicknamed given by the B.E.F. to the army chaplains who accompanied them to the war zone. Sixty five crossed in 1914 and these represented different branches of Christianity and other faiths such as Judaism. By the end of the war 3,500 had ministered to the troops overseas and although not involved in the fighting, around 180 were killed in action. Three chaplains were awarded Britain’s highest awards for bravery. The most decorated of these was Theodore B. Hardy (featured) who not only earned the V.C. but also the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) and the M.C. (Military Cross) making him the most decorated non-combatant of the war.
The Sky Pilots
In 1915 this little church was established in the upper part of a house in Poperinge. ‘Pop’ lies 5 miles west of Ypres and was an important base with masses of troops and munitions passing through to the front lines. It was surrounded by training areas, hospitals and supply dumps and filled with estaminets (cafes), restaurants and less savoury establishments. However to meet the spiritual needs of the troops, Reverend Neville Talbot established this little sanctuary and it was filled to capacity most days. Around 25,000 men are known to have worshiped in this church whose most intriguing feature is the improvised altar which is a simple carpenter’s bench. Can you think why this was considered especially appropriate?
Easter Sunday - Talbot House
The British public liked to think that they would win the war because British males were morally superior to their German counterparts who were little more than beer swilling brutes. However British alcohol consumption was alarming and David Lloyd George – a future Prime Minister – commented; “We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink”. In April King George V tried to set an example by declaring that he would abstain from drinking alcohol for the duration of the war. He then banned the consumption of intoxicating liquor from all royal palaces. By May it was clear that the King’s call for abstinence was not eliciting the expectant response from members of high society. Some banished their German wines to the darkest corners of their cellars but only the Duke of Portland ‘signed the pledge’.
War on Drink Too Hard to Swallow
The Belgian town of Ypres was by June 1915 devoid of civilian inhabitants and out of bounds to British troops. But while ‘looting’ was a serious offence, ’scavenging’ seems to have been tolerated. Shadowy figures could be seen at night creeping through abandoned homes, searching for anything of value. The collusion of a lorry driver was always useful as a truck might be required to deliver the contents of someone’s wine cellar to local estaminets where the booze would be sold on to Tommies. A group of British officers purchased from scavengers (with no questions asked), a working stove and an armchair to make life in their billet a little more comfortable.
"This Town is Coming Like a Ghost Town"
A German in a barrel would have been a nasty shock but wine in a barrel was a gift from heaven. When Sgt. Butler of the 12th Machine Gun Corps (M.G.C.) found a 36 gallon barrel sitting unguarded, he decided that he needed to take care of it. With the help of some colleagues the barrel was quickly moved to a hiding place. Drag marks and footprints were brushed away and ropes and chains were attached to the contraband prior to it being lowered down a well. As a final thought, the Tommies removed the bung to check the quality of the wine. In the morning, they had a visit from the Gendarmes and the hungover machine-gunners kindly assisted in the vain search for the missing barrel. Next night the men of M.G.C. were sent to the front line and never saw that billet nor that barrel again.
Roll Out the Barrel
A soldier who stuck a stamp on an army biscuit and posted it home was punished by the army. British morale must have been more fragile than the biscuits as many examples of this particular army staple have survived. They were so hard that they were virtually inedible and soldiers often smashed them with rocks before soaking them in any palatable liquid that was available. As well as using them as postcards, some soldiers split them long ways and shaped them into picture frames. It is not surprising that so many are still around, as in one year the British army purchased 58.5 million kilos of these biscuits!
From their position near Ypres, soldiers of the Queen Victoria Rifles watched in consternation as horses and men streamed towards them. Anthony Hossack recalled one rider who was hatless, rolling in the saddle and seemed to be drunk. Some alcohol related jibes were made to this unfortunate cavalryman but these stopped when the soldiers saw the blood on his saddle. Encounters such as this gave new meaning to the word ‘gassed’ and it is still colloquially used in the U.K. to describe someone who is in a tipsy or disorientated state due to consumption of alcohol.
Gassed Last Night
Flooded trenches often gave rise to jokes about the imminent arrival of enemy submarines. Somewhere along the line, this may have given rise to a simple invention that by May 1915 was saving many British lives. The trench periscope was a simple box containing two sloping mirrors and this allowed Tommies to keep watch over No-man’s land without any personal risk. The idea first surfaced in February when mirrors were fixed onto the rear of the trench but enemy snipers amused themselves by routinely shattering these and so portable box and pipe versions were introduced. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum).
The month of June began well for Private Frank Richards of the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The first men from his unit were granted 5 days leave – one day for travel in each direction, and 3 days at home. As illustrated, each man took with him his full kit as well as 150 bullets - though what threat he faced is unclear. Richards was greeted by friends and family but they were disappointed that he had not brought them as promised a German spiked helmet. When they learned what he had done with one he planned to give them, they were appalled (see ‘Strange times! 1915’ for the full story). Back in Newport, Richards spent most of his time in his local pub where he was bought drinks all day long. Eventually the carrying of ammunition was abolished and any Tommy who took bullets home with him could be disciplined.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 2nd June 1915
Back from the Front
On a balmy June night in 1915, a crowd of Tommies waited impatiently outside a nondescript building in the French town of Le Havre. Apart from the queue the only distinguishing feature of the building was a, as yet unlit, red lamp. As they waited for the bordello to open, some of the men lustily sang bawdy choruses to the popular ditty about the fabled ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’. In the polite version ****** would be replaced with the word ‘kissed’. When the lamp was switched on at 6.00 p.m., it prompted a huge cheer and a crush of men pressed forward through the door. On the other side, burly bouncers imposed order while typically some “jaded and worn-out” ladies awaited their clients.
Mademoiselle from Armentieres
The red lamp on this bordello identified it as an officially sanctioned establishment – of which there were around 150 in northern France. These did brisk business and a 1915 survey of brothels in one street in Le Havre reckoned that these received 170,000 callers per year. Each visit generally cost 2 francs, one for Madame and one for his chosen lady – some of whom were said to be old enough to be their grandmother! Almost inevitably the British army faced an epidemic of Sexually Transmitted Disease (S.T.D) and a soldier was five times more likely to contract an S.T.D. than trench foot! There will be more on this story next month.
The Bordello Business Continues to Boom
In 1915 the Hull Daily Mail reported that through a local scheme, a housemaid named Mary was able to win the heart of a lonely soldier through sending cigarettes and a bottle of whisky concealed in a cake. The young soldier was so thrilled by her gesture that when on leave he paid Mary a visit and the pair got engaged within 72 hours of first meeting. Young women were encouraged to follow her example and correspond with lonely Tommies but sometimes the relationship that developed proved ‘disastrous’. Soldiers used lonely hearts columns in newspapers to assist the process but some were motivated more by lust than love. In 1915, the Manchester Evening News encouraged its female readers to become ‘Godmothers’ to the troops by writing letters and sending gifts. The response was amazing and 90,000 women and girls responded.
In April 1915, Christopher Paget-Clark, a fresh-faced 14 year old was promoted to the rank of Corporal and so became (as far as we know) Britain’s youngest serving non-commissioned officer (NCO). Chris bluffed his way into the British army in October 1914 and served in India, the Middle East and Turkey. His father was incredibly proud of the lad, and alerted the national newspapers. Christopher died in 1967 but the full story of the ‘Little Corporal’ only came to light when the soldier’s granddaughters went through a trunk of papers which included letters from the front.