08 February 2011
An Ordinary Day In: WWI Trenches
By: Isabel Roman
Life in the trenches of France, Belgium, and Germany were treacherous even when there was no imminent attack. Here's a video of a German soldier digging a trench in France. From the First World War website:
The daily routine of life in the trenches began with the morning 'stand to'. An hour before dawn everyone was roused from slumber by the company orderly officer and sergeant and ordered to climb up on the fire step to guard against a dawn raid by the enemy, bayonets fixed.
This policy of stand to was adopted by both sides, and despite the knowledge that each side prepared itself for raids or attacks timed at dawn, many were actually carried out at this time.
Accompanying stand to, as the light grew, was the daily ritual often termed the 'morning hate'.
Both sides would often relieve the tension of the early hours with machine gun fire, shelling and small arms fire, directed into the mist to their front: this made doubly sure of safety at dawn.
With stand to over, in some areas rum might then be issued to the men. They would then attend to the cleaning of their rifle equipment, which was followed by its inspection by officers.
Breakfast would next be served. In essentially every area of the line at some time or other each side would adopt an unofficial truce while breakfast was served and eaten. This truce often extended to the wagons which delivered such sustenance.
With breakfast over the men would be inspected by either the company or platoon commander. Once this had been completed NCOs would assign daily chores to each man (except those who had been excused duty for a variety of reasons).
Example - and necessary - daily chores included the refilling of sandbags, the repair of the duckboards on the floor of the trench and the draining of trenches.
*Novices were cautioned against their natural inclination to peer over the parapet of the trench into No Man's Land. Many men died on their first day in the trenches as a consequence of a precisely aimed sniper's bullet.
*It has been estimated that up to one third of Allied casualties on the Western Front were actually sustained in the trenches. Aside from enemy injuries, disease wrought a heavy toll.
*Rats in their millions infested trenches. There were two main types, the brown and the black rat. Both were despised but the brown rat was especially feared. Gorging themselves on human remains (grotesquely disfiguring them by eating their eyes and liver) they could grow to the size of a cat.
*A single rat couple could produce up to 900 offspring in a year, spreading infection and contaminating food. The rat problem remained for the duration of the war (although many veteran soldiers swore that rats sensed impending heavy enemy shellfire and consequently disappeared from view).
*Lice were a never-ending problem, breeding in the seams of filthy clothing and causing men to itch unceasingly.
*Lice caused Trench Fever, a particularly painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever. Recovery - away from the trenches - took up to twelve weeks. Lice were not actually identified as the culprit of Trench Fever until 1918.
*Many men chose to shave their heads entirely to avoid another prevalent scourge: nits.
*Trench Foot: a fungal infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions. It could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. Trench Foot was more of a problem at the start of trench warfare; as conditions improved in 1915 it rapidly faded, although a trickle of cases continued throughout the war.
*Finally, no overview of trench life can avoid the aspect that instantly struck visitors to the lines: the appalling reek given off by numerous conflicting sources.
*Rotting carcases lay around in their thousands. For example, approximately 200,000 men were killed on the Somme battlefields, many of which lay in shallow graves.
*Overflowing latrines would similarly give off a most offensive stench.
*Men who had not been afforded the luxury of a bath in weeks or months would offer the pervading odour of dried sweat. The feet were generally accepted to give off the worst odour.
*Trenches would also smell of creosol or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection.
*Add to this the smell of cordite, the lingering odour of poison gas, rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke and cooking food... yet men grew used to it.
Isabel Roman is the pseudonym used by writing team Christine Koehler and Marisa Velez. Their Victorian Druids series has been featured on The Home Shopping Network and is available in bookstores everywhere. Currently they're working on a Prohibition-era series and wondering why time flies so quickly. Visit the Isabel Roman blog!