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Trench life for both Allies and Germans, is

beyond comprehension. They were dealing

with far more than the constant fear of going
over the top

Sources of life in the trenches include
photographs, poems written by the soldiers,
letters home, and the journalist articles. All
inform of the reality of the trenches.
Men in the Trenches never became used to
the incessant and all-pervasive nature of the
It affected their whole existence; food,
clothing, health
North-eastern France and Belgium received
frequent rain that when combined with the
clay in the trenches and the artillery
bombardments resulted in muddy swamps.

Mud is the chief enemy and chief misery of the
soldier. Mud soft and deep, that you sink into, vainly
seeking a foothold on something solid; or stiff and
clinging, gripping boots so firmly as sometimes to
drag them off. Mud, that coats men, horses, guns,
rifles, and all in a thick camouflage, so that they
become almost indistinguishable from the ground. It
clings to mens bodies and cracks their skins, and
the slimy horror of it soaks their souls and sucks
their courage. I have known those who can face an
enemy barrage without flinching, who still shiver at
the memory of their experiences in the mud of

Boyd, Sergeant P, Salvage, Australian War Memorial Facsimile Editions,
Canberra (1918) 1983, in McAndrew, M, Thomas, D and Cummins, P,
The Great War and its Aftermath, Cambridge University Press,
Melbourne, 2001, p.173

It was not uncommon for the men in the
trenches to stand for days at a stretch in
knee-high water.
The lack of drainage and incessant rain
meant that the trenches were frequently full
of water.
This led to conditions of trench foot.
Trench foot if the painful swelling of the feet
caused by constant immersion in water.
In some cases the toes would rot off and the
condition often progressed to gangrene, that
would often lead to amputation

Your feet swell to two or three times their normal
size and go completely dead. You could stick a
bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you
were fortunate enough not to lose your feet and
the swelling begins to go down, it is then that the
intolerable, indescribable agony begins. I have
heard men cry and even scream with the pain and
many had to have their feet and legs amputated.
I was one of the lucky ones, but one more day in
that trench and it may have been too late.

Sergeant Harry Roberts, RAMC, after holding a flooded strategic front
line trench for six days and nights, just before the beginning of the
Battle of the Somme, 1919

It was not only water that filled the trenches,
that water at the bottom of a trench soon
developed into an unbelievable putrid
concoction of human and military debris
The stench of the trench the smell of
explosives and gas often induced vomiting.
At the height of the battle men had no choice
but to urinate where they stood.
Diarrhoea and dysentery were common
ailment suffered by the troops.
Decomposing bodies were allowed to float on
the surface of the water until a safe time
could be found to dispose of them.
At the height of summer these corpses
attracted swarms of flies.
All conditions creating and ideal for
spreading disease. Frostbite, meningitis,
tuberculosis, venereal disease.
There was not at soldier in the trenches
during WWI that did not have lice.
Once embedded in a mans uniform they had
the ability to torment their host night and
The bred uncontrollably and were resistant to
all forms of prevention.
The constant scratching of the men due to
lice caused the skin to break. In the
unhygienic conditions this proved dangerous

Jack, like most of the men, scratched almost all
the time, unconsciously, and gradually less aware
that he did so. Not all of them were resigned.
Tyson had once been driven so frantic that the
medical officer ordered him to have fifteen days
rest. The constant irritation had proved more
wearing to him even than the sound of heavy
guns or the fear of dying. By the time they had
reached their billets Jack felt the first irritation on
his skin. Within three hours the heat on his body
as he marched had hatched the eggs of hundreds
of lice that had lain dormant in the seams of the
shirt. By the time he reached the front his skin
was alive with them.

Faulks, S, Birdsong, Vintage, London, 1994, pp.346, 347.

Known as trench rats or corpse rats these
vermin were often the size of small dogs and
were a constant unwelcome companion on
the Western Front
Rats were not selective, French/ German,
dead/sleeping, food
The horror of rats often brought out the
humour of men in the trenches, for example
competitions of killing rats and the various
ways to do so.

There are millions!! Some are huge fellows,
nearly as big as cats. Several of our men were
awakened to find a rat snuggling down under
the blanket alongside them!

Major Walter Vignoles, quoted in Malcolm Brown, Tommy goes to
War, Dent, London, 1978, p.88

An ailment that has nothing to do with gas
but a condition caused by a chemical in
manure (bacillus a bacterium) that when
combined with oxygen produces spores that
would come into contact with wounds due to
the mud.
The winter temperatures in the trenches
would fall to -15 degrees.
The combination of cold and wet made the
conditions unbearable, making sleep and
warmth impossible
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent
Low, dropping flares confuse our memory of the salient
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

Tonight this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

Owen, W, extract from the poem Exposure, written in 1917, in Cross, T, The Lost Voices of World War One,
Bloomsbury, London, 1988, p.80

Nature of battle had short term and long term
psychological effects.
Men fighting on the Western Front were
unfamiliar with violence and the savagery of
They had to cope with constant artillery
bombardments, human flesh and the stench.

I shall not easily forget those long winter nights
at the front line. Darkness fell about four in the
afternoon and dawn was not until 8 the next
morning. These sixteen hours of blackness were
broken by gun flashes, the gleam of star shells
and punctuated by the scream of a shell or the
sudden heart stopping rattle of a machine gun.
The long hours crept by with leaden feet and
sometimes it seemed as if time itself was dead.

F. Noakes, The Distant Drum, quoted in Winter, Deaths Men, p.86

The official attitude to shell shock in the early
part of the war was that there is no such
thing. They accused those showing
symptoms of shell shock as malingerers or
Shell shock was caused by the stress of war
Some became violent and angry
Others refused to communicate
Some would gaze blankly
Or the could shake, mumble and slobber
He upset all of us. There were just five or six
of us in our dug-out and every time a shell
came over her went haywire, shouting and
screaming as if he wanted to tear the place to
pieces and tear us to pieces too. We just
couldnt put up with it, so I grabbed him by
the scruff of the neck and took him down the
duckboard track to the dressing station. He
was quite a mild little fellow, in fact quite a
sweet-natured sort of chap.

Bombardier Harry Fayerbrother, Royal Field Artillery, while in Ypres
Salient, late 1917, writing about shell-shocked comrade.