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Life in the trenches

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BerichtGeplaatst: 13 Jul 2006 7:10    Onderwerp: Life in the trenches Reageer met quote

Life in the trenches

Once the initial German attack on France had been repelled in the autumn of 1914, a new type of warfare - very different to the war of mobility envisaged in the -Schlieffen Plan - evolved on the Western Front. Both sides consolidated defensive positions by digging trenches, which were protected by barbed wire, sandbags and armed soldiers. From these enclaves, they intermittently attacked enemy lines, often under the cover of heavy artillery fire, across the barren space between the two armies that was known as -No Man's Land.

This was trench warfare. It was the definitive military experience of most British soldiers during the First World War and - as the enduring influence of poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves illustrates - the driving force behind Britain's collective memory of the conflict ever since.

The threat of death

The experiences of British soldiers on the Western Front were many and varied. Conditions were more comfortable for officers, whose privileges included better dugouts and rations, than for ordinary soldiers. Parts of the trench system were quieter and safer than others. Tensions arose between different parts of the army - witness, for example, some infantrymen's hostiliy towards 'specialists' of trench warfare such as the Royal Engineers.

Life in the trenches also had many common features. On the front line, the constant threat of death on the battlefield afflicted men of all ranks. The First World War was the first major conflict in which more people died in combat than from disease - a testimony both to its bloody character and to the improved medical support available.

Particularly in major assaults such as the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele (July-November 1917), soldiers witnessed horrific scenes of carnage, in which death - from gas or mortar attacks, or in hand-to-hand combat - was commonplace. Men on leave often found it difficult to relate such incidents to their family and friends, thereby creating an inevitable barrier between themselves (and their 'muckers' in the trenches) and civilians back home

Health and humour

The trenches also created a common set of health and hygiene problems. Lice and rats were constant torments. The deep mud and slime gave rise to a crippling condition known as 'trench foot', which, in the British sector of the Western Front during the winter of 1914, forced 20,000 men out of action. Though a cure was eventually found for this malady, living conditions in the trenches remained damp and filthy for the duration of the war.

Life in the trenches was not, however, an unremitting catalogue of misery and hardship. Britain's close proximity to the front enabled men to receive regular food and clothing parcels from their families. Trench newspapers and games of football provided diversions from the conflict itself. Black humour and patriotic songs helped to foster a sense of common identity within individual units.

These were the sides of the soldier's life on the Western Front about which the British public was told in publications such as the Daily Mail and the Illustrated London News. However, such sanitised accounts, as the troops themselves contemptuously acknowledged, gave largely misleading impressions. Real life in the trenches, as the horrendous casualty rates illustrated, was a good deal bloodier and more dangerous.

Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

WO 95: War diaries, First World War.
WO 154: War diaries (supplementary), First World War.
WO 153: Trench maps from the Western Front, 1914-18.
WO 297: Trench maps from the Western Front, 1914-18.
ZPER 34/145-153: Illustrated London News, July 1914-Dec 1918.

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BerichtGeplaatst: 20 Jul 2006 6:08    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

An individual soldier's time in the front-line trench was usually brief; from as little as one day to as much as two weeks at a time before being relieved. The Australian 31st Battalion once spent 53 days in the line at Villers Bretonneux, but such a duration was a rare exception. A typical British soldier's year could be divided as follows:

* 10% support line
* 30% reserve line
* 20% rest
* 25% other (hospital, travelling, leave, training courses, etc.)

Even when in the front line, the typical soldier would only be called upon to engage in fighting a handful of times a year-making an attack, defending against an attack or participating in a raid. The frequency of combat would increase for the men of the 'elite' fighting divisions-on the Allied side; the British regular divisions, the Canadian Corps, the French XX Corps and the Anzacs.

Related articles:
Trench battle strategy and tactics
Trench warfare
Trench geography
Trench construction

Some sectors of the front saw little activity throughout the war, making life in the trenches comparatively easy. When the I Anzac Corps first arrived in France in April 1916 after the evacuation of Gallipoli, they were sent to a relatively peaceful sector south of ArmentiŤres to 'acclimatise'. Other sectors were in a perpetual state of violent activity. On the Western Front, Ypres was invariably hellish, especially for the British in the exposed, overlooked salient. However, quiet sectors still amassed daily casualties through sniper fire, artillery and gas. In the first six months of 1916 before the launch of the Somme Offensive, the British did not engage in any significant battles on their sector of the Western Front and yet suffered 107,776 casualties.

A sector of the front would be allocated to an army corps, usually containing three divisions. Of these two would occupy adjacent sections of the front and the third would be in rest to the rear. This break down of duty would continue down through the army structure so that within each front-line division, typically containing three infantry brigades, two brigades would occupy the front and the third would be in reserve. Within each front-line brigade, typically containing four battalions (regiments for the Germans), two battalions would occupy the front with two in reserve. And so on for companies and platoons. The lower down the structure this division of duty proceeded, the more frequently the units would rotate from front-line duty to support or reserve.

During the day, snipers and artillery observers in balloons made movement perilous, so the trenches were mostly quiet. Consequently, the trenches were busiest at night when cover of darkness allowed the movement of troops and supplies, the maintenance and expansion of the barbed wire and trench system, and reconnaissance of the enemy's defences. Sentries in listening posts out in no man's land would try to detect enemy patrols and working parties or indications that an attack was being prepared.

Raids were carried out in order to capture prisoners and 'spammer'-letters and other documents that provide intelligence about the unit occupying the opposing trenches. As the war progressed, raiding became part of the general British policy, the intention being to maintain the fighting spirit of the troops and to deny no man's land from the Germans. Such dominance was achieved at a high cost, and a post-war British analysis concluded that the benefits were probably not worth the price.

Early in the war, surprise raids would be mounted, particularly by the Canadians, but increased vigilance made achieving surprise difficult as the war progressed. By 1916, raids were carefully planned exercises in combined arms and involved close co-operation of infantry and artillery. A raid would begin with an intense artillery bombardment designed to drive off or kill the front-trench garrison and cut the barbed wire. Then the bombardment would shift to form a 'box', or cordon, around a section of the front line to prevent a counter-attack intercepting the raid.
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