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Trench Warfare: Characteristics of Life in the Trenches

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World War One was a horrific event. The number of known dead has been placed at about 10,000,000 men. The main method of combat during the first world war a.k.a. the Great World War, was trench warfare. Trench warfare was one of the main reasons so many men died. It was a ruthless system of warfare, in which lines and lines of men were repeatedly mowed down, one after the other.

Life in the trenches, on the daily, was filled with horror, and death. Death was a constant companion to those serving in the line, even when no raid or attack was launched or defended against. In busy sectors the constant shellfire directed by the enemy brought random death, whether their victims were lounging in a trench or lying in a dugout (many men were buried as a consequence of large shell-bursts). Similarly, 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.

The trenches were also a place full of disease, a part played largely by the rats.

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, they could grow to the size of a cat.

Men, exasperated and afraid of these rats, would attempt to rid the trenches of them by various methods: gunfire, with the bayonet, and even by clubbing them to death.

Rats were by no means the only source of infection and nuisance though. Lice were a never-ending problem, breeding in the seams of filthy clothing and causing men to itch unceasingly. Even when clothing was periodically washed and deloused, lice eggs invariably remained hidden in the seams; within a few hours of the clothes being re-worn the body heat generated would cause the eggs to hatch. 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. Also, frogs by the score were found in shell holes covered in water; they were also found in the base of trenches. Slugs and horned beetles crowded the sides of the trench. Many men chose to shave their heads entirely to avoid another prevalent scourge: nits.

Trench Foot was another medical condition peculiar to trench life. It was 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 few cases continued throughout the war.

Patrols would often be sent out into No Mans Land. Some men would be tasked with repairing, or adding barbed wire to the front line. Others however would go out to assigned listening posts, hoping to pick up valuable information from the enemy lines. Sometimes enemy patrols would meet in No Man’s Land. They were then faced with the option of hurrying on their separate ways or else engaging in hand to hand fighting. They could not afford to use their handguns while patrolling in No Man’s Land, for fear of the machine gun fire it would inevitably attract, deadly to all members of the patrol.

Trench warfare was a very perilous technique of armed conflict. Many men on the front line died ‘going over the top.’ Row upon row of soldiers would become mere corpses as battles raged on, due to the immense amount of gunfire coming from the opposition’s trenches. Now imagine the exact battle tactic used, but without trenches. Trenches may have been an almost certain death for the front line soldiers dwelling in them, but if soldiers were to go to war without these trenches, you could basically eliminate the word ‘almost’ from the previous line. Trenches provided much protection for soldiers, from enemy bombshells dropping in their vicinity. With the exclusion of trenches in the First World War, many soldiers would have perished as a result of being pierced by shrapnel from bombshells.

The amount of lives lost using trench warfare was hardly worth the amount of land gained. During the four catastrophic years, either side made very little progression in any direction, and remained in stalemate for the majority of the war. Thousands of men died for square meters of land.

A separate, but related event to trench warfare was the great influenza pandemic. A new strain of influenza, originating in the U.S.A (but misleadingly known as “Spanish Flu”) was accidentally carried to Europe with the American forces. The disease spread rapidly through the trenches in Europe. The exact number of deaths is unknown, but it could most definitely be held accountable for many of the deaths throughout Europe during the war.

The experiences of the war lead to a sort of national trauma afterwards for all the participating countries. The optimism of the early 1900’s was entirely gone and those who fought in the war became what were known as “The Lost Generation” because they never fully recovered, psychologically, from their experiences.

The movie “All Quiet On The Western Front,” illustrates life in the trenches perfectly. Majority of the soldiers in the movie are so enthused to serve their home country…Or so it seems. This is not the case though; they have been brainwashed by propaganda. An excellent example of this propaganda in the movie, is when the teacher says to his students “You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys – you are the iron men of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called to do so. It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads. I know that in one of the schools, the boys have risen up in the classroom and enlisted in a mass. If such a thing should happen here, you would not blame me for a feeling of pride. Perhaps some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet – that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away by your fathers so forgetful of their fatherland…by your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth.

And after all, is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy? Is the honor of wearing a uniform something from which we should run? And if our young ladies glory in those who wear it, is that anything to be ashamed of?…To be foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised. I believe it will be a quick war. There will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood in battle in a foreign land:…Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland…Now our country calls. The Fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country. Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you.” (http://www.filmsite.org/allq.html)

In conclusion, trench warfare was only continued throughout World War One, because countries in the early 1900’s had not yet fully reached a military revolution. Nearer to the end of the war, some countries began using tanks, and aerial attacks, but they were mostly unsuccessful. Trench warfare during the Great War will always stand out in history as one of the most brutal techniques of combat ever put to use, and more likely than not, be avoided in future battles.

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