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What was it like in the trenches

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A century after World War One, historians still question the facts and the many ways soldiers survived the War. They ask questions about the uprising of the War, the number of total deaths and most importantly, life in the trenches. What is a trench? Why were they built? Why were trenches so important? What were conditions like in the trenches? What did soldiers think of them? In 1914, World War One began. Germany was determined to match Great Britain’s great success in creating their vast colonies and empires all over the world, some of which included; India, Australia, North America. They plotted against Britain, hence the Schlieffen Plan.

This was an idea to prevent Germany fighting on two fronts. They were to fight against France and Russia, both part of the Triple Entente, an alliance formed by Great Britain. Germany believed that defeating France would have to be quick enough so that they could rapidly travel east again, so that they could deal with Russia. However, there was only one problem. The problem was passing through Belgium. Britain had promised to help them, if it were to be attacked. It was merely impossible for Germany to get to France any other way, so it could not be prevented. News of Germany’s arrival ignited the flame to the war.

War had begun! Commandos and generals were certain that the war would only be won on the western front. They believed building ‘trenches’ would help carry out assaults on the enemy and gain the initiative in the war. The building of trenches was one of the most important aspects of the World War. A trench was a dug – out underneath the ground, at least two metres deep and two metres wide. It was dug in a particular zig – zag so that a blast from an enemy’s exploding shell would only affect a confined section of the trench. There were at least three lines of trenches on either side of ‘no man’s land’.

Support trenches and reserve trenches supported a front – line trench. Communication trenches connected all these trenches. Communication lines were responsible for passing messages from trench to trench. On many occasions, communication lines failed and as a result, many soldiers were killed – as shown by this source (British Army commander): “… the communication line failed. My fellow soldiers came out to late and were heavily wounded, some even died. ” An attack would be led by the front line. Soldiers would shoot and fire shells from this area of the trenches.

It was built up of firing steps and elbow rests which helped soldiers lean over the top of it and fire. A trench would have been guarded by parapets (a small defensive wall around the front of a trench) to reduce the effects of an assault by both arm and shells. The front of this trench was also guarded by barbed wire. This was a thin copper wire with spikes jutting out of it. It was incredibly difficult to break through with bare arms, as that would just inflict cuts and injuries, but could be broken using pliers or a bombshell. The trench supporting the front line was known as the ‘support trench’.

Here, hopeless soldiers would await the day when they would be called up to fight in the front trench. Every morning, breakfast was made in the support trench. The trench supporting the support trench was known as the ‘reserve trench’. It had no means of significance, just that it had more back – up soldiers ready to fight. ‘Blind alleys’ were made to confuse soldiers in case of a successful attack from the opposition. ‘Saps’ were shallow trenches built as a look – out for posts and machine – gun nests (where all machine – guns were kept). Over two million British citizens volunteered to fight for Great Britain.

I believe this showed great support and character by the British. Soldiers went into the war knowing a great achievement would earn them the highest merit possible – the Victoria Cross. The British Expeditionary Force was the first group of soldiers to fight the Triple Alliance (an alliance formed by Germany including Hungary – Austria and Italy). Unfortunately by the end of 1916, Britain was forced to conscript (recruit) another million or so people, due to the high numbers of casualties in that past year. Conditions in the trenches were dreadful. Germany was one of the first nations to build trenches.

They built them on high ground, which later had its advantages. Britain had to build them on low ground, as all high ground area had been taken up. This proved a disadvantage in two main ways. When it rained, water would flow down the high ground and into the trenches in the low ground. Mud around the trenches would get saturated (soaked – won’t absorb anymore liquid) and filled all the trenches with muddy water. This caused a lot of diseases and made living conditions in the trench appalling. On low ground, the British soldiers also found it terribly difficult to lead attacks going uphill.

This made fending off the British easier for German machine – gunners. Britain lost thousands of men because of this and, so was forced to find other higher areas to build trenches. Trenches were built wherever the enemy was found. A group of soldiers from both sides would remain in their trenches, until the battle between the sides had been won and the opposites trench was raided. One German soldier wrote: “Part or our trench went through a cemetery. We cleared out the contents of the family vaults and used them to shelter ourselves from artillery fire; hits from heavy shells would hurl the coffins and semi rotted corpses high into the air.

From this source, it can be assumed that army generals and officers would go to any extremes to build trenches to win a battle, as in this source they dug through a cemetery. The source states ‘carried out the contents of the family vaults and used them to shelter ourselves… ‘ This suggests that the armies had to be resourceful, as they would not have had any shelter or equipment with them. We have come to believe that the soldiers in the army were not comfortable with the corpses, as the German soldier describes one as ‘rotted’. For most soldiers, life in the trenches was a horrifying experience.

Every soldier feared ‘going over the top’. This meant climbing over the parapets and attempting to capture the enemy’s trenches. One young German describes his experience of ‘going over the top’: “At noon we went over the top. After less than a hundred yards we ran up against an almost concrete wall of whistling and whining machine – gun bullets. My company commander had his face shot away; another man yelling and whimpering held his hands to his belly and, through his fingers, his stomach protruded. A young boy cried for his mother, bright red blood spurting out from his face. ”

From this source, we are able to imagine the horrific murders on the battlefield. From ‘stomach protruded’ and ‘face shot way’ I can imagine that going over the top must have been quite traumatic. This piece of evidence also shows the awesome power of the ‘machine – gun’, as it’s long line of bullets are described as a ‘concrete wall’. A concrete wall represents a deathly barrier that is impassable. Before soldiers were sent over the top, the enemy trenches were bombarded with huge shells in an attempt to kill any front – line troops and tear gaps in the barbed wire guarding them. This was known as ‘shelling’.

Shelling was also very useful in churning up no man’s land, so that the enemy could not attack. A British sergeant wrote about the effect of shelling: “It was on May 2nd that … this single high explosive shell killed 7 and wounded 18 – yet the day before 400 shells came over and dropped behind the trench and no one was hurt. The trench after the dead and wounded were removed presented a ghastly sight – it was red with blood like a room papered in crimson. ” This source proved the effectiveness of accurate shelling. ‘single high explosive shell killed seven and wounded 18’, shows that accurate shelling was lethal.

Whereas inaccurate shelling would just waste shells as shown by this, ‘400 shells came over … no one was hurt’. This source was viewed from a sergeant who would not have seen much of the deaths of shelling (shouting commands instead), therefore the number of deaths may be an estimate and not exact. Tactics were extremely important for both sides to win the war. ‘Shelling’ was one form of tactic. Another was ‘attrition’. Lord Kitchener was a great supporter of attrition, the theory of grinding down the opposition over a long period of time; eventually the enemy would have to yield.

It was believed that bombarding the enemy over a long period of time would fend them off. This could not break the stalemate. Both countries were so well equipped and equally matched, that it seemed at times the battle between the two would go nowhere (stalemate). A good example of this was the Battle of the Somme, which lasted five long months. Fortunately, the static style of fighting evolved due to the deployment of new state of the art weaponry. Armies had what they called ‘Reconnaissance’. These were missions to gather information about the enemy position.

Many soldiers made night – time trips over no man’s land to the enemy trench, to familiarise themselves with the whereabouts of the enemy troops. Aeroplanes would often fly – over the enemy trench to take photos as well. During 1915, generals on the Western Front used huge numbers of weapons to break the stalemate. As the war progressed, more and more weapons were invented, which helped many battles at times. Before starting an attack, both sides bombarded each other with shells. The armies used ‘heavy artillery’ to fire these explosive shells. Heavy artillery was another name for big guns.

These guns had enormous power and enabled armies to fire shells long distances. Germans called heavy artillery ‘howitzers’. The newer ones in the war were able to fire shells, which exploded into small metal splinters called ‘shrapnel’. Shrapnel would have travelled at least thirteen kilometres after explosion. Experienced soldiers were accustomed to the sound made by a shell flying in the air. The British named the German 77 millimetre long shells ‘whizz – bangs’. One French gunner described the terrifying experience of heavy artillery fire: “You have no idea of the number of Boches [Germans] blown to bits.

What a horrible sight in the woods in which not a single tree has been spared. Human remains, arms or legs, knapsacks, blankets, etc. hung on the spruces. We watched Boches flying up in the air as much as three or four hundred feet. ” Heavy artillery fire was capable of wiping out a trench (as described by the Frenchman). I believe the effects of heavy artillery fire must have been quite disturbing, as the Frenchman had witnessed; ‘Human remains … hung on spruces’. As part of the armies’ arsenals, there would have been machine – guns, hand grenades, Gases and Bayonets.

Machine – guns were very useful in the First World War. During shelling, the army on the offence would lead an infantry attack. As the soldiers swarmed over no man’s land, it would have been important for a general to have a machine – gun as it fired 600 bullets per minute, killing about fifty to sixty people all in quick succession. The hand – held grenade was used for trench bombing attacks. Soldiers would throw them into enemy trenches where it would explode, in turn killing a lot of men. However, throws were not always accurate, which was the only disadvantage to it.

Bayonets were rifles with long knives fixed on to their ends. These were only best for close – range attacks and not long – range. Poison (Chlorine/Phosgene) gas was first introduced on 22 April 1915 by German troops at the Second Battle of Ypres. One British officer described its devastating effects on nearby French troops: “That strange green cloud of death … In the gathering dark of that awful night they fought with their terror, running blindly in the gas cloud, and dropping with chests heaving in agony and the slow poison of suffocation mantling their dark faces. Hundreds of them fell and died.

Others lay helpless, froth upon their agonised lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick, with searing nausea at short intervals. They too would die later – a slow and lingering death of unimaginable agony. ” As this source shows, gas was really dangerous. Captured soldiers often faced the gas. I would argue that this is one of the most inhumane ways to die, as the British soldier reported the effects ‘searing nausea’ and ‘froth upon their lips’, which are extremely awful pretences to die under. This source did not mention that Mustard gas rotted the lining of the lungs as well as other parts of the body.

The pain was so great that many victims were restrained by being strapped on their beds. I’m sure this source is dependable as the British officer was not far away from the gas attack. However dangerous gas had been, it was easily prevented later on in the war. Its effect was easily countered by wearing gas masks, which were brought in around 1917. It also was easily blown away by strong winds. Earlier in the war, soldiers breathed in wet chemical soaked cloths to stop suffocating from the gas. In 1915, tanks were invented.

It was an armour – plated tractor, which moved at 6 kilometres per hour and was armed with both cannons and machine – guns. It was first used in 1916, and the Germans were so astonished and scared that they fled at the sight of it. It was extremely heavy as well as strong. It was capable of demolishing walls, crushing hedges and even snapped off small trees. Inside the trenches, soldiers lived a hard life. Each soldier was always in fear of being killed and ‘going over the top’. There were diseases too. Moist conditions in the trench attracted rats and lice, both carrying deadly viruses.

A common disease caught by soldiers was ‘Typhus’. It was an infectious, viral disease transmitted by lice or mites, causing fever and rashes. Another was ‘Trench foot’. When it rained, soldiers spent several days knee – deep in water or mud. Trench foot caused feet to swell up two or three times the normal size, then go numb. One British Doctor reported: “If you are fortunate enough not to lose your feet and the swelling begins to go down, it is then that the … agony begins. I have heard men cry and even scream with the pain and many had to have their feet and legs amputated. ”

This source shows how serious trench foot was. I could imagine the atmosphere inside the dug – out was probably depressing, as the doctor reported, ‘men cry and even scream with the pain’. It must have been a huge job for a doctor throughout the war, as there were a lot of casualties due to trench foot. Most soldiers got lice because they often had to go without washing or changing their clothes for weeks at a time. The term ‘chatting’ originated from the sound made when soldiers spent time popping lice on their filthy clothes. They were found in between the seams of trousers and waistcoats.

Their bites caused small, irritating blood spots. Shell shock was another symptom suffered by many. It was due to the disturbed experience of trench warfare that they suffered trembling, sweats and frequent nightmares. A loud explosion of a shell also caused this. Many soldiers would have done anything to leave the trenches. The early soldiers faced disillusionment. There was a wave of enthusiasm (most soldiers thought the war would be short) before the war had started, but this feeling was replaced by bitterness and hopelessness.

Most soldiers would dream about ‘catching a blighty one’ – a wound that would be serious enough to send soldiers back to ‘Blighty’ – Britain. It was not all bad for the soldiers. In fact, this life changing experience took place for the best for some. Many soldiers bonded so well with each other that they formed what was called ‘Comradeship’. This meant that they had formed a lifetime friendship and each vowed that they would never be separated. However, this was one of the reasons of desertion of the war. Soldiers saw their friends die in battle and could not cope with the depression and strains.

Many faked injury or escaped from the trenches and returned home. By 1917, thousands of men were deserting the British Army. In theory, soldiers always had plenty to eat. They were mainly supplied a sufficient amount of food such as: Meat (bully beef), Bread, Bacon, Tea, Sugar, Jam, Cheese, Butter, Potatoes, and Seasonings. It was believed that soldiers gained a stone and half (on average) in the trenches. This was partly down to the fact that many soldiers had come from poor backgrounds, therefore got more food in the trenches than at home.

Soldiers were made to follow a strict schedule inside their trenches. This was known as the trench routine. This included cooking meals, cleaning, greasing gun barrels and nursing the injured etc. This helped keep many soldiers occupied, as well as preventing them from getting bored. Soldiers often tried to come out of trenches for a bit of an adventure. However, their lives were on the line – as one soldier said: “If you got out of your trench, you were a dead bear”. The trenches were obviously a significant part of the First World War, as proved by the sources and from many people that survived the war.

Trenches were built to win battles, and as shown, army officers went to any extremes to build them. Conditions in the trenches were poor enough to cause diseases and attract filthy vermin and lice. From this, we can assume the soldiers that lived in the trenches must have not liked them. It can be argued that many enjoyed the experience, as well as many made friends. Army officers and soldiers response to the war was different, as one would be fighting and the other would be shouting commands. I think the trench warfare was really important, as many of our ancestors risked their lives to win the War for Great Britain.

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