World War One – Trench Warfare – describing the horrific conditions
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World War 1 was like nothing that had ever happened in the world before. Although it was inevitable, the horrific loss of life was pointless. Almost no-one except the politicians ruling agreed with it, which has been proven by soldier’s diaries, and most famously the football match between the British and the Germans on Christmas Day 1914. All-in-all, World War 1 resulted in a revolution in infantry tactics which fundamentally altered how wars were fought. The armies which clashed in August 1914 operated on essentially 19th century doctrines, large units of riflemen were screened by cavalry and supported by artillery. Commanders were expecting decisive engagements to settle the war rapidly. The British, French, Germans, and Russians that marched off in war on August 1914 all assumed that the War would be over in a few months if not weeks. No one anticipated a struggle that would endure over 4 years. Sweeping maneuvers exposed the cavalry and infantry to the killing power of modern weapons.
Modern weapons, especially artillery and machine guns as well as accurate rapid-fire rifles proved devastating, especially when used against the tactics field commanders employed in the initial phases of the War. Field operations by 1916 had, after the loss of millions, been fundamentally changed. The professional armies of 1914 were devastated and were replaced by conscripted replacements. What began as a rapid war of movement soon settled down to static trench warfare and became a brutal war of attrition. Both the Germans and the French and British began digging trenches to stay alive. Eventually parallel trench systems stretched from the Swiss border to the English Channel. There were about 40,000 kilometers of trenches on the Western Front alone. And so Trench warfare became the biggest part of World War 1…
Conditions in the Trenches
The condition of the Trenches during World War 1 were terrible. The trenches were constantly filled with mud, water, blood, urine, shrapnel, and body parts. Because of these items constantly filling the trenches, the soldier’s feet were exposed to these terrible conditions, and it eventually caused trench foot. Men would “live” in these trenches for months on end. Trench foot wasn’t the only thing that came from living in the frontline, other conditions such as shell shock, lice, illness from poor hygiene and most commonly, death. Soldiers would never get a good night sleep because of the shelling, the smell and uncomfortable conditions. Despite these terrible conditions, most soldiers would try and keep the spirits up and be thankful for the protection it would give them.
Communication trenches would be used to pass messages between the different trench zones. Barbed wire was placed at the front of the trench to make it hard for and approaching group of soldiers to make it into the trench. The frontline was where all the soldiers would fire across to the other trench or leave to go over the top. IN the support trench you would have found soldiers resting from life in the frontline or waiting to be sent up to the front. A machine-gun house would be placed behind the support trench to fire on the opposition. In the reserve trench were the supplies for the soldiers such as artillery, food, water, and other basic living needs. Soldiers would hide or sleep in the dugouts of the trenches. Long range artillery would be used to shell the opposing trench.
A blight was a wound that was either self inflicted, or been deliberately acquired from enemy fire by raising an arm or leg over the top of the trench or cover or sand bags. They would be sent home to recover and get away from the war. Although that may sound perfectly reasonable, in those times it was a dishonorable thing to do, as it showed that you were either a coward or more importantly, were not willing to die for your country. The British were very patriotic and it wasn’t approved of if a man was not willing to die for his country.
Trench foot results from a lot of days of exposure to wet or damp conditions at a temperature just over or freezing, Conditions in the trenches were often like this because of all the rain and mud covering the bottom of the trenches, the soldiers couldn’t escape it while fighting and had no option but to stand in these conditions all day. Most of the damage is on the nerves and muscles, but gangrene can occur, and often did, from this. In many soldiers’ cases, the flesh on the foot would die and it may become necessary to have the foot or sometimes even the leg amputated. The best prevention was to keep the feet dry. To do this the soldiers were ordered to carry extra socks with them in a waterproof packet. Dry wet socks against their bodies. They were to wash their feet daily, apply whale oils, and put on dry socks. Although this was important, many soldiers failed to do this because of the intense conditions on the frontline.
Getting hot food to the soldiers was almost impossible to get there still warm. Although food may not have been hot or in a great condition it would still keep the soldiers going for a while. British rations were considerably better than that of the Germans; the British received a greater quantity and a wider range of food. Although the rations were stated clearly, often soldiers would not always get everything because many things could go wrong in the process of getting the food to the frontline.
Lice are tiny creatures that feed on human blood and live in the skin and anywhere warm. Lice became a major problem in World War 1. Almost all off the soldiers would be infected with them. They would live in soldier’s clothes and roam the human body sucking blood. The lice would cause intense itching and uncomfortable living situations. Lice would spread through the trenches very quickly because of cramped living conditions. Soldiers would often group together during breaks in the war and attempted to get rid of lice by running a lighter around your jacket and listening for the pops of the eggs. Even if the men were successful at ridding lice from themselves, they were very likely to get them again from someone else and so lice were constantly a problem through the war.
Shell shock was a major problem during World War 1. Shell shock was the result of the stress and trauma of war. Soldiers would contract it by living in the frontline for a time and becoming unstable from being exposed to the constant shelling and general stress of war which magnified the horror of it. The affects of shell shock varied depending on the case, mostly it lead to extreme panic and going crazy. Shell shock would build up from a number of symptoms. Firstly a soldier would become tired from the constant shelling and other factors that would keep them awake or becoming very tired from fighting. The constant shelling would cause headaches among all of the soldiers, these two put together eventually lead to a man becoming very irritable.
Eventually a soldier would not be able to concentrate at all and would lead to a complete mental breakdown. A patient’s exact conditions would usually relate to their most traumatic experience in war. Some men would not respond to anything or anyone while in hospital except for example: the word bomb or death. Others would be in constant spasm reenacting an experience such as ducking or hiding. Others would just become unable to control themselves as a result of the trauma. The condition would affect different men in different ways, but all the same it would affect almost everyone who lived long enough to go through it. Doctors tried many different methods to make the men fit for going back to the frontline, many of which successful. Shell shock also saw host to a new method of treatment known as psychiatric treatment, which is now commonly used for mental illnesses.
Rats became a problem in trenches during World War 1. They were attracted by the despicable smell and damp conditions. Rats would eat men’s uniform, generally just run around in the trenches and sometimes even bite soldiers, in desperation of hunger, causing them pain and often leading to infection. In extreme cases, a wounded or unprotected soldier could be eaten alive by a large rat or group of rats. Dead corpses would often be eaten by the rats. One soldier described the rats as small dogs that would attack and eat anything; he also said that they were almost as much of a threat as the Germans! Wounded men were often afraid to go to sleep in their beds and men tried to secure their food during the night to stop rats from getting it.
The situations in the trenches in World War One were horrible. It was very frustrating for most people. If there was another war, it would be interesting to see if the trenches could me made somewhat safer and healthier for soldiers to fight in. Hopefully it will never come down to another world war.