Life in the Trenches
Trenches were not nice places to live. They were often waterlogged, and had little if any comforts such as heating and toilets. Much of the time the trenches were as little as 40 metres away from the enemy and the method of attack was to 'go over the top' of the trench and charge at the opposing trench. Millions died as machine guns cut through most soldiers well before they reached the trenches
Much of the land where the trenches were dug was either clay or sand. The water could not pass through the clay and because the sand was on top, the trenches became waterlogged when it rained. The trenches were hard to dig and kept on collapsing in the waterlogged sand. As well as trenches the shells from the guns and bombs made big craters in the ground. The rain filled up the craters and then poured into the trenches.
At the beginning of the war British soldiers were given 10 ounces of meat and 8 ounces of vegetables a day. However, as the war dragged on supplies began to run short and troops not on the front-line only received meat on nine out of every thirty days. The bulk of their diet in the trenches was canned corned beef, bread and biscuits. By the winter of 1916 flour was in such short supply that bread was being made with dried ground turnips. The main food was now a pea-soup with a few lumps of horsemeat. Kitchen staff became more and more dependent on local vegetables and also had to use weeds such as nettles in soups and stews even worse, because the kitchens were far away from the front line by the time the food reached the soldiers it was always cold.
Many soldiers fighting in the First World War suffered from trench foot. This was an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary conditions. In the trenches men stood for hours on end in waterlogged trenches without being able to remove wet socks or boots. The feet would gradually go numb and the skin would turn red or blue. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. During the winter of 1914-15 over 20,000 men in the British Army were treated for trench foot.
Men in the trenches also suffered from lice. One soldier writing after the war described them as "pale fawn in colour, and they left blotchy red bite marks all over the body." They also created a sour; stale smell. Various methods were used to remove the lice. A lighted candle was fairly effective but the skill of burning the lice without burning your clothes was only learnt with practice. Where possible the army arranged for the men to have baths in huge vats of hot water while their clothes were being put through delousing machines. Unfortunately, this rarely worked. A fair proportion of the eggs remained in the clothes and within two or three hours of the clothes being put on again a man's body heat had hatched them out.
The French Army were the first to
employ poison gas as a weapon in the first month of the war when they fired tear-gas
grenades at the Germans. However, the use of poison gas began in earnest in April
1915 when the German Army used chlorine gas cylinders against the French Army at
After the first German chlorine gas attacks, Allied troops
were supplied with masks of cotton pads that had been soaked in urine. It was
found that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the poison. Other soldiers preferred
to use handkerchiefs or a sock dampened with a solution of bicarbonate of soda,
and tied across the mouth and nose until the gas passed over. It was not until
July 1915 that soldiers were given efficient gas masks and anti-asphyxiation
It has been estimated that the Germans used 68,000 tons of gas against Allied soldiers. This was more than the French Army (36,000) and the British Army (25,000). An estimated 91,198 soldiers died as a result of poison gas attacks and another 1.2 million were hospitalized. The Russian Army, with 56,000 deaths, suffered more than any other armed force
Faced with the prospect of being killed or permanently disabled, soldiers sometimes hoped that they would receive what was known as a blighty wound, and be sent back home. There were some cases where soldiers shot themselves in an attempt to end their time on the frontline. Self-inflicted wounds was a capital offence and if discovered, a man found guilty of this faced execution by firing squad. A total of 3,894 men in the British Army were convicted of SIW. None of these men were executed but they all served periods in prison.