48 hours in the firing line

Part of an existing World War One trench showing the front fire-step and raised sandbags.
Part of an existing World War One trench showing the front fire-step and raised sandbags.
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

Though soldiers referred to the “front-line”, in fact the forward or fire trench was anything but linear: it zigzagged in a pattern of fire-bays and traverses, so that the effect of a direct shell hit would be limited. Normally, the front parapet was soil removed from the trench and reinforced or raised with sandbags and the rear parados was meant to absorb incoming bullets and shrapnel. Each trench was dug to a depth of six to eight feet and equipped with a front fire-step about two feet high behind the parapet. In practice, where the water table was very high, as in the Ypres salient, trenches were built up with sandbags rather than dug out. Where trenches were long-term or unstable, their sides were revetted with timber or corrugated sheeting and their floors duck-boarded. The narrower and stronger the trench the better.

In front of the fire-lines would be barbed wire and observation dug-outs, and behind them parallel rows of trenches, first support and then reserve, all connected by communication trenches. In most front line trenches shallow one-man dug-outs were cut into the interior of the parapet to afford greater cover from weather and shrapnel: they were called “funk” or “cubby” holes. As Bloch had predicted, the spade and pick were as vital tools to the infantryman as his rifle and bayonet.

Both sides used dense thickets of barbed wire in the contested ground known as “no-man’s land”. British wire was double strand with small barbs; German was single with fearsome barbs. Contrary to most perceptions, the wire was many yards deep and fixed in place with stakes: only high-explosive shells could smash a path through it.

One other advantage employed by the British was their virtual monopoly of hessian or jute sandbags. Calcutta was then the jute-making capital of the world and during the war its factories sent 1.3 billion bags to the allies on the Western Front. They must have saved thousands from death and injury: a bullet would not pass through a sandbag wall and the sand was ideal for absorbing blast and shrapnel.

Reality of life in the Western Front trenches is some distance from the popular misconception. Unlike the French, who were obsessed with offensive fighting, the British were willing to stay on the defensive until Kitchener’s New Army of volunteers arrived and therefore constructed deep, strong and safer trenches. French trenches were notoriously dirty and shallow.

Despite the many stories of lice-ridden clothes and rat-infested dug-outs, cleanliness and hygiene were strictly enforced in British trenches. The Great War was the first in history where causalities from diseases such as dysentery, typhus and pneumonia were fewer than those caused by shot and shell. The British engineers dug “long-drop” latrines behind the lines. Unlike the French, the British did not bury their dead in the parapet and out of the line they had all their clothing fumigated and laundered.

Front-line infantry battalions were regularly rotated: on average a soldier might spend no more than 48 hours continuously in the firing line and no more than a week in any month in one of the three sets of trenches, front, support and reserve. When out of the line, he would be eating hot, cooked food, wearing a dry, clean uniform and sleeping undercover in a billet. It was this rapid rotation that helps to explain why there were no British mutinies at the front.

All the three main armies aimed to give their troops at least 4,000 calories a day, but the British were more successful in achieving this target than either the French or Germans. The French poilu (hairy private soldier) got nearly a pint of rough red wine a day, but much less meat, either fresh or tinned, than the Tommy. Poor rations was another of the causes of the French mutinies of 1917. Beside corned beef and biscuits, the British soldier was fortified with jam, sugar and condensed milk, so that the sick rate in 1914 and 1915 was less than .25 per cent, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. Soldiers from the poorest families were better fed and clothed than they had been at home.

Tommy Atkins knew that if he was wounded at the front he would soon be rescued and treated by orderlies and the regimental medical officer. If his wound was serious he would be evacuated to an advanced dressing station. Less than 8 per cent of wounded so rescued eventually died.

Finally, the morale of the fighting Tommy was maintained by the heroic and exemplary conduct of most junior officers. Throughout the war, young commissioned men were killed or wounded within an average of six weeks at the front. Whereas overall 12 per cent of other ranks lost their lives, 17 per cent of officers were killed. The mortality of public schoolboys and Oxbridge alumni, who were nearly all commissioned, averaged 20 per cent.

There is no doubt that for the Western Front Tommy the worst time was at the beginning at Mons, Le Cateau and especially First Ypres, before the trenches were properly dug, and that afterwards the safest place was at the bottom of a well-made dug-out. Only when the British left their trenches and advanced into open, unprotected ground did they suffer the appalling losses that characterise the whole war. Even then, British mortality was proportionally less than half of that of German or French.