Life and death in the trenches

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by Dr Jack Binns

All the great European powers in 1914 had made detailed preparations for war. All, except Great Britain, had conscripted regular armies supported by trained reservists. All, except the British, calculated that the key to military victory was rapid mobilization and mass movement into enemy territory. However, though both Russian and Japanese 
armies during their war of 1904-05 had dug front-line trenches behind barbed-wire entanglements to give their troops necessary protection against machine-guns and quick-firing artillery, European staff officers ignored such “negative” strategies.

The French high command believed in the effectiveness of direct infantry assaults under cover of supporting artillery barrages; the Germans put their faith in mobile artillery and rapid infantry and cavalry advances to outflank and 
envelop their enemies; and the British put their trust in infantry field-craft and accurate, rifle-fire volleys. All of them assumed that the planned offensive would result in early and decisive battles and all failed to learn the lessons of the appalling massacres of the prolonged American Civil War of 1861-5.

There was only one published author who predicted that, given modern technology, the next European war would be lengthy, hugely costly in men and materials, and crippling to both sides. In 1899, the Polish banker, IS Bloch, in his book “Is War 
Impossible?”, made an accurate forecast of future warfare:

Everybody will be entrenched in the next war...The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle...All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations...the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine.

In other words, what happened on the battlefield would be less important in determining the final outcome than the strength and durability of the economies of the combatants.

In the event, before the end of 1914, all the assumptions of the war planners had been proved wrong. The Schlieffen Plan had failed to win Germany a quick victory in the west; French infantry assaults en masse had ended in carnage and stalemate; and instead of engagement on the outside left flank of the French, the British Expeditionary Force had found itself in the direct path of the Kaiser’s huge conscript army. By October, General Allenby’s elite cavalrymen were dismounted and digging holes in Flanders fields with their bayonets and bare hands.

However, though the continuous front-line, 475 miles long from Ostend on the Channel to the Swiss frontier, remained almost unchanged for the next three years, the Germans held the initiative. They occupied a vast extent of French territory and almost all of Belgium except the Ypres salient, leaving the Allies no choice but to try to drive them back. So while the Germans, usually occupying the higher ground, dug deeper, stronger and almost impenetrable trench systems, the French and the British reluctantly were forced to attack them in the open.

Short of ammunition, of heavy artillery pieces and of experience of such unprecedented conditions, without the support, as yet, of tanks and aircraft, the allies now suffered “the siege operations” that Bloch had foretold.

The last British veteran of the Western Front, Tommy Patch, died in 2007; the youngest combatants in the Second World War are now in their late 80s; even the last of the National Service conscripts are now over 70; and the British regular army of 2014 is being reduced to half its 1914 size, so that today there is little public knowledge and less understanding of traditional military matters, especially the experience of the generations of 1914 to 1918.

If nowadays there is one word associated with the Great War that springs to mind most commonly it is “trenches”. The world-wide war at sea, the campaigns in Africa and the Middle East, in Italy and the Balkans, all of which involved British sailors and soldiers, have left only the most shallow imprint on the contemporary imagination. And yet, apart from Great War military historians, most of us have only the vaguest, simplest and usually inaccurate conception of trench warfare on the British Western Front, based on dramatic fiction rather than verifiable facts.

In many ways, the British Tommy of 1914 was ill-equipped to endure life and avoid injury, disease and death in the trenches. There were no steel helmets during the first year of the war; officers and men wore only stiff or soft service caps designed to keep out rain, not bullets or shrapnel. Padded headgear with flaps to keep ears warm were first issued to some during the fierce winter of 1914-15. Weighing about six pounds, greatcoats were often left behind because they were so restrictive and cumbersome.

Nearly all British soldiers wore puttees, a Hindi word meaning “bandages”. These long, woollen strips were wound round the leg from ankle to knee, but they gave little waterproof protection in flooded dug-outs and were soon caked with mud. “Trench-foot” was all too common in the Ypres salient during the first winter.

Yet, initially, the veterans of the BEF and their successors had at least one valuable advantage: from head to boots they wore khaki, an Urdu word meaning “dust-coloured”, describing the green-brown colour of uniforms introduced in 1902, which replaced the historic bright blues and reds. In contrast, at first the French wore red trousers and bright blue jackets, until they changed to “horizon blue” in 1915. The Germans continued with “field-grey” throughout the war. Khaki had been first adopted in India and South Africa but it was the perfect camouflage cover for the muddy terrain of Flanders.

Secondly, Tommy Atkins was also provided with a complete “system” of waterproof webbing to carry all his equipment. Thick, woven, cotton stripping was superior to leather which was hard to keep clean and stretched when wet. The full set consisted of belt, cross straps, two cartridge carriers designed to hold 150 rounds, bayonet frog and entrenching tool. On his back the infantryman carried a large pack and at his side a small haversack.

With Lee-Enfield rifle which weighed eight pounds, 150 rounds nine pounds, a full pack, mess-kit, rations and water bottle, altogether the British Tommy carried 61 pounds “in marching order”, even before steel helmet and gas respirator were added later. In the front line the large pack would often be left behind and for “battle order” he carried only the haversack on his back.

In his pack the soldier had an amazing number and variety of personal “necessaries” such as soap, towel, comb, toothbrush, razor and shaving brush and knife, fork, spoon and sewing kit. All of these were intended to keep him clean and self-sufficient. Only white handkerchiefs were forbidden in case they were used to surrender!

Soldiers “going up the line” also carried iron rations, consisting of a tin of “bully beef”, biscuits, sugar and tea. These were for emergency purposes only. The biscuits were so hard that strong teeth were needed to bite into them, hence the army’s insistence that new recruits passed dental inspections.