After the First Battles of in August and early September 1914, both sides dug in and hastily dug trenches which developed into 400 miles of complicated trench systems on the Western Front. The war that began with an assassination was to stretch for four long years, much to the disbelief of most, who thought things would be over by Christmas. Instead, the trenches of the Western Front, and also those in Italy and Gallipoli, became the most defining experience of the First World War.
Trench warfare was brutal and it took the toll of many lives. But below the surface, there was also a routine life filled with boredom. Long forgotten now, these trenches were also the object of artistic expression, by people who found time to capture the world they lived in under the stress of war. Battle lines were thus represented in Europe in the form of drawings and paintings. There were also those who wrote letters back home to express their feelings of loneliness and solitude.
Sketching and drawing was found to be a mode of relaxation by many. And many even found humour in the more dangerous elements of warfare in the trenches. A perusal of cartoons of the times shows the English trying to stoically going about their work despite the miserable conditions in which they lived and worked. There was life below and above the trenches. Danger was, of course, never far away, as enemy snipers were quick to take advantage if any body part strayed above the parapet. In 1916, steel helmets were introduced by the British and French because of the high number of head wounds. Shelling and artillery barrages were a constant and shredded nerves. It destroyed trenches and killed indiscriminately. Even being assigned to a wiring party, raiding party, or digging mines and counter-mines brought its share of peril.
Digging trenches did offer protection against the enemy but not against the weather. Wet weather brought mud into the trenches, weighing down clothing and equipment. It also made the ground treacherous. Worse was flooding of the trenches due to constantrain. The first winter in the trenches brought “Trench Foot”, caused by the damp and cold. By early 1915, men were being brought into hospitals in France with pale or discoloured feet. By the following winter, men had become more careful and regular foot inspections were carried out. Another occupational hazard was the shell craters, the deeper ones, which when filled with rain water could easily drown a man.
Of course, the summer months were better, in spite of the flies and smells. Just think of the inevitable aroma that would have wafted through the trenches from thousands and thousands of unwashed men, not to mention the open latrines. Further, there was the putrid stench of decaying bodies. It was often dangerous to recover bodies in no-man’s land. Men were forced to leave their comrades unburied where they died, sometimes only metres away from the front line.
Lest we forget, rats and mice were a constant feature in the trenches. As one observer noted: ‘Of the smaller trench annoyances, few are more worrying than the plague of rats… and there were many cases of rats actually biting men who were chasing them down the trenches. The other wildlife that thrived was body lice, which as well as causing immense discomfort, spread trench fever.
In such circumstances, it became necessary to keep up the morale of soldiers. One way of doing so was for families to send regular letters and care packages to the men. Packages would contain food, cigarettes, useful items and news from home. Equally, the arrival of post would be eagerly anticipated. Also, campaigns were organized to collect and send comforts to the men on the front line. In high demand were socks and such little amenities as cigarettes, sweets, soap and towels, candles, and Eau de Cologne or Lavender Water. Such comforts would have made time spent in the front line just that little bit more bearable.