Was World War I
an avoidable debacle ?
"Trench stinks of shallow buried dead Where Tom stands at the periscope, Tired out. After nine months he's shed All fear, all faith, all hate, all hope"
- Robert Graves (Through the Periscope, 1915)
With the outbreak of World War I, Germany made an attempt at implementing the Schlieffen Plan. German troops marched through Luxembourg and Belgium to invade France. The French army was joined by British troops and the Allies put an end to German advances at the Battle of the Marne. Both armies tried to outflank each other in what came to be known as the “Race to the Sea.” The German troops, in an attempt to defend their territory, dug a long line of fortified trenches. The trench line of the Western Front stretched from the North Sea to the French-Swiss border, through East France. The Allied troops dug in as well, their trench line barely 300 feet from the enemy trenches.
Construction of Trenches
System: Trenches were constructed in parallel lines. The troops in the front-line trenches faced the enemies directly.
Behind the front line was the second line of support trenches and behind the second line were the reserve trenches.
Between the front line trenches of the Allied and Central troops was a stretch of land referred to as “No Man’s Land.” Barbed wire fences were erected at night to protect front line troops.
Communication trenches were dug connecting the reserve trenches, second and first line trenches. These were used to supply ammunition, mail, and food.
Layout: The trenches were dug in zigzags rather than straight lines to ensure minimal damage in case of an attack.
Trenches were dug deep enough for a soldier to stand. New recruits were cautioned against an impulse to peep over the trenches and lose their lives to a sniper’s bullet.
The trenches were protected from bullets by mud parapets and sandbags. A firing step was built for use by troops while shooting.
The floors of the trenches were fitted with wooden planks called duckboards. These helped when the trenches would be flooded, making it difficult for troops to walk.
Life in the Trenches
Soldiers in the trenches were put into a cycle known as “trench cycle.” They spent about sixty days in the front line trenches and another thirty days in the second line support trenches. Then, they served for about 120 days in the reserve trenches and then enjoyed sixty days of leave.
Daily Routine in the Trenches:In the trenches, troops guarded against a dawn raid by the enemy with a “stand to” early every morning, in which the troops stood in wait, prepared to fire in case of an attack.
At dawn, a round of firing, known as the “morning hate” marked the start of warfare. Sometimes this round of firing was merely to test the weapons and ward off an early morning ambush.
Soldiers then cleaned their rifles and machine guns for an inspection by senior officers.
Post-inspection, breakfast was served. Breakfast was often an unofficial truce between the Allied and Central troops.
Following breakfast, soldiers were assigned daily chores such as draining the trenches and repairing duckboards, refilling sandbags, and repairing the trenches and cesspools.
Soldiers were also assigned duties at listening posts, as snipers, or as sentries at the fire step.
At dusk the soldiers again prepared for a “stand to.” This was also the time when ammunition and supplies were replenished.
Falling asleep at the fire step was punishable by death at the hands of a firing squad.
Night patrols into “No Man’s Land” monitored enemy movement and repaired the barbed wire fences.
Death and Diseases in the Trenches:Trench Rats: The trenches were infested by millions of rats. The lack of proper waste disposal and unsanitary conditions, combined with a multitude of corpses to feed on made the trenches ideal breeding grounds for the rats. This also caused the outbreak of a number of diseases.
Body Lice and Trench Fever: Lice infestation was another scourge the soldiers had to contend with. Despite being deloused regularly, the infestations never seemed to diminish and caused trench fever. Severe pains and high fever took a toll on the health of the soldiers, and recovery took about twelve weeks. Lice were only identified as the cause of trench fever toward the end of the war.
Trench Foot: Soldiers in the trenches often suffered from trench foot, a condition caused by fungal infections. Standing long hours in the wet and unsanitary conditions of the trenches caused these infections, which quickly turned gangrenous and needed surgical amputation of the limb.
Dysentery: A lack of sanitation in the trenches and irregular supply of drinking water caused a condition known as dysentery. Soldiers often had to rely on melted snow and water from shell-holes. Unsanitary drinking water caused bacterial infections of the intestines. Diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and stomach aches were the main symptoms, and dehydration often turned fatal.
Shell-Shock:Shell shock was another condition soldiers at the front suffered. Over 80,000 soldiers from the British Army were identified as suffering from shell shock in World War I.
Causalities:Death was a common sight in the trenches. Be it the snipers’ bullets or poison gas, disease or suicide, the soldiers in the trenches were forever ready to face death. Over 200,000 soldiers died in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I.