Trench warfare in World War One

The following are first hand quotes from soldiers who had to endure trench warfare in World War One. They are taken from Paul Allens book 'Neath a foreign sky.' These quotations all help to bring to life the full horror of trench life in the Great War.

Extract: Appalling mud

"The wretched fellow was still there; but only his head was now visible and he was raving mad."

By this time the state of the rain flooded battlefield had almost defied description, however, a soldier would later describe;

'For the first few miles we moved along a single duckboard track laid down on a vast sea of mud. Movement was difficult and slow, although separate up and down tracks were in use By the time we had reached the end of the duck boards night had fallen and guides from the front line met us to lead us as best as they could on solid ground between the maze of water filled shell holes. Into these many men fell and got soaked in the foul water, and were fortunate indeed if they were seen and hauled out and saved from almost certain drowning, weighed down as they were by their heavy equipment. Picture the puny efforts of a small fly to cross the pudding basin full of batter and you have some idea of the hopelessness of the man who had missed the track and become bogged in this appalling mud. A party of 'A' Company men passing up to the front found such a man bogged to above the knees. The united efforts of four of them with rifles beneath his armpits, made not the slightest impression, and to dig, even if shovels had been available, would have been impossible, for there was no foothold. Duty compelled them to move on up the line, and when two days later they passed down that way the wretched fellow was still there; but only his head was now visible and he was raving mad'...[2]

During the days immediately after the capture of Passchendaele Ridge the various Canadian infantry battalions had been relieved by fresh troops. By this time the Canadians had been exhausted beyond redemption and many units had reported in their War Diaries of men dying from sheer exhaustion. Relieved during the night of the 11TH of November, the state of the men of 20TH Battalion after the battle sums up the dire situation of all the Canadian units that had taken part in the previous sixteen days of bitter fighting in the most appalling conditions.

"The struggle to get out alive had been so great that many of the walking wounded died from exhaustion."

'After trailing through the mire, the Battalion assembled in due course. The struggle to get out alive had been so great that many of the walking wounded died from exhaustion. All were almost unrecognisable. Everyone had three-day-old beards. Faces, hands and clothing were covered with mud. A few had no shoes, several had no puttees, and many had no helmets, but non-cared much. A special party from rear headquarters was at Seine Dump to carry the Lewis guns, arms and equipment so that the men could walk the rest of the way without encumbrance—a happy thought on someone's part. After breakfast and a brief rest the march to the tents at Potijze was begun'...[12]

[12] History of the 20TH Canadian Battalion in the Great War 1914-1919; Major D.J. Corrigall D.S.O. M.C.

Extract: Life in the trenches

Though the battalion had played no part in the great gas attack of Whit Monday the 24TH of May [they had been held in reserve] they had come under intense artillery fire that had caused some casualties. Whilst there Scarborough soldier Private Ronald Gough had found the time to write a letter to a friend in the town:

"I am sitting in the trenches writing this, and the birds are all singing, the cuckoo in particular."

'Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and in the best of health. I am really suffering from overwork, because we have had a good deal to do just recently. I am very sorry to inform you that that Ernest Jackson was killed yesterday, of course, I cannot write where. Poor kid, he was killed instantly, so he would not have had any pain. He has done his duty to his King and Country... One can only thank God for the escapes that one has every day. I am sitting in the trenches writing this, and the birds are all singing, the cuckoo in particular. You would hardly think that such a war was going on, the bullets whizzing over your head, and the shells screaming. We got slightly gassed the other day, it was awful stuff. It makes your eyes ache and gets into the lungs. Some men further up the line were terrible, staggering like drunken men'...

Extract: Life in the trenches

Following their exploits at St Julien the surviving members of the Fifth Yorks had been afforded little respite as they had eventually been rushed to the east of Ypres during May near to the village of Hooge where they had taken up residence in trenches which had been situated in a copse known as 'Zouvre Wood'. Of the conditions in which the men had existed, a Scarborian officer, Lieutenant William Andrew Turnbull, had written:

"Meals were wretched, as we had nowhere decent to eat them."

'We entered the trenches about midnight, we found them very uncomfortable, as there was only one dug-out for our company, and the officers were worse off than the men, for while they have a fire trench of their own, we have nothing. I spent six hours making myself a shelter in a communication trench, a sort of sofa with a waterproof sheet above it, cut out of one side of a five-foot trench. I worked most of the night throwing earth up to shield my bed, as the Germans were sniping at our parapet all day long. Meals were wretched, as we had nowhere decent to eat them, and we also lost our principal ration bag, containing tinned fruits and other joys'...

Extract: Loss of communication

Rested until the 22ND of April, that night Betts and the remainder of his unit had returned to the front line to take over positions on Wytschaete Ridge, a low hill two miles in front of Kemmel Hill, where, during the early hours of Thursday the 25TH the Germans had launched a second assault on Kemmel Hill. The artillery barrage had begun at around 2-30am; Wyrall describes the inferno that Private Betts had been embroiled in;

'Shells of all calibre rained not only upon the forward trenches, but also on all the communications behind the front line and in the valleys behind the Hill. Gas shells were used freely, and for the first time the enemy made use of a new kind of gas—blue Cross. In less than half an hour, all telegraph wires had been cut, and even a heavy leaded signal cable, buried eight feet deep in the ground, was wrecked. Telegraphic communication gone, attempts were made to get through to the forward Companies by means of runners, but these also failed, the runners becoming casualties. Gas, smoke and bursting shells added to a thick early morning fog, created the utmost uncertainty as to what was happening in the front line'...[4]

Extract: Wearing gas masks all day

Whilst the infantry had been fighting their gallant rearguard action, during the afternoon of the twenty third a 'calm and cheerful' Haig, who up until this time, had played little part in the course of the battle and had been unaware of the disaster which had befallen his command, had visited Gough [the commander of Fifth Army] at his Headquarters at Villers Bretonneux and would later note in his diary;

"They had to wear gas masks all day which is very fatiguing"

'I was surprised to learn that his troops are now far behind the Somme and the River Tortville. Men very tired after two days fighting and long march back. On the first day they had to wear gas masks all day which is very fatiguing, but I cannot make out why the Fifth Army has gone so far back without making some kind of a stand'...[1]

[1] The private papers of Douglas Haig 1914-19; Eyre and Spotiswoode; London; 1952.

Extract: Like a fortress

The Fourth Division on the extreme left of the assault had had, as already noted, the most difficult task, the seizure of the summit of Vimy Ridge, Hill 145. Only seven hundred yards from the Canadian front line, the capture of the rounded summit of the hill had been the ultimate test for the Canadians that day. A veritable labyrinth of deep dugouts, and superbly sited machine gun nests, the Official History describes;

'The summit itself was trenched about like a fortress. A double tier surrounded it, the trenches on the northern and southern sides being constructed for the purposes both of fire and communication. The field of fire was almost ideal, shell-holes providing the only shelter for the attack. The trenches had been battered, but near the front line there were deep mine workings which secured the garrison from artillery fire. On the reverse slope there was also an extensive system of deep dugouts [the Hangstellung] that protected the reserve companies'...[2]

Extract: Repairing barbed wire

'The [6TH] battalion was in the line at Epehy and we was at Saulcourt and we had to go up each evening as carrying parties and go out to repair the barbed wire which was very frightening at first. Our officer said 'don't worry, if you are going to get it, you wont know anything about it' and that took some of the fear away...we lived in a deep dugout with two entrances [about thirty steps down]. We had to pass through a gas prevention chamber half way down. The beds were wire netting racks, three tiers high, and the only light was a few candles. It was always hot and stuffy. At the top of the steps there was always a gas guard who would beat on a hanging shell case when there was gas about. He would also use a spinning rattle.

Extract: Third Wipers 1917 - impassable

The assault had been undertaken by the 8TH Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's [West Riding Regiment], the 9TH west Yorkshire Regiment and Oldridge's 6TH Yorkshire's, which had been ordered to make a bombing attack. The attack, with an all too familiar ring about it, had begun at 6-30pm on the 14TH when...

"In many places the ground had become absolutely impassable."

Zero Hour had been set for 1-55pm on the 27TH, at which hour heavy shrapnel barrage had been 'put down' on the enemy's positions. Under this bombardment the attacking battalions had left their assembly positions and began their advance. The History of the West Yorkshire Regiment has this to say of the ensuing nightmare...

'The most appalling conditions met the men as they endeavoured to cross No Man's Land. Rain was falling heavily, and in many places the ground had become absolutely impassable. Mud and filth and great gaping shell holes, in many places continuous and full of water, forming barriers across which it was impossible to pass'...[6]

Extract: Terrible winter of 1916-17

Wood had joined the battalion in the Ancre Sector of the Somme battlefield at Beaumont Hamel, perhaps the most deplorable area of France to have been in during the terrible winter of 1916/17, the conditions that he had experienced whilst there are best summed up by the War Diary of the 2ND Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment...

"The conditions were so bad that we were unable to see the actual trenches."

'The conditions beggar description, the trenches are flooded and have fallen in. There is no cover either in front, support, or reserve lines, and men are being evacuated with frostbite and exhaustion by the hundred. Today four men were dug out of the mud who had been unable to move for three days. The conditions were so bad that we were unable to see the actual trenches'...[6]

[6] The West Yorkshire Regiment in the War 1914-1918; Everard Wyrill Volume 2; 1917-1918. Many thanks to my friend Mr Ian Hollingsworth for the loan of his copy of the book.

Extract: To leave the paths risked death by drowning

A world away, for the soldiers in Belgium there had been no such thoughts of entertainments, no one could have cared less who had been playing on the Spa or at the Arcadia, as for a shortage of sugar, that had been the customary lot of the soldier, whose only preoccupations at the time had been trying to stay alive, and contending with the incessant rain and ever pervading mud. Conditions in Flanders at the beginning of August had been so bad that even the 'Official History' had been moved to comment about the appalling state of affairs.

'The rain which had set in on the evening of the 31ST July continued three days and nights almost without cessation. For the time being it converted the shelled areas near the front into a barrier of swamp, four thousand yards wide, and this had to be crossed in order to reach new front line. The margins of the overflowing streams were transformed into long stretches of bog, passable only by a few well-defined tracks, which became targets for the enemy's artillery; and to leave the tracks was to risk death by drowning. The mud covered roads, practically unrecognisable, though constantly repaired, were pitted with shell holes three or four feet deep'... [2]

Extract: Second batte of Passchendaele

Although held in reserve at the start of the Second Battle of Passchendaele, the 7TH Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment had been drawn into the battle by mid November. Attached to the 50TH Brigade of 17TH [Northern] Division, the 7TH East Yorks had arrived in Flanders, after a particularly hard period of service at Arras, at the start of November and had initially been stationed in the Langemarck Sector near the ruined village of Pilkem, where the battalion had held a 'support position' consisting of little more than a collection of joined up shell holes best described by Wyrall;

"There were no trenches here, both the front and support line consisting of posts of consolidated shell holes, muddy and in an abominable condition,"

'There were no trenches here, both the front and support line consisting of posts of consolidated shell holes, muddy and in an abominable condition, the mud being almost as bad as on the Somme. The only means of progress to and from these shell holes was by duck board tracks, for the whole ground was had been churned up by shellfire and so saturated with water that movement across country except by these tracks was impossible'... The East Yorkshire had to find accommodation in these shell holes and in order to provide shelter against wind and rain they were issued with tarpaulins. The spongy and muddy state of the ground made digging impossible'...[17]

[17] The East Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War 1914-18; Everard Wyrall.

Extract: A labyrinth of strong points

A few miles to the north of Rouex, in 1ST Army's area of operations, had been the heavily fortified village of Oppy which had been defended on it's western flank by an equally formidable wood, which by the third of May, had been a labyrinth of strong-points, and trench systems amidst a tangle of shell blasted and fallen trees;

'The wood, in itself, was an admirable protection to the village, for it covered the latter from attack from the west. But in front of the wood was a well-organised system of trenches, well wired, with numerous communications [trenches], which covered Oppy from flanking attacks and practically enclosed both the wood and the village in a veritable maze of defences. The wood contained a large number of machine gun posts and all along the German front lines machine gun and mortars were well placed to repel any attack from the west. Moreover, Oppy Wood and village were held by German Guardsmen, some of the bravest of the enemy's troops'...[1]

Extract: Conditions so bad - The Somme November 1916

A few miles to the left of 29TH Division on the extreme left flank of Fourth Army had been the Territorial soldiers of the 48TH[South Midland] Division. They had been suffering the same hardships as their regular counterparts, knee deep in mud in the joined up shell holes that represented the British front line, near the devastated village of Le Sars. The History of one of the division's typical county regiments, the 1ST/6TH Royal Warwickshire's, says of the battalions positions in mid- November;

'For four days [from the twelfth] we garrisoned the drier portions of the trenches astride the great Bapaume Road. In the universal subjection to the bewilderment of mud, even the Boche was lost for some days; patrols came in and reported they had travelled far and wide and could not detect a semblance even of his front line'... [10]

Extract: Immense labour

The battle of the Ancre that had lasted from the thirteenth to the eighteenth of November 1916 had been the last operation of the Somme Offensive. On Sunday the eighteenth of November the first snow of winter had fallen on the Somme, this had been followed by rain that had turned the whole battlefield into a swamp. By this time even Haig had realised that it was impossible to carry on with the offensive and had wrote in a report to the War Office:

'The ground sodden with rain and broken up everywhere by innumerable shell holes, can only be described as a morass, almost bottomless in places: between the lines and for many yards behind them it is almost—and in some localities, quite—impassable. The supply of food and ammunition is carried out with the greatest difficulty and immense labour, and the men are so much worn out by this and by the maintenance and construction of trenches that frequent relief's--carried out under exhausting conditions- are unavoidable'...

Extract: Exhausted beyond the realms of endurance

"No one who has not visited the front trenches can really know the state of exhaustion to which the men are reduced."

The British High Command had allowed the battle for possession of the trenches [which had been little more than a joined up collection of shell holes] near Guedecourt to continue into November. The men of Fourteenth Corps were by that time exhausted beyond the realms of endurance. The Commander of Fourth Army [Rawlinson] still oblivious to the plight of the men under his command had ordered another assault to be made on the Fifth of November. The commander of Fourteenth Corps, Lord Cavan, nearer to the fighting than his superior and better aware of the conditions that his men were being ordered to fight in had made a protest towards his superior;

'I assert my readiness to sacrifice the British right rather than jeopardise the French...but I feel that I am bound to ask if this is the intention, for a sacrifice it must be. It does no appear that a failure would much assist the French, and there is a danger of this attack shaking the confidence of the men and officers in their commanders. No one who has not visited the front trenches can really know the state of exhaustion to which the men are reduced'...

Extract: Tommy Atkins from Scarborough

The conditions being faced by the men is amply illustrated in an article that had appeared in 'The Scarborough Mercury' of Friday the 29TH of January 1915 entitled; 'Good morning Tommy Atkins'...

'Several interesting trophies, including a German helmet, bayonet, and belt, coat, cartridges, and a French shell case have been brought home by Company Sergeant Major F. Richardson of the 2ND West Yorkshire Regiment, 4, Mill Yard, Mill Street, who was in Scarborough last week on furlough from the firing line'...Sergt Major Richardson was in the trenches up to the knees in mud and water the other night, when he received a permit and instructions to proceed to a certain place behind the lines. Here a special motorcar was awaiting him, and he was soon in Boulogne. Within a few hours Sergeant Richardson, his clothes still wet and very muddy, leaving many evidences of the conditions of the fighting arrived safely home in Scarborough'...

Extract: Battle of Arras - like earthworms

Alf Temple Appleby and his new found comrades of the 20TH Lancashire Fusiliers had spent a miserable Christmas and New Year period of 1916/17 in the waterlogged front line trenches near Arras, here they had endured conditions as equally deplorable as those faced by the men in the Somme Sector a few miles to the south described by the Official History:

"Our vocabulary is not adapted to describe such an existence."

'Here in a wilderness of mud holding waterlogged trenches or shellhole posts, accessible only by night, the infantry abode in conditions which might be likened to earthworms rather than of the human kind. Our vocabulary is not adapted to describe such an existence, because it is outside experience for which words are normally required'... [1]

Extract: Third Wipers 1917 - aching with cold

Waugh and the remainder of 3RD Australian had spent that terrible winter in a sector of the Armetieres Line known as 'The Nursery'. An idea of the conditions that he had endured can be gleaned from an account written by Private Leslie Jungwirth of the 10TH Machine Gun Company [10TH Brigade];

"I am in my dugout trying to sleep but it is impossible, my limbs are aching with cold"

'It has been snowing all day. Our clothes are wet and we had no chance to get dry. I've felt so miserable... I am in my dugout trying to sleep but it is impossible, my limbs are aching with cold... The cold; It started to freeze about 12 January and kept freezing. The temperature was down to 10 below Zero. A number of men got frozen feet and hands'

Extract: Somme October 1916

By the beginning of October 1916 heavy and persistent rain had turned the Somme battlefield into a quagmire of flooded shell craters and trenches thigh deep with an evil smelling mixture of rain water, rotting bodies, and mud. Everyone and everything was plastered in mud, every movement an effort of will to drag one's feet through the ooze. John Masefield had visited the Somme during the month and had subsequently recorded his impressions;

"Bones and legs and feet and heads were sticking out of the ground."

'I never saw such mud, or such a sight in all my days. Other places are bad and full of death, but this was deep in mud as well, a kind of chaos of deep running holes and broken ground and filthy chasms, and pools and stands and marshes of iron coloured water, and yellow snow and bedevilment. Old rags of wet uniforms were everywhere, and bones and legs and feet and heads were sticking out of the ground'.

Extract: Mud clogged boots the size of footballs

Rawlinson, the commander of Fourth Corps, safely ensconced in his comfortable and dry headquarters far behind the front line had had no thoughts of putting an end to the slaughter and had wrote in his diary;

'This bad weather which has forced us to slow down has given the Boche a breather. His artillery is better organised, and his infantry is fighting with greater tenacity, but deserters continue to come in, and the more we bombard, the more prisoners and deserters we shall get. I should like therefore to be more or less aggressive all winter, but we must not take the edge off next year'...

After the customary 'softening up' by British artillery of the enemy positions, which had begun at 6am, the advance had begun at Zero Hour [2-25] in the afternoon of the dull, though, fortunately for once dry day. Despite the lack of rain the already exhausted attackers had however had to flounder their way through the thick glutinous mire in mud clogged boots the size of footballs.

Extract: 1916-1917 Severe winter

"Paddling about by day, sometimes with water above the knees; standing at night, hour after hour on sentry duty."

'No one who was not there can fully appreciate the excruciating agonies and misery through which the men had gone in those days... Paddling about by day, sometimes with water above the knees; standing at night, hour after hour on sentry duty, while the drenched boots, puttees and breeches became stiff like cardboard with ice from the freezing cold air'...

Extract: Somme November 1916

Captain Portal had taken his command aboard during the eighth and ninth of November 1916, and had eventually joined the Tenth Brigade of the Fourth Division on the Somme at the beginning of December. On the eighth of the month the battalion had entered the trenches for the first time on the Combles—Priey front. Initially under the wing of the veteran First Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, two days later the Household Battalion had taken over the line from the Warwicks. The conditions in the trenches had by this time been appalling;

'The Somme mud was now in all it's richness, and on the way up to the communication trenches forty men had to be dug out. In the line itself it was almost impossible to move, and part of the system had to held in posts, the men being often so exhausted that they had to be sent back in buses when their tour was over'...The line was fairly quiet, but it's conditions were atrocious, and friend and foe were too busy in improving the trenches to trouble each other beyond a few occasional quasi-courtesy shots. The trenches themselves were broken down, and in many places unprotected by wire, and in the absence of communication trenches, reliefs had to be carried out above ground; whale oil, massage, and a continual flow of dry socks were impotent to prevent constant cases of trench feet'... [4]
[4] A short history of the Household Cavalry, Captain Sir George Arthur and Captain Shennan; Heinemann; 1926.

Extract: quagmire - Passchendaele

The thirty first of July had begun under a leaden sky, which had become darker as the day had unfolded, at about midday a slight drizzle had begun to fall, by four that afternoon this had given way to a downpour, which would last for the next seven days. By the fall of night the battlefield had begun to resemble a swamp, hundreds of wounded men, unable to move from the shell holes where they had sought refuge from the intense machine gun fire had drowned without a trace. As the rain had continued the bringing in of the wounded had proved to be an almost impossible task, a stretcher-bearer had recorded in his diary;

"The mud in some cases is up to our waists."

'Bringing the wounded down from the front line today, Conditions terrible. The ground between Weltje and where the infantry are is simply a quagmire, and shell holes filled with water. Every place is in full view of the enemy who are on the ridge. There is neither the appearance of a road or path and it requires six men to every stretcher, two of these being constantly employed helping the others out of the holes; the mud in some cases is up to our waists. A couple of journeys...and the strongest men are ready to collapse'... [7]

[7] The diary of Sergeant R. McKay, 109TH Field Ambulance, attached to 36TH [Ulster] Division. Imperial War Museum, 5/X1X/36.

Extract: Roads inadaquate

Much of the blame for the poor performances on the ninth and twelfth of October had been placed on the shoulders of the artillery for their ineffectual preliminary bombardments, and the lack of an effective creeping barrage to protect the infantry in their advance. In defence of the much-maligned artillery it must be remembered that they had faced the same impossible conditions the infantry had forced to endure. A vision of the hell that the gunners had encountered is highlighted by Wolff;

'As for the guns themselves, it is not known to this day what proportion of the Allied light batteries got into action that morning. From what ensued one might guess no more than a third of those assigned. The main trouble was the gun roads had not been adequate. Again the mules and packhorses had scrambled aboard any part of the tracks before they were finished. And very few of the gun platforms themselves could be properly laid in position; they either sank under the mud or simply floated away on the surface.... A few of the light pieces [eighteen pounders] were supported in one makeshift way or another, but most were left up to their axles in mud while their helpless crews awaited the signal to open fire. With each shell thrown, the recoil forced them deeper, often up to their muzzles. Their barrels began pointing upwards at increasing angles. Accurate aiming was impossible, and the range of many guns was so reduced they could not reach the enemy lines So although the heavy artillery well back was able to operate as per schedule, the preparatory 18 pounder bombardment before 5.20am was exceedingly feeble as a whole'...[9]

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