Trench Warfare – Describe the Conditions That Soldiers Experienced on the Western Front in the Years 1915-1917
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Describe the conditions that soldiers experienced on the Western Front in the years 1915-1917.
From 1915 to 1917, the First World War was fought in trenches. The trench systems built along the Western Front were very complicated. Both sides dug a line from the English Channel to the Swiss border, to protect their armies during the winter. The British front-line trenches were between two and three metres deep and 1.5 metres wide. Either wood or corrugated iron strengthened the sides. Huge rolls of barbed wire up to 30 metres wide protected them. Behind the front-line trenches were support trenches and communication trenches, along which supplies and troops were moved. The stores and kitchens could be found in the support trenches, as could latrines. Dugouts were where the soldiers rested, and were underground shelters in the sides of trenches where soldiers were given a plank to sleep on. Ammunition stores, field hospitals and artillery posts were further back, behind the system of trenches. The area between the two lines of trenches was no mans land and was up to 500 metres wide.
Most of the area that the British troops were forced to dig trenches in was usually very close to sea level, therefore along the whole line the soldiers had to struggle with water and mud. Duckboards (planks of wood) were placed at the bottom of the trenches to try and keep the trenches as dry as possible. Much of the land was also clay therefore the water could not drain away so when it rained the trenches became waterlogged. The craters in the ground in no mans land made from the shells from guns and bombs also filled with water which then poured into the trenches.
The men standing for hours on end in these waterlogged trenches created problems such as Trench Foot. This was an infection of the feet caused by the cold, wet and unsanitary conditions of the trenches and was a particular problem in the early stages of the war. Soldiers feet would gradually go numb and turn red or blue. Trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in amputation if the soldiers did not dry their feet and change their socks several times a day. A suggested remedy for the infection was to cover their feet with a grease made from whale oil. Another condition found to be common amongst soldiers fighting in the trenches was known as shell shock. Shell shock was a mental illness caused by the constant strain of living under shellfire. The constant fear of shells and bombs tore at the soldiers minds and triggered a nervous breakdown. Some doctors explained the condition medically. They argued that a bursting shell creates a vacuum, and when air rushes into this vacuum it disturbs the cerebral-spinal fluid and this could upset the working of the brain. However, early in the war this mental illness was not recognised by the Army and many men were accused of being cowards. Later in the war, the condition was understood and many soldiers were sent home. There was bound to be a lot of mental stress on the soldiers because at any time they could see their closest friend, or relative be killed in front of them. One soldier, G. Coppard wrote in With a machine-gun to Cambrai in 1980:
“The fire was going nicely and the bacon was sizzling. I was sitting on the firestep. Just as I was about to tuck in, Bill crashed to the ground. We carried Bill to the first aid post after putting some bandages around his head to hide the mess. He died later that morning. When we got back to the front line we were really hungry. My bacon and bread was on the firestep, but covered with dirt and pieces of Bills brain. I looked at the front of my uniform and there were more bits there; my boots were sticky with blood.”
Such events must have been hard to deal with and they were happening every hour of every day. The soldier who wrote the source above took the fact that his companion, Bill, had just died in his stride, although each such happening would break down his mental stability a little more.
Days were very monotonous and boring for the soldiers, as there were often many weeks between large-scale battles. Sentry duty concluded at dawn and the sentries could relax after a long anxious night peering into the darkness looking for any enemy crossing no mans land. Much of the day was spent sleeping or just sitting around reading, smoking or playing chess. There was work to be done throughout the day too, such as repairing damaged parapets, filling sandbags, carrying supplies or cleaning weapons. Many soldiers spent their days writing diaries and writing letters home. Every afternoon between two and four oclock the British trenches became under fire from the Germans. The bombing and machine gunning was known as the afternoon strafe. This did not often kill troops as long as the parapet was in good repair,