The stalemate that developed in late 1914 along the Western Front in France and Belgium meant that to survive, the soldiers had to dig deep trenches to protect themselves from sniping and enemy artillery.
By the spring of 1915 a deep and effectively parallel trench system had been dug by both sides extending from Switzerland to the English Channel. Opposing trenches were often separated by no more than a few hundred feet, or less.
Trench life was hard, and a soldiers constant companions were the rain, rats, lice, intense cold and endless manual labour. Soldiers feet rotted in their boots. Trench raids were common, especially at night, so sleep was a luxury. And then there were the regular artillery bombardments.
Life in the Trenches
Imagine you are an infantry soldier in the First World War. You have just arrived at the front in France and gotten off a cold boxcar after a 40 hour train ride after arriving at the coast by ship from England. You are ordered to the trenches to replace weary soldiers who have been holding the line for several weeks.
After a long march you arrive at your trench and find yourself walking in 6 inches of filthy water. Each step causes bubbles to escape from the water, gas released from the rotting bodies of dead soldiers that lay all along the bottom of the trench. Rats as big as cats scurry through the trench unconcerned with your presence.
The stench is awful. Within an hour your boots and socks are soaked through and you wonder how you will survive the trench, let alone enemy German bullets and artillery. These were the conditions in which the soldiers of the First Canadian Division often found themselves when they moved into the trenches.
The trenches were not always well constructed. They were shallow, poorly connected and often contained dead bodies and discarded rubbish. The water table was so low that soldiers were limited to digging a few feet before the bottom of the trench flooded. The Canadians set to work reinforcing the trenches. They made the trench walls higher using sandbags and bags filled with broken bricks.
A duck board system was used which required that boards be laid along the trench bottoms in an effort to prevent trench foot, a rotting condition of the skin caused by a combination of wearing tight puttees that restricted blood circulation and feet being continually cold and wet. In addition, a much more solid wall of breast works was built along with a higher rear wall.
Soldiers were allowed to dig holes under the rear walls that would allow them to move into a relatively dry place when not on the attack or on sentry duty. All along the war front there were trenches, extending from the North Sea coast of Belgium all the way to the Swiss border.
During the winter of 1915 and 1916, the rain began and for almost four months it fell in torrents. Meanwhile, the trenches literally dissolved. Walls collapsed, the earthen sandbags became mud and broke their containers and the trenches filled with water. Ankle deep mud was everywhere and soaked everything. The soldiers struggled to keep warm and dry. It was impossible to keep clean under these conditions and it wasn't long before every soldier was infested with lice.
When soldiers were not on duty, they were continually busy attempting to drain their trench or reinforce the walls. It was not always unbearable, but when it was cold and raining, it was a miserable and terrible agony of existence.