The stalemate that occurred on the Western Front in 1914 resulted in an almost unbroken string of roughly parallel trenches stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel.
For the soldiers who occupied these trenches, life was hard. Their constant companions were rain, rats, lice, intense cold and endless manual labour. Soldier's feet often rotted in their boots if their tour was too long. Tea was often brought up to the front lines in petrol tins and it was a luxury to have a warm meal of bully beef heated up over a makeshift stove.
It was hard to relax, even at night as the threat of trench raids was constant. Mortars rained down regularly and snipers meant you didn't stick your head up over the edge for long, or you'd get it shot off. Once out of the line you looked forward to a rest, which meant it was your turn to carry up the spare ammo, and more petrol tins of tea.
"Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?"
In August 1914, Britain and France went to war with Germany (and her allies). The Canadian government immediately offered Britain troops for overseas service, although Ottawa controlled the level of Canada’s military participation. Most Canadians greeted the outbreak of war with enthusiasm, especially those born in the British Isles who volunteered in large numbers. They were unaware, along with the rest of the world, of the horrors that twentieth-century warfare would bring.
From the first months of the First World War, trench warfare predominated. The military authorities adopted an offensive strategy, stressing control over the territory, maintained by building and capturing trenches. Life in the trenches was tedious and difficult, with much work to be performed, interspersed with terrifying episodes that had the potential of killing thousands of soldiers in just a few hours. The trenches also had a devastating effect on the European countryside, and left their mark there for a long time to come.
Life in the Trenches
The soldier's daily life in the trenches was rarely easy or pleasant. A constant effort was required to maintain the trenches, subject to inclement weather and enemy fire. The soldiers had to perform this work at night, to avoid being too exposed to enemy fire. Aside from the manual labour, the soldiers had to watch the enemy closely, and were also required to take part in reconnaissance operations or raids on enemy trenches, thereby incurring many risks to their lives.
Soldiers also had to live with the constant noise of shells and enemy fire, and their attacks, including gas warfare, a new innovation in the First World War. To carry out these tasks, the soldier was often issued weapons and other equipment that were up to twice the soldier's weight.
Trench lines were sometimes close to one another, so close that soldiers could hear conversations in the opposing trenches. Sentries used periscopes to view into “no man’s land” the area between the trench lines. Soldiers lived under the constant threat of enemy artillery bombardment, rifle and machine gun fire. In addition, the faced the threat of trench mortars. This was a type of short cannon which was used to fire shells at enemy trenches. The shells were fired in a manner so that they drop on the trenches from above.
Soldiers reported fearing the sound of the Whiz Bang Gun, a gun that shoots a shell at high speed. The sound of the shot is the whizzing sound of the shell's movement overhead. Sticking your head over the parapet could be deadly, as both sides employed snipers to force the opponent to keep his head down.
The maintenance and repair of the trenches as they were damaged or destroyed by weather and enemy fire consumed a great deal of the soldiers’ time. In addition trench systems were constantly developed to add "communications" trenches, by which soldiers could move from one trench to another under cover from enemy fire, or to dig deep "dug-outs", where soldiers could rest, eat and sleep in relative safety. Of course, every time the front lines moved as a result of friendly or enemy action, new trench systems had to be developed.
Trenching included not only digging into the earth and supporting that entrenching with revetting and other forms of support that would assist in preventing cave-ins, but also the construction of parapets, mounds of earth or sandbags placed at the top of trenches to protect soldiers from enemy gunfire.
To facilitate movement within the trenches, to provide a secure foothold in the mud, and to assist keeping feet dry, duck boards (similar to a wooden pallet) were placed at the bottom of the trench. Trenches were supported by barbed-wire entanglements and barriers in No Man's Land to slow the advance of the enemy. These entanglements required frequent maintenance, normally at night to reduce the risk of enemy observation and fire.
As steady rain filled the trenches with muddy water, soldiers also faced less tangible enemies than their German adversaries, in the form of vermin, unsanitary conditions and disease. Lice, the inability to remove their boots for several days in a row, foul weather and food that was limited in variety and quantity led to health problems, some specific to life in the trenches, such as chilblains, trench fever, trench foot and Vincent's Angina, to name just a few.
This cave-dweller's life, as some soldiers saw it, led to the development of a trench culture, reflected among other things in music and in newspapers that were created for the soldiers, in which they expressed themselves through humour and poetry. By day, the soldiers often had moments to enjoy such reading, to play cards or write to their friends and family at home. A number of songs emerged from this trench culture, in particular the very popular, Mademoiselle from Armentières.
Canadians in the Trenches
Positioned in their slit trenches prior to the battles on the Somme, the Canadian Corps had literally lived in “muddy holes” for close to eighteen months. From December 1914 to early March 1918, the front barely moved more than a few miles. Back and forth, during attack and counter attack, the war of attrition between the Allied Forces and the Germans went on and on.
From Passchendaele in the North to Courcelette south of the Scarpe River, the front was literally covered with zig zag trenches where soldiers in Canadian lines lived like rats.
From 13 September 1915, when the 2nd Canadian Division joined the 1st Division to form the Canadian Corps until mid-March 1916, the Canadians spent the winter in the trenches. On the 28 October 1915, the rain began and it rained–and rained–and rained some more. Trenches filled with mud and the earthen sandbags dissolved and oozed out.
Trench walls and protective parapets collapsed and men lived in this slop along with rats as big as small dogs. In addition, sleet, wet snow, bitter winds, as well as the daily terror of artillery barrages and enemy raids made life absolutely miserable for the men of the Canadian Corps.
Trench foot, dysentery, trench fever, pneumonia and rheumatism were serious medical conditions among even strong and fit young men. Food was cooked over small alcohol burners and often, even when prepared by small groups of soldiers, was usually cold by the time the last soldier received his share.
Imagine standing in six inches of water with wet clothing, eating lukewarm food sticking to the side of a cold metal mess tin.
Add the possibility that it will rain every second day and that the sun may not shine for days at a time. Include the danger of unexpected enemy raids where the enemy will shoot to kill and attack without warning. Then think of the fact that the only place to sleep tonight is in a hollowed out hole in the trench wall where, if you are lucky, will not be filled with mud before you retire for the night. These are the conditions under which many Canadians and other magnificent soldiers of the British Empire lived during the war.