Monday, 24 November 2014

Life, death and laughter in the trenches


Soldiers from the Cheshire Regiment in their trench during the 1916 Battle of the Somme  Photo by John Warwick Brooke
This is photograph Q 3990 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-13)

The Battle of Mons, which saw the death of Second Lieutenant John Pepys, was a battle of movement, unlike most of the succeeding encounters with the enemy. Both the Allied and the German generals soon saw that with neither side willing to retreat a stationary form of warfare would be the only option.  Sir John French, the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force gave the order to entrench on 14 September, and on the Western Front for the next four years the conflict took the form of trench warfare which has made it notorious.
Almost 10,000 kilometres of trenches were dug on both sides. The first efforts at trench-building consisted of shallow pits in the soil and were generally ineffectual because of the lack of equipment, but the results improved with greater organisation. Temporary units of entrenching battalions were formed by the Army and construction methods were standardised.


3467 Private George Watson. The photo was taken in early 1918 when he was aged 22, following his stay at the VAD Redde Hutte Hospital in Budleigh. It shows his three-year service chevron and silver thread wound stripe.
Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

Private George Watson, of the Royal North Lancashire Regiment, was posted to the 4th Entrenching Battalion in 1915 and found himself working in the Somme region of Picardy, Northern France.


After being wounded he spent time convalescing at ‘Redde Hutte’ - now named ‘Stapleton’, pictured above -  in Budleigh Salterton’s West Hill Lane - and his memories were recorded and presented to Fairlynch Museum.

Our job in the Entrenching Battalion was to work at constructing trenches, redoubts and dugouts/tunnelling and general jobs like drainage,” he recalled.  “There was no fighting then in the Somme area, just the occasional shells, but that was before  the offensive and the rough stuff began.”

Care needed to be taken nonetheless to avoid attracting unwelcome attention. “I remember once working in a tunnel heading towards  the German lines. It was very low and kneeling down we used short spades for digging. The earth was shovelled to  the rear and passed along. It was then carted well behind the trenches and spread in piles making it appear that construction was going on there, which attracted shellfire.”

Trench construction became an art, explained George Watson. “To make a trench it was dug in a straight line but buttresses were left in about 20 feet apart. If a shell exploded in the trench the buttresses stopped the blast from going along the trench thus providing shelter for most of the men. The communication trenches were dug zig-zag so that the enemy couldn’t enfilade them, that is shoot straight along the trench. We drained the trenches by digging channels according to the slope of the ground. Sometimes we dug sumps or baled or pumped out the water. We made dugouts in the sides of the reserve trenches, covering the tops with timber, wattles and soil. Benches of soil were left were left in the dugouts on which the men could sleep clear of the water and mud.”


The quagmire of the trenches
Officers of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles wading through the mud of a fallen in communication trench, the result of a thaw after weeks of snow and from Essigny, 7 February 1918. They had recently taken over from the French 6th Division.  Photo by Second Lieutenant Thomas Keith Aitken.  This is photograph Q 10681 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums
© IWM (Q 10681)

That was the theory anyway. But torrential rain could transform the trench into a quagmire. George Watson quoted an amusing instance of this.  

“Once we were digging a 'sap' from the trench, underneath the barbed wire,  to make an observation  post.  Three men manned  the post,  one looking out   over the ground, another ready to take his turn and the third one relaxing. This meant digging outwards towards the German lines.  The weather was very wet and the trench became full of water and mud.  We had to bring a hand  pump to clear the water. Two of us were carrying it on a long crowbar. I was leading, chest deep in water,  when I became stuck in the mud. Two of our  mates crept  along the top of the trench and took the pump off us. They then yanked  me out of the mud. I was gripped so tight that my waders and  trousers were left behind, stuck in the mud. I bet they're still there. I had  to  make my way back to the billets in the village in my underpants and bare  feet.  Of course there were no villagers about then.”

A case of trench feet suffered by unidentified soldier in 1917
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-149311 /
Not so amusing was the medical condition known as trench foot,  caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp and cold conditions. Affected feet could become numb and turn red or blue as a result of poor vascular supply; the early stages of necrosis would result in a decaying odour. If left untreated, trench foot usually resulted in gangrene, causing the need for amputation. It's been estimated that as many as 20,000 soldiers in the British Army alone during 1914 fell victim to the disease.
In poor weather conditions, and especially in the dark, soldiers could lose their way in the maze of trenches.  “One  night  when  we were carrying supplies  to the front line, during a ‘rest period’ it was difficult to find the way as there was no proper communication trench,” recalled George Watson. “The route was lined with white tape to show the way.  Unfortunately the tapes had  disappeared in the mud and as it was almost dawn my pal Tom and I tried to find our way back without success. In the daylight we would have been in danger from snipers so we took shelter  in a large shell crater. This meant waiting until nightfall to try again.

In the crater were two dead British soldiers, one with wide open staring  eyes. This made us feel so uncomfortable we turned him over. When  night came  we left the crater to try to find our way. Stumbling along we were challenged by a British soldier.  We explained that we were trying to find our way back to our unit in the reserve trenches.  With a laugh he informed us that we were heading for no-mans-land, so we had  to turn about and go the opposite way. We managed  to get back  to our unit just  before  we were  posted as missing.”


The trenches today: Sanctuary Wood, a few miles east of Ypres, in Belgium
Image credit: Mo Sandford FRPS
©  Mo Sandford FRPS 2014
The author Michael Morpurgo has described her work as "deeply moving and interesting." More of Mo Sandford's remarkable photos of World War I battlefields can be seen here 

Added to these grim conditions was the insanitary nature of trench life which inevitably led to outbreaks of disease. Basic human functions were catered for in a primitive fashion. “Latrines were always a problem. We dug them as a long narrow behind the front line trenches with a narrow trench leading to them. A latrine was made with short cross-poles at each end, with a log pole or tree trunk between them to sit on, all open to the sky.”  

Not suprisingly, soldiers in the hell of the trenches found that black humour was a vital weapon in their battle for survival.  

Cartoon by Bruce Bairnsfather. It shows a soldier writing a card home: "Dear ____, At present we are staying on a farm..."

One of their great allies in this respect was Captain (Charles) Bruce Bairnsfather, renowned as a wartime humorist and cartoonist. His only connection with Devon was that he was educated at the United Services College in Westward Ho!


'Coiffure in the trenches'  The caption reads: "Keep yer 'ead still, or I'll 'ave yer blinking' ear off."  A shell whizzes past overhead.

In 1914 he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and served with a machine gun unit in France until 1915, when he was hospitalised with shellshock and hearing damage sustained during the Second Battle of Ypres.


"There goes our blinkin' parapet again."

Posted to the 34th Division headquarters on Salisbury Plain, he developed his humorous series for the Bystander magazine about life in the trenches, featuring 'Old Bill', a curmudgeonly soldier with trademark walrus moustache and balaclava.



The best remembered of these is shown above.  It shows Bill with another trooper in a muddy shell hole with shells whizzing all around. The other trooper is grumbling and Bill advises: “Well, If you knows of a better 'ole, go to it.”

Despite the immense popularity with the troops and massive sales increase for the Bystander, initially there were objections to the "vulgar caricature". Nevertheless, their success in raising morale led to Bairnsfather's promotion and receipt of a War Office appointment to draw similar cartoons for other Allies forces.

Grateful thanks are due to Jan Oke for allowing reproduction of the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoons from her collection of World War One postcards

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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