This Week in World War I November 29-December 5, 1914

British Soldier on Sentry Duty in Trench

Life in the Trenches Part 2
See also Life in the Trenches Part I

Life in the trenches was a life of routine punctuated by moments of terror. Every morning, an hour before dawn, troops would be roused from wherever they had managed to bed down by the order to "stand to." Clambering stiffly to their feet, the troops would check that their rifles were loaded, fix bayonets and climb up on the fire step. This was a step cut into the trench wall two or three feet above the ground enabling soldiers to peer towards the enemy lines. It was a fact of Great War life that attacks were usually mounted at dawn, despite the fact that both sides knew the enemy would be prepared to face an assault by the "stand to" order.

It was another fact of life that "stand to" would be accompanied by another ritual - the morning-hate. This was the opportunity to alleviate some of the early morning tension, and perhaps catch a dawn raid on the hop, by firing off some rifle or machine gun rounds in the direction of the enemy lines.

In the British army after "stand to", as well as in most Commonwealth armies, a rum ration might be issued, and then the men would start the important task of cleaning their rifles. Officers would carry out rifle inspection immediately before the equally important matter of breakfast was attended to. A peculiar feature of the Great War was the observation by both sides, in many places, of an unofficial breakfast truce. As long as officers didn't stamp down on the practice, the morning meal could be taken in comparative peace and quiet.

German Machine Gun Emplacement overlooking No-Mans-Land, Flanders 1916

The day would continue with inspection of the troops by a company or platoon commander and the assignment of chores by a non-commissioned officer. The tasks were typically mundane, but usually essential: perhaps duckboards on the trench floors needed repair; maybe trenches had to be drained; trench walls might need to be shored up before they collapsed; sandbags might need to be refilled; latrines might have to be dug. Non-commissioned officers were capable of dreaming up a million little jobs, to fill the troops' time.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding an NCOs' imaginations, boredom played a big part in trench life. There couldn't be much movement until night fell, given the presence of snipers in the enemy lines, and the daylight hours between chores had to be filled somehow. This was the time for a few minutes of gratefully snatched sleep or for writing home. Otherwise, there would be long stretches of idle time.
As night fell, the morning ritual of "stand to" would be repeated. At night, under cover of darkness, the men got busy. Some would be assigned to sentry duty of up to two hours on the fire step. Woe to any man who let his fatigue get the better of him. The penalty for falling asleep on sentry duty was execution by firing squad.

Otherwise, soldiers might be told to fetch rations and water from the rear lines or undertake further maintenance of the trenches. The hazardous job of barbed wire repair in no-man's land was reserved for nighttime. Men might also be assigned to listening posts or simply be sent out on patrol beyond the front line. Sometimes a patrol might meet an enemy group on a sortie from their own lines. When that happened the options were either to fight hand-to-hand or simply get out of the way. Firing at your enemy in this situation was suicidal. It would immediately attract indiscriminate machine gun fire from both sides. The hours of darkness also provided an opportunity for men to be relieved of their front-line duty and rotated to rear areas.

In many locations there would be near-constant bombardment from the enemy artillery. Snipers were omnipresent. Many a new man on the front line also learned the hard way that snipers were ready at all times to punish those foolhardy enough to peer carelessly above the parapet.

Then there was the animal life, which prospered in the fetid atmosphere of the trenches. The most feared beasts were the rats. They were simply everywhere, numbering millions. These animals seldom went hungry because of the ready availability of human corpses, and they could grow to the size of a cat. They spread disease and they contaminated food. Men tried in desperation, but without success, to diminish the rats' burgeoning populations: clubbing them, stamping on them, stabbing them with bayonets, and shooting them.

German Soldiers with Rats

There were other vermin to contend with. Lice were just as impossible to get rid of as rats. Even when infested clothing was washed and deloused, lice left their eggs in the seams, waiting for a soldier's body heat to spur them to hatch. It was not until 1918 that lice were identified as the cause of another hazard - trench fever, an ailment that brought with it severe pain and high fever. Recovery took men away from the trenches for up to twelve weeks.

In wet, unsanitary trenches, the nasty fungal condition of trench foot was a constant threat. Affected feet could turn gangrenous, necessitating amputation. And then there was the ever-present irritant of nits. Many men chose to shave their heads to control the little beasts.

Soldiers Picking Lice from their Clothes

Finally, not least of the curses of trench life was the smell. The foul odor of unwashed bodies, rotting corpses, overflowing latrines, stagnant mud, cordite, poison gas and rotting sandbags was unforgettable. In the end, the advent of the new "industrial warfare" of the 20th century would make the trench warfare largely obsolete. Against tanks and planes, not to mention poison gas and flamethrowers, the concept of trench warfare would join that of cavalry as an artifact of a bygone time.