The Deadly Struggles of Living in The Trenches

Blogger: GemSen Can you imagine being stuck in a dark and wet trench among mud, stench, rats and lice? Can you imagine all of those horrible things actually being the least of your troubles? Enemy attack and diseases like cholera and trench foot were far more pressing concerns for a WWI soldier in the trenches, making life there like hell on earth… For that reason, the trench warfare as experienced in WWI is something that all participating countries vowed never to repeat. That doesn’t stop archaeologists from digging up the past though, and tonight a Channel 5 programme: ‘‘WWI’s Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig’ will uncover some of the best-preserved trenches, bunkers and tunnels on the Western Front. In the programme, the archaeologists at the dig in Messines, Belgium, apparently discover a section of trench near the German front line in excellent condition that had suffered impact of British shellfire. Diggers will root around the ground that is littered with unexploded wartime shells, hand grenades and bullets from World War I that now lay inches below the surface... And talking of things beneath the surface -  it's important to remember just what those poor soldiers in the trenches and underground tunnels went through back then... Life in the trenches... Trenches varied a lot and the better trenches would be about 7 feet deep and 4-6 feet wide, but a lot of them were much more narrow. Conditions depended a lot on the location of the trench, for example, in the River Somme area on the Western Front, the chalky ground would crumble in the rain so would be built up with sand bags and wood. The sand bags would line the sides of the trench and sometimes an interwoven wall of hazel branches was used. The floor of the trench, where possible, would be laid with wooden duckboards. On the edge of the trench would be sand bags and barbed wire. Amazingly allied and enemy trenches were so close that sometimes they were as little as fifty feet apart. Troops in the trenches were very vulnerable to the weather, and there was limited protection from the elements as well as enemy fire. There was no happy medium in a trench: in the summer the trench would be exposed to the hot sun making conditions uncomfortable and in the winter the rain and the snow made things almost impossible.The winter of 1916-1917 in France and Flanders was very cold and the trenches flooded in the wet, sometimes to knee or waist height, making movement very difficult. Frostbite and Trench Foot Worse still there was no sanitation and with so many men in such a confined space, trench life was one of squalor – soldiers were unable to wash and change for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Lice, mice and rats were a big problem attracted by scraps of discarded food, empty tins and other waste. Men often suffered from frostbite and trench foot - crippling many soldiers and diseases like cholera and dysentery were brought on or made worse by the damp conditions and spread by the vermin. Many men also suffered from shell shock, which wasn't really recognised at the time. There would be no relief for front line troops for weeks on end – the general pattern for trench routine was four days in the front line, then four days in close reserve and finally four at rest, although this varied depending on conditions and the availability of enough reserve troops. In close reserve, men had to be ready to reinforce the line at very short notice. During the Channel 5 programme tonight military historian and series historical consultant, Paul Reed, also reveals how greater horrors revealed themselves as the conflict escalated and as both sides developed new weapons for fighting in confined spaces of the trenches  – some of which are discovered on the dig. Also, Amateur historian and genealogist David Whithorn recalls the events of June 1916, when the Germans released a cloud of poison gas which engulfed the British trenches below, causing over 500 casualties. Remembering what the soldiers went through and learning about the background story to the finds might not make for comforting viewing, but it will be very interesting to see what gets discovered and I will be watching and remembering those who fought during WWI. WWI’s Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig Series 1, Episode 1: the Killing Fields is on Channel 5 tonight at 8pm. Source: Will you be watching? Tell us what you thought? Search Forces War Records WWI records and find the war hero in your family...
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