What was life like for fighting men on the Western Front?
1 - What was life like for fighting men on the Western Front? introduction. The trench systems were built during World War I along the confrontation line between the Germans and the Allies they were fighting. This style of fighting developed really because of the developments in weapons and explosives, particularly the machine gun and high explosive shells, that made it impossible to win a battle in the same Napoleonic style of formed infantry squares, artillery/canons and cavalry as had been the case in the 19th Century. The trenches started from the North Sea and ended at the Swiss frontier.
The Triple Entente (France, Great Britain and Russia) controlled 425 miles of trenches. The British were in charge of 125 miles and this was the hardest because it was beyond Paris this was where the Germans wanted to take over. A typical British trench was approximately three foot wide and six foot deep. The German trenches however were twelve feet deep. The trenches were also known as “the suicide hole” by many of the soldiers. The trenches all had a fire step and this was used to stand on and fire when the enemy attacked. Soldiers would climb up the side of the trench onto the step and shoot.
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It was said that if you exposed your head over the top of the trench, your life expectancy was just two seconds. Soon after they realised the amount of people dying they invented a fake head made up of papier-mache. It was put on a stick and waved over the top of the trench. The German snipers thought it was a soldier so they shot at it. Once it had been hit, the Allies would then use it to fire back through the hole that had just been made and this was very effective. In front of the trench, often in an area known as ‘no-man’s land’, was barbed wire to stop the enemy from getting into the trench.
Amongst the barbed wire were paths where the soldiers could patrol and attack through. Tin cans were then attached to the barbed wire and these were used as a burglar alarm. If a soldier heard the can rattling he would pick up his rifle and shoot in the direction of the noise. This was very dangerous for the people who were fixing the barbed wire as they were often shot at. The trenches were arranged in a zigzag formation this was done so that if an enemy would get into the trench they could not fire at them in a straight line. There were different types of trenches all for different things:
Communications Trench. A communications trench was used as a route to all of the trenches and it was also used to drag the dead men back from the battle field to the casualty trench. Such trenches were also used to carry weapons and equipment from one trench to the other. Front Line Trench. Front line trenches were the largest of all the trenches. They were six feet deep and six feet wide. Sandbags were lined up along the top of the trench and filled with stones to absorb enemy bullets. In the frontline were different brigades and regiments.
There were normally grouped in fours, with two placed in the front and the other two were put into reserve. Once their time at the front line was finished, the regiments moved to the rear and soldiers were able to write letters home etc. The soldiers were all at some part of the day on patrol. Often they were sent out to no man’s land. Some of them had to fix barbed wire and others were sent out to listening posts waiting to hear information coming from the enemy trenches. Often patrolling men from both teams would meet in no man’s land; they would either run for their trench or have close combat, hand to hand fighting.
The patrolling men could not use pistols on patrol because this would attract attention to them and would be shot down with machine guns as a result. As you can see from the diagram below, the trench layout system was very well thought out by both sides. You can now see how the trenches worked. The trenches in the World War I started as basic lines at key positions and locations, but then developed into a large labyrinth of trenches and tunnels as the war dragged on and men needed to take shelter from the artillery and machine gun fire. 2.
The weapons used in the fighting during Wold War I were deadly and a huge step forward from those seen on the battlefields of the 19th Century. They varied from artillery guns to hand held close combat weapons that resembled clubs. In some cases and because of the huge number of soldiers and limited number of weapons, soldiers were often armed only with farm tools and the spades they had been given to dig their trenches. Because of the shortage of weapons some soldiers in the war made their own weapons. They would go into nearby villages and take anything including piano and chair legs, sports bats and rackets etc.
Some soldiers got tins and split the gunpowder from their bullets in them, then covered up the top and put a fuse on it…. hey presto they had a grenade! At the other end of the scale, the creeping artillery barrage appeared for the first time on the battlefield. This was when artillery fire was slowly crept forward, with soldiers following just behind and out of the danger area of the shells. The main weapons used and the most effective ones were as follows: Bayonet. Bayonets were developed during the war to allow their use in close combat and the confines of the trenches.
They were originally made in France at a place called Bayonne and hence their name. They were put on the end of rifles, but still allowing the rifles to fire. This was very helpful and effective because when a soldier got close to the enemy, he looked him in the eye and then stabbed him through the ribs, using his rifle as a leaver to splinter the enemy’s ribs and kill him. As well as using the bayonets for fighting, they used it to scrape any mud off uniforms, open tins and dig communal latrines when no spades were available. Flamethrowers. Flamethrowers were invented during the war and used by the German army.
The flame thrower was basically a long tube with burning coal or sulphur in it. The soldier blew out of one side of the pipe and flame would be launched out of the other side at the enemy. The flame spreads in seconds before you knew it the enemy was burnt. As a weapon, they were not very effective but their key role was that they terrified the French and British soldiers. Grenades. The grenades used in World War I were very effective. The specialist regiment that threw the grenades were called The Grenadiers. There were different types of grenades, the main one being the Milne Bomb.
This was a grenade in the shape of a ball with small squares on it for grip. The grenade’s detonated seven seconds after being thrown. The soldiers had to get the throw perfect to avoid being in big trouble. If they threw it too early it might be thrown back and yet if they held it too long they would die themselves. The grenade was used in both sides very regularly. The Germans used a grenade which was the same but this one had a long stick on it so it went further because it had the leverage on it. Another grenade which the British used was the Egg Grenade and this was a smaller grenade in the shape of an egg.
Rifle. The rifle was the most used weapon in World War I and probably one of the most effective. The rifle was used by both sides. It was called the bolt action rifle and could fire 15 rounds per minute and would reach an enemy 1400 meters away. The accuracy was around 600 meters. The gun was said to be very reliable and sturdy, with the bolt meter placed on the right hand side of the weapon. The gun would be loaded by being pulled upwards and then pointed at 90 degrees. The soldier would fire and bang the enemies were dead. Machine Gun. The machine gun was by far the most effective weapon used in World War I.
There were many techniques used by both sides. The Germans used enfilade fire and this allowed them to fire along a line of allied soldiers killing the maximum number in the weapon’s ‘beaten zone’. Their guns could fire 400-600 small-calibre rounds per minute. The gun would be fed by a metal strip of bullets. The guns were very heavy, reaching 40-60kg. This became a bit of a pain when it came to moving them. Gas. Gas was used in World War I first by the Germans. The Germans used chlorine gas. The English felt very intimidated by this. It caused them to have a burning sensation in the throat and caused major chest pains.
The only flaw in the gas was that the weather had to be perfect to use the weapon. If the weather was to strong or the wind blew in the wrong direction, you might end up hitting your own men with the poisonous gas. Sore eyes, internal and external bleeding, blistering skin and vomiting was caused by the mustard bomb. These were fired into the trench by shells and could take up to five hours to have a long and painful death. After the British realised that the Germans were using it they also used it. So both sided ended up inventing gas masks. Artillery. The artillery was the new upgraded cannon.
The Germans designed a new type of artillery, called ‘Big Bertha’. This was said to be the biggest and most powerful artillery gun known to man. It was that powerful that it could fire from the heart of Paris and reach 120 kilometres away, this was quite a gun. The shells were soon changed and were highly explosive. Inside the shell were tiny little lead pellets. The artillery were very effective they killed tens of thousands and created craters in the ground, many of which can still be seen today, and these made crossing the open ground very difficult and slow.
Pistol. The pistol was first designed for use by the cavalry. It then developed and was used by officers in the Army, as well as generally in the Navy and by tank operators. The pistol was used as a back up, if the rifle was wet and somehow stopped working the soldier would resort to the pistol. The Germans used the Luger 9mm P08. There were three types of pistols: revolvers, clip-loaded automatics and the ‘blow-back’. Tanks. The first ever tanks were developed in World War IO and were known generally as chariots of gold.
They were developed to allow soldiers to cross no man’s land with the protection offered by metal and the mobility provide by tracks that were necessary to cross the muddy and cratered ground. When they first designed them they could carry about two people in and travelled at about 5 miles per hour. The British Army sent 525 tanks to France and after four days only 25 were left in working order. Rolls Royce was soon to help design the tanks, they designed a tank which could go 88 kilometres and had 8mm machine guns. Aeroplane. The aeroplane was the most technical and advanced weapon used in World War I.
The pilots flying the aeroplanes were in extreme danger and most of them died by being shot down by enemy artillery. 3. The type of fighting was varied. It ranged from huge and ever-lasting artillery barrages on the trenches to close quarter hand to hand combat using clubs. In every respect it was brutal fighting with a huge number of fatalities and casualties. The war was unlike all others before it mainly because of the huge advance in technology. The war was not all about gaining land, but instead it was about stealing deaths. The attack in this war was in fact to defend one’s position and hard earned ground.
This type of war became known as attrition war, where the casualties were high and the aim was simply to kill as many of the enemy as possible and then move forward a short distance. Attrition meant the amount of people one side would cause the other to die in suffer and in heavy casualties – by very simply trying to ‘bleed the enemy white’, as they said. The main type of fighting was trench warfare this was when you would move the line of defence based on trenches and digging new ones as the enemy fell back, only to advance again in another part of the front. This is why the weapons were so important, as well as the trenches.
So began a new type of war that became known as total war and I will explain this later. 4. The dangers of trench life were caused by the weapons, but most importantly the risk of disease. One of the most common causes of death in World War I was the diseases caught in the trenches. A typical trench in World War I was highly unhygienic. The main diseases concerned being dysentery and trench foot. Trench foot was caused when the foot was exposed to wet and cold conditions. The foot would swell up to two or three times its normal size. It was said that if you stick your bayonet into it you would not feel a thing.
This was when the foot was exposed to a cold and wet environment and is similar to frostbite: “If you have never had trench foot described to you, I will explain. Your feet swell to two to three times their normal size and go completely dead. You can stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are lucky enough not to lose your feet and the swelling starts to go down, it is then that the most indescribable agony begins. I have heard men cry and scream with pain and many have had to have their feet and legs amputated. I was one of the lucky ones, but one more day in that trench and it may have been too late. (Harry Roberts) taken from (www. historylearningsite. co. uk).
The other main disease that posed a danger in trench life was dysentery. This was a disease carried in infected water that caused diarrhoea and sickness leading to death. Another main disease caught in the war was carried by rats; there were two types the black and the brown rat. When dead bodies were left in the trench the rats would come along and eat the infested body. If the dead soldier had disease the rat would pick it up and pass it on to another soldier if it bit him in the night.
The bodies were also infested by lice this left white and red spots all over the body, they also smelt very sour. The lice would berry them selves inside woolly trousers and pants and would eat away at your skin. 5. The discomforts of trench life were the limited amount of space, the intense cold in winter, the wet and sucking mud, a lack of food, the presence of infection and disease everywhere and the constant noise and threat from the raging fighting. All these things caused a lot of stress and often soldiers were unable to perform as well as they could.
It was during World War I that shell shock began to be a problem with soldiers. Some soldiers were so stressed by the noise and prospect of war that they were unable to fight at all. Many were shot as deserters and it was not until very recently that Britain pardoned them for what we now know was a psychological illness. 6. Soldiers passed their time in and out of the trenches in many ways. In the trenches, they played cards, cleaned their weapons, told stories about their loved ones back home, sang songs, played musical instruments and of course went on patrol and sentry duty during the time between the big battles.
They also wrote letters and poetry to send home and this gives us much of what we now know about the war and a lot of famous poetry. Soldiers shared cigarettes, swapped buttons, cleaned their uniform, buried bodies and invented all sorts of ways to pass the time and boredom in the trenches. Out of the trenches the soldiers played sport, visited the local villages in search of girls and alcohol and a few were able to go back on Rest and Recuperation (known as R & R) to England. On at least one occasion, believed to be on Christmas Day, the British soldiers played football against German soldiers in no-mans land.