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What was it like to fight in the First World War?

Work by Y10 IGCSE students September 2001

Trench Warfare: Robin Webb

The Battle Field Mining Operations Preparations For Battle Artillery Bombardments Over the Top The Strategy of the Generals Life in the Trenches The Experience of Battle

The Battle Field

                A trench system provided a great deal of protection in World War One. It consisted of a frontline trench, a support trench and a reserve trench. Connecting these trenches to one another were communication trenches, where men from one trench could easily communicate with the men within the other trenches. All trenches were designed to be deep enough to conceal the men from enemy fire. Metre after metre of barbed wire was laid out ahead of the trenches to provide even more protection from storming troops. Each trench contained a fire step, on which a soldier could fire at, or briefly observe the enemy trenches. The trenches also acquired a zigzagged look, which would unable an enemy troop to fire down the trenches. That is, if they were able to capture one.

                The troops also dug out listening posts, or saps, where they would listen for enemy movement within underground tunnels, or storming troops at night. These listening posts extended into “no man’s land.” This was the land between enemy positions, which averaged 250 metres in length. Anyone who stepped out into no man’s land stood little chance of surviving. The soldiers would have been mowed down by the opposition’s machine guns, which were able to fire 450-600 rounds (bullets) a minute, that’s 7.5-10 rounds a second, faster than any weapon at that time. Many British soldiers were poorly trained with heavy artillery. During training they may have fired a few shots from a riffle, and that’s about it.

                At times of heavy enemy bombardments, the troops would take cover in underground tunnels. The German tunnels were about 15 metres bellow ground, much deeper than the French or British tunnels. That was because the Germans wanted to stay where they were, and fight a defensive war on enemy turf. The British and French hadn’t enough time to fight a defensive war. They needed to push the Germans out of France and Belgium.

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Mining Operations

                Mines were tunnels that were dug underneath enemy trenches. Explosives would be packed at the end, the tunnels were then sealed, and the explosives detonated. Sealing the tunnels forced the explosion upwards. These mines were quite efficient. The soldiers in the saps were equipped with very sensitive machines, which could detect the faintest noises below, and could detect enemy miners.

                Once the mines were set off, they left the enemy in total confusion. If the men in the saps detected a tunnel being dug, they would have to stop the enemy from setting the mines. To stop the explosives from being placed and triggered, they would send a counter-mining team, which would dig its way into the tunnel and they would try and prevent the mines from being placed. Many fights would break out in these tunnels. The effect of the mines was spectacular, but not good enough to allow an infantry attack.

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Preparations for Battle

                Before an infantry or offensive attack, a great deal of preparations took place. Extra troops were brought up to the frontline, extra ammo and supplies were also needed, but also many coffins had to be prepared. The coffins were placed on the roadside, in plain view of the soldiers. Even before they left the trenches, they knew they were doomed. The enemy had air support, planes that flew over the battlefield and observed what was going on. They then dropped messages to their troops. The biggest clues of a future attack did not come from the planes, but from the heavy artillery bombardments beforehand.

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Artillery Bombardments

                Before any big frontal attack, both sides used their heavy artillery to fire shells at the enemy trenches, hoping to kill the enemy and destroy their defences. The bombardments unfortunately told the enemy what was going to happen next. The bombardments usually stopped when the troops were about to leave the trenches, this was to stop the shells from hitting their own men. But this also gave the enemy a chance to defend, because they knew what was coming. Some planners used a technique called a “creeping” or “rolling” barrage. The troops would still fire the shells, but in front of their own men. This way the men could advance whilst the enemies were hiding from the shells. The problem was, sometime the shells would drop short, and kill many of their own men.

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Over the Top

                The night before the attack, soldiers would go out and cut gaps in their own barbed wire, and marked the pathways with tape. This not only gave further proof of an attack, but it told the enemy machine gunners where the troop where to emerge. When the order of attack was given, the soldiers went “over the top.” In one situation, the soldiers were told they did not have to run, but walk towards the enemy lines, because all the Germans would have been killed from the barrage. How wrong they were.

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The Strategy of the Generals

                Many generals were convinced they could easily defeat the enemy if a large number of soldiers were concealed in a small section of the front. They would then out number the enemy and break through the enemy lines. They forgot one small thing. The enemy could bring in extra reserves in very little time. The soldiers became bitter towards their generals and their “wonderful” strategies.

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Life in the Trenches

Living conditions in the trenches were appalling, and even dangerous. Wooden planks lined the bottom of the trenches, which were to stop the soldiers’ feet from becoming wet from water and mud. These planks hardly did anything. Many trenches were not built like they were supposed to be.. Many soldiers suffered from a thing called “Trench Foot,” where the foot swells from being in water for a long period of time. The swelling then causes the boot to cut of the circulation to the foot. The foot then rots. This can also be caused by frostbite from cold. Soldiers had to rub whale oil and water proof substances onto their feet, to stop them from swelling. If they didn’t, they would be punished. Many soldiers tried to get trench foot and they wanted to be sent home, even at the cost of loosing some toes or even a foot. That’s how horrible life in the trenches was.

                The soldiers had poor hygiene. The toilets, or latrines, were holes dug into the ground, in sap, away from the trenches. Many soldiers disliked using these, not because they had a horrid smell, but because the enemy would occasionally lob shells into them, hoping there might be someone using them. There were also lice. Lice fed upon the blood of their hosts, they bite, and lay hundreds of eggs. Their bites would itch, cause blisters and boils, and even trench fever. It was almost impossible to kill the lice and their eggs. When bored, soldiers would rip the eggs from their armpits and burn them with cigarettes. They would then pop and sizzle.

                Soldiers may spend 8 days in the front line, 8 days in the reserve trench, and then sixteen days in town. The soldiers became bored and uncomfortable. They tried to take comfort in anything. They made jokes, sang songs etc. They mostly made fun of the food. They called sausages “barkers” because they were supposedly made from dog meat and called the cheese “bung” because it caused constipation.

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The Experience of Battle

                Many soldiers did not look forward to battle, but accepted it. They developed a thing called comradeship, and would do anything to help a fellow soldier. This gave them the courage to fight and go “over the top.” Soldiers knew that being wounded was a honourable way of getting out of fighting. But self-inflicted wounds were the cowards’ way out. Even if you shot yourself by accident, you probably would have been sent to court. Before an attack, there was much fear and anxiousness. The soldiers would be running across and open field, in clean sight of the enemy. Many say this was the worst part of the war…the waiting, knowing you hardly stood a chance.

                Soldiers feared the artillery shells the most. They were designed to explode a few metres above ground, and pieces of red hot metal, and the shrapnel balls could easily maim a person. The explosion could blow a man to bits. Many soldiers were uncounted for, because their bodies were never found. There were deaths not caused by war, but by nature. Soldiers would go “over the top” and drown in mud-filled shell craters. Soldiers were scared about being shot, blown apart, drowning, and even just finding dead, rotting bodies. They were open to disease, lice, rats and other horrible things. Life in the trenches was awful. The men would rather be injured and sent home without a foot, arm, leg, etc than live in the trenches for a day longer.

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