What was it like to serve on the Western Front?
When war broke out in 1914, enthusiastic crowds filled the streets in the capital
cities of Europe and Australia. Many saw the war as an opportunity for adventure
and excitement. In Australia there were so many volunteers (over 10 000
a month between August and December 1914) that only those meeting the highest
physical standards were accepted. Few of those who clamoured to be soldiers
knew what they were letting themselves in for. After the heat and cold of the
Gallipoli campaign, the Australians reached the Western Front in 1916 to experience
the depressing conditions that the Allies and the Germans had faced for two
Your feet swell to two or three times their normal size and go completely
dead. You could stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are
fortunate enough not to lose your feet and the swelling begins to go down,
it is then that the intolerable, indescribable agony begins. I have heard
men cry and even scream with the pain and many 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.
Sergeant H. Roberts, after holding a flooded front-line
trench for six days and nights in 1916.
The front-line trenches were ditches, two metres deep with sandbags on top
to form a parapet as protection against enemy fire. The men walked on duckboards
laid on the ground to avoid the mud and rested in dug-outs carved into the sides
of trenches. When on duty, men stood on fire steps and looked over the top of
the trench with a periscope. Enemy snipers would be ready to shoot anyone foolish
enough to stick his head above the parapet. In front of the trenches were lines
of barbed wire to make it difficult for enemy soldiers to attack. Beyond this
barbed wire lay No-Manís-Land, on the other side of which were the enemy trenches.
Behind the front-line trenches was a series of communication, support and reserve
trenches which were used to bring supplies and reinforcements to the Front.
Since front-line duty was so stressful, soldiers usually spent just four days
in the front-line trenches, four days in support, four days in reserve and fourteen
days resting behind lines. But during battle the routine changed and there were
examples of soldiers spending up to a month in the front line before fresh troops
arrived to replace them.
Life was extremely harsh in the trenches. Sleep was difficult and it was hard
to keep clean, so lice and skin diseases were rife. In winter soldiers were
often in cold and wet conditions for long periods, so chest infections and a
painful infection of the feet called trench foot (described by Sergeant
H. Roberts in the quote above) were common. The huge numbers of horses used
at the Front brought millions of flies, but the soldiersí greatest hatred was
reserved for the rats. Soldiers complained that rats Ďas big as catsí ate any
food not kept in tins. They also grew fat on the bodies of men which lay unburied
When there were no battles being fought, life in the trenches was tedious and
dull (in some parts of the front line, there were no battles during the whole
war). Time was divided between sentry duty, bringing up supplies from behind
the lines, trench maintenance and rifle cleaning. It was vital to keep trenches
secure as the menís lives depended upon adequate protection. Equally, a rifle
not properly maintained could jam and cost a soldier his life.
Food in the trenches was poor. The main food was tinned beef with bread or
biscuits and proper hot food was served only when soldiers were safely behind
the lines. Maconachie, a kind of Irish stew heated on a charcoal brazier, was
popular with the soldiers, as were treats such as bacon, cheese and jam. Drinking
water had to be transported from behind the lines and usually had an unpleasant
taste caused by the chlorine used to kill the germs.