The mud, blood and trenches of World War I are one of the symbols of the conflict for most British people. From a British perspective, the vast majority of soldiers served on the Western Front, a 440-mile conflict zone that stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the French border with Switzerland in the south. For the soldiers, life in the trenches was dirty and dangerous.
While in the trenches, soldiers lived in very confined spaces. A typical trench was around six feet deep and perhaps four or five feet wide. The sides were secured with wooden planks, wire netting or frames of woven willow, although trenches in the Somme area were cut into solid chalk and did not need so much reinforcement. Some trenches had small chambers dug into the walls or earth below, sometimes reinforced with concrete. These “dugouts” provided more secure places for soldiers to rest, sleep or take shelter during artillery bombardments.
Manning front line trenches was a dangerous occupation. Soldiers were at risk from artillery shells, mortars and rifle and machine-gun fire. In some areas of the Western Front, the opposing armies engaged in mine warfare underground – thousands of German troops defending Messines Ridge in Belgium were killed when the British army detonated 19 mines in 30 seconds on the morning of June 7, 1917. Soldiers could also fall victim to freak accidents. In 1916, Private William McFadzean was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the UK's highest military honour, for using his body to shield his comrades from the explosion caused by a dropped hand grenade.
The army attempted to look after soldiers health while they were on active service, but the men’s welfare was threatened by several different factors. While in the trenches they were under threat from exposure to weather. Standing in mud and water for long periods of time increased the likelihood of trench foot, when the foot becomes waterlogged. Over 75,000 British soldiers were hospitalised due to trench foot between 1914 and 1918. Poor hygiene in the trenches also resulted in outbreaks of vomiting, chest infections, pneumonia and scabies. Seriously ill soldiers were treated in hospitals behind the lines or transported home to the United Kingdom.
Battlefields outside the Western Front
British soldiers also fought on battlefields in Italy, Turkey, Salonika and Africa during World War I. Conditions here were very different. In Italy and Salonika, the men often lived in mountain trenches cut from solid rock, but on the Gallipoli peninsula, they fought the Turkish army in shallow trenches scraped out of the soil. The war in Africa was more mobile, making trench warfare a rarity. In both Turkey and Africa, illness and disease posed a greater danger than the opposing army. Diseases like cholera and malaria were incredibly common, and the ratio of conflict-related deaths to those caused by disease was as high as 1:300 in the East African campaign, says Dr David Payne, formerly of the World Health Organisation.
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- BBC History: World Wars, The Western Front 1914-1918
- “Tommy: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-1918”; Richard Holmes.
- Durand Group: Messines Ridge
- British Army: Recipients of the Victoria Cross
- Western Front Association: The BEF, Human Diseases And Trench Warfare On The Western Front
- “Touring the Italian Front 1917 – 1919”; Francis McKay.
- Stand To! Journal of the Western Front Association; Malaria in the Great War; David Payne, PhD.
- Western Front Association: Contributor’s Biographies, Dr David Payne