3 The Trench SystemAfter the Battle of the Marne in September, 1914, the Germans were forced to retreat to the River Aisne. The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, decided that his troops must at all costs hold onto those parts of France and Belgium that Germany still occupied. Falkenhayn ordered his men to dig trenches that would provide them with protection from the advancing French and British troops. The Allies soon realised that they could not break through this line and they also began to dig trenches. After a few months these trenches had spread from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier. As the Germans were the first to decide where to stand fast and dig, they had been able to choose the best places to build their trenches. The possession of the higher ground not only gave the Germans a tactical advantage, but it forced the British and French to live in the worst conditions. Most of this area was rarely a few feet above sea level. As soon as soldiers began to dig down they would invariably find water two or three feet below the surface. Water-logged trenches were a constant problem for soldiers on the Western Front.Frontline trenches were usually about seven feet deep and six feet wide. The front of the trench was known as the parapet. The top two or three feet of the parapet and the parados (the rear side of the trench) would consist of a thick line of sandbags to absorb any bullets or shell fragments. In a trench of this depth it was impossible to see over the top, so a two or three-foot ledge known as a fire-step, was added. Trenches were not dug in straight lines. Otherwise, if the enemy had a successive offensive, and got into your trenches, they could shoot straight along the line. Each trench was dug with alternate fire-bays and traverses. Duck-boards were also placed at the bottom of the trenches to protect soldiers from problems such as trench foot. Soldiers also made dugouts and funk holes in the side of the trenches to give them some protection from the weather and enemy fire. The front-line trenches were also protected by barbed-wire entanglements and machine-gun posts. Short trenches called saps were dug from the front-trench into No-Man's Land. The sap-head, usually about 30 yards forward of the front-line, were then used as listening posts. Behind the front-line trenches were support and reserve trenches. The three rows of trenches covered between 200 and 500 yards of ground. Communication trenches, were dug at an angle to the frontline trench and was used to transport men, equipment and food supplies.
5 The TrenchThe rear-side of the trench was known as the parados. Both the parados and the parapet (the side of the trench facing the enemy) were protected by two or three feet of sandbags. Soldiers were instructed to build the parados higher than the parapet so that the defenders were not outlined against the sky and therefore easy targets for the German snipers. The parados also protected soldiers in front-line trenches against those firing from the rear.So that soldiers in front-line trenches could fire through the parapet, a fire-step was dug into the forward side of the trench. The fire-step was 2 or 3 ft high. It was on this that the sentries stood. It was also used by the whole unit when standing-to (an anticipated enemy attack).Research by the British Army suggested that a typical bullet used in the First World War would only penetrate fifteen inches into a sandbag.Zig-zag trenchesSome trenches built above the ground (breastworks).Soldiers in the First World War did not spend the whole of the time in the trenches. The British Army worked on a 16 day timetable. Each soldier usually spent eight days in the front line and four days in the reserve trench. Another four days were spent in a rest camp that was built a few miles away from the fighting. However, when the army was short of men, soldiers had to spend far longer periods at the front. It was not uncommon for soldiers to be in the front line trenches for over thirty days at a time. On one occasion, the 13th Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment spent fifty-one consecutive days in the line. Being in the front-line was extremely dangerous. Almost every day some enemy shells would fall on the trenches. One study suggested that one-third of all casualties on the Western Front were killed or wounded while in the trenches. Soldiers in the front line would also be hit by their own artillery. Despite the use of a high parados in the front-line trenches, it has been estimated that about 75,000 British soldiers in the war were killed by British shells that had been intended for the Germans.Communication TrenchesFunk Holes
9 No Man’s Land No Man's Land at Passchendaele in 1917 No Man's Land is the term used by soldiers to describe the ground between the two opposing trenches. Its width along the Western Front could vary a great deal. The average distance in most sectors was about 250 yards (230 metres). However, at Guillemont it was only 50 yards (46 metres) whereas at Cambrai it was over 500 yards (460 metres). The narrowest gap was at Zonnebeke where British and German soldiers were only about seven yards apart. No Man's Land contained a considerable amount of barbed wire. In the areas most likely to be attacked, there were ten belts of barbed wire just before the front-line trenches. In some places the wire was more than a 100 feet (30 metres) deep. If the area had seen a lot of action No Man's Land would be full of broken and abandoned military equipment. After an attack No Man's Land would also contain a large number of bodies. Advances across No Man's Land was always very difficult. Not only did the soldiers have to avoid being shot or blown-up, they also had to cope with barbed-wire and water-filled, shell-holes. Soldiers were only occasionally involved in a full-scale attack across No Man's Land. However, men were sometimes ordered into No Man's Land to obtain information about the enemy. When a artillery shell had landed just in front of an enemy trench, soldiers were often ordered to take control of the shell-hole and to try and spy on the enemy. Small patrols were also sent out to obtain information about the enemy. These patrols would go out at night. They would have to crawl forward on their stomachs in an attempt to get close enough to find out what the enemy was up to. If possible, they would try and capture a sentry and bring him back for interrogation. To stop British night patrols the Germans used a light-shell rocket. Suspended from a small parachute, the flare blazed brightly for a minute giving the defending troops a chance to kill the soldiers who had advanced into No Man's Land.No Man's Land at Passchendaele in 1917C. R. W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917)
10 No Man’s LandErnst Toller, I Was a German (1933) One night we heard a cry, the cry of one in excruciating pain; then all was quiet again. Someone in his death agony, we thought. But an hour later the cry came again. It never ceased the whole night. Nor the following night. Naked and inarticulate the cry persisted. We could not tell whether it came from the throat of German or Frenchman. It existed in its own right, an agonized indictment of heaven and earth. We thrust our fingers into our ears to stop its moan; but it was no good; the cry cut like a drill into our heads, dragging minutes into hours, hours into years. We withered and grew old between those cries. Later we learned that it was one of our own men hanging on the wire. Nobody could do anything for him; two men had already tried to save him, only to be shot themselves. We prayed desperately for his death. He took so long about it, and if he went on much longer we should go mad. But on the third day his cries were stopped by death.
11 Waterlogged TrenchesPrivate Livesay, letter to parents living in East Grinstead (6th March, 1915) Our trenches are... ankle deep mud. In some places trenches are waist deep in water. Time is spent digging, filling sandbags, building up parapets, fetching stores, etc. One does not have time to be weary.In September, 1914, the German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered his men to dig trenches that would provide them with protection from the advancing French and British troops. As the Allies soon realised that they could not break through this line, they also began to dig trenches. As the Germans were the first to decide where to stand fast and dig, they had been able to choose the best places to build their trenches. The possession of the higher ground not only gave the Germans a tactical advantage, but it also forced the British to live in the worst conditions. Most of this area was rarely a few feet above sea level. As soon as soldiers began to dig down they would invariably find water two or three feet below the surface. Along the whole line, trench life involved a never-ending struggle against water and mud. Duck-boards were placed at the bottom of the trenches to protect soldiers from problems such as trench foot. Much of the land where the trenches were dug was either clay or sand. The water could not pass through the clay and because the sand was on top, the trenches became waterlogged when it rained. The trenches were hard to dig and kept on collapsing in the waterlogged sand. As well as trenches the shells from the guns and bombs made big craters in the ground. The rain filled up the craters and then poured into the trenches.
12 Waterlogged TrenchesJ. B. Priestley, letter to his father, Jonathan Priestley (December, 1915) The communication trenches are simply canals, up to the waist in some parts, the rest up to the knees. There are only a few dug-outs and those are full of water or falling in. Three men were killed this way from falling dug-outs. I haven't had a wash since we came into these trenches and we are all mud from head to foot.
13 Trench FootSergeant Harry Roberts, Lancashire Fusiliers, interviewed after the war. If you have never had trench feet described to you. I will tell you. 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.Many soldiers fighting in the First World War suffered from trench foot. This was an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions. In the trenches men stood for hours on end in waterlogged trenches without being able to remove wet socks or boots. The feet would gradually go numb and the skin would turn red or blue. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. Trench foot was a particular problem in the early stages of the war. For example, during the winter of over 20,000 men in the British Army were treated for trench foot. The only remedy for trench foot was for the soldiers to dry their feet and change their socks several times a day. By the end of 1915 British soldiers in the trenches had to have three pairs of socks with them and were under orders to change their socks at least twice a day. As well as drying their feet, soldiers were told to cover their feet with a grease made from whale-oil. It has been estimated that a battalion at the front would use ten gallons of whale-oil every day.A photograph of a man suffering from trench foot
14 AmputationsOver 1.65 million men in the British Army were wounded during the First World War. Of these, around 240,000 British soldiers suffered total or partial leg or arm amputations as a result of war wounds. Most of these men were fitted with artificial limbs.
15 Private Pollard wrote about trench life in his memoirs published in 1932. The trench, when we reached it, was half full of mud and water. We set to work to try and drain it. Our efforts were hampered by the fact that the French, who had first occupied it, had buried their dead in the bottom and sides. Every stroke of the pick encountered a body. The smell was awful.
16 J. B. Priestley, letter to his father, Jonathan Priestley (December, 1915) The communication trenches are simply canals, up to the waist in some parts, the rest up to the knees. There are only a few dug-outs and those are full of water or falling in. Three men were killed this way from falling dug-outs. I haven’t had a wash since we came into these trenches and we are all mud from head to foot.
17 British soldiers try to keep their trench dry by pumping the water
18 DysentryGuy Chapman wrote about his experiences in the trenches in his book Vain Glory. We descended to primal man. No washing or shaving here, and the demands of nature answered as quickly as possible in the handiest and deepest shell-hole.Dysentery is a disease involving the inflammation of the lining of the large intestines. The inflammation causes stomach pains and diarrhoea. Some cases involve vomiting and fever. The bacteria enters the body through the mouth in food or water, and also by human feaces and contact with infected people. The diarrhoea causes people suffering from dysentery to lose important salts and fluids from the body. This can be fatal if the body dehydrates. This disease struck the men in the trenches as there was no proper sanitation. Latrines in the trenches were pits four to five feet deep. When they were within one foot they were supposed to be filled in and the soldiers had the job of digging a new one. Sometimes there was not time for this and men used a nearby shell-hole. Dysentery caused by contaminated water was especially a problem in the early stages of the war. The main reason for this was that it was some time before regular supplies of water to the trenches could be organised. Soldiers were supplied with water bottles, that could be refilled when they returned to reserve lines. However, the water-bottle supply was rarely enough for their needs and soldiers in the trenches often depended on impure water collected from shell-holes or other cavities. Later, to purify it, chloride of lime was added to the water. This was not popular with the soldiers as they disliked the taste of the purified water.Army engineers establishing water points in the communication trenches
19 Rats"The rats were huge. They were so big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself.""I saw some rats running from under the dead men's greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. My heart pounded as we edged towards one of the bodies. His helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured and from the yawning mouth leapt a rat."
20 Sergeant A. Vine, diary entry (8 August 1915) The stench of the dead bodies now is awful as they have been exposed to the sun for several days, many have swollen and burst. The trench is full of other occupants, things with lots of legs, also swarms of rats.Richard Beasley, interviewed in If you left your food the rats would soon grab it. Those rats were fearless. Sometimes we would shoot the filthy swines. But you would be put on a charge for wasting ammo, if the sergeant caught you.
21 Frank Laird writing after the war. Sometimes the men amused themselves by baiting the ends of their rifles with pieces of bacon in order to have a shot at them at close quarters.
22 German soldiers after a rat hunt in their trenches
23 George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969) Rats bred by the tens of thousands and lived on the fat of the land. When we were sleeping in funk holes the things ran over us, played about, copulated and fouled our scraps of food, their young squeaking incessantly. There was no proper system of waste disposal in trench life. Empty tins of all kinds were flung away over the top on both sides of the trench. Millions of tins were thus available for all the rats in France and Belgium in hundreds of miles of trenches. During brief moments of quiet at night, one could hear a continuous rattle of tins moving against each other. The rats were turning them over. What happened to the rats under heavy shell-fire was a mystery, but their powers of survival kept place with each new weapon, including poison gas.
24 German soldiers lice hunting in the trenches near Reims (1915)
25 Allied troops striving to keep warm in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium
27 Shell FireGuy Chapman, A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography (1933) One morning, while I was inspecting the rifles of the sentries on duty, I was startled, not to say alarmed, by three whizz-bangs bursting as it seemed all round my head. I heard one coming very close, caught a glimpse of it out of the tail of my eye, and at that moment slipped. I picked myself up, but before I could reach my full height, the minnie burst. A furious hot whirlwind rushed down, seized me and flung me violently back against the earth. I lay half-stunned while a rain of earth and offal pattered down on me, followed by something which whizzed viciously and stuck quivering in the trench wall; it was a piece of jagged steel eighteen inches long.During the first two weeks of the Battle of Passchendaele the British, Australian and Canadian guns fired 4,283,550 shells at the German defences. It is estimated that throughout the First World War the Allies used 5,000,000 tons of artillery shells against enemy positions. The Central Powers used a similar amount of shells in their effort to win the war. Soldiers subjected to continual exposure to shell-fire were in danger of developing shell-shock. Early symptoms included tiredness, irritability, giddiness, lack of concentration and headaches. Eventually the men suffered mental breakdowns making it impossible for them to remain in the front-line. Between 1914 and 1918 the British Army identified 80,000 men (2% of those who saw active service) as suffering from shell-shock.
28 Shell FirePrivate Henry Russell was badly wounded by shell-fire on 1st July, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme. I crawled into a shell-hole into which another colleague of mine had also crawled. He told me that he had been shot through the middle of the back and that the bullet had emerged through his left ear. We had not long to wait before a shell burst on the edge of our hole; it killed my colleague and injured me in such a way that I was virtually emasculated. I considered the situation hopeless and that even if a miracle happened and I did, in fact, get away, I would not be fit for anything in this world. I, therefore, decided to kill myself. I managed to get hold of the bottle of rum which I had put in my haversack and I drank the lot hoping that it would result in my death. In fact it did me no harm at all. It also probably made me slightly merry and bright and rather stupefied. It also probably caused me to drop off to sleep, though I am not aware of this. However, I came to the conclusion, when I had recovered my senses, that, in spite of my condition (my left arm being torn, my left thigh damaged, my right leg wounded and strips of flesh hanging down from my abdomen) it was still worth making a serious effort to save myself.
29 Shell ShockCorporal Henry Gregory served with the 119 Machine Gun Company. It was while I was in this Field Hospital that I saw the first case of shell-shock. The enemy opened fire about dinner time, as usual, with his big guns. As soon as the first shell came over, the shell-shock case nearly went mad. He screamed and raved, and it took eight men to hold him down on the stretcher. With every shell he would go into a fit of screaming and fight to get away. It is heartbreaking to watch a shell-shock case. The terror is indescribable. The flesh on their faces shakes in fear, and their teeth continually chatter. Shell-shock was brought about in many ways; loss of sleep, continually being under heavy shell fire, the torment of the lice, irregular meals, nerves always on end, and the thought always in the man's mind that the next minute was going to be his last.By 1914 British doctors working in military hospitals noticed patients suffering from "shell shock". Early symptoms included tiredness, irritability, giddiness, lack of concentration and headaches. Eventually the men suffered mental breakdowns making it impossible for them to remain in the front-line. Some came to the conclusion that the soldiers condition was caused by the enemy's heavy artillery. These doctors argued that a bursting shell creates a vacuum, and when the air rushes into this vacuum it disturbs the cerebro-spinal fluid and this can upset the working of the brain. Some doctors argued that the only cure for shell-shock was a complete rest away from the fighting. If you were an officer you were likely to be sent back home to recuperate. However, the army was less sympathetic to ordinary soldiers with shell-shock. Some senior officers took the view that these men were cowards who were trying to get out of fighting. Between 1914 and 1918 the British Army identified 80,000 men (2% of those who saw active service) as suffering from shell-shock. A much larger number of soldiers with these symptoms were classified as 'malingerers' and sent back to the front-line. In some cases men committed suicide. Others broke down under the pressure and refused to obey the orders of their officers. Some responded to the pressures of shell-shock by deserting. Sometimes soldiers who disobeyed orders got shot on the spot. In some cases, soldiers were court-martialled.Official figures said that 304 British soldiers were court-martialled and executed. A common punishment for disobeying orders was Field Punishment Number One. This involved the offender being attached to a fixed object for up to two hours a day and for a period up to three months. These men were often put in a place within range of enemy shell-fire.Soldier with shell shock
30 Blighty Wounds Otto Dix, Trench Suicide (1924) Faced with the prospect of being killed or permanently disabled, soldiers sometimes hoped that they would receive what was known as a blighty wound, and be sent back home. There were some cases where soldiers shot themselves in an attempt to end their time on the frontline. Self-inflicted wounds (SIW) was a capital offence and if discovered, a man found guilty of this faced execution by firing-squad. A total of 3,894 men in the British Army were convicted of SIW. None of these men were executed but they all served periods in prison. Others killed themselves rather than carry on in the trenches. The usual method of suicide was to place the muzzle of their Lee-Enfield rifle against the head and press the trigger with their bare big toe. In some cases, when men could endure no more, stood up on the fire-step and allowed themselves to be shot by an enemy sniper.Otto Dix, Trench Suicide (1924)
31 Blighty WoundsGeorge Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969) On 17th October, 1916, I was shot through the left foot by a .45 bullet from Snowy's revolver. The bullet tore between two bones in front of the ankle, went through the instep of my boot and buried itself in the ground. With his revolver pointed down, and not realising that it was loaded, Snowy had casually pulled the trigger and wham! I was out of the fighting for six months. There was pandemonium for a few moments as I hobbled about in pain, and then I found myself on the back of a comrade named Grigg, who carried me to a field dressing station close by. Poor Snowy was put under open arrest pending an inquiry. Transferred to an ambulance car, I became puzzled to find myself the only casualty in it. Finally I arrived at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station. Next morning I discovered that there was something queer about the place which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious inquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest.
32 Guy Chapman, a junior officer in the Royal Fusiliers, recorded how he discovered one of his men had been arrested for a self-inflicted wound.I glanced down the casualty reports. One name stood out above all others. “Private Turnbull, S.I.W.” A bullet fired deliberately at the foot was the only way out. Perhaps those who call this man a coward will consider the desperation to which he was driven, to place his rifle against the foot, and drive through the bones and flesh the smashing metal. Let me hope that the court-martial's sentence was light. Not that it matters, for, in truth, the real, the real sentence had been inflicted long ago.
33 One day I was in the trench and we'd been under-non stop attack for days. Well, two of the blokes with me shot themselves on purpose to try and get sent home and out of the war. One lad put a tin of bully beef on a ledge in the trench, then placed his hand behind it and fired his rifle through the tin, thinking, I suppose, that the tin would take the full force of the bullet and he would only get a flesh wound. But he misjudged the power of a shot at such close range and blew three of his fingers off.The other one said to me "Chas, I am going home to my wife and kids. I'll be some use to them as a cripple, but none at all dead! I am starving here, and so are they at home, we may as well starve together." With that he fired a shot through his boot. When the medics got his boot off, two of his toes and a lot of his foot had gone. But the injuring oneself to get out of it was quite common.
34 A sergeant-major came to see what was happening A sergeant-major came to see what was happening. I told him that a sniper had just caught a couple of our men who had to get on top of the trench for a minute to move a sandbag. He looked at me a bit sideways, but yelled out for stretcher bearers, and they were carried off.
35 In his autobiography, Father Figures, Kingsley Martin wrote about how soldiers reacted when they had been wounded.I recall the wounded as being incredibly patient and unhappy. The one thing they asked, hopefully, prayerfully, was whether they'd caught a 'Blighty' this time. Was their wound bad enough to get them home? Did I think it might get them out of the war altogether? That was perhaps too much to hope for. After all, they were damned lucky to be wounded. Most of their company or battalion would never come home.
36 Naomi Mitchison became a VAD in 1915 Naomi Mitchison became a VAD in Her autobiography is All Change Here (1975)The other thing which I found upsetting was to see a patient with his eyes closed and throat heavily bandaged, with a policeman in full uniform sitting next to him. The patient was of course a suicide attempt and this was a crime. Was he arrested as soon as he was conscious? I never knew. Both disappeared from the ward. One thing missing was the blood transfusion apparatus which is now so common in an accident ward that one takes it for granted.
37 FoodIn a letter to his parents, Private Pressey of the Royal Artillery described the quality of the food men were receiving on the Western Front. The biscuits are so hard that you had to put them on a firm surface and smash them with a stone or something. I've held one in my hand and hit the sharp corner of a brick wall and only hurt my hand. Sometimes we soaked the smashed fragments in water for several days. Then we would heat and drain, pour condensed milk over a dishful of the stuff and get it down.Soldiers in the Western Front were very critical of the quantity and the quality of food they received. The bulk of their diet in the trenches was bully beef (caned corned beef), bread and biscuits. By the winter of 1916 flour was in such short supply that bread was being made with dried ground turnips. The main food was now a pea-soup with a few lumps of horsemeat. Kitchen staff became more and more dependent on local vegetables and also had to use weeds such as nettles in soups and stews.Gilbert Rogers painted this picture of two stretcher-bearers trying to prepare hot food.
38 LicePrivate George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969) A full day's rest allowed us to clean up a bit, and to launch a full scale attack on lice. I sat in a quiet corner of a barn for two hours delousing myself as best I could. We were all at it, for none of us escaped their vile attentions. The things lay in the seams of trousers, in the deep furrows of long thick woolly pants, and seemed impregnable in their deep entrenchments. A lighted candle applied where they were thickest made them pop like Chinese crackers. After a session of this, my face would be covered with small blood spots from extra big fellows which had popped too vigorously. Lice hunting was called 'chatting'. In parcels from home it was usual to receive a tin of supposedly death-dealing powder or pomade, but the lice thrived on the stuff.Men in the trenches suffered from lice. One soldier writing after the war described them as "pale fawn in colour, and they left blotchy red bite marks all over the body." They also created a sour; stale smell. Various methods were used to remove the lice. A lighted candle was fairly effective but the skill of burning the lice without burning your clothes was only learnt with practice. Where possible the army arranged for the men to have baths in huge vats of hot water while their clothes were being put through delousing machines. Unfortunately, this rarely worked. A fair proportion of the eggs remained in the clothes and within two or three hours of the clothes being put on again a man's body heat had hatched them out. As well as causing frenzied scratching, lice also carried disease. This was known as pyrrexhia or trench fever. The first symptoms were shooting pains in the shins and was followed by a very high fever. Although the disease did not kill, it did stop soldiers from fighting and accounted for about 15% of all cases of sickness in the British Army.
39 Private Stanley Terry of 15 North End, East Grinstead, wrote a letter to his family in November, The letter was uncensored.We have just come out of the trenches after being in for six days and up to our waists in water. While we were in the trenches one of the Germans came over to our trench for a cigarette and then back again, and he was not fired at. We and the Germans started walking about in the open between the two trenches, repairing them, and there was no firing at all. I think they are all getting fed up with it.
40 Machine GunMachine guns needed 4-6 men to work them and had to be on a flat surface. They had the fire-power of 100 guns.The 1914 machine gun, usually positioned on a flat tripod, would require a gun crew of four to six operators. In theory they could fire small-calibre rounds per minute, a figure that was to more than double by the war's end, with rounds fed via a fabric belt or a metal strip.The reality however was that these early machine guns would rapidly overheat and become inoperative without the aid of cooling mechanisms; they were consequently fired in short rather than sustained bursts. Cooling generally took one of two forms: water cooled and, increasingly as the war developed, air cooled. Water jackets would provided for the former (which held around one gallon of liquid) and air vents would be built into the machine gun for the latter.Water cooled machine guns would still overheat relatively quickly (sometimes within two minutes), with the consequence that large supplies of water would need to be on hand in the heat of a battle - and, when these ran out, it was not unknown for a machine gun crew to solve the problem by urinating into the jacket.Whether air or water cooled, machine guns still jammed frequently, especially in hot conditions or when used by inexperienced operators.Consequently machine guns would often be grouped together to maintain a constant defensive position.Estimates of their equivalent, accurate, rifle firepower varied, with some estimating a single machine gun to be worth as many as rifles: a more consensual figure is around 80, still an impressively high figure.By 1918 however one-man portable machine guns (including the formidable Bergmann MP18 submachine gun) were put to some use (each weighing 9-14kg), although maintaining sufficient ammunition supplies remained a difficulty.
41 Poison Gas German soldiers after a gas attack in 1915. Poisonous gases were known about for a long time before the First World War but military officers were reluctant to use them as they considered it to be a uncivilized weapon. The French Army were the first to employ it as a weapon when in the first month of the war they fired tear-gas grenades at the Germans. In October 1914 the German Army began firing shrapnel shells in which the steel balls had been treated with a chemical irritant. The Germans first used chlorine gas cylinders in April 1915 when it was employed against the French Army at Ypres. Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs of its victims and this led to a slow death by asphyxiation. It was important to have the right weather conditions before a gas attack could be made. When the British Army launched a gas attack on 25th September in 1915, the wind blew it back into the faces of the advancing troops. This problem was solved in 1916 when gas shells were produced for use with heavy artillery. This increased the army's range of attack and helped to protect their own troops when weather conditions were not completely ideal. After the first German chlorine gas attacks, Allied troops were supplied with masks of cotton pads that had been soaked in urine. It was found that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the poison. Other soldiers preferred to use handkerchiefs, a sock, a flannel body-belt, dampened with a solution of bicarbonate of soda, and tied across the mouth and nose until the gas passed over. It was not until July 1915 that soldiers were given efficient gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators. One disadvantage for the side that launched chlorine gas attacks was that it made the victim cough and therefore limited his intake of the poison. Both sides found that phosgene was more effective poison to use. Only a small amount was needed to make it impossible for the soldier to keep fighting. It also killed its victim within 48 hours of the attack. Advancing armies also used a mixture of chlorine and phosgene called 'white star'. Mustard Gas (Yperite) was first used by the German Army in September The most lethal of all the poisonous chemicals used during the war, it was almost odourless and took twelve hours to take effect. Yperite was so powerful that only small amounts had to be added to high explosive shells to be effective. Once in the soil, mustard gas remained active for several weeks. The German Army also used bromine and chloropicrin. A nerve gas obtained from prussic acid was also developed by scientists employed by the French Army but was not used a great deal on the Western Front. It has been estimated that the Germans used 68,000 tons of gas against Allied soldiers. This was more than the French Army (36,000) and the British Army (25,000). An estimated 91,198 soldiers died as a result of poison gas attacks and another 1.2 million were hospitalized. The Russian Army, with 56,000 deaths, suffered more than any other armed force.German soldiers after a gas attack in 1915.
42 Poison GasWilliam Pressey was gassed on 7th June 1917 at Messines Ridge. He survived the attack and later wrote about the experience of being gassed. I was awakened by a terrific crash. The roof came down on my chest and legs and I couldn't move anything but my head. I found I could hardly breathe. Then I heard voices. Other fellows with gas helmets on, looking very frightened in the half-light, were lifting timber off me and one was forcing a gas helmet on me. Even when you were all right, to wear a gas helmet was uncomfortable, your nose pinched, sucking air through a canister of chemicals. I was put into an ambulance and taken to the base, where we were placed on the stretchers side by side on the floor of a marquee. I suppose I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lugs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth. To get air in my lungs was real agony. I dozed off for short periods but seemed to wake in a sort of panic. To ease the pain in my chest I may subconsciously have stopped breathing, until the pounding of my heart woke me up. I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep.
43 TanksThe first successfully developed tank, Mark I, was ready for use in the summer of Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in Chief of the British Army, had doubts about the value of tanks. However, after failing to break through German lines at the Battle of the Somme, Haig gave orders that tanks that had reached the Western Front, should be used at Flers-Coucelette on 15th July, Of the 59 tanks in France, only 49 were considered to be in good working order. Of these, 17 broke down on the way to their starting point at Flers. The sight of the tanks created panic and had a profound effect on the morale of the German Army. Colonel John Fuller, chief of staff of the Tank Corps, was convinced that these machines could win the war and persuaded Sir Douglas Haig to ask the government to supply him with another 1,000 tanks. Aware of the tank's early problems, John Fuller argued that they should only be deployed when the terrain was appropriate. At Amiens he managed to persuade General Henry Rawlinson to use 412 tanks followed by soldiers and supported by over 1,000 aircraft. The strategy worked and the Allies managed to breakthrough the German frontline.Travelled 4m/h. Crew of 10.Tank ProductionYearUKFranceGermanyItalyUSA1916150-19171,27780019181,3914,00020684
44 Bert Chaney saw tanks for the first time on 15th September 1916) We heard strange throbbing noises, and lumbering slowly towards us came three huge mechanical monsters such as we had never seen before. My first impression was that they looked ready to topple on their noses, but their tails and the two-little wheels at the back held them down and kept them level. Big metal things they were, with two sets of caterpillar wheels that went right round the body. There was a bulge on each side with a door in the bulging part, and machine-guns on swivels poked out from either side. The engine, a petrol engine of massive proportions, occupied practically all the inside space. Mounted behind each door was a motor-cycle type of saddle seat and there was just about enough room left for the belts of ammunition and the drivers.
45 Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine-gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine-guns swivelling around and firing like mad.Everyone dived for cover, except the colonel. He jumped on top to the parapet, shouting at the top of his`voice, 'Runner, runner, go tell those tanks to stop firing at once. At once, I say.' By now the enemy fire had risen to a crescendo but, giving no thought to his own personal safety as he saw the tanks firing on his own men, he ran forward and furiously rained blows with his cane on the side of one of the tanks in an endeavour to attract their attention. Although, what with the sounds of the engines and the firing in such an enclosed space, no one in the tank could hear him, they finally realized they were on the wrong trench and moved on, frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits.
47 TunnellingOn the Western Front during the First World War, the military employed specialist miners to dig tunnels under No Man's Land. The main objective was to place mines beneath enemy defensive positions. When it was detonated, the explosion would destroy that section of the trench. The infantry would then advance towards the enemy front-line hoping to take advantage of the confusion that followed the explosion of an underground mine. Soldiers in the trenches developed different strategies to discover enemy tunnelling. One method was to drive a stick into the ground and hold the other end between the teeth and feel any underground vibrations. Another one involved sinking a water-filled oil drum into the floor of the trench. The soldiers then took it in turns to lower an ear into the water to listen for any noise being made by tunnellers. It could take as long as a year to dig a tunnel and place a mine. As well as digging their own tunnels, the miners had to listen out for enemy tunnellers. On occasions miners accidentally dug into the opposing side's tunnel and an underground fight took place. When an enemy's tunnel was found it was usually destroyed by placing an explosive charge inside. Mines became larger and larger. At the beginning of the Somme offensive, the British denoted two mines that contained 24 tons of explosives. Another 91,111 lb. mine at Spanbroekmolen created a hole that afterwards measured 430 ft. from rim to rim. Now known as the Pool of Peace, it is large enough to house a 40 ft. deep lake. In January, 1917, General Sir Herbert Plumer, gave orders for 20 mines to be placed under German lines at Messines. Over the next five months more than 8,000 metres of tunnel were dug and 600 tons of explosive were placed in position. Simultaneous explosion of the mines took place at 3.10 on 7th June. The blast killed an estimated 10,000 soldiers and was so loud it was heard in London.
48 British fake tree used by SnipersR. A. Chell, had his first experience of sniper duty in September, After about fifteen minutes quiet watching - with my rifle in a ready position - I saw a capless bald head come up behind the plate. The day was bright and clear and I hadn't the slightest difficulty in taking a most deliberate aim at the very centre of that bright and shiny plate - but somehow I couldn't press the trigger: to shoot such a 'sitter' so deliberately in cold blood required more real courage than I possessed. After a good look round he went down and I argued with myself about my duty. My bald-headed opponent had been given a very sporting chance and if he were fool enough to come up again I must shoot him unflinchingly. I considered it my duty to be absolutely ready for that contingency. After about two minutes he came up again with added boldness and I did my duty. I had been a marksman before the war and so had no doubt about the instantaneousness of that man's death. I felt funny for days and the shooting of another German at 'stand-to' the next morning did nothing to remove those horrid feelings I had.Soldiers in front-line trenches suffered from enemy snipers. These men were usually specially trained marksmen that had rifles with telescopic sights. German snipers did not normally work from their own trenches. The main strategy was to creep out at dawn into no-man's land and remain there all day. Wearing camouflaged clothing and using the cover of a fake tree, they waited for a British soldier to pop his head above the parapet. A common trick was to send up a kite with English writing on it. Anyone who raised his head to read it was shot.British fake tree used bysnipers and spies.
49 Drawing of a German flame-thrower by A. Forestier Flame-ThrowersDrawing of a German flame-thrower by A. Forestier