He wrote home to his mother, "I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. – I have not been at the front. – I have been in front of it. – I held an advanced post, that is, a "dug-out" in the middle of No Man's Land.We had a march of three miles over shelled road, then nearly three along a flooded trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water..." Wilfred Owen
February 14th 1915MY DARLING AND LOVING WIFE EMILY IT IS VALENTINES DAY AND MY THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU AS ALWAYS, I WISH THAT I COULD BE WITH YOU ON THIS SPECIAL DAY OF LOVE INSTEAD OF BEING HERE IN THIS HELL HOLE WHICH BELGIUM HAS BECOME. I MISS YOU LITTLE GEORGE AND HARRY SO VERY MUCH AND I PRAY FOR THE DAY THAT THIS WAR COMES TO AN END, PLEASE PASS MY LOVE ON TO THE CHILDREN AND KISS THEM FOR ME. WE ARRIVED AT THE FRONT LINE JUST OVER A WEEK AGO AND THE SMELL WAS SO BAD THAT MANY OF THE MEN WERE SICK, TO DESCRIBE THE SMELL WOULD BE AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK BUT SOME OF THE CAUSES WILL GIVE YOU AN IDEA OF JUST HOW BAD IT IS. RAW SEWAGE FROM THE OPEN CESS PIT, BODY ODOUR FROM MEN WHO HAVENT HAD A DECENT WASH FOR WEEKS, DEAD BODIES ROTTING IN SHALLOW GRAVES AND LAYING OUT IN THE OPEN IN NO MANS LAND, THE SMELL OF EXPLODED BOMBS AND THE ODOUR OF MUSTARD GAS WHICH LINGERS FOR A FEW DAYS AFTER THE ATTACK, STAGNANT MUD CIGARETTE SMOKE AND COOKING SMELLS ALL ADD TO THE UNPLEASANTNESS OF THE TRENCHES. THEY SAY THAT WE WILL GET USED TO THE SMELL OVER TIME BUT IT FEELS LIKE IT WILL NEVER LEAVE US AT THE MOMENT. THE SMELL ATTRACTS RATS THEY ARE EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK AND THEY SEEM TO BE UNAFRAID TO SHOW THEMSELVES, THERE IS SO MUCH WASTE HERE THAT THE RATS ARE THRIVING AND SOME OF THEM ARE AS BIG AS FELIX OUR CAT. I SHAVED MY HEAD AND MY PUBIC HAIR YESTERDAY BECAUSE MY HAIR WAS CRAWLING WITH LICE MOST OF THE MEN HAVE BEEN SCRATCHING AND ITCHING ALMOST SINCE THE DAY WE GOT HERE. THE RAIN IS A CONSTANT COMPANION FLOODING THE TRENCHES AND TURNING THE FLOOR INTO MUD IT IS SO BAD THAT SOME OF THE MEN ARE GETTING SORES ON THEIR FEET AND CAN HARDLY WALK WITH THE PAIN.
SLEEP IS SO HARD TO COME BY WITH THE CONSTANT BOOMING AND BANGING OF THE SHELLS FROM BOTH SIDES, MY BED IS A BUNK WHICH HAS BEEN PLACED IN A DUG OUT SECTION OF THE TRENCH, A MUD ROOF A MUD FLOOR AND THE CONSTANT THEAT OF A STRAY SHELL KEEP ME AWAKE AT NIGHT. I AM SCARED MY DARLING EMILY, MY LIFE IS UNDER CONSTANT THREAT, BULLETS RANDOMLY FIRED AT US, SHELLS EXPLODING EVERY MINUTE OF THE DAY, MEN ARE DYING ALL AROUND ME IF NOT FROM A STRAY BULLET OR SHELL THEY ARE FALLING WITH FEVER AND DISEASE. FOUR OF THE BOYS IN MY SQUAD HAVE DIED ALREADY THEY WENT THROUGH BASIC TRAINING WITH ME AND I CONSIDERED THEM GOOD FRIENDS, MY BEST FRIEND JOHN SHOT HIMSELF IN THE FOOT JUST TO GET OUT OF HERE AND AWAY FROM THE TRENCHES, HE WILL BE TREATED IN A FIELD HOSPITAL AND SENT HOME. WE ARE GOING OVER THE TOP TONIGHT CLIMBING OUT OF THE TRENCH AND ATTACKING THE ENEMY TRENCHES A AND B SQAUD WENT LAST NIGHT AND MOST OF THEM WERE KILLED OR WOUNDED BEFORE THEY EVEN GOT 10 YARDS OUT OF THE TRENCH, IT IS BARBARIC AND A FUTILE WASTE OF HUMAN LIFE BUT THE POWERS THAT BE SEEM TO THINK THAT IT IS THE WAY FORWARD AND KEEP SENDING THOSE POOR MEN AND BOYS TO THEIR DEATHS. I WILL CLOSE NOW AND PRAY THAT THIS IS NOT THE LAST LETTER THAT I WILL EVER SEND TO YOU MY DARLING, I LONG TO BE BACK AT HOME WITH YOU AND THE CHILDREN. I LOVE YOU WITH ALL OF MY HEART HAPPY VALENTINES DAY MY LOVEVALENTINES DAY YOUR EVER LOVING HUSBAND GEORGE XXXXX
World War 1 Trench Warfare THE WESTERN FRONT DURING WORLD WAR 1 STRETCHED FROM THE NORTH SEA TO THE SWISS FRONTIER WITH FRANCE. BOTH SIDES DUG THEMSELVES IN ENDING ANY POSSIBLE CHANCE OF A QUICK WAR; THIS CAUSED A STALEMATE, WHICH WAS TO LAST FOR MOST OF THE WAR. OVER 200,000 MEN DIED IN THE TRENCHES OF WW1, MOST OF WHO DIED IN BATTLE, BUT MANY DIED FROM DISEASE AND INFECTIONS BROUGHT ON BY THE UNSANITARY CONDITIONS. Life in the Trenches The first thing a new recruit would notice on the way to the Frontline was the smell, rotting bodies in shallow graves, men who hadn't washed in weeks because there were no facilities, overflowing cess pits, creosol or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection. Cordite, the lingering odour of poison gas, rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke, and cooking food. Although overwhelming to a new recruit, they soon got used to the smell and eventually became part of the smell with their own body odour. A Dead soldier lies rotting on the battlefield Rats and Lice RATS WERE A CONSTANT COMPANION IN THE TRENCHES IN THEIR MILLIONS THEY WERE EVERYWHERE, GORGING THEMSELVES ON HUMAN REMAINS (GROTESQUELY DISFIGURING THEM BY EATING THEIR EYES AND LIVER) THEY COULD GROW TO THE SIZE OF A CAT. MEN TRIED TO KILL THEM WITH BULLETS SHOVELS OR ANYTHING ELSE THEY HAD AT HAND, BUT THEY WERE FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE AS ONLY 1 PAIR OF RATS CAN PRODUCE 900 OFFSPRING IN A YEAR. SOME SOLDIERS BELIEVED THAT THE RATS KNEW WHEN THERE WAS GOING TO BE A HEAVY BOMBARDMENT FROM THE ENEMY LINES BECAUSE THEY ALWAYS SEEMED TO DISAPPEAR MINUTES BEFORE AN ATTACK. LICE WERE A CONSTANT PROBLEM FOR THE MEN BREEDING IN DIRTY CLOTHING THEY WERE IMPOSSIBLE TO GET RID OF EVEN WHEN CLOTHES WERE WASHED AND DELOUSED THERE WOULD BE EGGS THAT WOULD ESCAPE THE TREATMENT IN THE SEAMS OF THE CLOTHES. LICE CAUSED TRENCH FEVER, A PARTICULARLY PAINFUL DISEASE THAT BEGAN SUDDENLY WITH SEVERE PAIN FOLLOWED BY HIGH FEVER. RECOVERY - AWAY FROM THE TRENCHES - TOOK UP TO TWELVE WEEKS. IT WAS NOT DISCOVERED THAT LICE WERE THE CAUSE OF TRENCH FEVER THOUGH UNTIL 1918. MILLIONS OF FROGS WERE FOUND IN SHELL HOLES COVERED IN WATER; THEY WERE ALSO FOUND IN THE BASE OF TRENCHES. SLUGS AND HORNED BEETLES CROWDED THE SIDES OF THE TRENCH. MANY MEN CHOSE TO SHAVE THEIR HEADS ENTIRELY TO AVOID ANOTHER PREVALENT SCOURGE: NITS. THE COLD WET AND UNSANITARY CONDITIONS WERE ALSO TO CAUSE TRENCH FOOT AMONGST THE SOLDIERS, A FUNGAL INFECTION, WHICH COULD TURN GANGRENOUS AND RESULT IN AMPUTATION. TRENCH FOOT WAS MORE OF A PROBLEM AT THE START OF TRENCH WARFARE; AS CONDITIONS IMPROVED IN 1915, IT RAPIDLY FADED, ALTHOUGH A TRICKLE OF CASES CONTINUED THROUGHOUT THE WAR. Highland Territorials jumping a German trench when attacking on the Cambrai front Shell Shock BETWEEN 1914 AND 1918 THE BRITISH ARMY IDENTIFIED 80,000 MEN (2% OF THOSE WHO SAW ACTIVE SERVICE) AS 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. World War 1
‘I was filled with admiration at the conduct of the Battalion under the heavy shell-fire…. The leadership of officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.’ The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railwav embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway Cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy., 2/Lt. Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9 days’ Rest. I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not. Wilfred Owen: Letter home.
It's strange how quickly we are adapting to our circumstances here in the trenches. After a year at the front, we have forgotten there is a clean and sane world out there where horror does not wait patiently around every corner. We have forgotten who we once were, when we were free men, with each a dream. We've become numbed to many aspects of trench life - as Lieutenant Yates revealed, when he arrived as a replacement back in August. There was a sense of disquiet as soon as he appeared. Lieutenant Gregory and I had been hoping for a fellow 'thinker' rather than the Eton-educated, by-the-book traditionalist who turned up in our sector. Our dead lay sprawled like shot cattle out in the fields - and it had been that way for months. There they remained, English and German, abandoned together in varying degrees of putrefaction under a warm August sun. This, along with the sharp stink of latrines (bad enough to take the breath away) and piles of rotting sandbags, caused Yates no end of misery.
Nothing was as he had imagined it. What glory could be found here, in this muddy field of dead filth? Yates wanted French virgins to rescue from German brutality. He wanted his picture taken with cheering French villagers - or some great chance to impress Generals. In reality, he wanted recognition - as long as it didn't involve getting dirty. I offered him my hand to shake when first we met and he declined; raising his own in a small warding off gesture, a grim little smile on his face. I could see him eyeing the infected insect bites on my neck with plain disgust. It's true the lice are terrible, revolting and unbearable, but there is little we can do - for we cannot eradicate them - and that's a fact we've learnt to live with. Likewise the rats, which just keep coming, no matter how many we kill. While both species breed and multiply in large, unstoppable numbers, we men on the other hand, kill ourselves in opposition, here in a strip of land that has quickly ground itself into a very real and stagnant nightmare. The lice feast on us while we live and the rats move in when we're dead. We exist in this hell with them, fighting for our survival, just like them. Yates took in the state of our surroundings with a horrified eye, but it was the smell of unwashed men that really seemed to offend him. Especially his fellow officers, who he obviously thought should have a bit more pride (or privilege). "I say, this is an absolute scandal." The words were meant for me (this was before he found out I was a farmer's son and decided not to engage in conversation with me at all - unless strictly necessary) as we stood in the officer's dugout and he looked around in horror. Over in the corner, Captain Kensford (nothing more than a bundled shape) was snoring contentedly. Today was the first chance he'd had to get his head down in thirty something hours.