The life of a soldier in the trenches during World War I was unimaginable to the people back home in Canada. Soldiers carried out their duty to their country in the most horrifying conditions. The trenches were rivers of mud and blood, food rations were very basic and designed only to keep the soldiers alive, hygiene was non-existent, and military direction was poor as these men fought for their country. Constant shelling and gas attacks made many soldiers feel that death was imminent and a great deal of men suffered from mental breakdowns due to the war.
During World War I soldiers spent most of their time involved in trench warfare. A typical day in the trenches began at night when the sentry was relieved and replaced. This individual was responsible for watching "No Man's Land"Ã¯Â¿Â½ and reporting changes to the man sitting with him. The companion of the sentry would then inform the platoon officer about changes in "No Man's Land"Ã¯Â¿Â½.
Men in the trenches at night sat around telling stories, smoking cigarettes, and writing home. It was too uncomfortable and crowded to sleep wearing all their ammunition and clothes. When a soldier did doze off he was likely to awake startled as a rat passed over his face. When morning finally came rum was issued and then breakfast was served. The soldiers would try and sleep in the morning and then have dinner at 12:30pm. Four o'clock was teatime and then it was night again. The days of the soldiers were filled with idleness if the men were not involved in combat.
Every four days the soldiers were relieved from the trenches and sent to billets for four days of rest. A typical day in the billets would see the soldiers getting up at six o'clock, washing, taking part in roll call and inspection, having breakfast, and then participating in drills with the company at 8:45am. At around 11:30am the soldiers were dismissed, had dinner, and were then on their own for the rest of the day if they had not signed up for a "digging or working party"Ã¯Â¿Â½. During the soldier's four days of rest they were sometimes ordered to visit the "Divisional Baths"Ã¯Â¿Â½. The "Divisional Baths"Ã¯Â¿Â½ contained a bathroom with 15 tubs (barrels sawed in half) half-filled with water and containing a piece of laundry soap. The men were told they had twelve minutes to take their baths and then the water would be turned off even if the men were still soapy. After their baths the soldiers were treated to clean underwear and sent back to the billets.
The conditions that the soldiers had to deal with while living in either the trenches or billets were inhuman. Men in the trenches were surrounded by the horrific smell of death. Soldiers killed in the trenches would lie unburied for months and when they were eventually buried they had "hardly enough earth over them to conceal their clothes"Ã¯Â¿Â½. In some cases the dead were only covered by chloride of lime or became unearthed by shells. There were so many dead soldiers that eventually "collection points"Ã¯Â¿Â½ were set up to collect the bodies. Wounded men in the trenches were given little time to recover and were then sent back to the front lines. Shelter from gunfire was hard to find. Sometimes the soldiers hid in holes with no overhead cover and when it rained the holes would fill up and the men would be flooded out. Even the trenches were waste deep in mud when it rained hard. The rain soaked everything including their clothes and their rations. Rats constantly scurried through the trenches and lice plagued the soldiers.
The soldier's equipment was heavy and poorly made. An ordinary pack was heavy to start with and even heavier when the soldiers were told to pack machine guns and ammunition. Bad shoes gave a lot of soldiers painful blisters. Their boots were so badly made that their toes stuck out and the holes had to be patched up with newspaper or cardboard.
Moving from one area of engagement to another was very difficult. This was usually done at night and many soldiers got lost in the dark trying to relieve other soldiers. Moving to another trench was also life threatening due to the constant shelling. Sometimes the soldiers traveled from one place to another by train. Box cars, that had never been cleaned and had little protection from the elements, transported the soldiers for up to twelve hours. It was a very uncomfortable journey and the soldiers ended up stiff and wet.
Nights in the trenches were spent repairing damaged trenches with barbed wire, filling sandbags, and digging new trenches, instead of sleeping. Soldiers were also sent out into "No Man's Land"Ã¯Â¿Â½, crawling about on their hand and knees, to find out information about the enemies military plans. It was too cold for the soldiers to sleep with no blankets and they could not even try to keep warm by exercising. Exercising would have the soldiers moving around too much, making them targets for the enemy. When the men did try to sleep they often froze.
Even though the soldiers were supposed to only spend four days at a time in the trenches it often ended up being longer. In fierce battles the men were sometimes in the trenches for up to twenty days with practically no food or water, and very little sleep. When the soldiers came out of the trenches they were "enclosed in a practically bullet-proof casing of mud"Ã¯Â¿Â½. The men then had to march from the trenches to the billets and were often shot down on their way.
Life in the billets was not really much of a rest. Cleaning muddy clothes for inspection was not easy and in the evening the soldiers had to carry rations or mail up to the trenches. The men also helped the cook chop wood or helped the quartermaster draw coal. The billets were better then the trenches but still far from being luxurious. An old stable previously occupied by cows or tents with no floorboards usually served as shelter. These tents got very wet when it rained, making it difficult to get a decent comfortable sleep, and were very crowded. The camps were very untidy and littered with refuse.
Food supplied to the soldiers was very basic. Rations were brought up to the trenches every night. These rations included all the bully beef a soldier could eat, biscuits, cheese, tinned butter (seventeen men to a tin), jam or marmalade, bread (ten men to a loaf), tea and stew when possible. Sometimes the soldiers made "Trench pudding"Ã¯Â¿Â½ consisting of broken biscuits, condensed milk, jam, and water flavored with mud. This concoction was cooked over a spirit stove in a canteen until it became the consistency of glue. Soldiers also received "parcels of foodstuffs, cigarettes, [and] candy"Ã¯Â¿Â½ from back home to add to their menu. In the trenches each soldier also carried emergency rations in case they were cut off from supplies. These rations included one tin of bully beef, four biscuits, and a tin containing tea, sugar, and oxo cubes.
Rations issued while soldiers where stationed in the billets were a little bit better. Rations for nineteen men for one day would include six loaves of bread (loaves were of different sizes and usually at least one was flattened, possibly caused by someone putting a can of bully beef on top of it during transport), three tins of jam (one apple, two plum), seventeen Bermuda onions, "a piece of cheese in the shape of a wedge"Ã¯Â¿Â½, "two one pound tins of butter"Ã¯Â¿Â½, "a handful of raisins"Ã¯Â¿Â½, a tin of biscuits, and a bottle of mustard pickles. In the billets the soldiers also received spuds, condensed milk, fresh meat, bacon, "Maconochie Rations"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (can filled with meat, vegetables and greasy water), tea, sugar, salt, pepper, and flour. Out of these rations three men shared one loaf of bread, seven to twelve men shared one tin of jam, nine soldiers shared a pound of butter, and each man got an onion and a small portion of cheese. The bottle of pickles was usually drawn for; everyone put their name in a hat and the last name left in the hat got the pickles. The soldiers were also issued between twenty and forty cigarettes every Sunday morning and paid twenty-four cents a day. This money was spent on fresh eggs, milk, bread, pastry, and an occasional tin of pears or apricots.
Constant shelling at the front was one of the most difficult things for a soldier to endure. Shelling was especially dangerous during the winter when the ground was frozen. The "shell[s] [would burst] on impact and the bits [went] out sideways and [were] very dangerous over a radius of a hundred yards or so"Ã¯Â¿Â½. When it was muddy the shells would penetrate into the mud a ways before exploding, therefore they were not as dangerous. There was a constant threat from the shrapnel of shells that exploded very close to the soldiers. Flying shrapnel commonly killed wounded men carried out on stretchers. Attacks on the enemy were almost always preceded by artillery bombardments to try and get more soldiers out of the trenches and over onto the enemy's side. Millions of shells were fired each day with thirty percent of the shells failing to explode due to poor manufacturing. About one out of every ten shells contained poisonous gas. Shells damaged wells, decreasing the amount of fresh water available to the soldiers, and partially buried people without killing them. Soldiers throwing bombs often held them for too long, before throwing them, to make sure the bombs were not thrown back by the enemy. This led to many soldiers losing arms, hands or even being killed altogether.
Shell shock was one of the most common ailments to affect soldiers during the war. "For every one thousand men with physical wounds "ÃÂcombat stress' affected a further two hundred"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Ninety-eight percent of fighting men cracked after thirty-five days of active front line fighting. Only two percent of soldiers enjoyed battle and did not crack; "doctors considered these people to be aggressive psychopaths"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Many men found it very difficult to bring themselves to fire a gun even when being fired upon. A lot of soldiers "became sick to their stomach, felt faint, and lost control of their bowels in battle"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Men sent to the base suffering from battle fatigue were often sent back to the front lines, by doctors who said they were fine. One example of this is a man who was mentally and physically unfit to be a soldier. "He was just like an animal and had not even got the sense to take his trousers down when he needed to relieve himself"Ã¯Â¿Â½. This particular man was sent down as mentally deficient three times and sent back to the front lines three times. Eventually he became so unstable that he killed himself. Many soldiers also died due to extreme exhaustion caused by lack of sleep and proper food.
Going over the top and into No Man's Land was something every soldier dreaded. Before this event occurred, many men made out their wills or wrote letters home. If the letters reached their destination then that meant the writer had been killed. It was a "nerve-racking wait"Ã¯Â¿Â½ for the bombardment to end so that the soldiers could run to their death. The shelling was so loud the soldiers "had to yell [orders] using [their] hands as a funnel into the ear of the man sitting next to"Ã¯Â¿Â½ them. The soldiers went up scaling ladders, or "Ladder's of Death"Ã¯Â¿Â½ as they were called, and tried to make their way as fast as they could over the to the enemy trenches, while the enemy fired upon them. The whole situation was futile, as men running towards guns will surely die.
Gas attacks were a common occurrence in the front lines. When a gas attack was announced the soldiers only had between eighteen and twenty seconds to put on their masks and try to save themselves. The gas helmets carried by the soldiers were made of cloth treated with chemicals, had two glass windows to see through, and a rubber-covered tube on the inside through which the soldier exhaled (the tube was constructed so that the user could not inhale through it). The soldier inhaled through the nose and the gas filled air passed through the cloth helmet and was neutralized. Each soldier had to carry two of these helmets in a waterproof bag at all times in case one of them did not work. These helmets often gave the soldiers headaches and were only good for five hours of the strongest gas. When a gas attack did occur the gas quickly filled the trenches and lurked around for two or three days "until the air [was] purified by means of large chemical sprayers"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Animals suffered the most as they had no masks and had very little chance of outrunning a gas cloud.
The soldiers in the front lines also had to deal with poor military planning. Few preparations were done before a battle and artillery bombardments were poorly planned. Orders were not promptly given to fill in the gaps of attack lines when men were killed and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost to capture a few square miles of mud. Weapons supplied to the soldiers were of poor quality and sometimes ended up killing the user. Orders were often given to retreat and hundreds of soldiers were left out in "No Man's Land"Ã¯Â¿Â½ wounded. These wounded would try to crawl back to the trenches at night or be taken prisoner. Officers led men through shelling, causing casualties and deaths, instead of waiting for the shelling to stop and then continuing on. Officers also often got shot while guiding troops to their new location and then the soldiers were left to fend for themselves.
Army discipline during the war was very strict. The punishments ranged from death to humiliation. The worst punishment was death by a firing squad. This punishment was given for "desertion, cowardice, mutiny, giving information to the enemy, destroying or willfully wasting ammunition, looting, rape, and robbing the dead"Ã¯Â¿Â½. If a man was executed the event was covered up and "in the public casualty list"Ã¯Â¿Â½ their name would have "ÃÂAccidentally Killed' or "ÃÂDied' written beside it. "Where there [was] a doubt as to the willful guilt of a man who [had] committed an offence punishable by death"Ã¯Â¿Â½ the individual was given sixty-four days in the front line trench without relief. There were also several other punishments given to soldiers depending on the severity of the crime they committed. Field Punishment #1 included the soldier being attached "spread [eagle to] a limber wheel, two hours a day for twenty-one days"Ã¯Â¿Â½. During this time the soldier was only given water, bully beef, and biscuits for food. Field Punishment #2 confined the soldier "in the "ÃÂClink' with no blankets"Ã¯Â¿Â½. The soldier would be punished for twenty-four hours or twenty days with only water, bully beef, and biscuits as rations. "Pack Drill"Ã¯Â¿Â½ was when a soldier was subjected to drilling for two hours wearing full equipment. The men tried to get away with filling their packs with straw, to make them lighter, but usually got caught and were then sentenced to the limber wheel. "Confined to Barracks"Ã¯Â¿Â½ was when a soldier had to stay in his billet from twenty-four hours to seven days as punishment.
The life of a soldier during the First World War was cruel and inhuman. The men lived in trenches drowned in mud, surrounded by rats and bodies, and infested with lice. The food supplied to them was barely palatable and the military command in charge was not always well informed. Death surrounded the soldiers as they were constantly fired upon and subject to frequent gas attacks. Although these men were fighting for their country, the high loss of life was hardly worth it.