Mark­ing Anzac Day 2017

Liv­ing in the trenches was like be­ing stuck in a night­mare, write Fran Blandy and Pierre Marie Gi­raud

Waikato News - - Front Page -

F OR THREE YEARS dur­ing World War I, mil­lions of sol­diers holed up in a war­ren of trenches, fight­ing and dy­ing in night­mar­ish con­di­tions along a barely mov­ing front­line.

For the French, British, Ger­mans, An­zacs and oth­ers caught in this fu­tile fight, the rain, bit­ing cold and thick mud, the aw­ful stench of death and scourge of rats would haunt their daily lives as much as the con­stant on­slaught from the en­emy.

“When the world is red and reek­ing, and the shrap­nel shells are shriek­ing, and your blood is slowly leak­ing, carry on,” urged one of the Great War’s sol­dier po­ets Ge­of­frey Stud­dert Kennedy, nick­named “Wood­bine Billy”, who chron­i­cled the hor­rors of the trenches.

“When the bro­ken bat­tered trenches, are like the bloody butch­ers’ benches, and the air is thick with stenches, carry on.” In the sum­mer of 1914 sol­diers had set out for a swift war, but af­ter sev­eral mo­bile and ex­tremely bloody months, ri­val armies dec­i­mated by ar­tillery fire found them­selves locked in a stale­mate along the bat­tle’s Western Front.

To bet­ter pro­tect them­selves, sol­diers bur­rowed a line of trenches that stretched for 700km from the North Sea through France to Switzer­land, where both sides would dig in for three years, suf­fer­ing crip­pling losses but mak­ing lit­tle head­way.

The first trenches were hastily dug, of­ten shal­low holes, be­com­ing deeper and more elab­o­rate as the stale­mate dragged on. They were dug in a zigzag so that if an en­emy sol­dier got in he could not open fire along the whole length of the trench.

Fields of barbed wire sur­rounded the ditches, aimed at slow­ing any ad­vance through “no man’s land”— the area be­tween en­emy lines that was some­times only a few dozen me­tres.

The war­ren of trenches usu­ally in­cluded a front­line, a re­serve line and a sup­port line, which sol­diers would ro­tate through, usu­ally spend­ing only days at a time at the front.

Ei­ther way, daily life in the un­hy­gienic trenches was mis­er­able.

Heavy rain flooded the trenches, need­ing to be scooped out at down­times. Walls col­lapsed in a muddy mess that would freeze in the thick of win­ter and made mov­ing around with heavy arms and equip­ment a ter­ri­ble or­deal.

Toi­lets were im­pro­vised in the trench— go­ing out­side left you open to at­tack— and with no means to wash, and garbage and dead bod­ies pil­ing up in and around the ditch, the stench could be over­pow­er­ing.

“The rank stench of those bod­ies haunts me still, and I remember things I’d best for­get,” wrote English poet Siegfried Sas­soon, who fought on the Western Front.

Sol­diers also had to deal with the scourge of mul­ti­ply­ing rats whowould feed off these bod­ies as well as lice and flies.

If this wasn’t enough to drive en­trenched sol­diers to the brink of san­ity, the con­stant fear of death cer­tainly was.

Bar­rages of ar­tillery fire and ex­plo­sions in the trenches and con­stant sniper fire gave rise to the term shell-shock, the trauma and men­tal break­down suf­fered by many sol­diers on the Western Front.

“I knew a sim­ple sol­dier boy, who grinned at life in empty joy.

“In win­ter trenches, cowed and glum, with crumps and lice and lack of rum, he put a bul­let through his brain. “No one spoke of him again,” wrote Sas­soon in the grimly en­ti­tled poem Sui­cide in the trenches.

Food of­ten ar­rived cold, while bread was frozen or mouldy. For French sol­diers, it was their daily litre of red wine and cig­a­rettes that helped ease them through the day.

Morn­ings for both sides be­gan with a pre-dawn “stand to arms” where men would climb up on the fire-step, ri­fle and bay­o­net at the ready in case of a dawn raid.

Af­ter an in­spec­tion, break­fast would be eaten dur­ing an un­of­fi­cial truce be­tween the two sides, one of sev­eral such tacit “live and let live” agree­ments on the front­line.

Although the threat of dan­ger was never far, at­tacks were most likely to take place at night so days were ded­i­cated to re­pair­ing the trenches and other vi­tal jobs.

In quiet times, sol­diers passed the time tinker­ing with what­ever they could lay their hands on— wood, scrap fab­ric or bul­let cas­ings— to cob­ble to­gether lamps, pipes, jewels or even mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

Let­ter writ­ing and read­ing was a life­line, with 10 bil­lion let­ters and pack­ages ex­changed dur­ing the conflict, although many tried to hide the hor­ror of their daily lives from loved ones.

Night­time brought raids, trans­fers of sup­plies and move­ment of troops be­tween the

When the world is red and reek­ing, and the shrap­nel shells are shriek­ing, and your blood is slowly leak­ing, carry on


“The air is loud with death, The dark air spurts with fire, The ex­plo­sions cease­less are,” wrote an­other war poet, Isaac Rosen­berg, killed in 1918, in the chill­ing Dead Man’s Dump.

EN­DURANCE: Anzac forces en­dure the aw­ful con­di­tions of the trenches on the front line.

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