Tommy, p.29Richard Holmes
However, let us not imagine that Thomas Atkins and his comrades thought about them nearly as much as historians do. When the Reverend Harold Davies joined his division as a padre on the Somme he observed that:
There is a certain difference in the interest which is taken in generals at DHQ and lower down in the brigades and battalions. At DHQ they were full of him and would talk of nothing else. In the battalion nobody talks of the general of the Div nor cares a hang about him. At present I am one of the very few in the 4th Bedfords who knows his name.140
And it is to this world in which red tabs counted for so little and comradeship for so much that we now turn our attention.
EARTH AND WIRE
A VIEW FROM THE PARAPET
It is a truth too rarely acknowledged that the British army was not surprised by that most visible characteristic of the Western Front, the trench. The 1909 Field Service Regulations declared that trenches were an essential ingredient of defence, and went on to warn that they must not be sited in exposed positions, should be provided with covered communications and backed by deep shelters for supporting troops.1 Infantry Training 1914 repeated much of this verbatim, and emphasised that all ranks should be taught ‘the general principles of the siting of trenches, the construction of overhead cover, and the circumstances in which trenches are required’.2 The July 1914 final examination at the Royal Military Academy included detailed questions on the entrenchment of an infantry company and a detached outpost, and the 1914 edition of the Field Service Pocket Book had diagrams of several sorts of trenches and covered gun positions, and a table aimed at helping an officer calculate how long entrenching a position would actually take.
Not only was the trench itself not new, but there was ample precedent for trench warfare. It was not invented in 1914, but had been a feature of sieges across the ages. The English Civil War song When Cannon are Roaring speaks of ‘Engineers in the trench/earth, earth uprearing’. Sappers, the traditional nickname for Royal Engineers (as well as the rank-title of the engineers’ equivalent of a private), derived their name from the business of sapping – digging zigzagging approach trenches in the formal siege of fortresses. In 1864–5 the Confederates burrowed a complex network of trenches around the Virginia town of Petersburg, and Union forces sought to deal with them in ways that would be familiar half a century later, and which included exploding a huge mine beneath them. Trenches were dug in Boer War sieges, and the Russo-Japanese War featured trench warfare on an even wider scale. Indeed, the war on the Western Front had much in common with a traditional siege, with men taking to the earth to shelter themselves from the enemy’s fire, and devising a variety of methods to make their own lives more comfortable and the enemy’s less so.
The Western Front soon went to earth. As early as August 1914 soldiers scratched ‘lying trenches’ with their entrenching tools, outlining an oblong 6 feet by 2; and rolling the turf forwards to provide some cover and a rest for the left arm to make the user’s rifle fire steadier. Early that autumn there were short sections of disconnected trench, simple and primitive by later standards and not unlike the two-man foxholes of the Second World War. By Christmas trenches were continuous where the lie of the land permitted.
What was new about the Western Front was not the simple fact of trench warfare, but its scale and duration. As we saw in the first chapter, a line of field fortifications ran all the war from the Swiss border to the North Sea. There was not, as one might perhaps think, a single line of trenches along which an individual could walk all that distance, because geography and man interposed obstacles. In parts of low-lying Flanders it was impossible to dig proper trenches because the water table was too high, and so both sides built up rather than dug down. Private W. G. Birley of 21/London recalled ‘breastworks built of sandbags instead of trenches’ at both Neuve Chapelle and parts of the Ypres salient.3 F. P. Roe agreed that:
the trenches were not literal trenches at all but were in reality sandbag fortifications all above ground. The terrain made it impossible to build dugouts in the parados and the only shelter possible was a shallow inlet in the sandbags of the parapet, promptly given the name ‘funk hole’.4
Second Lieutenant Edward Underhill, writing from Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, in November 1915, admitted that:
The conditions here are appalling. I never knew what mud was till I got here … We have had about three days continuous rain, and the result is the trenches are flooded and the country round is a sea of mud ankle-deep, and in some places today I have been over my knees in it. I took 150 men to do drainage work under the R.E.s on the communication trenches on the left of where we were before we came out. It was an endless, hopeless task. The walls had caved in in places, and as soon as the muck was cleared out it caved in again, and it all had to be done again. The fire trenches were 2 or 3 feet deep in water, and they were talking of abandoning them … All the time we were working this morning shells were bursting every now and then. And they were unpleasantly close too.5
Early in 1915 Lieutenant Aidan Liddell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wrote that the opposing lines in his part of the salient were only 40 yards apart: he saw ‘both sides hard at work building breastwork. German officer sitting in chair directing operations’.6 Ghastly conditions such as these, which made simple existence difficult for both sides, encouraged a certain live-and-let-live attitude which was sometimes a feature of trench warfare.
But not always. George Coppard, a machine-gunner, was at Festubert in the winter of 1915, and by then the German use of poison gas and the losses of Loos had increased bitterness. He remembered that ‘the front-line area was flooded and the communication trenches had vanished under water. There was no front-line trench. Instead, earthworks, consisting of sandbags piled on top of the original parapet, had to be made.’7 When Coppard’s detachment heard a German wiring party at work (he surmised that its members were probably careless because it was Christmas), they waded through thigh-deep water with a machine gun and set it up before firing a Very light which revealed around twenty Germans. The gunner opened fire while another member of the detachment put up another flare. ‘The flare burst,’ he recalled,
casting its glare on the tottering ghost-like figures as they fell. Swiftly, as if wielding a two-edged sword, Snowy plied the hail of bullets. Two Jerries ran onto their wire and were killed. The ground where the enemy had fallen was raked with fire, to finish off any crafty ones who might be feigning death. The second flare had just about burnt out as the firing stopped. The whole thing lasted no more than thirty seconds.8
Coppard’s comrades were relieved on their fifth night in the line, slopping back in their thigh boots on an exhausting ten-hour march simply to get out of the line. Roe thought that it took about two hours to cover the 200 muddy yards of his battalion’s frontage.
As better pumps and more ‘trench stores’ – such as duckboards and revetting timber – arrived, trenches could be improved. Gerald Burgoyne wrote how:
We have slightly improved our trenches by putting boards and fascines along the bottom of them. And in the worst places there are half tubs, with a bit of plank as a seat, nailed across. A man can sit on this and keep his feet fairly dry, or rather, out of the freezing mud and water.9
Although there were frequent complaints that the Germans often picked higher ground so that the water pumped out of their trenches ran in to the British, this was certainly not always the case. In November 1915 Frank Hawkings wrote:
Have been pumping all night and most of the morning with interesting results. The water has all gone into Fritz trenches, and suddenly this afternoon we observed small parties of the enemy leap out of their trenches, run along fifty yards and leap in again. We soon got busy with our rifles and laid several of them low.10
Even some areas of the front that were dry most of the time could be flooded by sudden heavy downpours. Hawkings recalled that at Carnoy on the Somme rains meant that:
Trench sides were revetted with timber supported by stakes or angle iron, frames of woven willow, or revetment hurdles – frames of timber lined with stout wire-netting which were ideal for holding back crumbling chalk. In Artois and Picardy trenches were generally drier than in Flanders, and the chalk which lay so close below the surface on the Somme meant that the trenches here tended to keep their shape better and required less careful revetting. But it was much harder to dig. Lieutenant Roe thought Somme chalk ‘perfectly damnably messy and intractable when trying to shovel it after rain’. However, he agreed that it did make good trenches. His battalion took over trenches from the French when the British extended their line southwards to the Somme, and he found them:
Very deep and dry with wide walkways between parapet and parados with very few traverses to make fire bays. The dugouts were large and deep and often dug under the parapet. As there was no constant vigilance the firesteps were not well maintained and therefore not continuous. I remember well a typically French macabre joke. Within the chalk wall at the entrance to my dugout was the top of a human skull which the French officer I relieved told me was so white and shiny because the French officers had got quite fond of it – they called it François and used to stroke it as they went in and out of the dugout.12
In the Vosges, towards the French-held southern end of the front where it was too rocky to dig proper trenches, both sides were forced to improvise with stone-built sangars, another term to add to a lexicon that few men in Britain would have understood in 1913 but which had become part of their common language two years later. Lieutenant Roe described how a trench system was laid out on the Somme in 1916.
The trenches … consisted of an organized system of front line, a support line and a reserve line all properly dug and extending one behind the other in reasonable parallel. They were connected by equally deep and well-dug communication trenches which at best were built in a zigzag design to prevent bullets and blasts of exploding shells from running straight down the communication trenches. The best made front-line trenches had traverses built back from the parapet into the trench itself and these were also designed to minimise the lateral extension of the blast. These were most effective if kept thick and strong.13
In an ideal world (and how un-ideal this world so often was) a fire trench would be about 6 feet deep and a minimum of 3 ft 6 inches wide at the top. A gently sloping parapet (from para pête, ‘protect head’) increased the height of the trench on the enemy side by about nine inches, with a slightly higher parados (para dos, ‘protect back’) on the friendly side. This arrangement enabled a man to walk along the bottom of the trench, on slatted wooden duckboards, with his head safely below the parapet: the duckboards generally covered the sump, a narrow drainage ditch which ran along the trench floor. But it did not allow him to engage the enemy, and this was, though it was easy to forget it, the reason for his being there.
In order to enable its occupants to look out of it a fire trench was furnished with a firestep. This stood perhaps 2 feet high and ran along the enemy side of the trench. It might have been formed when the trench was first dug, or built up later with sandbags, and with real luck might have duckboards, which made it drier to sit on. Private David Jones, who served in 15/Royal Welch Fusiliers on the Somme, tells us how:
The firestep was the front-fighter’s couch, bed-board, food-board, card-table, workman’s bench, universal shelf, only raised surface on which to set a thing down, above water level. He stood upon it by night to watch the enemy. He sat upon it by day to watch him in a periscope. The nature, height and repair of firesteps was of great importance to the front-line soldier, especially before adequate dugouts became customary in all trenches.14
It was often a bier as well, for any body left on the trench floor would inevitably be trampled on. When an assaulting party of Royal Welch Fusiliers on the Somme passed through the trench taken by the first assaulting wave, provided by another battalion, they found a dead subaltern decently laid out on the firestep and his surviving men in good order under the platoon sergeant, who was grimly confident of holding the trench. A man standing on the firestep of a well-constructed trench would have a narrow rest on which to support his elbows when firing his rifle, with the row of sandbags supporting the lip of the parapet just in front. The prevalence of sandbags in the manufacture of the parapet meant that the colloquial ‘going over the top’, for mounting an attack, was often replaced by the more intimate ‘going over the bags’ by those who had done it a few times.
Because the firestep ran along the enemy side of a trench, British or German, a trench could not be used by its captors immediately they seized it. It had first to be ‘reversed’, and a firestep constructed on the other side. It might be sliced into the trench wall, or made of sandbags filled with earth. But in any event there was no point in taking a trench unless one had shovels and sandbags to hand, and their carriage (usually by follow-up parties coming hard on the heels of the assault) demonstrates sound common sense, not the mutton-headed desire, so often identified by historians to make men as heavily laden as possible. The need to reverse a trench, a process which would take about ten minutes in an emergency and far longer if a respectable job was to be done, meant that very quick counterattacks were often successful: the counterattacking party could throw grenades into the trench from close range, and there was little its occupants could do to defend themselves.
The most common kind of front-line trench followed a Grecian key design, with sections of fire bay connected, by two right-angled bends, to short traverses. This arrangement meant that all but the heaviest shells bursting squarely in a trench would only kill or wound the occupants of a single bay. It also made it hard for an enemy who entered a trench to fight his way along it, for the defender would keep knife-rests – wire-wrapped timber with an X-frame at either end – which he could drop into a traverse to form a defensible block called a bomb-stop. ‘The proportion of this traversing, formed by bay and connecting trench’, observed David Jones, ‘varied considerably and might be angled or square, and exactly and carefully revetted, or be little more than a series of regularly spaced salients in a winding ditch’.15 It was impossible for a fully-laden man to get out of a fire trench without assistance, and there were two main methods of overcoming this problem. The first was by the construction of sortie steps and stakes. Stout stakes, preferably made of ash, were driven deep into the parapet, and in the trench wall below each one were two staggered toeholds, ‘with brick or stout board for foot’ – an arrangement which worked better on the training fields of Britain than in the real trenches of France where wooden ladders became infinitely more common.16
Behind the front-line trench ran another parallel trench, the ‘supervision trench’ or support line, at the very least gently zigzagged, but usually with bays and traverses of its own, and by 1915 there was generally another parallel trench, the reserve line, behind this. Short connecting trenches every hundred yards or so linked these lines; the whole arrangement, covering perhaps 300 yards from front to rear, formed a single defensive system. Sometimes, especially if the front trench was on a reverse slope, fire bays might be dug forward from it, each like a large letter T, with its crosspiece on the crest-line. Many trenches had saps dug forward from them towards the enemy. These often housed listening posts which warned of enemy movement or gave advance notice of a raid. ‘Casualties were very high,’ admitted Roe, ‘and the saps were almost always raided in order to wipe them out. Manning a sap was universally hated.’17 Lieutenant Charles Douie of 1/Dorsets would not have agreed. He positioned an advance post of a lance corporal and three privates, and, ‘before leaving I observed to the lance corporal that the post
Fire trenches were approached from the rear by communication trenches. Although these were intended for movement not for fighting, and might well have to accommodate stretcher-bearers moving in one direction and supports coming up from another, they still required either zigzags or gentler curves to limit the effect of shells bursting in them; a 1915 manual recommended the construction of machine-gun emplacements at the bottom end of straight runs of communication trenches ‘to repel enemy who may gain the fire trench’. Harry Ogle described the arrangements that the British inherited from the French when they moved down to the Somme.
The ground between the front line and the village [of Hébuterne] was cut up by long communication trenches and by support, reserve and old front and other lines disused. These had been captured by the French and we took over from them to find many bodies buried only thinly under earth and lime, some being within a yard of the trench side. The place was swarming with flies and rats and there were innumerable empty bottles. The French had named the trenches and we took them over complete with trench names painted on boards. The communication trenches, or to give them their much handier French name the boyeaux, had names of such heroes as Vercingetorix, du Guesclin and Jean Bart, famous men such as Pasteur, or battlefields such as Jena and Austerlitz … Sergeant Clarke says: ‘We are lucky up here. They are getting all our water through the Boy-oh Jeener into Trenchay Brisoux, and Trenchay Sour – it is flooded.’19
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