Tommy, p.31Richard Holmes
‘Hallo, Evan, you’ve got a pretty bloody job.’ He said: ‘Bloody job, what do you mean?’ I said it wasn’t the kind of work I was particularly keen on myself. He said: ‘Bloody job – bloody job indeed, the army of Artaxerxes was utterly destroyed for lack of sanitation.’37
Trench latrine buckets would be emptied in nearby shell holes and their contents covered with earth, and chloride of lime with a light sprinkling of fine soil was thrown into deep-drop latrines. When conditions permitted latrines were inspected not simply by commanding officers and adjutants on their rounds, but by medical staff officers from higher formations. In 1917 Major G. O. Chambers, on the medical staff of the Cavalry Corps, having inspected the trenches held by 1st Life Guards, reported: ‘Latrines. Fly proof pails – sufficient in quantity. Urine tubs being in front of latrines in recess of trench – ground soiled with urine.’ He recommended moving them and installing ‘a splash board to prevent dripping’.38
When men were billeted in barns or houses behind the lines sanitary men were responsible for digging trench latrines in some convenient spot, maintaining them, and then either handing them over in good order to an incoming unit or filling them in. Men closer to the front line, but not actually in a forward trench system, enjoyed the comparative comfort of:
a row of cubicle-type opportunities … with a corrugated iron roof covered with sandbags, and with canvas partitions and a wooden seat over a bucket. These were built by sappers well behind the front-line trench but still well within the enemy’s artillery range. There were also the refinements of a canvas curtain across the entrance and a duckboard for the feet. There were substantial improvements but things did happen. One of the cubicles seemed to me one early morning to be overlong occupied so I took a peep and found a bloody shambles. The occupant of it was dead with a large hole in the back of his head due to a large piece of shell-casing which had come through the back. All the entrances of course faced away from the front line. The final type was more permanent in design and was at once euphoniously christened the ‘thunderbox’.39
Front-line latrines were no respecters of rank, but the hierarchy reasserted itself out of the line. Julian Tyndale-Biscoe recalled how, on his gun position:
One day … a shell hit the officers’ latrine, sending the screen flying. I was shocked to see a man still sitting there on the throne and I thought he must be dead. I ran as hard as I could and arrived to find Ellison up and adjusting his trousers. He said with a grin, ‘It was lucky that the shell came when it did as I was feeling a bit constipated.’40
With the proliferation of trench mortars in the British army from 1915 onwards special bays were required to house these short-range weapons. A purpose-built trench-mortar dugout was laid out like a letter E rotated forwards through a right angle. The mortar itself was in the right-hand arm, and the remainder was roofed in, with an ammunition bay in the central arm and a shelter for the detachment in the left-hand arm. Second Lieutenant Bryan Latham, who volunteered for the trench mortars to escape an excess of ‘bull’ in an infantry battalion, admitted that: ‘The infantry were not always pleased with us, as they claimed that with our playthings we excited the German mortars in retaliation, which the infantry had to bear, whereas we having done our firing were entitled to take refuge in the aforementioned dugout.’41
Trench-mortar detachments generally arrived shortly before battle commenced. For a small-scale operation on 16 June 1916, in which his fire plan was to commence with a bombardment of the German wire at 10.30 pm, Latham recalled: ‘I think we were all of us glad when a quarter to ten arrived, and we had to be up and doing.’ If there were no proper trench-mortar dugouts the weapons would be fired from short saps, and infantrymen, who were inclined not to welcome a weapon which generally attracted retaliation, sometimes sought to make mortar saps uninhabitable (or at least very unpleasant for the mortarmen) by using them as latrines.
A battalion’s aid post would be sited somewhere in its sector, probably opening off the reserve trench. Manned by the regimental medical officer, this was the first port of call for a wounded man, who would make his own way there or be carried in by stretcher-bearers. In mobile operations at the beginning and end of the war aid posts were set up in whatever cover was available. Arthur Osburn worked out of limestone caves at Paissy on the Aisne in September, and Lieutenant Cyril Helm, RMO of a/King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, found himself, appropriately enough, in the cellar of a doctor’s house at much the same time. Once trench warfare settled in, however, purpose-built aid posts were constructed. A favourite method was to use elephant iron – half-round sections of heavy corrugated metal – to roof short saps running off either side of a reserve or communication trench. The elephant iron, which was stout enough to take the weight of earth and sandbags, offered a measure of protection to the doctor and his orderlies, and to a small number of wounded on stretchers; the proximity to a communication trench made it easier for bearers to take stretcher cases on the next stage of their journey back. But an aid post had all too small a capacity, and in a major battle would speedily be clogged up with wounded as the doctor proceeded with the grim business of triage, working out which cases could wait, which required urgent evacuation, and which were beyond human help.
No overview of trenches would be complete without mention of the trench stores which formed the permanent fixtures of the place and were handed over (and signed for) when one unit relieved another. Each company would have a reserve of small-arms ammunition (SAA in the jargon of the day) and a grenade store, sited in small covered bunkers with prominent signs. Their contents were easily accessible in the event of a surprise attack, and could be made ready on the firestep or elbow-rest if there was time available. Captain H. Blair, commanding B Company 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, arrived in the front line on 21 June 1916 and was ‘filled with a haunting unrest. I sent my Sergeant-Major to have boxes of bombs placed on the firesteps and the pins pinched ready for use, boxes of reserve SAA too were to be ready to hand.’ He had just spoken to a sentry and an NCO when a mine blew up under the company’s position, leaving him unconscious and partially buried. However, his precautions enabled his surviving platoon to give a good account of itself.
When Gerry’s guns lifted we could see his men coming on in three lines … They made a lot of noise talking, and the white armlets they were wearing showed them up. We opened up with all our rifles and Lewis guns. We could see them being knocked over and carried away by their pals. They got confused, and hesitated, and made to come on in groups by the side of the crater. We fired wherever we could see anyone. One man came right round behind us; he was spotted by his armlet and was shot before he could heave a bomb. He said, ‘Oh, Mutter,’ when he was hit.42
A rocket stand was generally positioned just outside the company headquarters dugout, containing rockets which would be fired to tell the artillery that an attack was in progress, and requesting fire on the SOS target, usually the front of the British wire on the edge of No Man’s Land.
Barbed wire, originally devised to retain livestock in their fields, had first made its appearance in the American Civil War. It was widely used in the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars, and was available, albeit in inadequate quantities, to the British army in 1914. It became an almost inseparable feature of trench warfare. Axiomatically it should keep the enemy so far from one’s own trench that he could not simply lie on his own side of the wire and lob grenades into the trench. Each side controlled his own wire, repairing it, sometimes on a nightly basis, to make good damage done by shellfire or wire-cutting patrols. Wire was originally wrapped around stout wooden stakes hammered into the ground, but the weight of the wood and the noise of hammering alike suggested that there must be a better way. In 1915 all combatants introduced barbed-wire pickets, metal posts with a long sharpened corkscrew at one end and three loops along the straight section. These were screwed into the ground, and the wire was caught in their loops. They remain one of the most durable relics of trench warfare, a
Observe the corkscrew iron uprights. Great idea. Men follow on with coils of wire and place [it] through the eye holes. Very smart. I’ve had a go at it. This is a noiseless method instead of driving wooden posts in. Always has to be done at night.43
Angle-iron pickets, which had so many other uses in trenches, were also used for wiring, especially when, hammered well in and set at an angle, they were set at the end of runs of wire to maintain tension.
The layout of a barbed wire entanglement had an alchemy of its own, part art, part science. John Reith described the wire in front of his trench in July 1915.
Our plan of wire from the enemy’s side was as follows: low wire and tin cans; high apron; low squares and diagonals; trip wire; low apron; more trip wire; high apron; high squares and diagonals nearest the parapet. About ten yards of ground was wired in this way; it was pretty effective.44
A year later ten yards of wire would have been regarded as too thin, and in 1917 the German wire protecting the Hindenburg line was up to thirty yards deep – great wedge-shaped masses of rusty metal. David Jones noted that tripwire might be used almost independently: ‘Low strand-wire at about middle shin height, set some way apart from the main entanglement, often hidden in long grass.’45
Wire, British and German, was intended to blunt the force of an assault which might otherwise overwhelm the defence by sheer weight of numbers, to canalise attackers into the killing zones of machine guns (for which reason it often ran in long slants, rather than straight) and make it difficult for patrols or raiding parties to approach trenches. It could be snipped by wire-cutters which resembled large secateurs; cut with the aid of a steel clip which held it to a rifle muzzle so that a shot would sever it (a much-detested device), or by well-directed artillery fire. One of the essential requirements for the tank, which had made its first appearance on the Somme in September 1916, was the ability to crush wire, and tanks were issued with grapnels which permitted them to drag away whole sections of the stuff.
However, uncut wire was usually fatal to any mass assault, and one of the war’s enduring images was of the corpses of dead attackers held upright by the wire. Henry Rawlinson gave Lord Stamfordham a graphic account of the failure of the 21st and 24th Divisions at Loos: ‘From what I can ascertain,’ he wrote, ‘some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.’46 Harry Ogle’s abiding memory of the Somme was of bodies ‘entangled in or sprawling across the barbed wire, slumped over the remains of trench parapets, or half buried in the ruined trenches …’47 Second Lieutenant John Glubb saw a corpse at Ypres suspended in a climbing position, with ‘one foot raised and a hand stretched out … Except for the green colour of his face and hand, one would never have believed that he was dead.’48
In 1915 James Jack, looking at Rifle Brigade dead in front of his position, observed that many were ‘hanging on the German wire which they were trying to cut or surmount when killed; amongst them one whom I knew and is easily recognisable’.49
Even men on patrol, with the opportunity to pick their way through the wire, still found it a formidable obstacle, as Eric Hiscock discovered at Bellevue in 1918.
The light was bad (daylight had not yet broken) and barbed wire, which should have been cut by a patrol the night before, was our first serious barrier to success. I found myself faced with what looked like a fairly impenetrable obstacle and decided to crawl under it. The khaki-coloured cartridge-filled bandolier caught in the rust spikes and as I twisted to free myself, I felt the evil things bite into the collar of my tunic and into my shoulders. Agonised, I shouted to my companions who, as far as I could see, were all safely through the wire, but only Ramsden heard my cries. He turned, threw himself flat on the ground, and crawled towards me. Calmly, as though he had been rehearsing such a hazardous chore for years until he was move perfect, he pushed my head and shoulders down and lifted the wire up, then encouraged me with (and I remember it quite clearly) the words: ‘You were a silly little bugger to get caught up in this bloody stuff. You should have known better. Now keep flat on your belly and don’t look up. Crawl like a fucking snake.’50
Ivor Gurney, who served as a private in 2/5th Gloucesters, lamented a comrade ‘who died on wire, and hung there … A noble fool, faithful to his stripes’. When an officer urged Gurney to crawl through a ‘hole’ in the wire he was more circumspect.
… I smiled, as I politely replied – ‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen. Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes …51
Just as it was sometimes impossible to dig trenches, so too was it sometimes impossible to erect wire. Even that iron man Frank Crozier, as hard on himself as on others, realised that there was no need for wire on the blighted Somme battlefield in late 1916. I cannot be attacked,’ he declared. ‘I am in a muddy wilderness and between the enemy and me is a muddy barrier over which organised advance is impossible. I need no wire and even if I did I could not get it there.’ When his corps commander – ‘a goodly man whom I like and from whom I am subsequently to receive much kindness’ – came forward to Crozier’s headquarters to ask why he had put out no wire, he frankly admitted that he had only put up a single strand to stop men walking into the German lines by mistake. The corps commander good-humouredly riposted that the adjoining division claimed to have put out a great deal of wire, and so ‘the conference ends in gas, as such things sometimes do’.52
When Crozier was commanding 9/Royal Irish Rifles south of Ypres he offered a young officer, Second Lieutenant Army, who had lied about finding the gap in the German wire, the chance to redeem himself, in his eyes, by bringing back a sample of the wire defending the Horseshoe – a specific part of the German line. The following morning Army’s company reported him a casualty. It was only later that Crozier found out what had happened.
Army, I find, went forward on patrol, left his men lying down and went forward to the Horseshoe. There was a good deal of stray firing at the time and no unusual sound was heard. He simply disappeared. Nine months later, when Second Army launched its successful attack at Messines, over the very spot where Army fell, his skeleton and watch were found in a lonely furrow near the Horseshoe – for good luck, perhaps. He had died for more than a bit of wire. He had saved his soul.53
The area between British and German wire was No Man’s Land. Its width varied greatly. On flattish ground it might be as much as 3–400 yards wide (witness the great expanse of pitted greensward between the opposing front lines at Newfoundland Memorial Park on the Somme); but if the combatants were contending for a commanding feature and reluctant to give an inch it would be very much less, as the preserved Canadian and German front lines on Vimy Ridge demonstrate. Where No Man’s Land represented the high-water mark of an attack, British or German, it was often littered with old wire, shell holes and corpses. But in other areas, such as the Somme front before June 1916, it might be comparatively peaceful, overgrown with grass and untended crops.
The term No Man’s Land had been in use long before 1914 to refer to a piece of waste or disputed land, but during the war it acquired a significance all of its own. Although by definition No Man’s Land was held by neither side, patrols had to pass through it to reach the enemy wire and the trenches beyond. In some sectors No Man’s Land tended to be quiet, but in others it was regularly fought over: much depended on local custom and the preparedness of new arrivals to conform to it. Units, British and German, displayed variable degrees of hostility, with some sliding comfortably into ‘live and let live’, trying to avoid action that would elicit a hostile response and so ratchet up the level of local violence.
In one sector the Germans put up a sign begging the East Surreys facing them to ‘Chuck it’ when they broke an unofficial truce observed by their predecessors. In another a Bavarian cornet pl
Of course! That means German wiring. On the principle of ‘live and let live’ they take advantage of our preoccupation with our own wiring to do theirs … Work is in full swing, knock over there, answering knock over here like an echo, and no attempt to muffle or disguise the noise.56
No Man’s Land was always a permeable membrane, for individuals slipped across it to desert. A sentry in Frank Hawking’s company was astonished to discover a German in his trench: the man said that he had been a waiter in London, was ‘a great kamerad English’ and had been trying to surrender for some time.57 Five Prussian-hating Alsatians, whose province had been French till 1871, deserted to Edward Underhill’s battalion.58 The process worked the other way too, for a few British deserters, well aware that their chances of remaining undetected on their side of the line were small, ‘disappeared’ from front-line trenches and gave themselves up to the Germans. Deserters often sought to ingratiate themselves with their captors, and the success of a German attack on the bridgehead over the Yser on 10 July 1917 is often attributed to information volunteered by a British deserter. But the appearance of No Man’s Land gave no hint as to its secrets: to new arrivals it conveyed an air of latent, mundane menace.
Tommy by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes