Soldiers on each side lived in opposing trenches dug a few hundred metres away from each other. Men were killed in their millions, and those that lived had to cope with the appalling conditions.
Life in the Trenches
Much of the fighting in the First World War was carried out via trench warfare. Soldiers on each side lived in opposing trenches dug a few hundred meters away from each other. The space between was called No Man’s Land.
Trench life was dangerous and dirty, but also downright dull. Men were killed in their millions, and those that lived had to cope with the appalling conditions. Let’s explore what life was like in a trench.
The enemy could attack at any time, so soldiers worked in shifts to keep lookout. This could be tiring work, but sleeping on the job was considered a serious offense – punishable by death or imprisonment.
As well as being ready to kill or be killed, soldiers’ duties included cleaning weapons ready for inspection and carrying out trench maintenance such as repairing barbed wire and trench walls.
Many soldiers suffered from trench foot, an infection caused by prolonged standing in damp, muddy conditions. Their feet would become numb and turn blue. Soldiers with serious cases would have to have their feet amputated.
Treating the Injured
A soldier shot down in No Man’s Land is attended by a Royal Army Medical Corps stretcher bearer. Though the wounded man has fallen into a shell hole (a crater produced by artillery), which offers some protection, the medic is risking his own life by treating him.
After initial treatment, soldiers could be sent to Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) temporary hospitals. Some soldiers gave themselves injuries – known as “Blighty injuries” – in the hope of being sent home.
The first priority would be to get the soldier to the safety of the trench. This was not easy – stretcher bearing was dangerous and awkward. Wounds had to be carefully cleaned – dirty conditions meant that infection was likely.
Medics were given a standard medical kit, but during the war new kinds of weapon, such as poison gas and flamethrowers, were developed, which made treatment more difficult. Soldiers were also affected by psychological trauma, known as “shell shock”.
Medics faced life-or-death decisions. For example, could the wounded soldier be healed? Was it worth the risk of rescuing him? A medic was responsible for the health of all soldiers – he could not sacrifice himself for just one of them.
“Shell shock” was a disorder caused by extreme stress – known now as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It puzzled doctors, who attributed it to exposure to exploding shells. There was little sympathy for victims – some were even treated as deserters.
As the First World War began, generals anticipated a short war fought on open battlefields. But the effectiveness of standard-issue rifles, pistols and bayonets proved limited in trench warfare, and new, deadlier weapons were introduced as the war progressed.
Machine guns killed thousands of soldiers, who stood little chance against their rapid, relentless fire. Poison gas was used as a weapon, the only defense being a gas mask. The development of tanks and aircraft changed how future wars would be fought.
Rifles – usually Lee-Enfield rifles – were issued to British soldiers on the Western Front. A rifle could be fired at targets up to 1000 metres away. Bayonets – long blades – were often fixed to rifles for close-up fighting.
Grenades are small, hand-thrown bombs. Soldiers pull out a pin before throwing them, following which there is a delay of a few seconds before they explode. A grenade landing in a trench could kill or wound many men.
Though prohibited by international convention, both sides in the First World War used poisonous gas, including mustard gas. The soldiers carry gas masks in canvas bags and one man has a gas rattle to warn others of attack.
When the war began, soldiers wore cloth or leather hats offering limited protection. Steel helmets were introduced in 1915. This soldier wears a Brodie helmet – often called a “salad bowl” – with an adjustable screen to protect his eyes from shrapnel.
Every soldier has his own haversack. This contains personal items including a mess tin (lunchbox), knife and fork, food, shaving kit, spare clothes and a waterproof groundsheet (for sleeping or sitting).
Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
These soldiers are wearing the uniform of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), a Scottish regiment with a history dating back to the 17th century. During the First World War, the Cameronians were represented by 27 different battalions. More than 7000 Cameronians died during the war.
The regiment was present at all major engagements on the Western Front, including the Battles of Ypres, the Somme and Mons. Cameronians also served at Gallipoli (in modern-day Turkey), in Egypt, in Palestine and in Macedonia.
The Cameronians’ 27 battalions each consisted of around 1000 men, led by a Lieutenant-Colonel. Battalions formed brigades (3500 men) alongside other regiments, under Brigadier-Generals, and brigades in turn combined to form a division (12,000 men), led by a Major-General.
The soldiers look at plans for capturing La Boisselle, a village in France, in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme – the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front and one of bloodiest battles in human history.
Even though the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) were a regiment, not all of the individual battalions served with each other. In fact, some animosity existed before the war between different battalions.
Going Over the Top
First World War soldiers would have dreaded the order to go “over the top”, i.e. leave the relative safety of their trenches, cross No Man’s Land and attack the enemy. First, an artillery barrage would prepare the way, bombarding enemy defenses.
As the soldiers charged forward they were sprayed with machine-gun fire and bodies fell all around. This was not an effective method of capturing ground, and the survivors would have to regroup and try again, often with little success.
"Gunner CJT Johnson: “Slowly it seemed the minutes crept to Zero minus 5 – Then 4 ‘Hook your lanyards’, 3, 2, 1 – FIRE! – Boom! – Scrunch! – Red-Black-Flash! – the quivering of the ground and the deafening crumps and spurts of earth and the smoke.”"
Corporal Edward Glendinning: “For the first 200 or 300 yards, there wasn’t a great deal of firing. But all of a sudden they opened up on us with terrific machine-gun fire… we were getting fewer and fewer as we went on.”
No Man’s Land
C Arthur: “In reaching the German front line we found the troops in the act of relief and so crowded they couldn’t use their rifles properly so we had an easy time standing on their parapet and shooting down into their trench – the slaughter was pretty awful.”
Death and Destruction
Corporal Edward Glendinning: “The sight that met our eyes was quite unbelievable. If you can imagine a flock of sheep lying down sleeping in a field, the bodies were as thick as that. Some of them were still alive, and they were crying out.”
Researching the Trenches
The scenes of trench life in this expedition were recreated at Digging In, a project building a reconstruction of sections of Allied and German trenches in Pollok Park in Glasgow, Scotland. The reconstruction was the work of a large team of archaeologists, historians, teachers, engineers and re-enactors.
The trench construction was based on a number of sources, including archaeological excavations in France and Belgium and first-hand historical records, including diaries, letters and interviews.
Digging In conducts research into what trenches looked like and how they were built and maintained. An engineer converts field manuals issued to troops into technical drawings, and ensures the trenches are authentic but safe for public access.
The reconstructions draw on information from the excavation of trench systems along the Western Front, helping archaeologists to compare what soldiers were instructed to do by their field manuals and what they actually did under particular conditions.
The project uncovers stories of individual wartime experiences – not only of combat but also those of medics (including the Scottish Women's Hospitals), conscientious objectors who served as stretcher bearers and ambulance drivers, home front factory workers, political activists and journalists.