Trench warfare

Life on the Western Front

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This link will take you to the BBC schools site with a virtual tour of the trenches:     BBC schools - the western front

 This link will take you to another BBC schools site   Life on the front

The New Zealand Division was sent to serve at the Western front from May 1916 onwards. It was part of 50 divisions which constituted the British command. The Division comprised 3 brigades, with each brigade having 4 battalions.

The Western Front ran roughly from south-west Belgium through north-east France. The "line" shifted as ground was won and lost. It was connected by trenches and protected by dense coils of barbed wire which formed the front line. Beyond this was 'no-mans' land - the distance between the warring sides. Usually this was 200-300 metres apart, but it some places ti was only 60 metres apart.

A maze of dugouts and bunkers were connected by trenches where each side had burrowed underground for protection from each other. The men lived in shelters made of corrugated iron and wood for weeks on end. There was little or no sanitation and drinking water was contaminated with mud and sewage. Hot food was a luxury.

The Front was a death zone - Men were torn to pieces by bombs and artillary barrages, If they were ordered to 'go over the top'  they had to head straight into the opposing enemy fire, across mud that clung to their boots and clothes and through the barbed wire defenses. Men were poisoned with gas, froze to death in the winter or died of sickness and disease.

Bombs destroyed exisitng field drainage causing the land to flood whenver it rained and the bombs and the passage of millions of men, horses and equipment turned it into an endless grey quagmire of mud pittd with shell holes. Artillary barrages ripped through the land destroying any vegetation. Only the blasted stumps of trees were any proof they had been there.

Conditions were so cramped that sometimes the men could only sleep with their heads and shoulders leaning over the trench parapet. Trenchfoot, frostbite and gangrene were rife. Everywhere there were lice that were impossible to eliminate as they spread from man to man. Dead men and beasts sunk into the mud and rats grew large as they gorged themselves on the endless supply of corpses. Many bodies were never recovered or identified - men were blown to pieces so there was nothing  left that could be identified, or a trench wall might collapse and bury them alive - or they could fall into the mud and be sucked down, unable to get up again

In the winter of 1917 conditions were made even worse by the heaviest rainfall in 75 years. During the battle of Passchendale soldiers had to wade through mud that came up to their thighs and were mown down by enemy machine gunners and snipers. Many got only a few metres from their trenches before they were killed. Those that did came up against the entaglements of barbed wire which were supposed to have been cut in advance by artillary fire. But the heavy guns had become mired in the mud and could not be moved properly into position. On the 12 October over 3000 New Zealand soldiers were either killed or wounded, still today our worst military disaster.

The damp, the cold, the ceaseless stink of decomposition and constant fear that terrorised them could drive men mad. But there was little sympathy for them. Desertion was punishable by firing squad. 5 New Zealand soldiers were executed for this reason. - All 5 were finally pardoned in September 2000. 23 others were courtmartialled for desertion, mutiny or sleeping at their post.

Usually men worked by night and tried to sleep during the day. Under cover of night men would dig trenches, mount patrols, repair sandbag defenseslay wiring and conduct trench raids - attackes where they fought the enemy in hand to hand combat as they attempted to destroy sections of enemy trenches and capture prisoners to interrogate.

At dawn, the soldiers 'stood to' waiting for the enemy to attack. If this didn't happen they were 'stood down' and if they weren't on guard duty or doing 'fatigues' (non military chores such as cooking) they would try to sleep. This was almost impossible because of the noise of others moving along the trenches, limited protection from the rain and cold and the endless torment of lice. Soldiers often survived on three or four hours of broken sleep a night.

The men were supposed to get a bath every 10 days but frquently this was not possible for weeks on end. 

If there was no major offensve planned units would spend 8 days in the front line and 8 days 'rest' in billets behind the lines. Here they would be billeted in groups of about 230 or 40 at local factories or farm buildings such as barns or even pigsties.  

When possible the men relaxed with sports days, rugby competitions and films and concerts. Each battalion had it's own band. Soldiers could buy beer in cap canteens or alcohol and meals from local 'estaminets' (small cafes). The army provided rations of term and cigarettes. Gambling was banned but dice and coin betting games such as Crown and Anchor and Two Up were played on the sly. 

Patriotic societies and organisations such as the Salvation Army, church groups and the Red Cross all fun- raised to provide comfort parcels with chocolate, tobacco, knitted socks, and toothpaste for the soldiers. Associations like the YMCA established huts for the men in France and Belgium that supplied comforts like hot drinks, biscuits and newspapers.

Food made from army bully beef and army biscuits,which could be so hard that men broke teeth on them, was supplied where possible from the cookhouses established in the support trenches behind the front line and were delivered to the front line in insulated containers.

About once a year if the men could be released they were granted leave back in Paris or Britain.

With thanks to the family of Rifleman Maurice O'Connell, and to the article written by Briar Corson for much of  this informationp