Mr. Isaac's Social Studies Site

TRENCHES EXPOSED

NO MAN’S LAND

 No man’s land was the strip of land between trenches that both sides sought to control. The name itself was coined on the Western Front (the line of battle created as Germany pushed west into France and Belgium) during the First World War, where the area between opposing lines was so hotly contested that no man could live there for very long.

 During the First World War, no-man's land was an ugly pockmarked place littered with the human and material debris war. For an entrenched army, no-man's land served as the frontier of its defenses and enemy territory to be captured by assault. Occasional frontal assaults left bodies, wreckage, and a barren landscape, but defensive obstacles – including large installations of barbed wire – were the predominant physical features.

 Ironically, no-man's land was also the site of some of the friendliest scenes in trench warfare. In many instances, the proximity of death and the enemy led soldiers to help insure their survival by striking an informal deal with the enemy. Fraternization was very common in trench warfare, and most often took place between the lines. Opposing soldiers would agree upon the terms of combat in order to mutually reduce their chance of being killed.

For example, on the Western Front, many areas had an unspoken understanding that all combat would cease during meal times. The most spectacular example of fraternization in trench warfare occurred in December 1914, on the Western Front. German and British troops, without the approval of the senior commanders, held a truce to celebrate Christmas.

LIVING CONDITIONS

Soldiers on the front line lived in an atmosphere of unbreakable anxiety. They faced both natural and man-made perils. In addition to the unique stresses of trench warfare, soldiers struggled against the local wildlife, and the conditions of the battlefield. Unlike traditional battles where conflict is constantly moving from one location to another, participants in trench warfare were left to live in the conditions that war creates.

Soldiers in the trenches were exposed to heat, cold, rain, and snow.  On the Western Front, constant rain in Flanders created miserable conditions where trench foot and pneumonia was common. There were reports of horses drowning in mud and wounded men sinking into the mire before they could be rescued. One soldier wrote that it was impossible to get clean, because the nearest mud free water was at least a mile away.

They were also exposed to the inhabitants of local woods and fields. Over time, the litter of the front lines attracted all sorts of creatures such as rats, lice, and insects. They were attracted to human waste, rotting corpses, and the litter that hundreds of thousands of men living in a confined area can create.

The possibility of sudden death made living on the front-line a nerve wrenching experience. Every soldier in the trenches knew that at any given moment an artillery shell or sniper’s bullet could instantly kill him. In 1916, Siegfried Sassoon wrote of an impersonal death from artillery, "The cheerless monotony of their hourly insecurity, a monotony broken only by the ever-present imminence of death and wounds - the cruelty and malice of these things that fall from the skies searching for men, that they may batter and pierce the bodies and blot the slender existence."

The Trenches – What They Were Really Like

Paul Fussell, University of Pennsylvania

The first thing was it smelled bad. It smelled bad because there were open latrines everywhere. There were bodies rotting everywhere. Nothing could be done about them…It's hard to imagine people living for years in the middle of that smell. That's what they had to endure.

 

For the most part there were no bunks, no places to lie down when you weren't on duty; so you lay in the mud, in a hole cut in the side of the trench, or in a dugout if you were an officer.

 

The best time for attacking was the early morning; partly because you have the advantage of darkness in forming the troops up. You also have the advantage of a full day in which you can prosecute the development of the attack before it gets dark again…In the darkness as dawn was just about to open up, they would each stand on their firing steps in the trenches. You stood there with your loaded rifle waiting for an attack from the Germans. The Germans did the same.

 

When it was fully light, and it was clear that no attack was going to happen that morning, you stood down and had breakfast. Eating it on the firing trench, which was like a building bench in the trench you were occupying. Then there's nothing to do all day, except listen to the bangs as the shells went off everywhere.

 

The object of each side was to try to put mortar shells into the enemy trench and blow it up, or kill the people in it. So there's constant noise and bombardment all day long. Now one couldn't stay forever in the trenches. You stayed usually about a week. Then you were rotated back with another unit, and a fresh unit came up for its week of trench duty.

 











 

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