Essex Regiment & Essex Militia History

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Trench Life

While life in the trenches for soldiers could be VERY exciting during an advance or an enemy attack for the most life boredom and discomfort was the norm.

While the length of period in the trenches varied due to the war circumstances, periods tended to be about four days in the front line trenches, four days in the support trenches and then eight days in the reserve. 

Dawn was a favourite time to attack and so at dawn every day in the trenches the men were given the 'stand to' order which meant that they stood in the trenches with bayonets fixed ready to repel any advance. Stand to was the trench equivalent of a parade.

Once the German lives were scanned and no attack was forthcoming the order to stand down was given and another day began.

From then onwards sentries kept watch using periscopes and the stand to order was given if the German activity increased.

At all times in the forward trenches the men wore full uniform and carried their rifles. Any equipment that they were responsible for had to be nearby so that it could be quickly brought into action.

Daytime activity involved cleaning kit/ weapons, inspections, training and maintenance work on the trenches. In free time men played cards, wrote letters home and some with artistic talents made the trench art that we still enjoy today.

Meals were prepared in the trench on small trench stoves. Bread was brought to the front on a daily basis to supplement items like tinned corned beef, jam and hard biscuits.

Water had to make the hazardous journey through service trenches to the front in old petrol cans and so was at a premium.

Two of the most complained about problems were the weather and infestations.

Hot and cold weather could be unpleasant but both were bearable. The big enemy was rain which turned the trenches into ditches meaning that the men had constantly cold and wet feet. Duck boards were fitted to many of the trenches but at times of heavy rain they were unable to cope. The rain also turned the trench walls and floor into mud baths which coated the uniform and equipment. Water was at a premium and not available for washing muddy clothes.

Insect infestation was another problem. Men at the front suffered from lice which laid eggs in the uniform and when hatches caused severe irritation and sores which quickly became infected in the muddy wet conditions. One of the main pastimes was de-licing where men checked their uniform for lice.

Flies in the summer were another problem. Given the nature of war there was plenty of decaying flesh and waste products that provided great breeding sites for flies. The trenches on both sides were often covered in clouds of flies that caused little damage but great discomfort.

While full out attacks from either side were comparatively both sides carried out daily shelling  with mortars which targeted the trenches and heavy artillery that hit selected targets behind the lines.

Snipers were extensively used by both sides during the daylight hours and were universally feared and hated. A sniper would crawl out into no mans land just before dawn and lie camouflaged while scanning the enemy lines. If a head appeared above the parapet or was visible in a gap that was the invitation to shoot. The presence of snipers had a very restrictive impact on the behaviour of soldiers in both morale and activity especially in some of the smaller trenches.

Dusk brought another stand to parade following which tactics and life in the trenches changed.

Weather conditions and mud problems were unchanged with lice still a problem but flies less so and the snipers didn't operate in the dark.

The sentries now stood with head above the parapet rather than use their periscopes as these gave insufficient visibility in the dark. There was a risk from machine gun fire raking the trenches and hitting the sentries from guns that has been set up during the daytime but the system allowed the men to quickly duck into safety hence reducing casualties.

A third of the company was on watch, a third on standby and a third off duty where they were allowed to sleep. This was rotated during the night sharing out the risks and the sleep.

Dark provided the cover for manpower exchanges, rations to be brought forward, the injured and dead to be taken to the rear and maintenance of the trenches. It also allowed patrols into no mans land, wiring, mining and wire cutting parties and bombing raids to take place.

Then it was dawn and another boring day on the front began

Whether in the front line trenches, support trenches or  reserve the men became used to the shellfire and the other problems. Advances were infrequent and so boredom became the big enemy leading to discipline problems and risky behaviour.

Most men remember long boring periods punctuated by a few very exciting times.