The past few episodes I have talked about the battles that Canadians were facing early in 1915, but today I am taking a pause and looking at what life was like for the Canadian soldiers in the trenches. We all know that it was not a great place to be. There was mud, rats and the smell of the dead in No Man’s Land, not to mention the risk of death from the Germans on the other side.
The best way to describe life in the trenches was extended periods of boredom, with occasional moments of sheer terror mixed in.
Major R.J. Bateman of the 28th Battalion would describe trench life in a similar manner, stating quote:
“The shortest phrase I know of which attempts to sum up life in the trenches is Days of unendurable monotony with moments of indescribable fear. That phrase as far as it goes is a good description.”
For the soldiers in the trenches, the day began with the anticipation of a German attack. The usual time of attack was at dawn, so Canadian soldiers in the trenches would stand-to. This meant guarding the front line trenches against an attack. If the attack never came, the soldiers would then gather for their inspections, breakfast and their rum ration.
Through the rest of the day, it was typically a time for chores. This meant repairing duck boards, cleaning latrines, filling sandbags and conducting trench maintenance. During these daylight hours, it was best to conduct work below ground and away from the snipers who were looking for a head to poke up.
It wasn’t all work of course and there would be time for writing letters, gambling, reading and keeping a journal.
While rations could often be less than desirable, sometimes food was quite good for the soldiers. In one letter from an unnamed soldier printed in the Ottawa Citizen in March of 1916 wrote quote:
“For breakfast about seven in the morning we have tea or cocoa, bacon and bread and sometimes fish. Our dinners consist of a pound of good fresh beef, potatoes or bread or perhaps steak. For tea again we don’t’ do at all badly. We usually get bread and jam, biscuits and tea or cocoa. Generally, we do our own cooking on our trench fire but when there is a shortage of cooks, our rations are brought to us already prepared.”
Of course, steak was not something every enjoyed and often food was stale and wet rather than fresh and tasty.
For those who had just arrived in the trenches, like Private William Reed of North Vancouver, there was often more delight at being there but of course, as the days would go on that would change. Reed would write home in April 1915, quote:
“We have been in the trenches for three days holding a line of our own and it is not so bad as you would imagine. In fact, we had a fairly good time and enjoyed ourselves. I am now writing beside a cozy fire. We have in fact been comfortable and well treated everywhere.”
When night came, the danger did not disappear. At this point, the men would begin to do their work out in the open, moving out into No Man’s Land to repair barbed wire, dig trenches, gather bodies and more. The issue was that the Germans would patrol in greater numbers and would conduct raids or attempt to capture troops to gather the intelligence they wanted for an attack.
Lance Corporal J.N. Lynde would write in a letter home, quote:
“We were divided into two parties, one party being instructed to fill the sand bags and the other to carry them and re-build the wall. While ewe were in the act of laying down our equipment, the enemy opened upon us with four high explosive shells followed in about ten minutes with shrapnel. The first shell struck about ten feet from the men in the crater, completely burying their equipment and filling their eyes and faces with Earth…Believe me, it is some shock to stand in the open and get the after-blast of those shells.”
The rats were something that every soldier hated, and every soldier had to deal with almost constantly. Due to the food and waste in the trenches, the rats would become bloated and very brave when it came to getting food. It was not unusual to wake up to find a rat attempting to bite a finger or toe. The rats also spread disease and lice, which constantly irritated the soldiers.
Private Harold Saunders would state, quote:
“One got used to many things but I never overcame my horror of the rats. They abounded in some parts, great loathsome beasts gorged with flesh. A battalion of Jerrys would have terrified me less than the rats did sometimes. About the same time every night the dug out was invaded by swarms of rats. Once we drenched the place with creosote, it almost suffocated us but did not keep the rats away. They pattered down the steps at the usual time, paused a moment and sneezed, then got to work on our belongings.”
Merritt Powell would write home, stating quote:
“When I first went into the real trenches the rats and the vermin were, I believe, more a source of irritation to me than either the danger or the horrible picture of present-day warfare…I discovered that some rat with a well-developed appetite in dugout while on sentry duty watching the Germans had knawed an enormous loaf of French bread and gnawed another hole fully as large to come out of the pack. After that, rats and I were sworn enemy.”
There was also the game of killing rats in the trenches. Powell relates, quote:
“We usually passed the time killing rats with a bayonet. The rats will come right up to you if you do not move and I was watching a black one, they are all colors, climb up a piece of old galvanized tin. Just as I decided to napoo the rat, a ricochet bullet passed his head and went into a sandbag nearby my own head. The rat had ducked at the same time that I did.”
Private C.C. Street would write, quote:
An article on Dec. 14, 1915, would detail how terrible the rats were, stating quote:
“Most of the men back on short leave have complained more of want of facilities for cleanliness and the consequent torment from small deer than from the German attacks but it is now the rats that are becoming the principle grievance…For some weeks past the Germans have shown a tendency to diminish but the rats are on the increase. The houses, the cellars, the barns, the fields and woods, the tents and the trenches are besieged by them.”
Reverend Capt. B.W. Pullinger would relate the life of sharing space with rats and lice, many of whom were brave, especially at night. He would state, quote:
“There are lots of little things which take an interest in soldiers in France. Chief of these were the rats and the seam squirrels. The latter made sleep a considerable problem till the soldiers evolved a method of tricking them. It was necessary to turn a garment inside out, outside in, inside out until the cooties got tired and went to sleep. After which the soldiers could gain repose.”
Trench foot was another problem for soldiers. When it was cold and raining, soldiers would develop the condition that was similar to frost-bite and could often lead to gangrene and amputation.
Private Saunders would write about his own experience with trench foot. He said quote:
“My socks were embedded in my feet with caked mud and filth and had to be removed with a knife. Lack of rest became a torment. Undisturbed sleep seemed more desirable than heaven and much more remote.”
Trench foot was particularly bad when it rained or when it snowed. In one report from a week in November, more than 700 cases of trench foot were reported in the trenches.
A report published in the Ottawa Journal, with the usual war propaganda, would state quote:
“A most remarkable medical develop is the way soldiers are able to stand up to their waists in icy water for stretches of 36 hours without visible injurious results. Trench foot has been much in evidence but it is almost incredible how splendidly the mass of men went through the experience.”
Of course, as the war went on, soldiers would find ways to deal with trench foot and keep it off. General Arthur Currie would state in March of 1916, quote:
“The health of all the troops is excellent. So is the discipline and so is their spirit. Last winter we had a deal of trench foot to contend with but this year we have beaten it off. We now regard trench foot as significant of bad discipline. As a further preventive the men in the trenches all have rubber boots.”
As can be expected, companies would get on board to try and sell their products to families back home, using the dreaded trench foot as a selling point.
Wool Coat Sweaters would publish an advertisement in the Saskatoon Daily Star that would state quote:
“See that the boy who represents your family over there is plentifully supplied with warm knit things. Regulation yarns for army purposes obtained on the Second Floor.”
Troops would often try to remove the boredom of the trenches through things like trench newspapers. There were as many as 30 soldier-produced newspapers, which often gave a candid look at life in the trenches for Canadian soldiers.
One of the most anticipated events was when mail would come in, offering a glimpse at home that seemed so far away.
Reverend B.W. Pullinger, a chaplain who served at Flanders, would write quote:
While letters were always welcomed, something greeted with enthusiasm more than anything were cigarettes. One private would say in a letter that was printed on July 31, 1915 in the Montreal Gazette, quote:
“It is easy to do without food now and then because there are times when even in the trenches one gets tired of a steady diet of bully beef and Mulligan but to have to do without tobacco is a much more serious matter. I have been without food myself for a two-day stretch and scarcely noticed it because just at that time I had plenty of smokes on hand.”
Major John Pringle would state about the arrival of mail, quote:
“It is not the value of the parcel, but the fact that it is from home that counts>”
Boredom was something always present for the troops. Dr. E.B. Lang would write home and state, quote:
“I think there are probably three outstanding emotions, thrills, fears and boredom and the greatest of these is the last. The numbers of men for all the various units is based upon those necessary for a maximum effort, accordingly when the fighting is dragging along from day to day as it is now one can imagine how very many are idle a great part of the time.”
Of course, there was always the danger that death could come at any moment. Snipers could terrorize soldiers who happened to poke their heads up above the trench, and there was always the danger of shelling, gas attacks and full scale attacks from the other side.
One soldier writing home who was not identified states quote:
“The snipers were at work as soon as day broke. Having crossed one of our trenches, a German sniper mortally wounded one of my comrades. The poor fellow was carrying his own stretcher in turn and he fell headlong with a groan.”
Another soldier writes, quote:
“Along one stretch of front we were much puzzled by the angle at which the sniper’s bullets were coming over. On the left was a line of leafless pollard willows but we could see that there was nobody behind the trunks.”
Private CDB Whitby relates another story regarding the danger of snipers, stating quote:
“The ways of the German snipers are also very devious. One, for instance, gave this regiment in particular a lot of trouble. He had wormed his way out into the open, dug a rifle pit in the No Man’s Land between the opposing trenches and with a rifle fitted with a silencer, sniped merrily at relief and working parties. Food was brought to him by a white and tan dog. It was the dog that led to his undoing. Now the orders are to shoot any of the canine species seen around the firing line.”
Life was bad enough for the soldiers in the trenches that it was generally expected that infantry and machine gunners would lose 10 per cent of their total strength every month to death, wounds or illness. This was called the wastage rate and it meant that a 100-strong infantry unit would see 10 men killed, even if there was no formal attack.
Private A.G. Hall
For my soldier profile today, I am going to look at Private A.G. Hall.
From Brandon, Manitoba, he was one of the first to enlist from the community and he would leave the community to serve with the Eighth Battalion.
While serving with his battalion, he was gassed at Ypres but despite his injury he would not leave his battalion. A short time later at the Battle of Festubert, an exploding shell fell near him and severely wounded him in three places. He would crawl with a few of his comrades out of the trench and into a dressing station after also being hit by a gas attack.
Despite his injuries, he would choose to return to the front lines and his fellow soldiers.
Soon after, his battalion was ordered to make a bayonet charge on the Germans but the night before Hall would have been part of that charge, a German shell hit the parapet where he was, killing several of his comrades and wounding others.
He would again be sent to recover from his wound but this time he would carry a piece of the shell near his heart, something which would be very dangerous during that time. Upon arriving back in Canada, he was weak and in poor physical condition due to the effects of gas attacks, his several wounds and the long ocean journey.
Information comes from WarMuseum.ca, Global News, The Star Phoenix, Vancouver Province, Calgary Herald, The Winnipeg Tribune, Ottawa Journal, Vancouver Daily World, Sasktoon Daily Star,