Life at the Front

The image of a soldier in a muddy trench is what many people visualise when they think of the First World War. However, most soldiers would only spend an average of four days at a time in a front line trench. Life in the front line always carried an element of danger. In active sectors, both sides would engage in aggressive trench raiding and the fire from artillery, machine guns and snipers would be a constant threat. By contrast, some sectors were quiet and relatively passive, with a ‘live and let live’ mentality. Soldiers in wet and muddy trenches were also at risk from trench foot, caused by continually wearing tight, cold and wet boots. If untreated, trench foot could lead to gangrene.

Trenches came into widespread use in 1914 as a way for soldiers to protect themselves against the firepower of modern weaponry. Over time, they developed into huge networks. Most activity in front line trenches took place at night under cover of darkness. During daytime soldiers would try to get some rest, but were usually only able to sleep for a few hours at a time.

Hot food was not supplied to front line soldiers until late 1915 and even then it wasn’t always a regular occurrence. Troops in the front line had a repetitive diet of tinned food, sometimes served cold. By November 1918 the British and Imperial forces on the Western Front required a monthly issue of 67 million lbs of meat, 90 million lbs of bread, 32 million lbs of forage and 2 million gallons of petrol.  When able to rest, they would try and shelter from the elements in dugouts. These varied from deep underground shelters to small hollows in the side of trenches.

The average day began with ‘stand to’ before dawn. Gathering their weapons, soldiers took a place on the ‘fire step’, and as the sun rose, fired towards enemy lines in a daily ritual called the ‘morning hate’. After breakfast, the men worked on chores, from sentry duty to trench maintenance, spending their spare time catching up on sleep or writing letters. The ‘stand to’ was repeated at nightfall before groups were sent into the treacherous and deadly No Man’s Land. Others fetched rations, went on sentry duty, or left the firing line altogether.

To keep pace with the demands of the war and help sustain morale, the British Army often rotated its soldiers around the trenches. So the bulk of a soldier’s time was divided between a range of specialist areas behind the front line, all of which was made safer by the ingenious design of the trench system itself. 88% of Britain’s soldiers survived to return home.

World War One was largely fought and won on land but this could not have taken place without the movement of ships. Command of the sea enabled the Allies to bring in the vital resources and manpower required to prevail on the Western Front and elsewhere.

In 1914 Britain had the biggest and strongest navy in the world. The Royal Navy had hundreds of ships and more than 200,000 sailors. Their role was to protect the British Isles and its colonies and to blockade the ports of enemy countries to try and stop the supply of food and other materials.

There were two battles of major significance in WW1. The first, the Battle of Dogger Bank, and the second, the biggest sea battle in history, the Battle of Jutland. The Battle of Dogger Bank was fought in 1915 in the North Sea halfway between Germany and Britain when the Navy successfully attacked the Germans by surprise. Germany’s huge amount of casualties (950 compared to 15 British deaths) and obvious defeat boosted the morale of the British public. The Battle of Jutland in1916 was the only major sea battle of the war and although Britain lost more battleships and more than twice as many sailors than Germany, it led to Germany’s decision to keep most of its fleet in home waters for fear that they would lose more ships. This decision led to an increase in covert underwater operations using U-Boats, which were to sink 50% of British shipping.