Thursday, 3 March 2016

'We go rocking along the trench, tired out, foot sore, bathed in sweat'

Trench life was a test for even the strongest
'There are things a thousand times worse than German shells to put up with here,' wrote Private Stanley Goodhead from the trenches of France in March 1916 ... and his fellow soldiers would have been quick to agree.

For although the enemy they faced across No Man's Land threatened life and limb, it was a collection of far more insidious 'adversaries' that made life in the trenches at times almost unbearable. Relentless hard work and insufficient sleep were 'enough to break the strongest man', confided Goodhead in a letter to his father. Lice were also an ever-present aggravation that constantly tested soldiers' patience and morale.

And so-called 'trench foot' was a painful condition that blighted the waking hours of many a soldier in the waterlogged conditions. 'My foot is rather bad again for it does not get a fair chance to heal up as we wear high jack boots and do not take them off for days and days together,' wrote Private Goodhead, a soldier with the Manchester Pals whose letters feature in my book Letters from the Trenches. 'Consequently my feet swell terribly and cause friction on the sore parts, the toe and the heel.' Warming to his theme, Goodhead continued to his father: 'I will give you all a slight idea of what a turn in the trenches means:
"We leave our billets, a bed of mud and straw and a roof covering through which the stars may be counted, at dusk, as the road to be traversed is under fire. Company after company, battalion after battalion at 200 yard intervals take the road and I should say what was once a road but is now a river of mud and slime.

"We march with full pack for three miles and then comes the order to halt and at a certain shell wrecked farm we are issued with a pair of jack boots per man and our others are slung on our backs which help to add to the already heavy pack. We only have a few minutes as time is precious and then we wade mostly in shell holes for another one and a half miles to the final line of communication trenches and then our troubles truly begin.

"By this time we are in a single file and each man has to keep the man in front always in view or earshot, as messages are continually going up the line and each man warns the other of any particularly bad part of the trenches or of any deep sump hole. In this way we go along rocking from side to side of the trench, tired out, foot sore, bathed in sweat with the weight of the pack coated with mud from the sides of the trenches and cursing the Kaiser and his men at every step. In 40 minutes from entering the trenches we arrive at the firing line in an exhausted condition and the relief is quietly carried out, as each man knows his sentry post or if he does not there is bother for him.

"Our platoon is a small one and every man is needed for sentry so there is no time for any man to go and rest in a dugout and we cool down on the fire-step. There are six men to a post, two keeping a sharp look out through the darkness, two sitting on the fire-step and their heels, and two trying to get a snatch of sleep down in the trench below with their rifles in their hands ready to help their comrades when kicked. In this manner each squad of six men work the posts at intervals changing every two hours and the only chance of sleep at all is when down in the trench, but he is a good man who can manage it and I might say there are very few who do. 

"This night sentry continues from 8pm to 5.30am the following morning when only two are left on sentry, the remaining four being allowed to see the dugout for the first time and have breakfast, very often consisting of a biscuit and small piece of cheese and a gill of almost cold tea.  After breakfast, which occupies two hours, the work starts for the day.

Soldiers snatch a rest in trench dugouts
"The working party is told off [sent] to a particularly bad part of the trench and the pumping and baling out of the slime and mud goes on till dinner (stew). One hour for dinner, and this over work, continues till dusk (evening stand-to) when cold tea is served with a biscuit. Then the night sentry posts are told off again and things go on the same as the preceding night with the same man on duty.  This continues for four or five days together so you will understand that when we are relieved we are thoroughly worn out and weak and in no mood for letter writing or anything else.

"We never take any clothing off or boots all the time in the trenches and always have to wear the skeleton equipment and the rifle never leaves our hands. Of course there are a thousand and one more things to put up with but I have given you a few inconveniences. I am trying to keep cheerful through it all and hope to come through all right. Now I shall have to close as my candle is nearly finished."
 You can read more of Private Goodhead's letters, describing life on the Western Front, in my book Letters from the Trenches.