By Nathan Mohr
In Warner Brother’s latest film release, Wonder Woman, which is set in World War 1, there is a moment halfway through the plot in which the titular hero, Diana Prince, is faced with the bleak hopelessness of trench warfare on the Western Front. Frustrated at the suffering of innocent people around her, she takes action, hopping up out of the trenches and charging the German defenses, inspiring her comrades to join her and win the day. It is a powerful moment, but unfortunately, the grim reality of trench warfare was quite different.
Few things define the Great War more than the existence of trench warfare. By the summer of 1917, the war had been raging for almost three years, and there had long since ceased to be much movement on the Western Front. Following the many declarations of war by the nations involved, there had been a brief time in August and September of 1914 where there were clashes of great armies marked by massive casualty counts and significant troop movement. This, however, soon ceased in favor of defensive warfare, defined by long and complex systems of trenches where the men on the front line ate, slept and fought. John Keegan writes of the logistics of the trenches; “Yet there was no standard trench system. The pattern varied from place to place, front to front, the design depending on the nature of the terrain, the ratio of troops to space—high in the west, low in the east—tactical doctrine and the course of the fighting which had caused the line to rest where it did.” As the war extended, secondary trenches were dug, as well as communication lines. Although the German trenches typically tended to be better constructed and offered more comforts, no amount of convenience could disguise the harsh reality of life in the trenches. This shared suffering by both sides was not separated by a great deal of distance. No Man’s Land, the unforgiving terrain full of barbed wire and shell craters that lay between the trenches, was usually two to three hundred yards apart but was less than twenty-five in some places.
For a soldier taking his turn on the Western Front, even the act of getting to the front line was a grim experience. Alistair Horne, describing the situation at Verdun, writes of that awful journey to the front; “In the darkness … the columns trampled over the howling wounded that lay underfoot. Suddenly the trench became ‘nothing more than a track hardly traced out amid the shell holes’. In the mud, which the shelling had now turned to a consistency of sticky butter, troops stumbled and fell repeatedly … Sometimes there were duckboards around the lips of the huge shell craters. But more often there were not, and heavily laden men falling into the water-filled holes remained there until they drowned, unable to crawl up the greasy sides. If a comrade paused to lend a hand, it often meant that two would drown instead of one.”
Once at the front line, the men had to deal with a number of different factors that made life particularly appalling. The aforementioned mud was a constant issue, particularly in 1917 at Ypres and Passchendaele. It drizzled continually in this region for the entire month of August, leaving the ground a quagmire from which it became a chore just to carry on daily living. This was a regular problem throughout the war, and one Frenchman wrote: “… the communication trenches are no more than cesspools filled with a mixture of water and urine. The trench is nothing more than a strip of water. The sides cave in behind you, as you pass, with a soft slither. We ourselves are transformed into statues of clay, with mud even in one’s very mouth.” With the ever present water filling the trenches, men developed a condition called “trench foot,” which was similar to frostbite, and in some cases led to amputation. On the British side alone, over 74,000 men developed trench foot or frostbite over the course of the war. 
The natural filth that accumulates from large bodies of people living in cramped, unsanitary conditions also attracted vermin, primarily rats and lice. The rats were a perpetual nuisance, feeding off the corpses of dead soldiers and reproducing in large numbers. One Canadian soldier described them as “Huge rats. So big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn’t defend himself.” In addition to stealing and contaminating food and eating the dead, they brought disease, primarily a condition called leptospirosis, which brought on jaundice and fever among other symptoms. The lice were equally a pestilence, burrowing in the clothing of the men and leaving them in extreme discomfort from which there was no relief. They also carried disease, including a condition called trench fever, which was not fatal but did require treatment and took men away from the front.Of course, the mud, rats, lice, and disease were only minor discomforts compared to the other dangers of the front, primarily constant artillery bombardments sporadically interrupted by charges across No Man’s Land which usually resulted in.
Of course, the mud, rats, lice, and disease were only minor discomforts compared to the other dangers of the front, primarily constant artillery bombardments sporadically interrupted by charges across No Man’s Land which usually resulted in the loss of life but little strategic gain. The artillery bombardment served the dual purpose of being at times both dull and deadly. Ernst Junger, a German soldier, wrote of one such bombardment that “it got a bit boring.” He detailed the travails, however, of bombardment afterward by noting, “The trench looked awful; whole stretches had caved in, five dugout shafts had been crushed. Several men had been wounded … A body lay in the trench, covered by a tarpaulin.”
These bombardments were usually followed by an attack over the top by one side or another, which often resulted in failure. British writer Edmund Blunden described one such attack: “We come to the wire which is uncut, and beyond we see gray coal-scuttle helmets bobbing about … and the loud crackling of machine-guns changes to a screeching as of steam being blown off by a hundred engines, and soon no-one is left standing.” In the smoke, with artillery shells falling, machine guns roaring, and men dying, soldiers became confused and if they reached the opposite trench at all, they lost track of their objectives, negating the impact of their progress.
It is hard to understand, in retrospect, how men lived for years under these conditions. Horne writes “Modern imagination quails at the thought of human beings living month after month like rodents below in the earth” and indeed, it is difficult to understand how men kept their sanity. Many did not. The hellish conditions of trench warfare came to represent in no small way the harsh impact that this war would have on its participants.
1 Keegan, John. The First World War. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998). Pg. 176
2 Ibid, pg. 176.
3 Horne, Alistair. The Price of Glory. (New York: Penguin Books, 1964.) Pg. 187
4 Ellis, John. Eye-Deep in Hell. Trench Warfare in World War I. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 1976.) Pg 47
5 Ibid, pg. 49
6 Ibid, pg. 54
7 Junger, Ernst. Storm of Steel. Trans. by Michael Hoffman. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004.) Pg. 126 8 Ibid, pg. 127
9 Ellis, pg. 94-95
10 Horne, pg 69
Nathan Mohr is a writer and speaker living in Edwardsville, Illinois.
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