Clare Champion, Friday, February 13, 2004
The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. This week, Tomás Mac Conmara on life in the trenches during the First World War.
After the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, the German army was faced with retreat. They had failed in their objective to subdue the French in their initial attack, but rather than give up territory which they already held, the Germans decided to dig-in to protect themselves. Unable to dislodge the Germans from their trenches, the British and French forces did likewise.
As a result, the main feature of this war on the Western Front were the trench lines of both sides which extended from the North Sea coast of Belgium, south to the Swiss border.
It was often forgotten, until recent times at least, that tens of thousand of Irishmen fought and died in these trenches during the First World War, and it is interesting to examine what trench life was like for these Irishmen who fought in the “war to end all wars”.
All along the Western Front, the soldiers of the German and Allied Armies faced each other in a network of trenches from behind barbed wire fences. These trenches are famous for their appalling conditions, but it is not often realised just how complex and extensive they were.
The front line trench, the one closest to the enemy lines was usually about seven feet deep and seven feet wide. Each trench contained a firebay, a trench from where soldiers did their shooting, protected on each side by a barrier of earth and sandbags to absorb bullets and shrapnel.
Saps, or narrow shallow dug-outs, ran out at right angles from theses front line trenches. These were used as listening posts to gather information on enemy positions and patrols.
Communications between the front-line and reserve trenches were essential, and linking trenches were employed for this purpose. They allowed the movement of men, equipment and supplies to the front line and were also used to take the wounded back to the Casualty Clearing Stations, brought from the front line trenches by stretcher-bearers.
One tactic employed by both sides against enemy trenches was the digging of tunnels under No-Man Land (the area between opposing trenches) in order to plant mines under enemy positions. At Messines in 1917, it took 5 months to plant 20 mines under the German defensive positions, but when they were exploded an estimated 10,000 German troops were killed. Indeed, the explosion was so loud it was heard in London.
Conditions in the trenches for
soldiers were simply appalling. As the soil contained a lot of sand, and when
it rained the trenches became waterlogged. Often the men stood for hours on
end without being able to remove wet socks and boots, resulting in many soldiers
suffering from trench foot, an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and
insanitary conditions. In extreme cases feet would have to be amputated.
To overcome this problem, soldiers were issued with fresh socks and were told to change them twice a day, and Whale oil was sometimes used to grease their feet for protection.
Latrines, or toilets, were usually pits dug into a short trench, and were not places where men could linger, as they were usually targeted by enemy snipers.
To make matters worse, many men killed in the trenches were buried where the fell. If a trench subsided or new trenches or dug outs were needed, large numbers of decomposing bodies would be found. To add to the horror, these corpses attracted rats that fed on the bodies, and many grew to an enormous size.
Rats were also attracted by the soldiers food in the trenches. At the beginning of the war, soldiers were fed 10 oz of meat and 8 oz of vegetables per day. As the war progressed rations were cut, and the quality of the food declined, often reduced to stale bread and cans of bully beef. This was demoralising for the front line soldiers, as of course the officers were well-fed by comparison.
But the biggest enemy of the First World War soldier in the trenches on all sides was the war itself. The front-line was extremely dangerous with one third of all casualties on the Western Front being killed or wounded in the trenches, sometimes by their own artillery.
Snipers also caused terror. German snipers usually operated from No-Man’s Land where they hid at dawn, heavily camouflaged waiting for an enemy soldier to pop his head over the parapet. As a result, it was safer to use periscopes to peer across at the enemy.
However, soldiers did not spend the whole of the time in the trenches. The British Army worked on a 16 day timetable. Each soldier usually spent eight days in the front line and four days in the reserve trench. Another few days were spent in a rest camp that was built a few miles away from the fighting.
Throughout the war, attempts to gain ground from the enemy usually involved waves of men “going over the top” in full frontal assaults at the enemy trenches. As a result, most military offensives ended with few gains and enormous casualties. For example, at the Battle of the Somme, the Allies suffered 500,000 casualties, but only penetrated 12 km at most into German lines.
In another assault in June 1917 at Messines Ridge, Belgium, Major Willie Redmond MP for East Clare was fatally wounded in action. Many other men with Clare connections died in the war and are listed on the Clare Library website.
The trenching tool in the picture was donated to Clare Museum by Ciarán O Murchadha of Ennis.