Dirt, discomfort and disease

The men serving in the trenches of the Western Front endured conditions we can barely imagine.

Heavy rainfall on ground churned by shell explosions turned it to slimy, sucking mud in which men and horses could become stuck and sometimes drown. The trenches themselves often flooded and had to be pumped out. Newcomers approaching them were hit first with the terrible stench: the smells of overflowing latrines, unwashed men, stagnant mud, cooking food, poison gas, cordite, hastily buried decaying bodies and chloride of lime (used to counter infection and bacteria). After a while, though, most people stopped noticing it.

Permanently wet boots and socks caused many to suffer trench foot, a fungal infection that can cause gangrene and lead to amputation if not treated promptly. The condition became less common as the war went on, as the Army installed duckboards in trenches, required regular foot inspections and issued rubber boots.

Lice (known as ‘chats’) infested everyone. Attempting to get rid of them (‘chatting’) was a common communal pastime – often by passing a candle flame along clothing seams, which made them pop. Lice could cause typhus as well as trench fever, which brought on severe headaches, muscle pain and shivering.

Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier, 1915. © IWM (Q 51569)

Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier, 1915. © IWM (Q 51569)

The filthy conditions drew rats, who flourished and bred in their millions. They grew bold and large from feeding on corpses and discarded food. They would steal food from the pockets of sleeping men and sometimes attack the wounded. One Army private later wrote:

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…. About the same time every night the dug-out was invaded by swarms of rats. They gnawed holes in our haversacks and devoured our iron rations. We hung haversacks and rations to the roof, but they went just the same. 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, and then got to work on our belongings. A battalion of Jerrys would have terrified me less than the rats did sometimes. — Harold Saunders, Trenches at Vimy Ridge

Machine guns firing up to 600 rounds a minute and shells exploding into jagged shrapnel caused horrific wounds. The heavily manured agricultural soils on the Western Front were full of bacteria, and wounds often developed tetanus infection and gas gangrene from contact with the ever-present mud. Poison gas, introduced in 1915, could cause suffocation and terrible blisters.

Soldiers serving on the front line endured all of this in a sleep-deprived state – induced by the noise of artillery bombardments, the cold and wet conditions and the threat of the death penalty if they were caught sleeping on duty.