My dear Lucy, I know that I am not supposed to be writing to you right now but I just couldn’t help it; I need to express myself to you on everything that has been going on here in the trenches. The trenches are so cold at the moment; I wish it would stay this way though. It’s perfect right now, beautiful snowfall and this I am happy for, brings us back the old memories of me and you. Unfortunately it will not be like this forever, it will be summer in a while and that is going to be bad. I remember last year’s heat wave.
The rotten smell of those innocent bodies, just dreadful and those pesky rats will be coming out too, eating every bit of the remaining corpse, but thankfully, I am in the dig out of the trench to get away from the freezing, but memorable weather. It may not be a five star hotel, but god thank that I am still alive. I miss you all. I miss mom’s home cooking. I miss getting yelled at for not doing my job around the house. I would trade anything to get out of this trench. My feet are freezing and I have been sick for over a week.
I never want to hear the words “over the top” again. I’ve seen more any 17 year old should. I just want to come home. The food that we get here is horrid, but it’s always better to eat that than starve. The food here consists of stale bread, dry biscuits, unclean water and some beef but that is all we get, on top of that we have to also cook it ourselves, which is a total waste as we barely eat anything. I just finished digging out the trench and adding on the duckboards for preparation for tomorrow’s warfare. Digging the trenches is hard job!
It is the custom here for troops to take turn about in the front lines of trenches, one division taking a number of sections of the front trench for three days then moving back to the second line for another three days and then back to the third line, then back again to the front line. About once in six weeks they come back to the reserve lines for a rest. I have been up into the front line and just came back yesterday, conditions are not exactly pleasant there, but one feels they are doing their bit and finds out what our troops had to put up with during the past seven or eight months.
How some of them have stood it I don’t know. All the time that we were in the front line we were submitted to fire from the hostile guns and rifle men. The trench was very narrow, just room for two men to push by each other. In front of each trench is a parapet made of sandbags, these are more or less bullet proof, but afford little protection from shell fire. The height from the top of this parapet to the bottom of the trench is between six and seven feet and the trench at the bottom is not more than four feet wide.
There is a small ledge along the front on which one stands in order to fire over the sandbag and cut into the rear of the trench are the dugouts, these are small caves with room enough for two men to lie down in, there is space enough to sit up in one of these but not enough to stand up in. The men’s duties in the trenches are to keep up a more or less continuous fire on the German lines, which are about 150 yds away, and to pick off any of their men that show up, also to be ready to resist any attack that may be made.
All night and every night, every man has to stand by, none is allowed to sleep or to be in the dug outs, during the day one man in every three has to be on duty, taking their turn in shifts of two hours. The mud and wet are awful, there was just about a foot of water in the bottom of our trench and it rains all one day and night. Trench foot is a serious problem for us. It is a disease caused by the feet being constantly wet and cold. Conditions in the trenches in WW1 are perfect for the disease.
Troops are sometimes standing in water for hours, even days on end. Trench foot doesn’t need freezing conditions (unlike frost bite) and can occur in even quite warm climates, it is the coldness of the wet foot itself that is the danger. It can set in after just 10-12 hours if conditions for it are suitable. The feet become numb, swollen and turn red. Blisters and sores appear and the feet become blue. The sores become infected with fungi. Unless there is prompt treatment the whole foot can become gangrenous resulting in amputation.
To reduce the risks from the disease British troops are ordered to always carry three pairs of dry socks and to change them three times every day. And if the trench foot got worse sometimes even the foot has to be amputated. This is a really serious issue. The rats are Titanic in number and size. They are known to eat away at decomposing and dead bodies, and bother the wounded. They steal food and water from the soldiers, but if there is something that the rats had a positive effect on was warning.
Rats can sense when an artillery barrage or gas attack is about to be launched. A tell tale sign of this is frequent squeaking noises, and hiding amongst equipment or in bunks. They are VERY BIG and can have up to 800 babies in a lifetime! These rats have become very bold and attempt to take food from the pockets of sleeping men. Two or three rats are always found on a dead body. They usually go for the eyes first and then they burrowed their way right into the corpse. It makes me want to run away and hide somewhere away from all this havoc.
A day in the trenches begins with the Stand-to-Arms, a process observed by both sides in the Western Front. Before dawn, the soldiers are roused by their commanding officers, and they climb onto the firestep to guard against raids by the other side. Afterwards, we fire in front of them into the early-morning mist in a ritual dubbed the “morning hate,” to doubly unsure our safety at dawn. Sometimes, rum would then be issued, and soldiers use this time to clean their rifles, feats in the many trenches are muddy and dirty.
Officers inspect the rifles, and then breakfast is served. In quieter sectors of the war, the two sides would have a “breakfast truce,” in which breakfast can be peaceably eaten. After breakfast, the company commander inspects his men, and assigned duties to each man. These sometimes include repairing duckboards, refilling sandbags, and draining trenches using pumping equipment. At dusk, the ritual of Stand-To-Arms is repeated again, as it is thought that enemies will launched surprise attacks at dusk and dawn.
Afterwards, supply and maintenance duties are undertaken, such as the fetching of rations and water, or the patrol of No Man’s Land. Some soldiers were put on sentry duty: standing on the fire step of the trench and observing the enemy. At night-time, the army might rotate their troops. This process takes several hours sometimes. Shell Shock is the result of being exposed to artillery, bombardment, and other dangers of war. When a man spends enough time in the trenches or on the battle field, the sounds and sights of war eventually take effect on him, making him a mental mess.
As far as I know, there is no treatment for this following the war; people are unaware of this as a physiological issue and also that the results are that you are likely to be shot for cowardice. Night time in trenches isn’t typically very pleasant; as well as it being near impossible for us to get any sleep due to itchiness caused by lice, rats also scamper over them all through the night and temperatures drop to below freezing. Also, the soldiers very rarely have a bed to sleep in; we slept in dugouts made in trenches to protect us from enemy raids and we usually sleep on something hard and/or muddy.
Sometimes, certain groups of soldiers lead raids, and they usually resulted in death on both sides. Not everyone sleeps though; we get nightmares of what tomorrow is going to be like. “The water in the trenches through which we waded was alive with a multitude of swimming frogs. Red slugs crawled up the side of the trenches and strange beetles with dangerous looking horns wriggled along dry ledges and invaded the dugouts, in search of the lice that infested them. ” It is horrible if you ask me, it disgusts me. The only reason I stay here is because my fellow soldiers have become my brothers, my only family here. I feel thorough hatred towards our officers as they are so unfair, they sit in their chateau drinking posh wine, while we have to work here in horrible conditions battling for our lives. The Germans remind me of the nightmares I get and I can’t wait till we finally defeat them. The only reason I’m here is to save my life and so that our future is secure, it is very hard not having you here.
I feel very scared about going over the top tomorrow, you may call me a coward but it is really nerve-wrecking, seeing all those who were brave die in No man’s land, all those poor corpses that were left out to be eaten, not properly cremated, the sound of going over the top is enough but when you actually have to do it you can’t help but pray to god to rescue your soul, it is very, very difficult to convince myself, but I feel that if I don’t go over the top I will die guiltily while if I die in war, I will be respected.
My motivation here is the safety of our family. I hope to see you soon, safe and sound, keep yourself safe and tell the others that going to war is giving yourself to a murderer, I shall not say goodbye as I know we will meet very soon, my love to you and I hope you pray for me.