World War One, also known as the Great War, was a war that would change all wars. Never in the history of humanity had there been a war fought in such a manor, and it would change the way all wars that followed it were fought. World War I was expected to be a relatively short war, as those in the past had been, and a war of great battles and movement. However WWI was typified by its lack of movement, years of stalemates and “great battles” that turned out to be massive slaughters where hundreds of thousands of men died for a very small gain in territory.
The most important aspect of WWI that made it so unique was its use of a new tactic of digging a series of connecting trenches that carved up the landscape of the Western and Eastern fronts. This use of trenches by both the Allies and the Germans was one of the primary reasons that WWI lasted as long as it did. Life in the trenches was a horrifying experience for any man who served in the Great War. The terrible conditions in the trenches would only be fully known by the public after the war was over in late 1918. The armies of the Allies had strict rules against the public gaining knowledge of the details of the war and used many methods to prevent them knowing the truth.
After the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the German army was forced to retreat. They had failed in their objective to force France into and early surrender and rather than give up the land that they had gained they dug into the ground to secure their position and protect themselves from the Allie fire. Because the Germans were at an advantage of being able to fire at the Allies from below ground level because of this the Allies could not break the German trench line. It was apparent that the Germans would not be removed the Allies followed the German example and dug their own trenches. It was this event that halted movement on both sides and changed the style of warfare forever. Trenches soon stretched across the countryside and spread from the North Sea to Switzerland.
Trench life soon became as mentally and physically taxing on soldiers as the actual fighting element of the war. Disease, rats, lice, and boredom became a part of daily life for a soldier in the trenches. After the war was over there were many accounts from soldiers of the appalling conditions and the amount of death that occurred in the trenches. It was estimated that up to one third of Allied casualties on the Western Front were actually sustained in the trenches . Aside from injuries caused by the enemy, disease accounted for a large amount of that total.
Many accounts from soldiers of their time spent in the trenches are dominated by an emphasis on the amount of mud. Living in the trenches soldiers were rarely clean and when they were they did not stay that way for very long. Because of the lack of sanitary conditions in the trenches men suffered from many pests such as rats and frogs as well as more harmful things like lice and diseases like trench foot and shell shock. The rats in the trenches became a problem for the soldiers because there was no way to avoid them or get rid of them. A single pair of rats could produce almost 900 offspring in a year so the infestation continued throughout the war. Rats in the trenches were rumoured to have grown as large as cats on occasion, from eating or stealing scraps and feeding off the corpses of dead soldiers. Because the rats became so fearless the men in the trenches came to loathe them and often spent free time killing them and setting traps .
Yet another annoying pest was the lice that continually plagued the men. Soldiers could spend up to an hour a day burning the lice off their bodies and clothes in an attempt to rid themselves of the pests; but the effort was all in vain because they would only be re-infested the next day. Occasionally the men were sent to clean themselves in large baths while their clothes were being put through delousing machines. Unfortunately, this rarely worked; a fair proportion of the eggs remained in the clothes and within two or three hours of the clothes being put on again a man’s body heat had hatched them out.
Because of the continuously muddy conditions the men often walked around in mud and water sometimes covering as far up as their knees or waists. During the early part of the war over 20,000 men were treated for a condition that became known as trench foot. This was an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary conditions. Without being able to remove wet socks or boots the feet would gradually go numb and the skin would turn red or blue. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. The only remedy for trench foot was for the soldiers to dry their feet and change their socks several times a day. By the end of 1915 British soldiers in the trenches had to have three pairs of socks with them and were under orders to change their socks at least twice a day. As well as drying their feet, soldiers were told to cover their feet with grease made from whale oil.
The Allies needed to make sure that there would be no additional factors that would affect the morale at home; news of the conditions that the soldiers were forced to live in and the continuing stalemates would surely do that. If confidence in the war effort was diminished and the truth about the trenches was known there would be fewer new recruits and the Allies would be challenged to keep up with the Germans numbers. Most soldiers during the war chose to conceal the horrors of the trench warfare not wishing to expose their families to it. But those who wished to confide in family members and try to share with them their experiences were prevented from doing so by new laws that were put into place. The House of Commons passed the Defence of the Realm Act on August 8th 1914 without debate .
The Act gave the government executive power to suppress criticism, imprison without trial and commandeer economic resources for the war effort. As a result all letters that the men wrote were read and censored by the junior officers. Although soldiers were encouraged to write letters to friends and family, the contents of the letters were monitored strictly by the junior officers in accordance with the new laws guidelines. Anything that disclosed information about military action would be removed to ensure that the Allies plans could not get to the Germans. The junior officers were also instructed to remove anything from the letters that discussed the conditions of the trenches or insinuated that the soldiers did not have faith in the actions that were being taken by the army. The members of parliament believed that if family members were to receive letters of that nature the morale in Britain would be effected which would affect the war effort all together.
Britain and France also had problems deciding what to do about journalists who were reporting the war. Originally under the Defence of the Realm Act Britain put strict limitations on all reporters often preventing their articles from making it back to Britain from France. After complaints from the USA on how the British government was treating the situation a cabinet meeting was held to change the policy and to allow selected journalists to report the war. The British government appointed five men to be accredited war correspondents in January of 1915. These men were to remain on the Western Front but to be permitted to do so these journalists had to accept government control over what they wrote. As a result of government interference even the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme was reported as a victory.
Although some defended their actions saying that they were attempting to “spare the feelings of men and women, who, have sons and husbands fighting in France”; most of the journalists admitted that they were deeply ashamed of what they had written. After the war most of the accredited war correspondents were offered knighthoods by George V. Some agreed to accept the offer but others like Hamilton Fyfe refused seeing the knighthood as a bribe to keep quiet about the inefficiency and corruption he had witnessed during the war. Fyfe would later become a member of the Union of Democratic Control after the war, and would speak out as a strong critic of the Versailles Peace Treaty .
There were a few other instances of the British government preventing criticism of the war from being published. In 1916 the Clyde Workers Committee journal, called The Worker, was brought to court under the Defence of the Realm Act for an article that criticized the war. The two editors of the journal were found guilty and sent to prison, one for six months and the other for a year .
Critical novels that were written during the war were prevented from being published or banned if they did make it to publication. A.T. Fitzroy’s Despised and Rejected, about conscientious objectors during WWI, was published in April 1918. A thousand copies were sold before the book was banned and the publisher prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act. Another novel, What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay, which ridiculed wartime bureaucracy, was prevented from being published near the end of 1918. Instead it was not published until after the Armistice.
So although the conditions for the men who fought in the First World War were horrific, the public did not realize the sacrifices that had been made for their freedom on a daily basis. The suppression of the truth by the British government is a controversial topic that is still debated today. Whether or not the British were justified in preventing the public from knowing the truth it was inevitably disclosed after the wars conclusion. The images seen and the conditions endured plagued on many men’s minds after the war was over. The Great War, a war that was to be one of heroic battles and great movement, turned into a war remembered for its lack of movement, its number of casualties and the conditions that had to be endured. World War One changed the way all wars after it were fought, but not for the better.