Paul Fussell, “The Great War and Modern Memory”
Fussell has written a wonderful book regarding the First World War; in it, he does not cover in detail the strategies, the politics, or the battles; instead, he focuses on the people and the literature – the literature that came before, during, and after the war, thus shaping the road to it and our remembrance of it.
In this post I will focus on his description of trench life: the geography, the glorified tale, and the reality.
From the North Sea coast of Belgium the line wandered southward, bulging out to contain Ypres, then dropping down to protect Béthune, Arras, and Albert. It continued south in front of Montidier, Compiègne, Soissons, Reims, Verdun, St. Mihiel, and Nancy, and finally attached its southernmost end to the Swiss border at Beurnevisin, in Alsace. The top forty miles – the part north of Ypres – was held by the Belgians; the next ninety miles, down to the river Ancre, were British; the French held the rest, to the south.
The line ran about 400 miles; yet there were about 25,000 miles of trenches, counting those of the Central Powers – enough to circle the globe. There were normally three lines of trenches: the front line or firing line, from 50 yards to one mile from the enemy; behind it, the support line; behind this was the reserve line.
A firing trench was supposed to be six to eight feet deep and four or five feet wide. On the enemy side a parapet of earth or sandbags rose about two or three feet above the ground.
Many dugouts, no straight-line trenches (a zig-zag every few yards), sumps for the water (rarely sufficient or effective), crumbling walls supported by sandbags, corrugated iron, or branches. Barbed wire out in front – far enough away to keep the enemy from hand-grenade distance.
Each section had a staging town: for example, for Ypres it was Poperinghe; for the Somme, Amiens.
The trench was not far from home…
…what makes experience in the Great War unique and gives it a special freight of irony is the ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home. Just seventy miles from “this stinking world of sticky tricking earth” was the rich plush of London theater seats and the perfume, alcohol and cigar smoke of the Café Royal.
An officer heading out on leave could have breakfast in the trench and dinner in his London club the same evening.
The Glorified Tale
Exhibitions of trenches were presented in Kensington Garden for the home-town folks: “These were clean, dry, and well furnished, with straight sides and sandbags neatly aligned.”
R.E. Vernede writes his wife from the real trenches that a friend of his has just returned from viewing a set of ideal ones. He “found he had never seen anything at all like it before.” And Wilfred Owen calls the Kensington Gardens trenches “the laughing stock of the army.”
The British trenches were wet, cold, smelly, and thoroughly squalid. Compared with the precise and thorough German works, they were decidedly amateur, reflecting a complacency about the British genius for improvisation.
The men were not the only living beings in the trenches; lice and rats were constant companions. The lice fed on the living and the rats fed on the dead.
Dead horses and dead men – and parts of both – were sometimes not buried for months…. You could smell the front line miles before you could see it.
Bodies and parts of bodies would often become part of the trench wall.
…in the trenches there was very seldom any fresh meat, not for eating, anyway…
The futility was overwhelming.
In the three lines of trenches the main business of the soldier was to exercise self-control while being shelled.
…even in the quietest times, some 7000 British men and officers were killed and wounded daily, just as a matter of course. “Wastage,” the Staff called it.
Life in the trench was both literally and figuratively not far removed from the grave.
One saw two things only: the walls of an unlocalized, undifferentiated earth and the sky above....It was the sight of the sky, almost alone, that had the power to persuade a man that he was not already lost in a common grave.
By the end of 1916, the possibility that the war might be endless “began to tease the mind.” One officer calculated that the British would reach the Rhine in 180 years, given the rate of advance to date.
“We held two irreconcilable beliefs: that the war would never end and that we would win it.”
The war didn’t end – not for another 30 years; and it is not appropriate to consider that Britain won much of anything.