The Western Front

Original World War 1 trenches on land surrounded by trees

It has become my tradition to focus on military ancestors for my mid-November post.  Today’s post continues that with the topic of trench warfare, which has become almost synonymous for us with The Great War and the Western Front.  Not all our military ancestors and family members were killed in action, and the topic of trench warfare gives us an opportunity to broaden our gaze and think of others who, although they returned home safely, suffered unimaginable terrors that often blighted the rest of their lives.

By 1914, advancements in ammunitions and artillery meant the mass infantry assaults of former grand battles were no longer an option.  Although field works and trenches had been used for centuries in military campaigns, they now came to the fore as a means of defence. They became longer, stretching out along entire fronts, and deeper – ideally about twelve feet deep. Their zig-zag construction prevented the enemy, should they access the trench, from firing along for more than a few yards. Typically, there would be several trench lines, each running parallel to the next, and connected by communications trenches. Hence the ‘front’ could extend up to a mile behind the first, or ‘outpost’ trench. It was through the communications trenches that food, ammunition, orders and indeed troops were delivered; also letters to and from home.

The distance between the opposing sides could be surprisingly narrow – sometimes as little as about thirty yards, but it could be as much as 250 yards. Between them was ‘No Man’s Land’, where coils of barbed wire were positioned as a means of slowing down the enemy, should they attack. If you’ve watched War Horse, you may remember that Joey the horse becomes tangled and seriously injured in the barbed wire as he runs to escape from the explosions and noise.

Although trenches gave cover for both sides, they also made for a long, gruelling war of attrition.  The point was to push forward your own front by gaining control of the enemy’s trench system. This meant daring and deadly attacks, forcing men to go ‘over the top’ of their own trench’s parapet, and run across No Man’s Land towards the opposing trench. An element of surprise was preferable, but the intense artillery bombardments generally preceding such raids gave the heads-up to the enemy that attack was imminent. This gave them time to bring up reinforcements and increased the likelihood of heavy losses for the attackers.  What’s more, land gained in an attack could be lost again in future enemy raids.  The hundred days of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) for example, resulted in a gain for the British front line of just five miles.  The cost of those five miles was almost six hundred thousand lives, between the two sides.

These photographs were taken in 2014 at Sanctuary Wood Trench Museum (Hill 62) near Ypres, Belgium. The trenches are original, just as the farmer found them when he returned to reclaim his land at the end of the First World War, although there has more recently been work to preserve them. This is just one section of the trenches on the land – there were more. The photos show the zig-zag layout and the depth of the trenches. Visitors can walk in them – although I can guarantee that the experience of doing so will bear no comparison with that endured by our ancestors more than a hundred years earlier.

Original World War 1 trenches on land surrounded by trees

Reading through the Battalion War Diary for the Prince of Wales´s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment: 49th Division, in which one of my great uncles was serving, the routine seems to have been roughly one week on the front line, one week off.  Away from the front, days were spent cleaning, drilling and training, relaxing, playing sport, and marching to new positions as required.  In the trenches it was a different matter.  Dysentry, cholera and typhoid fever were common, and trench conditions also attracted rats which got into the men’s food and nibbled at them when they were sleeping. Lice were prevalent, and constant scratching increased the likelihood of contamination of skin abrasions by lice faeces, resulting in trench fever. Also common was trench foot, caused by constant immersion of the feet in the dank, muddy water in the bottom of the trenches during and after heavy rainfall. While painful, this is preventable and treatable today, but during the conditions in the trenches in 1914-1918, the dead tissue often spread across one or both feet, sometimes requiring amputation.  Similarly, frostbite could result in the loss of fingers or toes.

Even without enemy action, there was always the possibility of it, and the stress caused what we now know as PTSD but was then called ‘shell shock’, as well as a type of gum infection called trench mouth.  In his War Diary entry for 29th July 1917, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harold Tetley (again, West Yorks Regiment, 49th Division) wrote ‘Nothing to report – Steady shelling all day by both sides’.  I have tried to imagine how far from ‘normality’ conditions must stray for the one to equate to the other.

That same great uncle had a narrow escape when, following German deployment of mustard gas shells, men in his counterpart Battalion suffered such severe mustard gas effects that hundreds were evacuated to England and the land itself was rendered too dangerous for further activity. The goal of a mustard gas attack was not generally to kill but to harass and disorientate; only 2-3% of victims actually died. However, many who didn’t die were nevertheless scarred for life. Respiratory disease and failing eyesight were common post-war afflictions, and many eventually died of tuberculosis. 

It almost makes one feel that those whose lives were taken were the ‘lucky’ ones – luck being a relative concept in this scenario. I think we owe it to those who returned and were ‘changed’, to try to understand what they experienced. I know I would not have been one of the brave ones.

Section of original World War 1 trenches showing muddy water collected at bottom of trench


Kirk, Andrew, Leeds Rifles: The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) 7th and 8th Territorial Battalions 1914-1918: Written in Letters of Gold. 1917. Pen & Sword, Barnsley.

UK, WWI War Diaries (France, Belgium and Germany), 1914-1920: Prince of Wales´s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment: 49th Division: Piece 2795/1: 1/7 Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment (1915 Apr-1919 May)

6 thoughts on “The Western Front

  1. As we have discussed in previous years, I too commemorate a great -uncle who gave his life in the Great War. He died at Passchendaele on 26 October 1917. In 2007 the Passchendaele Museum commissioned an exhibition of photographs of how the landscape has changed since then, although with remnants of these battle scars still in the landcape.
    I have the book that was produced of the photographs with their captions.
    You will, I know, be able to imagine how I felt reading the caption for a modern photograph of a mud filled landscape. It is an extract from the diary of a German Officer and is headed Passchendaele (Zonnebeke). The English translation reads
    “From a small pillbox I have a good view over the battlefield. In front of me is a remarkable sight: a break in the battle to remove dead and wounded. The guns are silent, a deep peace rules over the battlefield. No plough could gouge the fields in such a manner. The chaos is awful to behold. Slowly and carefully, stretcher bearers with dogs arrive from both sides. Friends and foe alike have their red crosses clearly displayed. Fascinated, I watch this sad task through my field glasses. What a difference; no will to hurt, no raw hatred, just pure humanity.”
    This intimate human glimpse never fails to move me to tears when I re-read it each year. The date of the entry? 26 October 1917.


    • That is really beautiful Glenys. Lovely that men of both sides are included, since they had no choice but to fight and might have been friends if they met in different circumstances. I can understand how poignant that particular entry must be for you. If you get chance, could you possibly let me have the full details of that book – author, title, year, etc?


  2. The book is called “Fields of Battle Flanders 1917”, the author is Michael St Maur Shell. I bought it in Zonnebeke, Passchendaele in 2007 when the local communities made a special effort to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the battles around Ypres, as they felt most of those affected would not be around for the centenary. The foreword says “Initiated by the Passchendaele Memorial Museum, the communities of Zonnebeke and Heuvelland commissioned Michael St Maur Shell to take a series of photographs to show how the memory of battle still lives in the landscape. This book, together with an especial exhibition, is intended to commemorate the 90the Anniversary of the Battle of Messines-Wytschaete and the Battle of Passchendaele when our homeland was ravaged by the horror of war.” .
    We visited the exhibition in 2007 and I bought the book there, so it was a catalogue of the exhibition.
    Sadly it does not appear to have an ISBN Number and neither Abebooks nor a general search can find any copies of it available for sale now. I suppose it is possible that the Passchendaele Museum might be able to advise on whether copies are still about or perhaps one of the specialist war booksellers in Ypres and the area.
    I would be very happy to send you photographs of some of the pages if you wished to send me your email address at my email below or to show you the book if you ever find yourself passing through or visiting Gloucestershire – both M5 and M4 are within a couple of miles of me, there are some very pleasant places for coffee or lunch nearby! I have to say that it is a book I particularly treasure, very beautifully done.


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