“At 4:15am a whistle blew. The men in the front line went over the top, and we scrambled out and took their places in the front trench. In front of us was a small field, with grass knee-high, split diagonally by an old footpath. On one side of the field was a belt of trees, known as the Y-Wood, in which lay the first Hun trench…”
A good portion of the action on Downton Abbey so far this season has centered around trench warfare. We’ve seen snippets of it from both Matthew and Thomas’s points of view (with more to come). We’ve heard clips of it in Mr. Lang’s tattered imagination and seen its effects. And we’ve had a glimpse of how horrifying it must have been through the sad story of Mrs. Patmore’s nephew being shot for cowardice.
So what’s this all about? Is Downton Abbey exaggerating? No. In fact, I think they’ve cleaned it up a lot for modern audiences.
“…When I dropped into the Hun trench I found it a great place, only three feet wide, and at least eight deep, and beautifully made of white sand-bags, back and front. At that spot there was no sign of any damage by our shells, but a number of dead Huns lay in the bottom….”
Trench warfare was a result of the improvements in weaponry and tactics in the early 20th century. It was a brilliant defensive strategy in a way. Dig in so that the enemy can’t hit you with machine guns unless you pop up in the open. Set up machine gun nests yourself so that they can’t send soldiers to get you without great loss of life. Spread a lot of barbed wire and dead bodies between your trench and their trench so that No Man’s Land is the most god-awful, dangerous place you can conceive of. Throw in some mustard gas that eats your lungs from the inside out to kill your enemy in the most gruesome way possible. This was the reality of trench life.
The trenches through France and parts of Germany that constituted the stagnant front of the First World War moved very little throughout the course of the war. On the Allies’ side trenches were made up of narrow runs packed with sandbags and lined with boards to keep them from caving in. There were several rows of trenches, the front line and various lines further back where living and command quarters were located. Men ate, slept, and burned time right at the front.
The German trenches were a little different, incidentally. They were more of a system of trenches and tunnels. Some tunnels were as deep as 50 feet underground and had electricity and running water. The supply lines were a little better so that as soon as men and materials were used up more could be delivered. This, of course, only perpetuated the horrific stalemate.
“… I had just filled a sandbag and placed it on the top of the parapet when I happened to glance down, and saw a slight movement in the earth between my feet. I stooped and scraped away the soil with my fingers and found what seemed like palpitating flesh. It proved to be a man’s cheek, and a few minutes’ work uncovered his head. I poured a little water down his throat, and two or three of us dug out the rest of him. He was undamaged except for his feet and ankles, which were a mass of pulp, and he recovered consciousness as we worked. The first thing he said was in English: ‘What Corps are you?’ He was a big man, and told us he was forty-five and had only been a soldier for a fortnight. We dragged him out and laid him under the hedge. There was nothing else we could do for him. He had another drink later, but he must have died in the course of the day. I am afraid we forgot all about him, but nothing could have lived there until evening….”
And it was horrific. Soldiers weren’t the only things living in the trenches. On the Allies’ side lice and rats were a major problem. The lice spread everywhere, getting in everyone’s hair, clothes, and bodies regardless of rank. Men were stricken with “trench fever”, a disease with flu-like symptoms which was only discovered to be caused by a virus carried by trench fleas later in the war. Rats were everywhere and they were well-fed. They ate the soldier’s rations, the corpses in the trenches and No Man’s Land, and the soldiers themselves if they weren’t careful.
Perhaps the worst part of trench life was that all of these miserable conditions had to be endured in long stretches of strategic boredom punctuated by insane charges against heavily defended positions. One thing a lot of historians talk about when they talk about WWI is how callous Allied commanders were when it came to sending thousands of young men to certain death because they were using tactics that were completely inadequate for trench warfare. If you were told to go over the top and charge at the other side you knew your chances weren’t good. There was no ignorance involved. No wonder Mrs. Patmore’s nephew fell apart and was shot as a coward! No wonder Mr. Lang had violent nightmares and feared being sent back!
“… The worst of it was the inaction. Every minute several shells fell within a few yards and covered us with dust, and the smell of the explosives poisoned my mouth. All I could do was to crouch against the parapet and pant for breath, expecting every moment to be my last. And this went on for hours. I began to long for the shell which would put an end to everything, but in time my nerves became almost numbed, and I lay like a log until roused….”
In the end the stalemate of trench warfare was broken by a combination of tanks, American troops reinforcing the Allies, and sheer exhaustion on the part of … well, everyone. While men were fighting in the trenches naval battles and blockades had weakened both sides and their supply lines considerably. The Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive began on August 8, 1918 at Amiens (remember this, oh Downton Abbey watchers!) and marked the beginning of the end for Germany, the war, and trench warfare. But it’s barely the middle of our Downton Abbey Season Two story.
“… Soon the runaways began to return. They had been turned back, in some cases, at the point of the revolver, but when their first panic had been overcome, they came back quite willingly, although they lost heavily in the process. They crowded into our trench, and there was hardly room to move a limb….
… About 6:00pm the worst moment of the day came. The Huns started to bombard us with a shell which was quite new to us. It sounded like a gigantic fire-cracker, with two distinct explosions. These shells came over just above the parapet, in a flood, much more quickly than we could count them. After a quarter of an hour of this sort of thing there was a sudden crash in the trench and ten feet of the parapet, just beyond me, was blown away and everyone around blinded by the dust. With my first glance I saw what looked like half a dozen bodies, mingled with sandbags, and then I smelt gas and realized that these were gas-shells. I had my respirator on in a hurry and most of our own men were as quick. The others were slower and suffered for it. One man was sick all over the sandbags and another was coughing his heart up. We pulled four men out of the debris unharmed. One man was unconscious, and died of gas later. Another was hopelessly smashed up and must have got it full in the chest….
…As soon as things quieted down a bit, we had a chance to look around. Since the morning most of the branches of the trees in the wood had gone and many of the trunks had become mere splintered poles. Something else had changed also, and for a time I could not make out what it was. Then it suddenly flashed across my mind that the thick hedge at the back of the trench had entirely disappeared. It was right in the path of the storm of gas-shells and they had carried it away….”
Excerpts from a letter written by H.S. Clapham of the British army describing his experience, taken from World War I & European Society: A Sourcebook. Coetzee, Marilyn Shevin, and Frans Coetzee, editors, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1995. Print.