Men in Trench, n.d.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-215, 49th Battalion Scrapbook).

Men in Trench, n.d.

Soldiers of the First World War had to acquaint themselves with the exigencies of trench warfare. Life in the trenches could be extremely arduous, hazardous, and terrifying, or dull, monotonous, and routine depending on what part of the trench system they occupied.
Canadian Trench Showing "Funk Holes", France, 1917.
NAC (PA-001326, photo by W.I. Castle).

Canadian Trench Showing "Funk Holes", France, 1917.

Small hollows dug into the sides of the trenches provided soldiers some protection from shrapnel and flying debris.

Although battles, offensive or defensive, were obviously of central importance, they did not define the daily life of the trench soldier. Indeed, battles occupied relatively little of the time of the infantry battalion in the British army, of which the Canadian Corps formed a part. The routine of trench warfare during comparatively inactive periods depended upon the sector of the line occupied. Quiet areas existed where the ground was dry, the front lines were well separated, and neither side was anxious to disturb the status quo. Units that had been severely mauled could be sent to these sectors to recover, but Canadians only infrequently received such respites. By late 1915, they were already emerging as one of the elite forces of the British army and were usually to be found close to the centre of the action.

By the time the 49th arrived, the trench lines that stretched from Belgium to Switzerland were nothing like the hastily dug slits in the ground that the name suggests. Indeed, these trenches were massive and complex systems of field fortifications. Highly developed communications networks and dense road and light rail transportation systems were in place to keep the front lines supplied and to rush in reinforcements and ammunition in case of attack. Each system had a minimum of three distinct trench lines to provide defence in depth. All trenches were dug in a dog-tooth or zigzag pattern to localize the effects of shell or grenade blasts and prevent enfilade fire from enemy attackers. Wherever ground conditions permitted, front line or fire trenches were 2.4-metres (8-feet) deep so that soldiers could walk upright without attracting sniper fire. A fire step along the front edge brought soldiers up to firing position along the raised parapet. Ditches covered by wooden duckboards drained water to sumps. Small individual dugouts in the sides of the trench known as "funk holes," provided a little shelter from shrapnel. Out in front of the first trench line were barbed wire entanglements with carefully designed lanes to funnel attackers into areas covered by pre-sighted machine gun fire. Forward saps (short trenches at right angles to the main trench line) led out into no man's land to listening posts whose occupants could give warning of enemy attack.

About 50 or 60 metres behind the fire trench and connected to it by communication trenches was the support trench. This area was less exposed to enemy fire and usually had a number of larger dugouts to house essential services such as battalion and company headquarters, telephones, the medical officer, and stores. Another 50 or so metres back was the reserve trench.

Observation Post 30 Yards from the German Lines, n.d
Canada in the Great World War..., vol. 4 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1918-1921). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Observation Post 30 Yards from the German Lines, n.d

Those soldiers stationed at observation posts were responsible for giving their comrades advance notice of enemy attack.


Western Front, First World War, 1914-1917.
G.W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1962). Courtesy of DND.

Western Front, First World War, 1914-1917.

The Western Front extended over a vast area of northwestern Europe: from Belgium to Switzerland, which is not shown on the map.

Canadian practice was that for each brigade sector, two battalions would be assigned to the fire and support trenches, one to the reserve trench, and the fourth farther back in divisional reserve. This meant that, on average, in a given month, a battalion would spend about four days in the front line, four in support, eight in reserve, and the balance of the month out of the line "resting." (8) The elaborate trench system required constant labour to keep it up even when enemy shelling did not destroy parts of it. Troops in the line or on reserve spent much of their time at night working to keep the trenches reasonably secure and livable. Daytime work was out of the question since it attracted enemy fire.

Not surprisingly, the 49th found that most of their introduction to the war consisted of providing working parties to assist the units in line. As described by "L.E.R." in the fourth issue of The Forty-Niner, this meant marching in the rain and darkness of the oncoming winter until the party reached the wagons with the planks, sandbags, and other materials needed for the work. These supplies were carried forward to the trenches and put to use under working conditions that were beyond difficult.

Imagine a country that man has done his worst to make muddy, couple this with abysmal darkness, caved-in trenches, and any device the reader's own imagination can supply, and then you have no idea what it is like. Add to this the bright star-lights [star shells] that only help accentuate the darkness, the ping-ping-ping of machine gun bullets as they fly by, and then you have a fair idea of what it might be like.

Trench Foot, France, 1917.
NAC (PA-149311).

Trench Foot, France, 1917.

Constant exposure to mud, cold, and damp in the trenches could lead to severe foot problems that, in extreme cases, required amputation.

There was a certain amount of the normal kind of grumbling about this work; "Some of us, no doubt, wonder how a certain division got trenches dug or repaired, barbed-wire entanglements built, and any of the hundred and one 'jobs' done that are apparently so important a part of modern warfare, before 'Ours' arrived on the scene." (9) Nonetheless, the members of the 49th accepted it as part of their war.

Undoubtedly, soldiers more easily accepted the discomforts of working parties after the first few 48-hour tours in the forward trenches. Even in quiet sectors, the strain of being in line was intense. Random enemy shelling, mortar rounds, and snipers took a constant toll; death or wounds could come at any moment without warning. In a three-day front line tour in March of 1916, during which neither side attempted any offensive or defensive moves, the 49th lost 8 dead and 31 wounded. Those who escaped death or injury lived, at best, a life of little or no sleep and cold food. Washing or changing clothes was out of the question and several days with wet feet could result in "trench foot," an affliction that could disable a soldier as surely as a shrapnel wound. The only readily available front line comfort was the daily issue of rum (SRD-Service Rum Diluted in army parlance) that was served out after the dawn stand-to. Although not all Canadians approved of this practice-Sam Hughes was a passionate teetotaller who tried to keep the army dry and Prohibition was sweeping the country back home, the soldiers saw the ration of liquor as a lifesaver.

"Forty-Niners Getting Their Favourite Ration," 1915.
The Forty-Niner. Volume 1, Number 3, Christmas Number, 1915.

"Forty-Niners Getting Their Favourite Ration," 1915.

"FIRST SOLDIER OF NIGHT WORKING PARTY: 'LET THE JAR SLIP, MICALLIF!'"

S.R.D., or Service Rum Diluted as most soldiers called it, was one of the few luxuries that soldiers in the trenches were afforded.
Canadians Take To Football ca. 1916, by Cyrus Cuneo.
Max Aitken, Canada in Flanders (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916-17). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Canadians Take To Football ca. 1916, by Cyrus Cuneo.

Football was one of the favourite activities of off-duty troops.

Some of us turned that first rum ration down. Fewer of us turned it down twice; fewer still turned it down three times and almost none of us turned it down four times. So far as I know, none of us turned it down for a week. Shortly it was difficult to wait for rum ration time to come around. How that hot stuff did warm you up. You could feel it right from the tip of your tongue to the tip of your shoes. (10)

When the brigade moved out of line and into rest, they were generally billeted with French civilians. If the soldiers were lucky, they were billeted in houses, but the less fortunate were often housed in barns. Rest meant a bath and relatively clean uniforms, "not anything like as lousy as the ones we turned in," as one 49th diarist commented. (11) It meant a few days relief from the threat of being shot, shelled, or gassed. Civilian food and wine was usually to be had in an estaminet, the little French bars that the Canadians quickly discovered. Concerts were organized at every opportunity, and even the occasional movie was shown. When the weather was good, sports would resume, usually against teams from the other regiments in the brigade. Baseball, football, and track and field were the favourite activities. The 49th won more of these contests than they lost, perhaps because the professional baseball player "Deacon" White was now a corporal in the regiment and available as a coach.

  • 8. Denis Winter, Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 81.
  • 9. "L.E.R.," "Working Parties As We Know Them," The Forty-Niner, 1:4 (4 January 1916): p. 24.
  • 10. Lieutenant Inar W. Anderson, "The First Trip in the Line," The Forty-Niner, no. 16 (January 1933): p. 29.
  • 11. F.R. Hasse, "A Touched-Up War Diary," The Forty-Niner, no. 22 (January 1936): p. 5.
 

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