Canada comes of age

Life in the Trenches was a terrible experience highlighted only by boredom. Trench warfare had developed in 1914 when the great battles of movement slowly bogged down into a war of attrition as the forces who dug in and used firepower, especially machine guns, were able to stop almost any attack mounted. A line formed which ran from the English channel to Switzerland and all along that line the troops of both sides dug in.

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Vimy Ridge soldiers Preparing for battle Life in the Trenches was a terrible experience highlighted only by boredom. Trench warfare had developed in 1914 when the great battles of movement slowly bogged down into a war of attrition as the forces who dug in and used firepower, especially machine guns, were able to stop almost any attack mounted. A line formed which ran from the English channel to Switzerland and all along that line the troops of both sides dug in.

For the Canadians the front line advanced only one mile in two years, and casualty figures for the British forces as a whole 9including Canadian) were incredibly high. Over the course of the war on the Western Front, 118,941 officers and 2,571,113 men became causalities: a quarter of these were killed. On July 1, 1916 alone, the British lost nearly 58,000 men. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment attacked at Beaumont-Hamel on that day and suffered 91 percent casualties: of the 801 who went into the attack 684 were killed or wounded in 40 minutes.

In the winter the ground was frozen under a layer of snow and ice: men had extreme cold to add to their fear and their hunger, the noise of artillery bombardments and the stench in which they lived constantly. When spring came so did the rain, and the trenches and No Man's Land turned into a quagmire. In this vast sea of mud, men could - and did - drown, especially if they were wounded. Movement became almost impossible, and troops lived continually in water, which even in the better trenches could average a depth of two feet. Many thousands of men as a result suffered from trench foot, which if not treated could lead to amputation. Always there were the millions of rats, the lice, the flies and disease. Robert Graves said after the war: "The familiar trench smell still haunts my nostrils: compounded of stagnant mud, latrine buckets, chloride of lime, unburied or half buried corpses, rotting sandbags, stale human sweat, fumes of cordite.... Rats became a menace almost as unnerving as the enemy... They fed on unburied corpses that surrounded us and sometimes filled the trenches." George Coppard, who served as a machine gunner, described how heavy shelling would "churn up the dead in bits and pieces. Every square yard of ground seemed to be layered with corpses at varying depths, producing a sickening stench." This stench could be smelled several miles away. It is not surprising that so many of the dead have no known grave - more than 70,000 from the British Empire alone.

Lice caused continual itching and discomfort. Breeding in the warmth of underclothing, they plagued the men and no delousing methods proved effective. They also bred disease, as did the millions of flies that swarmed around the living and the dead alike. Official statistics show how more than three and a half million men succumbed to illness because of the terrible conditions in the trenches.

In this world of stealth and strange sounds, millions of men tried to survive trench life. They faced the continual danger of artillery bombardment, snipers, trench raids and going "over the top" to attack the enemy. Often they would not see the enemy for weeks at a time, although he was close by, trying to survive just as they were. They felt isolated form the real world, Canadian and German alike, and in their unreal world they came to have little in common with civilians back home, for whom they often developed feelings of contempt.

Officially, troops were supposed to receive the following daily ration: 1 1/4 lb. fresh or frozen meat, or 1 lb. preserved or salt meat; 1 1/4 lb. bread, or 1 lb. biscuit or flour; 4 oz. bacon; 3 oz. cheese; 5/8 oz. tea; 4 oz. jam; 3 oz. sugar; 1/2 oz. salt; 1/36 oz. pepper; 1/20 oz. mustard; 8 oz. fresh or 2 oz. dried vegetables; 1/10 gill line juice if fresh vegetables not issued; 1/2 gill rum (at the discretion of the Commanding General); not exceeding 2 oz. tobacco per week. In reality, men frequently received less than what was officially prescribed. In the front lines food was poor, almost always cold even in the winter. Facilities for heating were limited. Usually the fare consisted of bread, bully beef and hard biscuits. During battle, food often could not be brought up to the forward trenches. Water was brought forward in empty gasoline cans and tasted of gasoline and chloride of lime, which was always added. Sometimes only water from mud-filled shell holes was available.

Troops did not spend all of their time in front line trenches. In theory, a strict schedule of rotating them through forward and support trenches, as well as rest areas behind the lines, was supposed to be adhered to. According to this schedule, men were given two eight-day tour in a support area, where they might be able to enjoy the local estaminets (cafes) or perhaps be entertained by such concert parties as the Dumbells. For some this was the case, but often it was not possible to maintain the rotation and men could sometimes spend three to four weeks in the line. Even in rest areas they were likely to be shelled. Moving into the line at night, men carried heavy loads of equipment (60-80 pounds in weight) and in wet conditions their greatcoat could add another 50 pounds. Struggling along narrow trenches in pitch darkness was a nightmare for most men, and to stumble into the mud could prove fatal.

Once in the forward trenches, life settled into a routine which allowed very little rest: indeed, lack of sleep became one of the biggest problems with which troops had to contend. The bustle of the daily routine meant that even for those resting there was no opportunity for quiet

Care of the Wounded 

If a soldier sustained a wound, his first problem was to get attention. Prior to an attack men were given strict orders not to stop to assist comrades who were hit. The unfortunate soldier had to wait for stretcher bearers to arrive, with little more than the field dressing with which he had been issued to stop the blood flowing from his wound(s). Often a long wait ensued: while the firing was still going on it was sometimes impossible for medical personnel to move into No Man's Land. In many cases men died before being reached, and for those who reached a pain wracking journey lasting several hours was often their fate as stretcher bearers struggled through the mud to carry them to a Regimental Aid Post.

The Report of the Ministry of Defence: Overseas Military Forces of Canada (1918) sets out in some detail how soldiers were supposed to be treated once they had been wounded. After the first attention being given by the stretcher bearers, the wounded man, unless he were "walking wounded," would be carried to a Regimental Aid Post where a Medical Officer would give whatever additional initial treatment was needed beyond that given by the stretcher bearers. As quickly as possible the casualty would then be moved, usually by horse ambulance, to the Advanced Dressing Station for Field Ambulances, some one or two miles to the rear of the trenches. Here further treatment was given, and the man was hurried by motor ambulance or light railway to the main dressing Station of the Field Ambulance, and thence to the Casualty Clearing Station. It was not until arrival at the Casualty Clearing Station that whatever operations were necessary were performed, apart from controlling hemorrhage, removing utterly destroyed limbs, treating shock and giving initial treatment for men who had been gassed.

From here the wounded man was taken in a specially equipped hospital train, staffed by Medical Officers and Nursing Sisters, to a General Hospital where he continued to receive treatment until considered well enough to proceed to a convalescent camp in France or a hospital in England for further treatment. If he did proceed to England he travelled on a specially equipped Hospital Ship.

For any man who was wounded, his hope was that it would be a "a Blighty one" - in other words, the wound would be serious enough for him to have to go back to England, but not serious enough to affect him for the rest of his life. For many of those wounded, death awaited. During the war, as a result of having to deal with terrible wounds inflicted by weapons developed to kill, doctors made significant advances in medical techniques and healing.

Trench Slang

Soldiers of the First World War, faced with tremendous adversities, developed a number of ways of coping with their situation, one of which was humour. This humour is evident in many of the songs which they sang as well as in the unique trench language which they used. A few examples are given below.

Biscuits small square mattresses
Blanket Drill an afternoon nap
Bombardier Fritz chips (i.e. french fries)
Bone Orchard cemetery
Cold Meat Ticket identity disc
Devil-Dodger a chaplain
Dug-out King an officer who took advantage of his rank to stay in his dug-out when under fire
Fly-Catcher a fast fighter aircraft
Funk Hole a dug-out
Gorblimey a soft Field Service Cap
Gunfire tea served in the morning before the first parade
Hairy (a) a  mule
Landowner one who was killed
Pneumatic cavalry troops in cyclist units
Pull-Though a tall, thin soldier
Sawmill a hospital operating theatre
Tickler jam
Toothpick a bayonet
Zeppelin in a cloud sausage and mashed potato
Zig Zag intoxicated


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Vimy Ridge April 9 - 12, 1917

Lest we forget

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Vimy Ridge April 9 - 12, 1917

Lest we forget