Transported into a WWI Trench

Having written three novels featuring World War One, I’ve learned a lot about trenches. I’ve even been in one or two although of course, they’re now sanitized and bear no resemblance to the muck and horror soldiers would have experienced.

When I started out, I had only a vague sense of trenches as reinforced ditches deep enough to house groups of soldiers holding the line against the enemy. Writing realistic scenes involving skirmishes and battles meant that I had to know so much more. Novels, books, movies, photos, diagrams, websites, letters and diaries – these were my sources. How did soldiers go ‘over the top’? What happened during a gas attack? Where were reserve troops located? How did messages get to frontline commanders? Where did the men sleep? Did stretcher bearers take the wounded back through the trenches? How did those manning artillery make sure they didn’t hit their own men? And so on.

Here’s a diagram I found illustrating the the connections between different parts of the trench system and another showing the cross section of a frontline trench. [Source: History On The Net]

Of course, you can’t include all these details but as a writer you have to understand them well enough to transport your readers there. Here’s an example from my novel Unravelled: Edward is in Signals, the group responsible for communications. He and several fellow soldiers have been assigned to place microphones in no man’s land to assess enemy positions.

“A week later, in the pitch black of a half-snowing night, Edward and eleven others made their way from the tunnels via support and reserve trenches to the forward lines. Taking each step with care, they trudged through narrow, zigzagging paths, passing men snatching sleep, cooking, playing cards, cleaning equipment – the tasks of soldiers at rest.

As they turned a sharp corner, an explosion shook the section of trench not far behind them. The blast rattled Edward’s eardrums; screams of pain indicated the injuries suffered by men he had passed only minutes earlier. Whistles blew, summoning stretcher-bearers to carry what was left of the wounded away for treatment, and others to restore the trench. Edward knew the medics would waste little time on those who were beyond saving, just the barest of comfort, if that.

Battle savvy after months at the front, Edward steeled himself not to turn around, and instead put one foot in front of the other as he moved himself and over fifty pounds of equipment forward. He thought back to another night, sitting at a small wireless station, receiver in hand as an explosion ripped a section of the trench no more than thirty feet away. The blast crushed a nearby soldier as support beams, earth, and sandbags caved in. Numb to such destruction, he had continued his transmission without interruption. Edward shut the memory away and focused on the present. Distraction could be fatal.”

Doing research I found many other bits of information: a sketch of a German trench (you can find that in 10 Facts about WWI Trenches), a document outlining orders soldiers were to obey when on trench duty (you can find it here), Pierre Berton’s descriptions of trenches in his book titled Vimy. Berton wrote of others describing trenches as “this strange ribbon of deadly stealth”. He said that in reality there were little more than ditches.

It’s difficult to find the right words: horrific, disgusting, filthy, foul, noxious, hazardous, precarious, death traps, rat infested, slimy … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

Somewhere in France – 25th March 1916

Apparently there’s a song: When Verey Lights are Shining to the tun of When Irish Eyes are Smiling

Henry Tod is in the trenches once again …

25th March 1916

I am writing this from the trenches  in a fairly good dug-out, full at the moment with slumbering forms and they make a fine orchestra. We have had a lot more snow and things are as bad as ever. However, things are pretty quiet over the way, [I assume he means the German lines] except for rifle grenades. a comparatively new toy, which are always coming over and find a victim now and again. We of course retaliate in kind, but exact results unknown.

I was out last night with a party putting up a fresh belt of wire in advance of our existing wire, which is too near our trenches and in rather damaged condition. It was quite exciting while it lasted; it always is in the middle of no man’s land. [Henry is such an understated guy.] All went well for the first hour or so and we had done about 30 yards when they heard us and sent up one of their Verey lights [flares]. This was followed by a burst of rifle fire but we got down in time and the shooting moreover was pretty bad. We lay low until they shut up then resumed operations.

Again they spotted us and this time they opened on us with a couple of machine guns. We got down flat as pancakes and those who could rolled into the nearest shell-holes. There they kept us quite a long time while they played up and down our pitch and sending up plenty of flares.

They were firing a shade high and the bullets were splattering the sandbags of our parapet and pinging the wire just inches above us. As long as we didn’t move we were all right as it is difficult to spot immovable objects in the dark, and the light rockets give you some warning before bursting into light. There were fifteen of us and scattered all over the place and the next thing was to get them in when the chance offered.

When they [the Germans] had expended enough ammunition to wipe out an army corps, they ceased firing and after ascertaining we had no casualties, I gave the word to get back into the trench. It was a job in itself to get through our own barbed wire and as pants and puttees ripped the language was something dreadful. I am glad the damage was no worse and so was the captain who was anxiously awaiting us on the forested. I am now second in command of the company but suppose my second star (full loot) will arrive sometime after the war is over.

Our engineers have a mine ready to blow just in front of us and are only waiting for the Germans to resume work in their counter mine before doing the trick. Meantime we have been warned what to do when it does go bang, and that is to occupy the near lip of the crater [I wrote about an action like this in Time and Regret – wish I’d had these letters then]. This is quite an operation as the mine is in enemy territory. Three separate parties will rush out, the first being the bombing party to keep the crater clear of the enemy, followed by two digging parties, one to dig the bombers in and the other to make a communication trench out to the crater. I am to be in charge of the last lot. We are being relieved tomorrow and I think we are all rather hoping the job will be left to our successors! Well, I am for duty now in the cold dark night for a couple of hours, so will close with love to all.

Imagine how vulnerable they would feel working out in no man’s land with flares going up and rifles firing at them.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Somewhere in France – 16th January 1916

Henry Tod has a “pretty rotten time” in the trenches according to his next letter home to his parents.

I have your letters of 24th December and note all your news with interest. I am glad to see you are both keeping fit and that mother has recovered from her recent indisposition. There is not much the matter with you Dad when you can go slay coyotes. [Note: although Henry was from Scotland, his father and two or three brothers had emigrated to Canada early in the 20th century, hence the reference to coyotes.] You were always pretty useful with a stout stick and I think we might with advantage turn you loose amongst our friends over the way.

We are back for a day’s rest and respite in “trench billets” and we go up to the line again tomorrow to complete our spell. We have had a pretty rotten time and had quite a number of casualties, including one officer killed. We don’t seem to have much luck as when we took over from 1st battalion — Highlanders, they told us it was quite a soft spot and not much doing. No doubt we asked for trouble as we started the ball with a heavy machine gun fire on a village just behind their line through which their reliefs are affected and a shower of rifle grenades into their trenches, just to show we had arrived. We got heavily shelled for our pains but that didn’t do so much damage as a fusillade of trench mortars which they sent over late yesterday afternoon.

They got the range pretty quickly and I suspect they were trying to get the aforesaid machine gun, which was hard by our dugout. Anyway, these heavy mortars were dropping all round us and one of them sent a small avalanche of earth and stone into our dugout, but we were safe.

The men in the vicinity were quick to take cover in another dugout which was luckily available but not before several shells were laid out and our dugout was converted into a hospital for the time being.

We had as a visitor an officer from “C” company, who were [C company that is] in support immediately behind us, and our friend had just returned from leave and was telling us all about his holiday, during which incidentally, he got married. He thought it was time he was getting back to his company and although we tried to dissuade him from going until the strafe was over, he insisted on it. Almost immediately afterwards word was brought in that he had been killed.

Two of us went out to see if we could do anything, but there he was lying a few paces from the dugout practically decapitated. We could only lay him out on the fire-step and come away for the time being. It was rather tragic but he simply walked into it, and if only for his week-old wife’s sake, he might have exercised a little more caution. He was an old 13th H.L.I man, like myself, and we came over to France together. He was an excellent soldier and quite a well known sprinter in his day.

We had some shelling here today and one casualty. Must turn in now as we shall be early on the move tomorrow. My turn for leave cannot be far off now but we are rather short of officers at the moment.

Startling how matter of fact Henry’s writing is. Perhaps that was the way he coped?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.