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.


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


Somewhere in France – 28th May 1916

27 Berkley Square today

Henry Tod writes to his family from London with what must have been a jarring update. He’s at 27 Berkley Square.

Here I have come to anchor at last, in hospital, after being a week on the way from the trenches. I sent you a card from Calais but I expect you heard before that from the War Office that I had been wounded. It is a slight affair and just sufficient to get me packed off here for a few weeks out of the turmoil. It was a bomb which got me, hip and thigh, and I am punctured in half-a-dozen places. They are all flesh wounds and I think they have all the metal out of me by now. Dressing the wounds is rather a painful process but I don’t think it will be very long before I am up. Otherwise I am quite fit and as you can imagine enjoying the change of surroundings to the full.

This is a big private house converted into a hospital and the extraordinary thing is that I know the owner, Mr Salisbury-Jones, who is what they call “something in the city.” I know of him in Russia where he has oil interests, and I met him when I was last over on leave at a dinner party at the Carlton with Mr Grabowsky and our London manager. When I discovered where I was, I sent word by one of the nurses and Mr and Mrs S-J came up to the ward to see me. Mrs S-J resplendent in the blue uniform and gold stripes of the commandant of the hospital, and we had a long confab, somewhat to the wonder and admiration of the other fellows.

27 Berkley Square dining room

There are twenty beds here of which eighteen are occupied, as are all six in my ward. We are very comfortable and the general contrast to the last eight months could not be more marked.

As to the manner of my wounding it is a sorry tale and I have little zest in the telling of it. I was taking out a patrol to discover and plot on the map a new crater, which was not visible from our lines owing to the other craters extending along our front and generally to find out what the Bosche was doing behind this miniature mountain range. It wasn’t really our company’s job, as we were in support at the time, but two attempts had been made by other companies, with negative results. The patrol that went out the previous night were spotted trying to get through our own wire and badly strafed by machine gun fire. The Colonel asked if I would take it on and advised me to take a strong patrol, say a bombing squad of seven men and an NCO. I thought it too many for reconnoitring purposes be he thought we might be able to cut of one of their patrols or working parties. Moreover, if we found the new crater occupied by the enemy we were to try and bomb them out of it.

Plaque commemorating WWI hospital

At about 1 a.m. we set out and left our trench at a point well to the left of our objective where the row of craters ended. There was an unfortunate moon shining but we could not wait any longer as it gets light soon after 2 a.m. We cut our way through our own wire and got clear of that and bore away to the right, wriggling on our stomachs Indian file. I was at the head of the line and had just got abreast of our old friend the Munster Crater when I saw trouble looming ahead in the form of a sap running out from the German lines and converging in the same direction I was going and which I would have to cut very fine if we were to make further headway. We could scarcely hope to get round it unobserved but there we were and something had to be attempted.

I moved on a bit and could hear the Germans talking and moving about in the sap, which I could now see was well protected with wire. There seemed to be a good number of them and I wondered what they were so busy about at that time of night. We wriggled on a bit further and I was within a yard or two of their wire, when we were spotted. I heard their excited “yah, yah” and one man started to count us. We could not have been caught in a worse place.

I passed down the word to throw our bombs and run for it, but where to run with a mountainous crater behind us? I had just got rid of my first bomb when their lights went up and a machine gun opened on us and bombs were flying in all directions, but we had no show [not sure what this means or if perhaps it’s a mistake] at all in the open and the chalky soil of the crater made a bad background for us. I had provided most of the men with revolvers, as a handy weapon in an emergency, and these were emptied at almost point blank range.

But they soon mopped us up. A bomb landed between me and the man next to me and I felt a burning sensation down my back and legs. He got it down the front and indicated he was through with it, pointing to his throat. I told him to stick it and we would try and get into the crater behind us. I hauled him up the bank of loose chalk somehow and how we ever got to the top I don’t know.

I wasn’t hit again except for a bullet which grazed the inside of my thigh but it is more than likely my friend stopped some more. From the top we simply rolled down anyhow into the bottom of the crater which had some water in it. I propped the man up but he was dead. I couldn’t make out what had happened too me; my breeches were in tatters and I could feel the warm blood on them, but I wasn’t waiting there any longer. I scrambled up the inside of the crater and was nearly blotted out by one of our own men at the top, who thought I was a German. I roared at him in pure Glaswegian, as there was a terrific racket going on from both sides, and he and some others soon had me back in the trench. I found three others had got in, all wounded. This left five unaccounted for and I could only take it the worst had happened.

I was taken into a dug-out and had first aid from the battalion doctor. When it was light, the stretcher bearers carried me to the dressing station where the doctor gave me an anti-tetanus injection and patched me up for the next stage to the village, where an ambulance took me to Bethune. It was during these operations I realized I had lost a good deal of blood, and of course I could not move – being all trussed up. At Bethune I was put under an anaesthetic, x-rayed, and the wounds thoroughly cleaned and after three days treatment here, I was put on a barge, fitted up like a hospital, and floated down the La Bassee Canal to Calais. [A distance of roughly 90KM or 56 miles.]

The case next to me was the adjutant of the Royal Scots whose headquarters dug-out I think I told you got a shell all to itself. He was hopelessly mauled and practically unconscious and died in Calais. I was three days in Calais before being shipped to Dover and thence to London.

This is a long winded effort and has taken days to write. I was glad to learn from the balloon that two others of my patrol got back to our lines the following night, after spending about 24 hours in a shell hole.

Will close now and duly report progress.

I can tell you I had no idea of Henry Tod’s wounds. He has such an understated way about him. My husband remembers from family stories that Henry Tod was connected with Russia in some business dealings, but the details are lost.


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