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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.