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 – 7th and 17th May 1916

Henry Tod was in the thick of the action in his last letter. Let’s see what happens next. I haven’t read any of these before I share them with you.

Farm near Bethune

7th May 1916

Just a line to acknowledge your letters of 10th April and to report all well. We completed our tour without any further untoward happenings, but were jolly glad to get out of the place. [Now there’s an understatement.] Our next visit to the line will be a little to the right [this would be south], in the vicinity of my first visit to the trenches, likewise of bad memory. We are spending out six days out in the quite big town of Bethune, by way of change, where it is possible to do some useful shopping. This time the whole battalion is billeted together under one roof in a disused factory and we had a very successful concert last night. Some of our later drafts have provided excellent talent in this respect, including a professional comedian. The Colonel passed on a message from the Divisional Commander complimenting us on our stout behaviour in the trenches recently and we were all very pleased with ourselves.

17th May 1916

Your letters of 25th April are just to hand and glad to see you are all well, and I can likewise report “all present and correct”. As you will have seen from the papers, our part of the line is coming in for the attentions of the enemy. The Germans again attacked at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, of which we hold a part, and this time succeeded in establishing themselves in a section of our front line. We were in reserve and the Royal Scots were the unfortunate ones in possession. They are in the same Division.

It was after the usual terrible bombardment, against which infantry have no chance. The K.O.S.B [Kings Own Scottish Borderers] and the Scottish Rifles made the counter attack and managed to contract the enemy’s new line a bit, but failed to drive them out. The part taken is of little account as it formed a pocket in the enemy line and the result has merely been to straighten the line, but it is not pleasant to be treated thus.

Countryside near Bethune

We were brought up as support and provided digging parties, ammunition carriers, etc, etc, and to consolidate if the attack were successful. The Huns however, had already got their machine guns up and kept up a heavy shell fire on our lines, and our colleagues were unable to get through despite two valiant attempts. Owing to the contour of the ground our artillery is twice as far back from the line as the German guns and consequently could not make such good practice, and that made a big difference.

The brigade casualties were pretty heavy. A 5.9 shell found the headquarters dug-out of the Royal Scots killing two field officers, two company officers, and a host of others. Tomorrow we relieve the Irish on our right, who had a bad time of it in the last gas attack, for the simple reason that they were not nearly so well disciplined in gat drill and a number of the men had thrown away their helmets. We do eight days there. My leave is due but officers are scarce at the moment and I will have to wait.

Officers are scarce … sounds ominous, don’t you think. Although, I’m reminded of looking at Canadian battalion reports where casualties for officers were listed by name and casualties for regular troops were listed by numbers along with horses.

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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.