Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Life in the Trenches

To those who have not experienced warfare, it seems a most thrilling and exciting adventure. We imagine something happening most of the time and certainly suppose it to be the most interesting experience which an individual could have. But on the majority of men who fought this war, life in the trenches left the same impression. War was dull. It was composed of long delays, of interminable waiting, of weeks and months in which nothing of consequence took place. The danger of being shot became too commonplace to furnish any excitement. The ordinary man spent day after day sitting or lying in little holes in the ground, either waiting for something to happen, or, if he was fortunate, watching another hole in the ground some distance off where the Germans were. While the year 1918 was one of almost continuous activity all along the front, such was not the case in the years preceding it. An individual might have a week or more of the most intense or exhausting activity, followed by months in which he felt that he was doing nothing at all.

The soldiers, moreover, were unanimous that war was uncomfortable. War was, first of all, mud; war was also wet, for it rained upon the Allied trenches as well as upon the Germans. In Flanders the greater part of the country had always been under water during the winter and spring months and the floods came during the war as at other times. The Germans and Allies also took great pleasure in devising measures for turning rivers into each others' trenches. On large sections of the lines throughout the winter the mud was ankle deep when it was not deeper. On some considerable portions, the men stood waist deep in ice water, sometimes for hours at a stretch.

War also was cold. It had to go on in winter as well as at other times. Men had to be on duty in the trenches during long winter nights when the sleet and snow descended as well as on pleasant summer evenings. It does not get cold in Europe as it does in this country, for in northern France the ground does not freeze solid for the winter, as it does in the northern part of the United States, and the snow is rarely deep and seldom lasts. But it is damp and foggy and the cold somehow seeps through one's clothes and flesh into the very marrow of one's bones.

War therefore was dirt. A soldier coming out of the trenches looked like a sort of animated mud bank, or, if it were a rainy day, like a man who had fallen into a sewer and had just been rescued. It was extremely difficult to keep clean, and while baths, dry clothing, and new clothing were provided, it was very difficult for the men to keep comfortable. The amount of food on hand at all times in the trenches and dugouts drew vast numbers of rats and mice who were very unpleasant companions. Dogs and cats were kept to kill them but it was never entirely possible to get rid of them.

All of these conditions made two things particularly essential in the trenches if life was to be endurable. First, what was known in the British army as "spit and polish." Whatever the conditions, however deep the water or mud, however long the rainstorm, the men must present themselves in the morning at inspection with the chin shaved, the hair cut, the gun clean, the clothes brushed, with all the buttons on, and with the leather shiny. The result might last only five minutes but the officers were insistent that it should be done. The purpose was clear. It was necessary if the men were to keep well. Unless a man is kept clean, he very soon becomes diseased and sick. Unless his clothes are clean, he accumulates vermin and also germs. The health of the army could not last long unless as great cleanliness were insisted upon as possible.

But why the polish? That had to do with the morale of the men. The tendency of the soldier is to say after a while to himself, what's the use of being clean I am as likely as not to be killed the next minute—why should I be polishing my boots—what difference does it make to me whether I am killed in a clean or a dirty shirt—whether I have two buttons off or two buttons on. Once an officer allows the men to become dirty, they begin really to believe that they probably will be killed the next minute. It was absolutely essential that the men, should act as if they could not be killed; as if they were going to live forever. If the mud was deep, all the more reason to act as if it were not there. The effect upon the men was to keep up their courage and to keep them in good humor.

The other essential thing was healthy amusement. For the British and Americans this took the form of football and baseball, which the Americans began to teach the British. There were dances in which the men danced with each other, when there were no girls available, and movie performances which were regularly provided for the troops. The British created almost at once what were called Church Huts; the American Y.M.C.A. also began its work in the British army before we entered the war. The British Salvation Army undertook a vast work for keeping the men happy and amused. All of these organizations distributed a considerable amount of luxuries, particularly tobacco. The French do not care for games of the sort the British and Americans play, and the French government provided theatrical and vaudeville performers and moving pictures. The greatest actors and singers in France were glad to give all their time to the task of amusing the soldiers and their work was extremely important and successful.

It would be a very great mistake to allow any one to suppose that there was any lack of humor or cheerfulness in the trenches. The contrary was true, especially in the case of the British and Americans. The British in particular extracted a great deal of satisfaction out of French names, which they never were able to pronounce and which they therefore mispronounced intentionally. Ypres became Wipers; Meault became meaow, pronounced as we pronounce the mewing of a cat; Mouquet became moo cow.

On the Front Line


The French early in the war began to refer to the Germans as the "boches," which is supposed to come from caboche, meaning thick head, but its real derivation is declared by the best authorities to be vague. The British promptly nicknamed the Germans "Fritz," just as the Germans called the Highland troops, with their kilts and bare knees, the "ladies from hell." The Americans also contributed to the army slang and nicknamed the Germans "Jerry," and termed their own motor corps the "gas hounds." One of the most peculiar words commonly used by the British and Americans was "blighty." It meant a wound sufficiently serious to invalid a man home and was supposed to come from a Persian word, picked up by the British in the east, which means back home, or going back home.

[Illustration] from Story of the Great War by Roland Usher


Almost at the outset, the French private soldier began to be called "poilu," which is said to be derived from a French word meaning hairy, and refers to the fact that most Frenchmen wear beards, and that most soldiers therefore were hairy. "Tommy Atkins" was a term for the British soldiers which had been in use for a long time before this war, and is supposed to have come from some story or comic song. It is also interesting to know that the British and American soldiers used a great deal of that sort of private language which a good many American children think they invent, when they turn words hind side before or reverse some of the letters. The soldiers after all were nothing but great boys; many of them in fact were no more than seventeen or eighteen years old. It is therefore not surprising that they should have continued in the army all those practices which have been so long dear to the British and American youth at home.