10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I

John killerlane - November 18, 2017

While, trench warfare had been a part of siege warfare for centuries, never before had it been witnessed on such a scale as it was during the First World War. On the Western front, the largest front in European military history, millions of men fought along hundreds of kilometres of trenches organised as two dense networks of ditches between one and two kilometres wide on each side. “No man’s land” separated the opposing armies, sometimes by several hundred metres, but at times by only a few dozen.

Differences between French and German trenches

The fact that trenches allowed for movable, protected and concentrated fire from the infantry made them so difficult to conquer. Communications trenches connected the front line to the second. Units rotated among these successive lines of defence, which were protected by dense curls of barbed wire. Each trench was dug in a hatched pattern so that even if enemy soldiers entered a trench during an attack they could not fire down its entire length.
According to historian, Leonard V. Smith, the poilus, (or “hairy ones”, as the French soldiers became known due to their long hair and beards,) in the trenches faced new weapons, new rhythms of life and death, and constant danger.” As most of the Western Front was located on relatively flat terrain in a wet climate, with the water table quite close to the surface, “ever-present mud, the regular flooding of trenches, and the general confusion of physical space profoundly shaped soldiers’ experience.”

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldier standing in water in a French trench. pinterest

French trenches paled in comparison to their German counterparts. Whereas the poilus had to endure the insanitary conditions of their own trenches, the Germans used the most advanced building and mining techniques to create deep shelters, which were often lined with concrete, some of which had ventilation and heating systems – amenities which were unheard of on the French side. As a result, the French Army suffered a high death rate beyond the casualties inflicted by the enemy during World War I. Recorded cases of sickness amounted to five million for the four years of the war, though this figure includes soldiers reported ill on several occasions.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
This photo gives an idea of how much of a problem rats were in the trenches. rarehistoricalphotos.com

Insanitary conditions and illness

Omnipresent rats became a daily feature of trench-life. They infiltrated the soldier’s haversacks and fed on their provisions, as well as more disturbingly, the bodies of unburied soldiers. The insanitary conditions also facilitated the spread of lice from soldier to soldier. The blood-sucking louse lived in the seams of the soldier’s clothing and was known to cause typhus, an infectious feverish disease. By 1918 it was established that the louse was also responsible for the spread of trench fever, one of a host of new conditions brought about by the trench warfare of the Western Front.
Soldiers also suffered trench foot and frostbite as a result of standing in the cold wet mud of the trenches. However, soldiers undergoing treatment did benefit from a greater understanding of bacteriology and the use of antiseptics. The armies fighting in the First World War also benefited from preventative measures such as mass inoculation programmes. To help prevent the spread of dysentery, soldiers drank ‘Javel water’, which was water purified chemically by a solution of hypochlorite and sodium chlorate.
All soldiers received a leaflet advising them of measures they could adopt to prevent illness. Supplies of poison traps and insect repellents were issued but these only had limited success. Some military cemeteries were created during the war, the graves being dug by older reservists, but many men lay unburied for long periods and conditions remained appalling for the soldiers at the front.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
Men from the French 204th Infantry Regiment, 55 Infantry eat soup at Bois des Buttes. pinterest


Food despatched to the front was wrapped in a protective canvas, although its quality was often poor. Fish was sometimes not adequately salted or the bread that arrived was stale. A soldier was supposed to have at least one solid hot meal each day served from a company mobile kitchen, but not only were many of these defective, whether a soldier had the opportunity to pause to have something to eat or drink depended more on the enemy’s action. When a major attack was in progress soldiers would have to live on tins of corned beef (referred to as singe or monkey) or sardines and biscuits. Other time the poilus had to content themselves with a cold thick stew or soup brought to them by the hommes soupes in open containers that often let in mud or earth. Each soldier carried with him a two-litre flask into which he could pour wine or coffee. Wine, “le consolateur supreme” in the words of one private soldier, was as important as food for purposes of morale.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldier’s pose outside a cantonement in France, 1918. pinterest

Rest and leave periods

Equally abysmal were the cantonnements, i.e. rest facilities for the French troops during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Under French General Pétain’s “Noir” system, divisions were rotated every fifteen days. Soldiers were allowed a rest period following active service. But these buildings often housed up to 100 troops and some had no lighting or glass in the windows and contained only primitive washing and latrine facilities and wooden blocks for the soldiers to sleep on.
A leave system introduced in June 1915 meant that soldiers were entitled to seven days leave for every four months active service. Though in practice, leave was permitted varyingly, some units allowed leave every three months, some every six months, while others required even longer service. Up to fifteen days leave was granted at harvest time in the late summer and autumn while compassionate leave for family deaths, marriages, and births was also allowed. Many soldiers tried to extend leave periods with claims of travel difficulties or sickness, but claims, when found to be false, were punished severely.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
German Stormtroopers in action on the Western Front. militaryhistorynow

Fear of German miners and Stormtrooper attacks

According to historian Anthony Clayton, ever present in the minds of the front-line troops were four principal dreads. The first and most insidious of these was a fear of being buried alive as a result of German subterranean mining. German miners, in an attempt to force a breakthrough of enemy lines, would dig under the French soldiers’ position and place explosives underneath them.
The second principal dread according to Clayton, concerned the threat posed by the German Special Assault Detachment soldiers, more commonly known as Stormtroopers. These were small groups of elite soldiers who could operate independently without waiting for orders from a higher unit. Among their principal objectives were to cut barbed wire and to use one of the wars newest innovations, the flamethrower, to eliminate resistance from concrete machine gun outposts. Ironically, most flamethrower crews were made up of men who had been firefighters in their civilian lives.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
Gas attack during the First World War. medicsinworldwar1

Gas attacks

The third principal dread felt by French soldiers was the fear of German gas attacks, especially when gas masks were either unavailable or known to be ineffective. Despite the use of poison gas being outlawed by The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, from 1915 on, gas attacks became another terrifying aspect of trench warfare. As the war progressed the firing of gas artillery shells replaced the earlier less reliable method of simply opening a gas canister into a prevailing wind. Phosgene gas, the main gas used at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, caused much less coughing than did chlorine gas when it entered a soldier’s lungs. As a result, more of it was inhaled. Another feature of Phosgene gas was that it often had a delayed effect; apparently, healthy soldiers died from phosgene gas poisoning up to 48 hours after inhalation.
Simply trying to breathe while wearing a gas mask proved difficult. It also prevented comrades from recognising one another. According to historian Leonard Smith, this combination of physical danger and total anonymity and alienation represented the “nadir of battlefield experience.” In ‘Nous Autres à Vauquois’ (We at Vauquois), André Pézard wrote of the physical torture of wearing the mask during a gas attack:
“You do not see clearly with the glasses, which make you sweat around the eyelids. You have the mechanism, which dances on your nipples. The air heats up in the box of potassium. That scorches you from the bottom of your lungs to your kidneys. The brain begins to turn. The rubber cannula makes you want to throw up, and the saliva runs out of the corners of your mouth.”
Pézard further described witnessing soldiers overwhelmed by the experience:
“There are guys who go crazy, who take out the cannula to call for their mothers. They swallow the poison gas, they begin to cough, to spit, to vomit up their guts. They run for the door, they howl, they demolish the partitions by hitting them with the pumps or with their heads until we go to collect them.”

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
Artillery bombardment during World War I natsab.com

Terror experienced during shelling

The fourth principal dread concerned a fear of somatic mutilation as a result of artillery and mortar fire. Advancing, fleeing, and cowering in place were all equally as dangerous. Shelling could continue incessantly for several days and nights and usually, its cessation meant an impending infantry attack. At Verdun, approximately one shell fell on each square metre of front. The bombardment, when concentrated on known French positions amounted to forty shells a minute, destroying trenches and concrete machine posts, cutting telephone lines and inflicting heavy casualties.
More than two-thirds of all wounds inflicted were caused by artillery fire. The soldier’s own accounts of the First World War emphasise the “impersonal character of mass death,” and a “feeling of overwhelming insignificance on the battlefield.” As the war progressed soldiers became increasingly more proficient at identifying a shells probable point of impact by simply listening to it. This allowed them to take appropriate cover, but sometimes all a soldier could do was simply throw himself to the ground.
While artillery fire posed the most constant threat during the First World War, the machine-gun with its immense firepower proved equally as deadly. Machine-guns were capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute and at 180-degree angles so that even the most dispersed formations of attacking infantry could rarely escape their fire. But it was shelling that had more of an impact on the soldier’s daily functioning. Moving or eating proved impossible during an “ordinary” barrage. Soldiers had to do without food or water, thirst became one of the “best-remembered tortures of life at the front.”
Bombardments also cut off all tactical links within units by isolating soldiers from their leaders. During such periods where communication was impossible, accidental or “friendly” fire often occurred. The trenches themselves offered little protection against shrapnel exploding in all directions, all a soldier could do in such a situation was to try to take cover as best he could. Soldiers, especially those in deeper trenches, also faced the possibility of being buried alive by a shell blast.
Soldiers considered bodily annihilation as the most awful potential fate. Paul Dubrulle, a priest serving in the French Army summarised his own fear of physical destruction: “To die from a bullet seems to be nothing. The parts of our being remain intact. But to be broken into pieces, torn apart, reduced to pulp, there you see an apprehension that the flesh cannot withstand. That is the worst of what suffering is about during the bombardment.”
In contrast, Jean Bernier considered annihilation by a shell to be a relatively “straightforward and oddly comforting death”: “An enormous shock… a beautiful death, annihilating sleep and nothing, forever.” Guy Hallé, who served as a Second Lieutenant during the Battle of Verdun, imagined the moment of his death in more gruesome detail: “There will be a great flame, a cry, next I will be lying there, legs shattered, stomach torn up, all bloody, eyes wide open, and the face completely white!”

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldiers in a trench during World War I. wiki

French soldiers accounts of anticipating an offensive assault

An article from a trench newspaper, ‘L’Argonnaute’ from May 1916 provides a uniquely detailed account from a soldier anticipating an offensive assault at the Battle of Verdun. The article describes how the soldiers had braced themselves twice already that morning for an attack, only for it to be postponed both times. The new order stated that the attack was to take place at 14:00 hours. The author of the article describes how a corporal whispers in his ear, asking him, “Is it true this time?” He notes that this corporal is smiling, presumably not thinking of the dangers ahead.
The author himself is much more nervous of the impending danger, he attempts to calm himself by looking at the surrounding landscape. He checks his watch and sees that they are only “five minutes away from the leap into the unknown.” He tries to distract himself from the thought that “he might not be in a position to philosophise in an hour.” He describes the fifteen men of the assault group around him, some of them smoking, others talking quietly, and one who amazingly to the author looks at himself in a small mirror. He describes the “animal nervousness” of two or three of the men, but is confident that all will “rediscover their coolness,” and that “they, like the others, will have got used to the notion of sacrifice.”
When the order is given at 14:00 hours to advance, the author remarks that it is funny that it at this point that he regains his composure, his mind is clear and his body relaxed. In the calm before the storm, he can hear someone humming out on the level ground. His last glimpse is of a field of poppies, “their scarlet petals rippling in front of him like a flame.”
He describes the expressions on the faces of his comrades as they step out onto the battlefield, one named Lapernelle, who he notes is smiling sarcastically as usual, while others follow, frowning with clenched jaws. He describes how in the surrealistic atmosphere of the attack, “seven or eight yellow box shapes” fall beside them, it is only after they explode that he realises that they were artillery shells. The exploding shells leave twelve of the fifteen men wounded, forcing them to retreat back to their original position. When it is all over the author remarks that there “seems to see blood everywhere” and that he feels “a mixture of anger and grief.”
Guy Hallé wrote in Là bas avec ceux qui souffrent (Out there with those who suffer) of his own memories before an attack: “To say to yourself: at this moment I am myself. I am entirely me. My blood circulates and pulses through my arteries. My eyes are where they should be and all my skin is intact. I do not bleed. If they stopped this horrible war right now, right away, I would be able to stretch out and sleep in the sun. Oh, to sleep knowing that it is over, that I will live, that I will have joys and pains, sorrows and pleasures. That I will not be killed.”

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldiers in shell holes. pinterest

French soldier’s personal accounts of trench warfare

As the Battle of Verdun continued, soldiers arriving there encountered a landscape rivalling Dante’s description of Hell, where once linear trench lines were now little more than defended shell holes after the intense artillery bombardment. Fighting developed into more direct forms of combat between small groups of men battling from one shell hole to another without cover. Cases of “friendly” fire increased as infantry holding these shell holes and craters rather than trench lines , found it much more difficult to distinguish from a comrade from the enemy. To counter this the French sought to regain the initiative in the air by grouping fighter aircraft in squadrons to overwhelm German reconnaissance efforts.
An examination of contemporary private reports written by a postal censor on the 22nd and 28th July 1916 concerning soldier’s letters home provides an insight into the soldier’s morale immediately after fighting at Verdun, and morale six days later. The author speaks of his impression of “physical and moral weariness” inferred from the letters of the 22nd July 1916. Soldiers write of having “hardly any strength” and about the effects of phosgene gas inhalation, which “burns them in the stomach.”
The general sense of fear and horror toward Verdun is evident from the soldier’s own testimony, “Hell,” “Furnace,” “Calvary,” are some of the words used to describe the experience of battle there, (the author further informs us that the soldiers had christened it “Place of Death.”) One soldier describes the night of the 19-20 July 1916, as the best day of his life because his division was taken away from Verdun – “We came out from Hell,” he says, “so what if we get killed elsewhere, Verdun is a nightmare for all troops that have passed there.”
The author also notes the “consolation” of receiving letters from home, which came to mean “much more than the news it conveyed.” As the war progressed; “it was a physical, tangible link with the old life,” which “for a moment banished the surrounding realities of war and provided the incentive to struggle on.” The second survey of letters taken six days later on the 28th July shows the difference in morale after a week away from the Hell of Verdun. Soldier’s minds have turned to home and the plight of the women, to the haymaking and the harvest. Still, though, “they revisit the dark memories of the past week in Verdun” but now the “nightmare” had begun to blur, being replaced with a sense of “pride, accompanied even with honour.”
Memoirs and diaries written during the war provide further evidence of the horror that was Verdun. One anonymous French staff officer writing about the struggle for Fort Douaumont remarked, “Verdun has become a battle of madmen in the midst of a volcano” where “whole regiments melt away in a few minutes, and others take their places only to perish in the same way.” A similar account of the assaults on Fort Vaux describes the effects of a twelve-hour German artillery barrage on its author: “Never had I seen such horror, such hell. I felt that I would give everything if only this would stop long enough to clear my brain.”
An account of the German assault on Le Mort Homme (The Dead Man) written by an anonymous French veteran officer describes how the French Army captured prisoners “knocked down by the falling of the human wall of their killed and wounded neighbours.” According to the author these men “dazed by fear and alcohol” say very little, and that it takes several days for them to recover from their experience of battle.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldiers wearing military medals pose for photo. pinterest

Courage, Sacrifice, and Honour

Although courage had little to do with survival, as indiscriminate shelling and bullets brought death to hero and coward alike, historian Leonard V. Smith feels that the bravest soldiers were not those who were aggressive or disregarded danger, but those who “conserved an integrated and self-conscious, embattled self that persisted to the last moment of life.” Smith’s proposition of an “integrated and self-conscious embattled self” expanded on the distinction between “courage” and “heroism” forwarded by the French writer, Jean Norton Cru. Lecturing at Williams College in 1922, he described “heroism” as a fundamentally irrational state of mind…characterised by a total disregard for personal danger… a fit that is generally attended by death.” “Courage” on the other hand for Cru was a more daily, rational struggle against fear, “an inner strife between body and soul, a breathless wrangle between the rearing, snorting animal that shrank from suffering and destruction – and the mind that listened to the duty, or stuck blindly to self-respect.”
While Verdun was already a place of historical significance for the French before 1916, it only assumed its place “in the pantheon of national symbolism” because of the battle fought there during World War I. Verdun has since become synonymous with death and sacrifice, while the soldier’s own descriptions, “Hell,” “Furnace,” “Calvary” as well as their letters provide a greater understanding of the immense sacrifice these men made to protect their homeland.
The final chapter of Guy Hallé’s “Lá bas avec ceux qui souffrent, entitled “A Beautiful Memory,” recounts a medal awarding ceremony in June 1916 for his own unit after they had just been rotated out of the front lines after eight days of intense fighting at Verdun. Where previously these soldiers would have viewed medal-awarding ceremonies as an example of military snobbishness, these once robust soldiers who had arrived at Verdun full of life, following their experience there, which had left them “wracked with fever and the slow weary walk of old men,” now stood to attention, while their thoughts drifted back to the slopes of Douaumont.