In September, 1914, the German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered his men to dig trenches that would provide them with protection from the advancing French and British troops. As the Allies soon realised that they could not break through this line, they also began to dig trenches.
As the Germans were the first to decide where to stand fast and dig, they had been able to choose the best places to build their trenches. The possession of the higher ground not only gave the Germans a tactical advantage, but it also forced the British to live in the worst conditions. Most of this area was rarely a few feet above sea level. As soon as soldiers began to dig down they would invariably find water two or three feet below the surface. Along the whole line, trench life involved a never-ending struggle against water and mud. Duck-boards were placed at the bottom of the trenches to protect soldiers from problems such as trench foot.
Much of the land where the trenches were dug was either clay or sand. The water could not pass through the clay and because the sand was on top, the trenches became waterlogged when it rained. The trenches were hard to dig and kept on collapsing in the waterlogged sand. As well as trenches the shells from the guns and bombs made big craters in the ground. The rain filled up the craters and then poured into the trenches.
Conditions got so bad that some men preferred to sleep outside their trenches. Arnold Ridley commented: "If you've ever tried to keep awake when you haven't had any sleep for days, it's not a question of allowing yourself to go to sleep. I can remember lying in a sunken road behind Gueudecourt. The trenches were full of water and I can remember getting out of the trench and lying on the parapet with the bullets flying around because sleep was such a necessity and death only meant sleep."
Waterlogged trenches was a major problem at Passchendaele. In his autobiography, No Leading Lady (1968), Robert Sherriff recalled: "The great preliminary bombardment had begun. We were surrounded by batteries of artillery, and for three nights it was bedlam." This continued despite very heavy rain that turned the Ypres lowlands into a swamp. The situation was made worse by the fact that the British heavy bombardment had destroyed the drainage system in the area.
As William Beach Thomas, a journalist working for the Daily Mail, pointed out: "Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. The newest shell-holes, already half-filled with soakage, are now flooded to the brim. The rain has so fouled this low, stoneless ground, spoiled of all natural drainage by shell-fire, that we experienced the double value of the early work, for today moving heavy material was extremely difficult and the men could scarcely walk in full equipment, much less dig. Every man was soaked through and was standing or sleeping in a marsh. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use."
Robert Sherriff pointed out: The living conditions in our camp were sordid beyond belief. The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it smelled like dead men."
C. S. Lewis also had trouble from waterlogged trenches on the Western Front at Arras in 1917. "Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies... One walked in the trenches in thigh gumboots with water above the knee, and one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire."
The trenches were wet and cold and at this time some of them did not have duckboards or dug-outs. The battalion lived in mud and water.
Our trenches are... ankle deep mud. In some places trenches are waist deep in water. Time is spent digging, filling sandbags, building up parapets, fetching stores, etc. One does not have time to be weary.
The trench, when we reached it, was half full of mud and water. We set to work to try and drain it. Our efforts were hampered by the fact that the French, who had first occupied it, had buried their dead in the bottom and sides. Every stroke of the pick encountered a body. The smell was awful.
The communication trenches are simply canals, up to the waist in some parts, the rest up to the knees. There are only a few dug-outs and those are full of water or falling in. Three men were killed this way from falling dug-outs. I haven't had a wash since we came into these trenches and we are all mud from head to foot.
It was quite the worse trench I have ever seen. A number of men were in it, standing and leaning, silently enduring the following conditions. It was quite dark. The enemy were about two hundred yards away, or rather less. It was raining, and the trench contained over three feet of water. The men, therefore, were standing up to the waist in water. The front parapet was nothing but a rough earth mound which, owing to the water about, was practically non-existent. They were all wet through and through, with a great deal of their equipment below the water at the bottom of the trench. There they were, taking it all as a necessary part of a great game; not a grumble nor a comment.
Last night we had the worst time we've had since we've been out. A terrific thunderstorm broke out. Rain poured in torrents, and the trenches were rivers, up to one's knees in places and higher if one fell into a sump. One chap fell in one above his waist! It was pitch dark and all was murky in the extreme. Bits of the trench fell in. The rifles all got choked with mud, through men falling down.
Rain had made our bare trenches a quag, and earth, unsupported by revetments, was beginning to slide to the bottom. We hailed the first frost which momentarily arrested our ruin. Saps filled up and had to be abandoned. The cookhouse disappeared. Dugouts filled up and collapsed. The few duckboards floated away, uncovering sump-pits into which the uncharted wanderer fell, his oaths stifled by a brownish stinking fluid.
Hell is the only word descriptive of the weather out here and the state of the ground. It rains every day! The trenches are mud and water up to one's neck, rendering some impassable - but where it is up to the waist we have to make our way along cheerfully. I can tell you - it is no fun getting up to the waist and right through, as I did last night. Lots of men have been sent off with slight frost-bite - the foot swells up and gets too big for the boot.
I have never seen a more depressing, desolate country than the part were in - the mud was black and of the clinging variety, its usual depth being about 9 inches. When the guns fired, the whole earth - or rather mud - shook like a Blanc mange. It was not much pleasure to pull each foot in turn with both hands out of the mud, especially when being shelled.
If you've ever tried to keep awake when you haven't had any sleep for days, it's not a question of allowing yourself to go to sleep. I can remember lying in a sunken road behind Gueudecourt. The trenches were full of water and I can remember getting out of the trench and lying on the parapet with the bullets flying around because sleep was such a necessity and death only meant sleep.
The great preliminary bombardment had begun. We were surrounded by batteries of artillery, and for three nights it was bedlam. It had now begun to rain.. .Living conditions in our camp were sordid beyond belief. The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it "smelled like dead men".
The latrines consisted of buckets with wet planks for the men to sit on, but there weren't enough of them. Something had given the men diarrhoea. They would grope out of their shelters, flounder helplessly in the mud, and relieve themselves anywhere. Some of the older men, worn out by the long marching and wretched food, were sick. They would come groping out of their shelters, lean their heads against the corrugated iron walls, and stand there retching and vomiting and groaning. Then they would go back to their huts and lie on the damp straw with their canvas packs for pillows. These were the men who were to break through the German lines, advance into Belgium and win the war.
In contrast with this human misery, there was something grand and awe-inspiring in that tremendous cannonade of guns. If you stood out there at night, you would see the whole surrounding country lit with thousands of red stabs of flame as salvo after salvo went screaming overhead.
Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies... One walked in the trenches in thigh gumboots with water above the knee, and one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire... I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still.
We are getting if possible busier and busier. A Brigade Order arriving last night fairly late involved getting breakfast for all troops at 7.30 instead Of 7.45 and 8 (two batches) which meant up before 5 and out in the rain (it was pouring) by 5.30 all the wood sopping: the fire trench half full of water and the carts and waggons being loaded and got out all over the shop.
We are being sorted into jobs. I fancy I shall stay on cooking. This is good because it is as useful a job as is going and one that demands conscientious hard work still it does not involve going into the actual firing line - a thing I have no ambition to do. Stray shell fire and epidemics are all I want to face thank you, let those who like the firing line have all the bullets they want.