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WWI Wednesday: Building the Trenches



Modern trenches are intended to give cover from fire and from view. They are seldom roofed over, so that, as a matter of fact, they can be seen from the air, but it is not by any means an easy task either for an aeroplane to drop bombs there (a ditch three feet wide) nor yet for the artillery to hit them. But we seldom are able to inherit trenches—they usually have to be dug under cover of darkness while the enemy is sniping. For this purpose each man in the British army carries a small entrenching tool on his back, as well as two sandbags. Every man is trained in the use of this valuable little tool, and soon learns never to be without it.

Trenches do not consist of one long straight line, but what may be described as a succession of little rooms, about twenty feet long, seven feet deep and three feet broad. They are seldom roofed over. Each little room is connected to the ones on either side by a trench that runs behind the four-feet square traverse that is of solid earth and which serves the purpose of localising the effect of shells, bombs, etc. If the trenches were in one straight line, a shell that fell there would be liable to injure a great many men; whereas under the present system the traverse acts as a buffer and limits the radius of its explosive force. The trench itself is dug about three feet deep, care being taken to lift off the top layer of grass and keep it aside to place over the front of the earth on completion of the trenches, to render them less visible.

As the earth is lifted out it is thrown to the front and rear, and some of it put into sandbags which are then laid like stones as shown. The front part of the trench is then called the parapet and the rear part the parados. Both must be made strong, the parapet for reasons already given, and the parados in order to protect the men from the force of shells that fall just behind the trenches. About a foot from the ground there is placed a board that is called the “firing step,” on which the men stand when they are about to fire. I have said that there is seldom any roof over the trenches. It is difficult to cover in the trenches because of the limited supply of materials. Then again it is questionable if roofing pays; for, admitting that they may be able to keep out small bombs and rifle bullets, they can never hope to be able to keep out shells. The Germans used to roof in a great deal—but then they were there to wage a defensive war and did not propose to move for a good while.

Some kind of floor should be provided for the trenches. The simplest and best are made in the following way: Take two seven-inch boards about ten feet in length, nail them together to make a f ourteen-inch plank, and then cover the whole with fairly fine chicken wire. Place these boards on the ground with the side on which the wires are joined downwards. They keep the feet from slipping, are easily cleaned by being upended when they are dry, and allow the space under them to be reached easily to pick up scraps of food, etc. There is nothing more heart breaking than having to pursue your weary course for miles, sometimes, up trenches with slippery sides and sloping, wet, treacherous bottoms.

In each trench there must be dugouts for the men to sleep in. The first ones that are made will be very primitive, and will be very much like a fireplace in a room—simply excavations in jthe back wall of the trench almost on a level with the bottom of it. At first they used to be dug in the front of the trench, but this practice was discontinued as it was found to weaken the power of resistance of the very important parapet. In the course of time more labour can be expended upon the dugouts, and it will be found advisable to construct them of uniform size, six feet long by four feet wide by four feet high. By having them uniform we give the engineers a chance to make frames that can be used to support the roof and the sides and bring them well from the rear to construct the dugouts.

These dimensions do not make a very commodious home for four men, but never more than three of a section (of four) are off duty at the same time, and besides there is considerable danger in having large dugouts, as they present a correspondingly larger target for the guns. A direct hit on a large dugout will often bring the whole thing crashing about the ears of the inhabitants. My own adjutant and one of my brother officers were killed by falling beams in large dugouts. The entrance to the dugouts must be kept as small as possible so as to protect the occupants from shells that fall just outside.

Support lines were usually dug at a distance of thirty to eighty yards from the firing line. In them we kept a few men to be used in case of emergency. This line was an exact duplicate of the front line and was intended to be used in case we were pushed back. The reserve line was about five to eight hundred yards back from the front line and was not brought to any very great degree of completion. Interspersed between these three lines were many redoubts, or especially strong points containing machine guns, etc., whose defenders were expected to hold on to the very last and take advantage of their more secure position to make the attacker pay dearly for his advance. All these lines had to be linked up by communicating trenches, which started about a mile in the rear of the front line and went up in zigzag lines to the latter position, crossing the other trenches on their way. These communicating trenches are used for the purpose of bringing up troops and supplies, etc., and for taking to the rear the men that have been wounded. It is usually arranged to have some of these trenches “Up” and some of them “Down” roads. Each line of trenches (except of course the “communicating”) contain dugouts for the use of the troops that hold them. The distance between the communicating trenches varies from twenty-five yards to three or four hundred according to the state of perfection of the trench system.

For special weapons such as machine guns and bomb guns, special shelters have to be made. Extra strong parapets are provided as well as head cover of railroad ties, and every effort is made to keep the exact position of the machine guns secret from the enemy. We soon learnt that he was very anxious to find our machine guns and would shell us liberally in the hope of being able to locate them.

Care must be given to the question of drainage. Small ditches should be dug at intervals of a few yards to lead the water to pits in the rear. In Flanders, where we were very near river level, we installed hand and power pumps to keep the water from taking possession of the trenches. Even then, on rainy days we sometimes were in water up to our waists.

Great care must also be taken in the construction of latrines. The method that was followed was to dig a short “blind alley” trench at right angles to one of the communicating trenches, and at a distance of twelve or fifteen yards from the front line. Starting from the end of this blind alley, the trench was gradually filled in with earth as it was used. In other cases biscuit tins were used as receptacles and the ordinary sanitary squads emptied them at specified times into a fairly deep pit. These latrines should be well protected with sandbags to keep the enemy from finding them and training a machine gun on them, in the knowledge that they were very likely to get some of the men who used them during the day.

Training For The Trenches (1917)

Addie Hunton on the work of Black YMCA workers in WWI


African-American YMCA workers in WWI

Kathryn Magnolia Johnson (1878–1955), a high school teacher, worked for the NAACP as a field agent from 1913 to 1916, establishing branches in the Midwest and South. Addie Waites Hunton (1866–1943), a fellow teacher, worked as a NAACP field organizer from 1921 to 1924 and helped arrange the 1927 Pan-African Congress. In 1918 Johnson and Hunton sailed for France as YMCA workers to aid black troops. They wrote about their experience in this book, Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces.

The largest Y. M. C. A. hut in France was one built at Camp Lusitania, St. Nazaire, for the use of colored soldiers. It was the first hut built for our boys, and for its longest period of service was under the supervision of Rev. D. Leroy Ferguson, of Louisville, Ky. It reached its highest state of efficiency and cleanliness under Mr. J. C. Croom, of Goldsboro, N. C. It did service for 9,000 men, and had, in addition to the dry canteen, a library of 1,500 volumes, a money-order department which sometimes sent out as much as $2,000 a day to the home folks; a school room where 1,100 illiterates were taught to read and write; a large lobby for writing letters and playing games; and towards the close of the work, a wet canteen, which served hot chocolate, lemonade and cakes to the soldiers.

To this hut one of us was assigned, and served there for nearly nine months. The work was pleasant and profitable to all concerned, and no woman could have received better treatment anywhere than was received at the hands of these 9,000 who helped to fight the battle of St. Nazaire by unloading the great ships that came into the harbor. Among the duties found there were to assist in religious work; to equip a library with books, chairs, tables, decorations, etc., and establish a system of lending books; to write letters for the soldiers; to report allotments that had not been paid; to establish a money order system; to search for lost relatives at home; to do shopping for the boys whose time was too limited to do it themselves; to teach illiterates to read and write; to spend a social hour with those who wanted to tell her their stories of joy or sorrow.

All of this kept one woman so busy that she found no time to think of anything else, not even to take the ten days’ vacation which was allowed her every four months. In a hut of similar size among white soldiers, there would have been at least six women, and perhaps eight men. Here the only woman had from two to five male associates. Colored workers everywhere were so limited that one person found it necessary to do the work of three or four.ust on the suburbs of St. Nazaire, about two miles from Camp Lusitania, was another hut, the second oldest for colored men in France. Here the other one of the writers spent six months of thrilling, all-absorbing service; while about six miles out, in the little town of Montoir, where thousands of labor troops and engineers had permanent headquarters, the third of the colored women to come to this section ran a large canteen, supplying chocolate, doughnuts, pie and sometimes ice cream to the grateful soldiers. This hut was far too small for the number of soldiers it had to entertain, but it was made large in its hospitality by the genial, good-natured, energetic Mr. William Stevenson, its first hut secretary, now Y. M. C. A. secretary, Washington, D. C. He started the work in a tent, and built it up to a veritable thriving beehive of activity.

There were several other localities in the neighborhood of St. Nazaire, where one colored secretary would be utilized to reach an isolated set. They usually worked in tents. Other places where Y. M. C. A. buildings, huts or tents for colored soldiers were located, were Bordeaux, Brest, Le Mans, Challes-les-Eaux, Chambery, Marseilles, Joinville, Belleau Wood, Fere-en-Tardenois, Orly, Is-sur-Tille, Remacourt, Chaumont, and Camp Romagne near Verdun.

Rolling canteens ran out from some places, reaching points where the soldiers had no Y. M. C. A. conveniences. This was a small automobile truck, equipped with material for serving chocolate and doughnuts, and operated by a chauffeur, and a Y woman who dispensed smiles and sunshine to the ofttimes homesick boys, along with whatever she had to tempt their appetites. The last, and perhaps the most difficult piece of constructive work done by the colored workers, was at Camp Pontanezen, Brest.

There were several other large huts at Camp Pontanezen, that were used for long periods exclusively by colored soldiers; but in the absence of colored women, white women, sometimes as many as five in a hut, gave a service that was necessarily perfunctory, because their prejudices would not permit them to spend a social hour with a homesick colored boy, or even to sew on a service stripe, were they asked to do so. But the very fact that they were there showed a change in the policy from a year previous, when a colored woman even was not permitted to serve them.

In nearly all the Y. M. C. A. huts, in every section of France, moving pictures would be operated every afternoon and evening. Many times before the movies, some kind of an entertainment would be furnished by the entertainment department of the Y. M. C. A. There were shows furnished by French or American dramatists; concert parties by singers and musicians of all nationalities, and frequently a lecture on health and morals. The movies and shows were the most popular forms of entertainment, and on these occasions the huts would always be crowded, as all entertainments given by the Y. M. C. A. were free.

The organization also did much to promote clean morals among the men, by the free distribution of booklets, tracts, and wholesome pictures. This literature would be placed in literature cases, and the men would select their own material, while the pictures would be placed in parts of the hut where they would be easily visible. Some of the booklets which were unusually popular among the men were “Nurse and Knight,” “Out of the Fog,” “When a Man’s Alone,” “The Spirit of a Soldier,” and “A Square Deal”; while quantities of other stories with sharply drawn morals were distributed by the thousands and thousands of copies.

All told, the Y. M. C. A., with a tremendous army of workers, many of whom were untrained, did a colossal piece of welfare work overseas. The last hut for the colored Americans in France was closed at Camp Pontanezen, Brest, on August 3, 1919, by one of the writers; the two of them having given the longest period of active service of any of the colored women who went overseas.

Further Reading:

Guide to Resources on African Americans and the YMCA – University of Minnesota
Addie Waites Hunton biography – Black Past
“Negro Women in War Work” by Alice Dunbar Nelson in The American Negro in the World War (edited by Emmett J. Scott)

WWI Wednesday: Sand and Sun on the Middle Eastern Front


Imperial Camel Corps
A posed photograph of Australian, British, New Zealand and Indian camel troops

When you look at the events leading up to WWI, it seems odd that so much of the conflict focused on the stalemate along the Western Front (and to a lesser extent, the Eastern Front along the Russo-German border). For most of the late nineteenth century, the Great Powers squabbled over control of Africa, Asia, and the Balkans, with attempts to woo the Ottoman Empire to either side. In fact, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, many assumed the battle would be short and decisive and only between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. When the guns of August boomed, ushering everyone into battle, the initial objective of Germany was merely to overtake France before turning to Russia–no non-European territories involved (granted, the Congo Act of 1885 called for overseas possessions to remain neutral, but you get the point).

Nevertheless, this was truly a World War, and not only were colonial troops drawn from their countries to fight along the Western Front, but practically every corner of the earth battled for supremacy. When the Ottoman Empire called for a military jihad against France, Russia and Great Britain in November 1914, the Allies were drawn into a major battle for their territories and interests in the Middle East. There were five main campaigns–Sinai and Palestine, the Mesopotamian, the Caucasus, the Persian, and the Gallipoli–the last of which was the first major battle for the ANZAC troops, and was overall a disastrous failure for the Allies.

However, as the Western Front hunkered down into its trenches, many politicians, including Winston Churchill, were adamant that it was the Middle East (or to be more specific, the Dardanelles) in which decisive victory lay. Churchill’s political career was shaken by the slaughter at Gallipoli, as was the Premiership of H.H. Asquith, who barely held onto his position by forming a Coalition Government with the Conservatives in late 1915 until he was finally ousted by Lloyd George in December 1916. Yet many remained convinced of the importance of victory in the Middle East, especially after the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule in 1916 that was cultivated by Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence.

Life in the Middle East may have seemed like a picnic compared to the carnage of trench warfare, but soldiers had to deal with deathly heat, sandstorms, impregnable terrain, hostile “natives”, and long, arduous treks across the desert. Battles were perilous and dangerous, and hunger could be more feared than bullets.

Our position, when we first arrived in Akaba, was miserable. We had no food, and hundreds of prisoners. They ate our riding camels, (we killed them two a day,) caught fish, and tried to cook the green dates, till the messengers, who had been sent off hastily to Egypt across the Sinai Desert, could send help and food by sea. Unfortunately, the camels by now had done 1,000 miles in five weeks, and were all jaded, so that it took the men two days to get to Suez, where Admiral Wemyss at once ordered a man-of-war at top speed to Akaba, with all the food that was to be found on the quays. That ship is gratefully remembered in the desert, for it saved 2,000 Arabs and 1,000 Turks from starvation. — The New York Times History of the War

For the Allies, war in the Middle East was mostly futile and embarrassing, particularly the 147 day siege of Kut-al-Amara, where 23,000 Allied soldiers were either killed or wounded in an attempt to relieve the British and Indian troops besieged at the garrison. When the siege ended in with British surrender in April 1916, the 13,000 starved and exhausted soldiers were taken into captivity by the Ottomans (it is reported that “70% of the British and 50% of the Indian troops died of disease or at the hands of the Ottoman guards during captivity”).

In the meantime, the primary objective of the Allies was the capture of Baghdad and of Jerusalem. Both occurred in 1917 as the Ottoman forces were exhausted by campaigns on all sides and as the Germans turned more and more of their attention on defeating the Allies on the Western Front (particularly after America entered the war). The battle for the Middle East raged on until October 30, 1918, when the Ottomans and the Allies signed the Armistice of Mudros. In the aftermath of the Great War, the Arab revolt, the rise of the Armenians, and the final collapse of the Osmanli Dynasty created a conundrum for the European Powers. They had overthrown the Ottoman Empire with the help of various independent factions, but they still wanted control of the area. As a result, the hand of the Allies in the creation of the modern Arab world and the Republic of Turkey was heavy, and inadvertently set the stage for conflicts in the Middle East that exist to this day.

Further Reading:
The Tragedy of Kut
Sinai Front
The Middle East During WWI
Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East by David R. Woodward