First World War: What was life really like for the soldiers fighting in the trenches on the Western Front?
11:50 10 March 2014
Taff Gillingham lives and breathes the history of the First World War, even creating a network of authentic trenches. Paul Geater met him to talk about the reality of life on the Western Front
For those of us who have grown up over the last 50 years, the First World War has often seemed remote, affecting our grandparents’ generation and ultimately only serving as a curtain-raiser for the Second World War.
Many people’s views of the First World War are seen through the prism of later historians and social commentators who emphasised the tragic loss of life on both sides and the uncertain aims of the conflict.
However, historian Taff Gillingham, who has researched military history of the 20th Century and has built replica trenches that are now used by TV and film companies, is keen to emphasise the importance of the conflict and the impact it had on world history.
“The First World War isn’t taught in schools – apart from the poets – and today many people’s views on the war are formed by the 1960s musical ‘Oh, What a Lovely War,’ or other work written well after the conflict.”
He said many people had the impression that most of those who went to the war died, or were seriously injured, and that the soldiers suffered four years of hell during the conflict.
“The casualty numbers were very high, but 89% of British soldiers returned home at the end of the war. 60% of them came through without ever seeing the inside of a field hospital – they were totally uninjured.
“If you were in the trenches during an intensive battle it was horrendous, but that only affected a proportion of the troops. In other areas it could be much quieter.”
Mr Gillingham had met First World War veterans who had been keen to correct impressions that others had about the conflict.
“They said you spent 80% of your time bored stiff, 19% of your time frozen stiff, and 1% of your time scared stiff.”
British soldiers generally only spent a few days at a time in the trenches – the rest of the time they were at billets behind the front line relaxing or on other duties.
“It was different for the Germans. They spent years in the same trenches, but the British moved people around. It was a matter of fighting efficiency.
“If you have soldiers who are rested and trained away from the front, they’ll be much better fighters than those left in trenches for weeks on end.”
Mr Gillingham also rejected criticism of British generals’ treatment of their soldiers – claiming they made necessary decisions in the heat of battle.
The British sent about 6.5 million men to fight in France. About 700,000 were killed during the war.
However, the losses among the Germans, the French, and especially the Russians were much higher.
Mr Gillingham said: “The Germans had a very militaristic outlook and were determined to invade France and Belgium at all cost.
“Their generals were determined to send as many men as necessary to fight and be killed. Our generals had to be ruthless to resist that kind of assault. Otherwise the war would quickly have been lost.”
He pointed out that when Field Marshal Earl Haig died in 1928 30,000 ex-soldiers lined the route of his funeral.
The fighting evolved during the four years of the war, and individual soldiers were well-fed and supplied on the front.
“When they signed up, many of the men were unfit and under-nourished. They got regular meat and a healthy diet for the first time in their lives. They also enjoyed bonds of comradeship they had never known before.”
Mr Gillingham had met one veteran who told him that many of those at the front felt they would rather die at 26 having had a wartime adventure than live for decades in the kind of drudgery they had known before the war.
More people died in the flu epidemic of 1918-20 than in the First World War itself.
The Britain the soldiers and sailors returned to in 1918 (and 1919) was very different from the one they left.
Women had entered the workforce in large numbers for the first time, doing work that had previously been considered only suitable for men.
Technology had advanced – aircraft and motor vehicles were much more complex. There had been dramatic advances in medicine. And men who had been abroad fighting for their country were more questioning of the “established order”.
Mr Gillingham said that in many ways the 20th Century began with the First World War and the men who returned home had to adjust.
“But they were in it together. They shared a common experience and that is different to those coming out of the forces today.
“One veteran said that for some time after the war if he heard a car backfire he threw himself on the ground. But when he looked up there were three or four other men who had done the same thing. He didn’t feel embarrassed about it.
“Today if that happened to someone who has come home from Afghanistan, the soldier may be the only one to feel like that – and that makes it more difficult.”