Sunny

Sunny

max temp: 23°C

min temp: 17°C

Search

The pigs have arrived. See the latest

Pigs Gone Wild

news here.

First World War: What was life really like for the soldiers fighting in the trenches on the Western Front?

11:50 10 March 2014

Historian Taff Gillingham in First World War uniform.

Historian Taff Gillingham in First World War uniform.

Archant

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

The replica First World War trenches near Ipswich.The replica First World War trenches near Ipswich.

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.”

Ipswich borough councillor Robin Vickery, right, also chairman of the Ipswich branch of the Royal British Legion, with Taff Gillingham at the replica trenches.Ipswich borough councillor Robin Vickery, right, also chairman of the Ipswich branch of the Royal British Legion, with Taff Gillingham at the replica trenches.

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.

The replica trenches, dressed for the shooting of a film.The replica trenches, dressed for the shooting of a film.

“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.”

2 comments

  • has he ever been in the forces ?

    Report this comment

    TERENCE MANNING

    Monday, March 10, 2014

  • No one is now alive now that had to endure the horrendous times in the trenches ,stunts like this make the war look cheap,men in suits I even saw the mayor with his chain on trying to play soldiers leave it alone no one who was not there can even guest what it was like.

    Report this comment

    pandy

    Monday, March 10, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

Eastbound A14 traffic near the Copdock junction. Image: Keith Mindham

Drivers are currently experiencing long delays after a car crashed into the central reservation on the A14 eastbound at Nacton this evening.

Police at the Ipswich v Norwich derby.

Suffolk Constabulary has yet to confirm it will have a presence at Ipswich Town games this season - including the potentially powderkeg Old Farm Derby.

Woman repays £7,600 in overpayment claim

A Kesgrave woman has been fined after making a false statement to obtain £7,600 worth of benefits which she was not entitled to.

File picture of a car fire.

Firefighters were called to reports of three cars alight at a garage in Ipswich.

A motorist involved in a crash on the A14 in which a teenager died will live with the “huge remorse” for the rest of his life, a court has heard.

Relax and unwind

When the weather is as glorious as this, you want to do nothing more than sit back and relax.

Suffolk Police PCSOs (stock picture)

Two new PCSOs will be patrolling the streets of Bury St Edmunds from next January in a new step for local policing.

A police officer stands outside the Olympia mall in Munich, southern Germany, Friday, July 22, 2016 after shots were fired. (AP Photo/Sebastian Widmann)

The gunman who shot dead nine people and injured 16 others at a Munich shopping centre was an 18-year-old German-Iranian man, police believe.

Network Rail is replacing overhead line equipment between Shenfield and Liverpool Street.

Delays caused by extreme heat like those that affected rail services in the region could be less common in future according to Network Rail.

St Helena Hospice assistant nurse Emma Young reduced staff and patients to tears in Colchester after performing Adele's Make You Feel My Love. Pic: St Helena Hospice.

A video of an assistant nurse performing an Adele song at a Colchester hospice has gone viral.

Most read

Most commented

HOT JOBS

Show Job Lists

Topic pages

Streetlife

Newsletter Sign Up

Great British Life

Great British Life
MyDate24 MyPhotos24