“You are doing the only thing that is right” Eva Isaacs 12 August 1914
After the outbreak of War in August 1914, Britain began to raise a huge volunteer citizen’s army lead by Lord Kitchener, which has been discussed in a previous London Mint Office blog: ‘Lord Kitchener: The Recruitment of Britain’s New Army’. Unlike most people, Lord Kitchener believed this would be a long war and Britain could no longer just rely on its small, professional army.
It’s said that many men joined Lord Kitchener’s new army out of a sense of duty or patriotism and even saw it as a chance to leave dull lives for new adventures. Due to this, in just eight short weeks, over three quarters of a million men in Britain had joined up.
“Digging, digging, digging. Always bloody well digging” Soldiers Song 1915
By late 1914, it was clear that the war had become deadlocked on the Western Front, neither side was achieving victory. Soldiers began to dig trenches which would protect them from fire; they soon became vast trench networks that snaked from the English Channel to Switzerland. It was soon discovered that trenches were easy to defend but difficult to attack; it became a deadly game of hide and seek against an almost invisible enemy.
The Germans had taken higher ground which resulted in a better observation point to repel any attack and the British and French soldiers had to attack across no man’s land - a strip of terrain, laced with barbed wire between the two sides. It’s been noted that there had been trench warfare before, but never on this scale.
These trenches were no luxury , as the months passed and the death toll raised, with many men buried in shallow graves, life in the trenches became a man’s hell - a man’s hell were he had to sleep!
As the war continued and the death toll rose, rats in their millions started infesting the trenches. Gorging themselves on human remains, they could grow to be the size of a cat. Men, exasperated and afraid of these rats tried many methods to rid themselves of the creatures, however, the rat problem remained for the duration of the war. Rats were not the only source of infection and nuisance. Among the rats, lice was a never ending problem causing the men to itch uncontrollably. The lice caused a painful disease called ‘Trench Fever’ resulting in severe pain followed by a high fever. Recovery away from the trenches took up to twelve weeks.
As the war stretched on, trench foot became a major medical condition; this was a fungal infection of the feet caused by the cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions. Trench foot needed to be handled quickly or it could turn gangrenous and result in amputation.
It is difficult to measure the true number of people killed during the First World War however it has been estimated from 8.5 to 12.0 million.
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By Helen Thomas