The eye witness accounts from World War One highlight some of the issues troops faced throughout the campaigns fought between 1914 – 1919.

Some of the content below may be upsetting to readers, therefore we advise readers to exercise caution and discretion when reading the article. If graphic descriptions of War, Disease and Death is a topic of upset for anyone, please do not read further.

 Serbian riflemen in a trench overlooking the Danube River
Serbian riflemen in a trench overlooking the Danube River

Waterlogged Trenches

World War One for many soldiers became a trench warfare with the Germans establishing trenches in September 1914. With the Germans taking the lead in trenches, this gave them a choice of land and tactical advantage over other troops. Allied soldiers began building trenches in areas that were only a few metres above sea level, in ground that would encounter water within two or three feet below the surface. The area was high in clay or sand which meant that the trenches would become waterlogged very quickly as water was unable to pass through the sand and clay. Trenches were hard to dig and often collapsed in the waterlogged sand. Shelling also caused large craters that inevitably filled with water which then would pour back into the trenches.

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.

Private Pollard (taken from his published memoirs in 1932)

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.

Vyvyan Harmsworth 13th January 1915

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.

Private Livesay, 6th March 1915

UK Soldier in waterlogged trench
UK Soldier in waterlogged trench

Trench Foot

Between the winter of 1914-1915 over 20,000 soldiers in the British Army suffered from Trench Foot. Trench Foot was an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions with soldiers standing in the trenches for hours on end, without the ability to remove their boots and socks. The feet of soldiers would swell, with the foot going numb and the skin turning red or blue. This could often lead to the foot going gangrene and having to be amputated.

If you have never had trench feet described to you. I will tell you. Your feet swell to two or three times their normal size and go completely dead. You could stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are fortunate enough not to lose your feet and the swelling begins to go down. It is then that the intolerable, indescribable agony begins. I have heard men cry and even scream with the pain and many had to have their feet and legs amputated.

Sergeant Harry Roberts

My memories are of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. They knew they were going to lose a leg.

Arthur Savage (interviewed at 92 years of age about his memories on the Western Front)

The trenches were wet and cold and at this time some of them did not have duckboards and dug-outs. The battalion lived in mud and water. Altogether about 200 men were evacuated for trench feet and rheumatism.

Captain G. H. Impey, 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment

 British soldiers giving a cigarette to a German prisoner
British soldiers giving a cigarette to a German prisoner

Blighty Wounds

Knowing that soldiers faced being killed or permantly disabled, some soldiers hoped that they would receive a blighty wound, which would wound them enough to be sent back home to Britain, away from the frontline. Other soldiers also created Self Inflicted Wounds (SIW) on themselves in the hope to be returned back to Britain. SIW was a capital offence and soldiers faced execution by firing squad. Other soldiers resorted to suicide.

No words could really describe the horror of those days – the rats, the filth, the mud, cold and non-stop rain. No sleep. No food for days at a time and being under constant enemy fire from shells, machine-gun and rifle, and gas.

One day I was in the trench and we’d been under-non stop attack for days. Well, two of the blokes with me shot themselves on purpose to try and get sent home and out of the war. One lad put a tin of bully beef on a ledge in the trench, then placed his hand behind it and fired his rifle through the tin, thinking, I suppose, that the tin would take the full force of the bullet and he would only get a flesh wound. But he misjudged the power of a shot at such close range and blew three of his fingers off.

The other one said to me “Chas, I am going home to my wife and kids. I’ll be some use to them as a cripple, but none at all dead! I am starving here, and so are they at home, we may as well starve together.” With that he fired a shot through his boot. When the medics got his boot off, two of his toes and a lot of his foot had gone. But the injuring oneself to get out of it was quite common.

A sergeant-major came to see what was happening. I told him that a sniper had just caught a couple of our men who had to get on top of the trench for a minute to move a sandbag. He looked at me a bit sideways, but yelled out for stretcher bearers, and they were carried off.

Charles Young (interviewed in 1984)

I recall the wounded as being incredibly patient and unhappy. The one thing they asked, hopefully, prayerfully, was whether they’d caught a ‘Blighty’ this time. Was their wound bad enough to get them home? Did I think it might get them out of the war altogether? That was perhaps too much to hope for. After all, they were damned lucky to be wounded. Most of their company or battalion would never come home.

A common dodge was to shoot your foot through a sandbag so that the powder did not show. A guard was put to watch anyone who damaged himself. What I recall most from that time is the total loss of belief that the war had any object; it was just an incredible calamity that had to be endured. They were men without faith or hope. They were bitterly critical about people at home. They never grudged your comparatively cushy job. They would give you a dig in the ribs, “Oh, you’re a Quaker, are you? Good luck to you. I wish I’d thought of that dodge myself.” You’d been smarter than they had. A disconcerting view as long as you remained any kind of idealist.

Kingsley Martin (from his autobiography)

 Dead Russians in a trench near Zakliczyn, Poland
Dead Russians in a trench near Zakliczyn, Poland

Casualties in the Trenches

The number of people killed in the First World War is unknown due to the collapse of government bureaucracies in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Another probnlem was the definition and recording of deaths by Governments who only published figures for soldiers that were killed during military action and did not record deaths of soldiers who died slowly from wounds, gas poisoning or disease. Estimates vary between 8.5 to 12.0 million deaths.

At the beginning of the First World War, popular opinion was that it would not last more than four months, that the science of modern warfare would take such a ghastly toll of human life that mankind would demand cessation of such barbarism. But we were mistaken. We were caught in an avalanche of mad destruction and brutal slaughter that went on for four years to the bewilderment of humanity. We had started a hemorrhage of world proportion, and we could not stop it.

Charles Chaplin (from his autobiography published in 1964)

Ernest Pusch wore an under-garment of chain mail… such as had been worn in the Middle Ages to guard against unfriendly daggers, and was now sold to over-loving mothers as likely to turn a bayonet-thrust or keep off a stray fragment of shell; as I suppose, it might have done…. Anyway it didn’t matter; for on the evening when we first came within reach of the battle-zone, just as he was settling down to his tea, a shell came over and blew him to pieces.

A.A. Milne - 1939

As you lifted a body by its arms and legs, they detached themselves from the torso, and this was not the worst thing. Each body was covered inches deep with a black fur of flies, which flew up into your face, into your mouth, eyes and nostrils as you approached. The bodies crawled with maggots. The bodies had the consistency of Camembert cheese.

Stuart Coete (A Victorian Son - 1972)

 Bulgarian soldier giving water to dying Turk, Adrianople
Bulgarian soldier giving water to dying Turk, Adrianople

Lice

Lice was common in the trenches and with no easy solution to prevent the lice from spreading. Lice created itchiness and discomfort to soldiers, as well as the non-fatal disease pyrrexhia, also known as trench fever. Trench fever would cause shooting pains in the shins followed by a high fever, whilst non-fatal, did impair the effectiveness of soldiers in combat. 15% of illnesses in the British Army was accounted to Trench Fever.

A full day’s rest allowed us to clean up a bit, and to launch a full scale attack on lice. I sat in a quiet corner of a barn for two hours delousing myself as best I could. We were all at it, for none of us escaped their vile attentions. The things lay in the seams of trousers, in the deep furrows of long thick woolly pants, and seemed impregnable in their deep entrenchments. A lighted candle applied where they were thickest made them pop like Chinese crackers. After a session of this, my face would be covered with small blood spots from extra big fellows which had popped too vigorously. Lice hunting was called ‘chatting’. In parcels from home it was usual to receive a tin of supposedly death-dealing powder or pomade, but the lice thrived on the stuff.

Private George Coppard (taken from With a Machine Gun to Cambrai - 1969)

We had to sleep fully dressed, of course, this was very uncomfortable with the pressure of ammunition on one’s chest restricted breathing; furthermore, when a little warmth was obtained the vermin used to get busy, and for some unexplained reason they always seemed to get lively in the portion of one’s back, that lay underneath the belt and was the most inaccessible spot. The only way to obtain relief was to get out of the dugout, put a rifle barrel between the belt and rub up and down like a donkey at a gatepost. This stopped it for a bit, but as soon as one got back into the dugout, and was getting reasonably warm so would the little brutes get going again.

Private Stuart Dolden

 Serbian women burying the dead after a battle
Serbian women burying the dead after a battle

Dysentery

Without proper sanitation in the trenches, dysentery spread amongst soldiers. Dysentery is a disease that causes the inflammation of the lining of the large intestines, which would cause stomach pains and diarrhoea, and in some cases vomiting and fever. Soldiers became infected through bacteria entering the body via the mouth in food or water, or contact with human faeces and infected people.

An axe would be the means of filling the dixies (iron stewing pots) with lumps of ice. We used it for tea several days until one chap noticed a pair of boots sticking out, and discovered they were attached to a body.

An Australian soldier at the Somme in 1916 later wrote about how in the winter men obtained water from ice in shell-holes.

 Corpse-strewn battlefield near Cambrai
Corpse-strewn battlefield near Cambrai

Rats

With the trenches containing many dead bodies and food scraps, all decomposing, naturally attracted many rats to feed on the waste. Rats can litter 880 offspring within a year.

Life in the trenches was hell on earth. Lice, rats, trench foot, trench mouth, where the gums rot and you lose your teeth. And of course dead bodies everywhere.

James Lovegrave, interviewed in 1993.

Rats. There are millions!! Some are huge fellows, nearly as big as cats. Several of our men were awakened to find a rat snuggling down under the blanket alongside them!

Major Walter Vignoles, Lancashire Fusiliers

Rats came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. While I stayed here with the Welch. a new officer joined the company and, in token of welcome, was given a dug-out containing a spring-bed. When he turned in that night he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand.

Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929)

The stench of the dead bodies now is awful as they have been exposed to the sun for several days, many have swollen and burst. The trench is full of other occupants, things with lots of legs, also swarms of rats.

Sergeant A. Vine, diary entry (8th August, 1915)

Two types of French Gas Masks
Two types of French Gas Masks

Poison Gas

Poisonous gases were first used in the War by the French who fired tear gas at german soldiers, by October 1914 the German army began firing shells containing chemical irritants. By April 1915, chlorine gas cylinders were being used by the German army which would destroy the respiratory organs of its victims.

Poison Gas Deaths: 1914-1918
Country

Non-Fatal

Deaths

Total

British Empire

180,597

8,109

188,706

France

182,000

8,000

190,000

United States

71,345

1,462

72,807

Italy

55,373

4,627

60,000

Russia

419,340

56,000

475,340

Germany

191,000

9,000

200,000

Austria-Hungary

97,000

3,000

100,000

Others

9,000

1,000

10.000

Total

1,205,655

91,198

1,296,853

I was awakened by a terrific crash. The roof came down on my chest and legs and I couldn’t move anything but my head. I found I could hardly breathe. Then I heard voices. Other fellows with gas helmets on, looking very frightened in the half-light, were lifting timber off me and one was forcing a gas helmet on me. Even when you were all right, to wear a gas helmet was uncomfortable, your nose pinched, sucking air through a canister of chemicals.

I was put into an ambulance and taken to the base, where we were placed on the stretchers side by side on the floor of a marquee. I suppose I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lugs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth.

To get air in my lungs was real agony. I dozed off for short periods but seemed to wake in a sort of panic. To ease the pain in my chest I may subconsciously have stopped breathing, until the pounding of my heart woke me up. I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep.

William Pressey was gassed on 7th June 1917 at Messines Ridge. He survived the attack

The shells came over just above the parapet, in a flood, much more quickly than we could count them. After a quarter of an hour of this sort of thing, there was a sudden crash in the trench and ten feet of the parapet, just beyond me, was blown away and everyone around blinded by the dust. With my first glance I saw what looked like half a dozen bodies, mingled with sandbags, and then I smelt gas and realised that these were gas shells. I had my respirator on in a hurry and most of our own men were as quick. The others were slower and suffered for it. One man was sick all over the sandbag and another was coughing his heart up. We pulled four men out of the debris unharmed. One man was unconscious, and died of gas later. I started at once to build up the parapet again, for we had been laid open to the world in front, but the gas lingered about the hole for hours, and I had to give up as it made me feel very sick.

H. S. Clapham - Mud and Khaki: The memories of an incomplete soldier - 1930)

 German medics treating wounded soldier discovered by Red Cross dogs
German medics treating wounded soldier discovered by Red Cross dogs

Child Soldiers

Child soldiers as young as 12 were used on the frontline, with the youngest recorded death of a soldier at age 14; John Condon who was a member of the Royal Irish Regiment.

We marched to the quarry outside Staples at dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.

Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.

The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man’s temple. He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word ‘mother’. He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions.

At the age of fourteen, Victor Silvester ran away from Ardingly College and joined the army. In an interview he gave just before his death in 1978, he described how he was ordered to execute a man for desertion.

The child, said to be too short to see over the edge of a trench, was recalled by another under-age soldier, George Maher, who was only 13 when he was sent to the Somme during the First Wold War.

Mr Maher had told a recruiting officer that he was 18 to enable him to join the 2nd King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment in 1917. But his true age was revealed when he broke down in tears under shellfire and was hauled before an unsympathetic officer.

Mr Maher, who died aged 96 in 1999, remembered: “I was locked up on a train under guard, one of five under-age boys caught serving on the front being sent back to England.

“The youngest was 12 years old. A little nuggety bloke he was, too. We joked that the other soldiers would have had to have lifted him up to see over the trenches.”

Julie Henry, The Daily Telegraph (31st October, 2009)

We went up into the front-line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to the our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his face and body was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified, but even more frightened of showing it.

That night I had been asleep in a dugout about three hours when I woke up feeling something biting my hip. I put my hand down and my fingers closed on a big rat. It had nibbled through my haversack, my tunic and pleated kilt to get at my flesh. With a cry of horror I threw it from me.

Private Victor Silvester - Age 14

On my way to work one morning a group of women surrounded me. They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did? They struck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed.

I went to the recruiting office. The sergeant there couldn’t stop laughing at me, saying things like “Looking for your father, sonny?”, and “Come back next year when the war’s over!” Well, I must have looked so crestfallen that he said “Let’s check your measurements again”. You see, I was five foot six inches and only about eight and a half stone. This time he made me out to be about six feet tall and twelve stone, at least, that is what he wrote down. All lies of course – but I was in!”

Private James Lovegrove - Age 16

The 11th of November is officially Armistice Day (renamed to Remembrance Day after World War II) which a two minute of silence is observed from 11:00am to commemorate the sacrifice made by servicemen in times of war.

For further information on World War I and more eye witness accounts, please visit: http://spartacus-educational.com/FWW.htm

Images provided by the Great War Primary Document Archive

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One Comment

  1. Kevin Mc Culloch

    February 26, 2016 at 6:29 am

    I was interested in reading “Eye witness Accounts of World War One”. My father was awarded a Military Medal for his bravery on the fields of France in 1916, as a stretcher bearer. He spoke often of the battles at Ypres and the Somme and Memetz. He would speak of the great suffering men endured during the continual shelling and the dreadful conditions of trench warfare . He enlisted at Lochgelly in October of 1914 and after short training was assigned to the RAMC and arrived in France in March 1915. His name was John Mc Culloch.

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