Unearthed First World War manuals reveal the everyday challenges of life in the trenches
Life in the trenches of the Western Front was tough enough without worrying about remembering to shave every day or taking the rubbish out at night.
But a new book has now revealed in extraordinary detail the standards expected of Britain’s soldiers fighting on the front line in the First World War.
The compilation of officers’ manuals – which have been published for the first time since the end of the conflict – gives a new insight into the daily perils the men faced as well as the lighter side of army life.
The pamphlets, which officers used to pass on tactics and orders to their men while on the front line, reveal what soldiers were supposed to do in virtually any circumstance, from standing “perfectly still” at the sight of enemy aircraft to carrying a spare sock under their jacket, on each shoulder, so they could be changed if their feet got wet.
When a spare pair was not available, soldiers were told it was “refreshing” to occasionally stretch their socks and turn them inside out.
The manuals even offer suggestions of games the soldiers could play in their free time that would keep their minds alert and also develop skills that could be used in battle.
In a twist on football, a game called “bomb-ball” was created, which was described as “a game for bringing into play the muscles used in bombing (throwing grenades), and for the development of quick and accurate throwing”.
It involved a referee, corners and throw-ins and the off-side rule, but instead of kicking a leather ball, soldiers would throw a grenade-sized canvas bag filled with sand.
While the game might have been a welcome distraction from the war, the manual, which was issued in October 1916, stresses that it was to be taken seriously.
It says: “The essence of the following games is that they should be conducted with the utmost amount of energy and the rigid observance of all the details connected with them.
“Executed in this way, they inculcate discipline and develop quickness of brain and movement, whereas, if carelessly carried out, they may do more harm than good.”
The pamphlets also emphasise that maintaining a positive attitude among soldiers was the key to keeping morale high.
Platoon commanders were advised that they would build a well-trained platoon by “establishing a high soldierly spirit” and setting the example.
Characteristics singled out included “being blood-thirsty, and for ever thinking how to kill the enemy”, “being well turned out, punctual, and cheery, even under adverse circumstances” and “recognising a good effort, even if it is not really successful”.
They were told to “enforce strict discipline at all times”, particularly over the issue of rum. Officers were encouraged not to hand out rum to men about to go on sentry duty.
A manual called ‘Trench standing orders for the 124th infantry brigade’ says: “The issue of rum in the trenches is as a rule undesirable. It is difficult to supervise, and leads to drunkenness.
“If issued just before the men go on duty it makes them drowsy and unfit for the alert duties of a sentry.”
The same manual instructs that sentries must not wear any coverings over their ears and must remain standing, unless the height of the parapet means they would be exposed to enemy fire.
It also orders that bayonets should always be fixed at night, during a snowstorm or thick mist.
A pamphlet entitled ‘Notes on Minor Enterprises”, issued in March 1916, tells officers how to carry out small scale raids on the German trenches.
It suggests woollen gloves should be used while the men crawl forward across no man’s land, but recommends throwing them away on reaching the enemy position.
Soldiers with coughs and colds should not take part in such missions, it suggests.
Another pamphlet – ‘Notes from the Front’ – warns officers that their men should be wary of underhand tactics used by the Germans.
“The enemy makes use of stratagems some of which we should consider dishonourable,” it says.
Among examples of foul-play, it cites Germans dressing in French uniforms and speaking French and advancing under cover of a white flag.
The pamphlets also discuss methods deployed by the enemies for espionage, and highlight the need to be suspicious of pigeons found in France: “The keeping of unregistered carrier pigeons is illegal, and they are a favourite method of communication by spies.
“On arrival in a village an order should be given to the Mayor that all cages are to be opened and cellars searched for pigeons.”
Published to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, the book, An Officer’s Manual of the Western Front, also records the levels of hygiene and personal cleanliness required of soldiers.
Biscuit tins were to be used in the absence of toilets on the front line, and refuse was placed in “properly appointed rubbish sacks” that were removed at night and then buried.
It added: “Men must be properly dressed at all times and as smart and clean as circumstances will allow. All men must shave daily.”
Dr Stephen Bull, who wrote the book, unearthed a number of the manuals at flea-markets.
“We’ve got glimpses of the war from memoirs, but this is the first time it’s been laid out to give such a full picture of life in the trenches,” said Dr Bull, who is a curator of military history and archaeology for Lancashire Museums.
“It says something about the expectations of a different age and it is very difficult to tell whether this spirit still exists.”
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