Excerpts from ‘An ode to human ingenuity,’ published in The Guardian, Monday 10 November 2008
Life in the trenches was an unimaginable test of human endurance that bred unexpected humour and moving friendships as soldiers desperately battled the cold, wet and death all around them
“The western front conjures up images of fresh-faced British soldiers “going over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1 1916). But daily life was not always what Owen called “fury of hell’s upsurge”. Trench duty was conducted in spells. A few days in the frontline, some in the reserve or support trenches, followed by a period of rest at the rear (though there were exceptions – a West Yorkshire regiment spent 70 days in a Loos frontline sector in 1917). Frontline existence was often one of boredom, interspersed with terror. And humour. Julian Tyndale-Biscoe recalled panicking after he saw a shell hit the officers’ latrine with a man inside it, only to see him emerge a moment later with a grin: ‘It was lucky that the shell came when it did, as I was feeling a bit constipated.’
“An ordinary day was spent in small, dank dugouts, where soldiers would make tea, lunch on bully beef, or ‘chat’ – which meant both delousing and gossip. Historian Tony Ashworth has documented how soldiers evolved a system of “live and let live”, involving intricate daily negotiations and periods of open ceasefire. The most famous example is the Christmas truce of 1914 when ‘Tommies’ and ‘Fritzes’ walked across no man’s land to exchange greetings and small gifts. The common enemy became the men in the rear or back at home, as the frontline soldiers – poilu (‘hairy beast’) in French and frontschwein (‘front pig’) in German – became a secret community, segregated from the rest of the world.
“At the same time, mental breakdown, mutilation and mortality led to new levels of intimacy and intensity among men. Soldiers nursed and fed their friends when ill, their bodies spooned together when they slept, and during winter nights they wrapped blankets round each other. When his close friend Jim Noone died, Lance Corporal DH Fenton wrote to Noone’s mother: ‘I held him in my arms to the end, and when his soul departed I kissed him twice where I knew you would have kissed him – on the brow – once for his mother and once for myself.’
“In the world of the trenches, small gestures such as holding a dying comrade in one’s arms or closing his eyes were felt as acts of beauty that made life worth living.”