too soon the men would get accustomed to the daily episodes of ‘morning
hate’ followed, hopefully by a quiet day. In the evening there might
be a repetition of the ‘stand to’ and ‘hate’ of
the morning and then by night there would be rations and stores to fetch
from the battalion transport, and repairs to be made to the barbed wire
at the trenches, sentries to be increased and patrols sent out into no-mans-land
to reconnoitre. Sentries were relieved at intervals of every two or three
hours. When a battalion was on front-line duty, two of its four companies
would be in the front trenches, a third company would be in the support
line and a fourth would be in the reserve trenches. A battalion might
expect to spend four to eight days in the front-line before relief. The
period regularly proved exhausting, even if no serious attacks from the
Germans were experienced and sentry duty at night was a particular strain
on the men. Many found these first few months in France taxing and as
the weather conditions diterioted the shelter of the dugouts was a dubious
relief, for they were very claustrophobic as one soldier wrote :
....”there was always a smell in them. On a good spring day it smelt like the earth smell you get when digging potatoes. Usually they were musty and stank like a midden. I did not smoke, and, mind you, when you got half a dozen fags going....the place became a hell-hole”.
More often than not the men learnt more about the practice skills of comfortable survival than about killing the enemy :
“The most important thing i learnt in the first few days in the trenches was how to open a tin of bully beef with a bayonet without taking the edge of the bayonet or getting oil in the beef”.
Even when retiring from the trenches, the soldiers were not only busy, but still uncomfortable. Although they obtained a wash and clean clothes, the rain and snow they experienced whilst training or building huts would leave them as soaking wet as they had been in the line.
The CO and officers of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles wade through the mud of a collapsed
communication trench, the result of a thaw after weeks of snow and frost.
noon on 7 February 1916 the 36th took charge of the line from the river
Ancre to the Mailly-Maillet-Serre road, with the 107th and 108th Brigades
in the front trenches and the 109th in reserve. A field company of engineers
was attached to each brigade and a separate machine-gun company was also
formed in each Brigade. Further back was the artillery : the 36this own
gunners arrived from their training bases within a few weeks and stationed
themselves with guns hidden in pits or amongst trees or in houses: in
open positions they were camouflaged by materials that matched the surrounding
The men had dugouts close by and there were also adjacent pits containing upto 400 rounds of ammunition per gun. The whole Division was now gaining much wider and more intensive experience of trench warfare and the possibility of death was omni present.
As the months passed, experience taught the men how to act safety - to keep their heads down, for instance, to avoid a sniper’s bullet. No one could avoid the unexpected shell that landed precisely where you had been standing: but casualties were still few and far between, and the Ulstermen were occupying a relatively quiet sector.
Some of the basics of trench life - from Jim Maultsaid's sketchbook