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Life in the trenches

A row of soldiers wearing gas masks standing in a trench
Credit: AWM


Posted on 18 July 2017

Conditions in the trenches on the Western Front were both miserable and fraught with danger.

Soldiers had to contend with artillery, machine guns, enemy infantry and gas. The British trenches were often flooded leading to sickness and conditions like “trench foot” from continual immersion in water; then there were vermin–with rats grown huge on the corpses, biting insects and lice.

In winter, conditions became even more miserable, with many soldiers suffering from frostbite. Despite all of this, soldiers had to carry on and be prepared to fight at a moment’s notice, finding small pleasures wherever they could. Here are five objects that were found in the trenches:

Identity disks

This system of soldier identification dates to the Boer War (1899-1902). Tin discs were first issued to Australian soldiers in 1906 and stamped with their name, regimental number, religion and unit.

During the First World War, fibreboard discs were introduced: one round and one octagonal. The octagonal disc, often green, was to stay with a soldier’s body if he was killed while the circular disc, usually red, was collected and where possible sent to his next-of-kin.

A red, round, military identification disk attached to a white string

Trench club

Raiding enemy trenches often involved desperate hand-to-hand fighting and close quarter weapons were fashioned to kill the enemy.

This particular trench club was designed to fit onto an entrenching tool (a collapsible spade used by military forces) handle and was topped by a heavy cog wheel. Improvised weapons like this were used by soldiers on both sides.

A rusted cog wheel

A beacon of light

Diggers travelled to the Western Front with at least one small indulgence from home, like the “Soldier’s Friend’ Camp Pocket Candlestick”.

A lighted candle would have been welcome inside a darkened dugout, although soldiers would have kept them shielded to avoid drawing enemy fire.

This printed tinplate candleholder (pictured) dates to around 1915. The tin kept the contents dry and ready to use while the lid could also shield the flame from draughts.

A small Soldiers Friend candlestick tin box with an image of three soldiers standing in front of a line of white tents on the cover

Gas mask

This piece of equipment became a constant companion for frontline soldiers after the first mass use of gas by the Germans at Ypres on April 22, 1915.

Gas masks featured a wraparound cloth mask with a carbon filter in a bag attached to the uniform.

They were extremely uncomfortable and cumbersome. Fatigue and disorientation were by-products of their use, but the alternative was far worse.

Credit: AWM


Soldiers were required to maintain standards of hygiene and grooming, even under the most challenging conditions.

Brushing teeth, with toothbrushes made from animal horn, shaving, rudimentary washing and regular haircuts were expected. Soldiers often called upon one another for help with cutting a short, back and sides.

A primitive looking toothbrush

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