The Front Line

The Western Front was dominated by trenches and any attempt to break through the enemy lines was doomed to failure, with each offensive being met by a reinforced counter attack. New weapons were being invented to try to create the incisive impact that was needed for victory. The Germans were the first to try poison gas at Ypres in April 1915 - but its effect was diminished by the difficulty of using it without hampering the progress of ones own men. Tanks were being used to advance across shell-churned ground and aeroplanes, although too light to carry effective bomb loads were proving useful for scouting.
The latest failure to break this horrible deadlock had been at the battle of Loos, resulting in 50,000 British casualties and no significant progress.
The Ulster Division upon their arrival were to discover an increasingly sophisticated maze of trenches on the British front line. The foremost trench, facing directly onto no-mans-land, ran roughly parallel to a second ‘support trench’, and in the rear was a third line, the ‘reserve’ trench. Most of the trenches were floored with wooden duckboards and the only shelter or accommodation was afforded by dugouts and holes scraped into the trench walls. Communication trenches running at right angles, connected up the main lines. Most trenches were dug in a zig-zag pattern of short bays, rather than in a straight line, so as to minimise casualties from shell fire or from machine-guns pointed down a trench. Sandbags and barbed wire were helped fortify the defenses, and out there, beyond the rows of wire, lay no-mans-land, which could be anything from half a mile to a few yards in width.

This is actual footage of men from the Division in a trench. You can see the zig zagged pattern of  the trench and how the men have to squeeze past eachother in the enclosed space.
[Footage © the Imperial War Museum]

Spasmodic warfare was maintained on even the quietest sectors of the front. German artillery sent over a range of shells from the lighter ‘wizz-bangs’ to the heavy jack johnson’s’ and the British replied in kind. Sniper’s were ready to shoot the obtruding head of any soldier, and where trenches were close enough, grenades could be lobbed across. Raids on the enemy’s lines were undertaken, usually at night, to ascertain facts about the foe and to keep everyone on their toes.

When they arrived at the front line for their initiatory spell, the men found unexpected terrors awaiting them. The two armies lived in extraordinary proximity. Although the enemy lines were parallel at a distance of approximately one hundred yards for most of the way, there were a number of saps-trenches running out into no-mans-land at right angles to the main front line. These had originally been German communication trenches, and extended as far as the present German lines, so that the Germans occupied one end of the same sap as the Ulstermen. Sandbag emplacements separated the two sides and the enemies were at times only fifteen feet from each other!
One soldier of the South Antrim Battalion recalls his first night in the trenches :
“Gradually, out of the darkness, things began to take upon themselves their proper shapes.....a maze of misty barbed wire, some in loose coils lying on the ground, some draped from stumps and stakes driven i at all angles, some in shell holes, all in a shapeless and indescribable jumble....Then there is that desolate and shell-pocked strip of land which terminates with the German the rolling country, out of which the sun now begins to rise....the 22nd of October promised to be the most lovely of day”.
There was the usual desultory rifle and machine-gun fire that started off each day in the trenches, but no real sign of what was to come, but the Germans were not the only vermin the men had to attend with in those first few nights that shocked them. The sound of squeaking rats in the dugouts also perturbed the men. In fact the rat problem was so bad that some of the men would hang food parcels they received from home, by a cord from the roof of the dugout to prevent the vermin from getting at it.
But there was time during their first tour of duty to look around and see the particular features in their part of the line. The wicker-work sides of the trenches, built in french style: the elaborate dummy artillery guns behind the lines: and the trees in nearby Thiepval Wood, all wired together, so that if a shell hit one tree it would not fall and deplete the camouflaging effect of the wood.

 A sketch by Jim Maultsaid of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles,
 showning how he had to deal with Rats in the trenches.
Jim was to do many a sketch of what he endured and saw in France.
More can been found out about him in the Remembrance section.

Next, Winter 1916 >>