During the Great War, a British regiment would typically serve about nine days in the trenches, followed by three days in brigade reserve several miles behind the lines. About once per month, they were pulled even further back to the divisional reserve area, where they could rest, scrape the mud off and undergo some additional training. Various huts and shattered buildings provided more comfortable shelter than the front-line "funk holes."

During these rest periods, an ominous drab-colored bus would occasionally appear to whisk soldiers off to the front for a digging party. If all went well, the soldiers would be back with their units by dawn's first light.

While in the rear, life went on pretty much as normal. Except for the occasional scream of a long-range shell, life in the French villages in the rear went on like it had in years past -- except for the numerous drab uniforms wandering the narrow streets. Soldiers might take in a picture show or a play, get their laundry done, have themselves de-loused or persuade one of the local girls to cook them up a nice home-cooked meal.

Every few months the soldiers might expect a week-long leave back in "blighty." What an experience it must have been to arrive once more on British soil to all of the lights and bustle of Victoria Station -- and how terrible to find oneself once again bound for the front line trenches one week later!

In their letters home, both officers and men consistently describe life in the trenches is simply as "hell." The censors did not allow too much detail in these letters, but the information contained in them is certainly horrible enough. Stories abound of men blown to bits or buried alive by enemy shells, of giant rats feeding on the dead, of mangled men hastily buried only to be scattered once more by bursting shells.

Despite the daily horrors, many of the men apparently did not consider themselves in continuous mortal danger. Barnes states that "no young man thought he would be a candidate for a wooden cross-numerous as they were- at least not until he had been in the line a long time." Perhaps this was because most of the officers and men, at least early in the war, were in their late teens and early 20s and therefore felt invincible.


Barnes, Major R.M., A History of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British Army, The Development of Weapons & Tactics (London: Seeley Service & Co., 1967)

Gilbert, Martin, The First World War, A complete History (New York: Holt & Co) 1994

Housman, Laurence, editor, War Letters of Fallen Englishmen (Philadelphia: Pine Street Books) 2002

Sutherland, Douglas, Tried and Valiant, the Story of the Border Regiment, 1702-1959 (London: Leo Cooper) 1972