First World War – Leisure Time on the Western Front
Life in the Trenches
This hub is for my grandfather and great-grandfather who both served in the trenches throughout the Great War
These days we talk a lot about work/life balance and how to get the most out of our leisure time. But what about the troops on the Western Front during World War I, who were caught up in an ongoing daily battle they had absolutely no control over? We have all read or watched documentaries on how the troops lived in horrifying conditions in trenches that were sometimes no more than a few feet away from the enemy, under constant sniper fire and bombardment. Having to endure the terror of ‘going over the top’ to make their way over ‘no man’s land’ through a hail of machine gun bullets, cutting through vicious barbed wire before engaging the enemy in savage hand to hand fighting. But was this really the whole picture of life in the trenches?
The First World War dragged on for four long years and was mainly a static war fought from the protection of a line of trenches that snaked down from the coast of Belgium, through northern France and down to the Swiss border. There were great battles fought during the course of the war, such as the Battle of the Somme that claimed the lives of 20,000 British and Empire soldiers and a further 40,000 casualties on the first day alone, and troops in the front line faced possible assaults from the German lines, sniper fire and artillery bombardments on a daily basis. But the truth is that the fighting men in this great conflict spent as much, if not more, time behind the lines or in quiet sectors of the Front. Commanding officers recognised early on that it was boredom and inactivity that was potentially their greatest threat as it could so easily lead to a fall in morale and leave the men too much time to think and worry about the dangers they were facing and the loved ones they had left behind.
How Much Time Was Spent in the Front Line?
We also, quite understandably, associate the Great War with death and terrible injuries and indeed there were 908,371 British Empire troops killed during the war and a further 2,090, 212 who were injured. But there were nearly 9 million British Empire soldiers who served, so most of them did survive the war. Big attacks were rare and trench raids took place under the cover of darkness, so most days were uneventful and routine. Most battalions had their soldiers in a rotation pattern where they spent time in the front line, then moved back to the support trenches, then to the reserve line and then had a short rest period behind the lines. It is estimated that troops usually spent no more than five days a month in the front line, although five days of bombardment, mud, being knee-deep in freezing water and surrounded by corpses, rats and other vermin would have been enough for anyone.
Letter Writing and Other Pastimes in the Trenches
As we have already noted, life in the trenches on an average day could be boring. Officers tried to fill in their men’s time by giving them work to do such as repairing damaged trenches, repairing barbed wire defences and filling sandbags. But this still left the troops with a lot of time on their hands. One of the favourite pastimes was reading letters sent from home and replying to them. Men relied on these letters to bring them news from home and bolster their spirits. The letters sent from the trenches generally skated over the horrors the writer was enduring and painted as positive picture as possible of their daily lives. It is estimated that around 12.5 million letters a week were sent to the men on the Western Front from concerned wives, girlfriends, relatives and friends. Parcels from home were also greatly appreciated and gave the men treats like cigarettes, scarves, gloves, sweets, cakes and chocolates. Foodstuffs were probably the most popular item to receive as they provided a welcome break from the routine trench rations the soldiers otherwise lived on. The men also read, kept journals, wrote poetry, sketched and gambled while they were in the lines.
Rest Periods Meant Work on the Western Front
Unfortunately for the men who served in the Great War, rest periods did not mean they could just lie around and relax. Although safer than being in the front line, the rest areas to the rear of the trench line could still be bombed or targeted from the air. Usually, their sleeping arrangements and other amenities were much more comfortable and their food was of better quality and served more regularly. But they were still made to work hard, as the officers had an ethos of ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. They were put through training exercises, attended lectures, drilled, cleaned their kit and took the opportunity to wash thoroughly and de-louse themselves and their uniforms. They were put to repairing roads, building camps and digging new trenches. It was also a chance to give the troops medical inspections and medical treatment where it was needed.
But a big effort was also made to organise sporting events and social gatherings for the men. The top brass were especially keen on involving the troops in sports as it kept the men fit and promoted a spirit of comradeship. Some of the most popular sports were football, rugby, cricket, boxing and athletics. Because there were so many young men serving on the Western Front, many of these sporting fixtures were of exceptionally high calibre as the teams contained men who would have played their sport at international level during peacetime. Cavalry regiments would take the time to exercise and groom their horses and they would also organise equestrian events to keep their mounts in top condition and help improve their horsemanship.
Music, Theatre and Church Services
Music and theatricals were also popular entertainments. There were organised events where choirs, concert parties and brass bands would tour the rest camps and perform for the troop and the men would also stage impromptu sing songs and comedy sketches to entertain themselves. As these men faced many dangers and fear, it is perhaps not surprising that many chose to attend church services as regularly as they could, where they could console themselves with prayer and singing hymns. The soldiers would have access to a military chaplain or ‘padre’ who would lead the Sunday services and special services before they went into battle, would give dying soldiers the last rites, often putting themselves in great danger in ‘no man’s land’ to do so, preside over the all too frequent burial services and also spend time with the men listening to their troubles and helping those who were not able to read letters from home and write replies for them.
Talbot House - The Famous TocH
Rest camps would have canteens where the enlisted men could go for some refreshments and catch up with their mates. But the social conventions brought from home prevailed even under the adversity of life in the trenches, and the officers got to enjoy the slightly more luxurious comforts and amenities of the Officers’ Clubs. However, in December 1915 a much loved institution was established by one of the military padres, Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton, which was altogether more egalitarian and welcomed men from all ranks. This famous establishment was Talbot House, affectionately known as TocH and was located in Poperinge.
It was designed to be a haven of peace and comfort amid the guns and carnage of war. It was a place for weary soldiers to go and have a cup of tea or hot meal and catch up with their friends and relatives. There were comfy chairs, plenty of books to read and desks where you could write your letters and catch up with your diary. TocH even had its own chapel the soldiers had converted themselves from an old hop loft in the attics, where men could go and pray and contemplate. In the three years Talbot House was open, literally thousands of British Empire soldiers took advantage of the amenities it provided and all were given a warm welcome.
The Seamier Side of Leisure Time on the Western Front
If this all sounds a bit wholesome to you, then there was inevitably a seamier side to how some soldiers spent their leisure time on the Western Front. When they were able to get more leave the men would head off to enjoy themselves in the towns and villages behind the lines. Much of this enjoyment was fairly innocent with troops visiting local cafes and bars for a decent hot meal and a few drinks. But some of the men did drink very heavily, gamble their pay away and visit brothels. As there were so many healthy, young men it is perhaps not so surprising that brothels were established in most of the towns behind the lines and were entirely legal.
In fact, the majority of the military authorities encouraged them as they thought it was particularly important that married men away from their wives did not become physically frustrated, which could possibly lead to a drop in morale and performance on the battlefield. Here again though, social snobbery came into play and the ordinary troops had to attend ‘Red Lamp’ brothels where the furniture, girls and refreshments were of lower quality, while the officers got to disport themselves in ‘Blue Lamp’ establishments that had comfortable furnishings, better looking girls and where they could even drink champagne.
Each establishment was run by a Madame and all of the girls who worked in them had to have regular medical examinations to make sure they were free of disease. However, despite these precautions STIs were a still big problem among the men. Diseases like syphilis spread like wild fire and affected tens of thousands of soldiers. These were the days before antibiotics, so treating a disease like this was a protracted, painful process that involved using mercury, made more difficult by the patients’ frequent sojourns in the forward lines. There was also still a huge social stigma around these types of disease during the Great War, so men concealed their condition making it harder to treat when they did come forward and making it more likely the infection would be passed on. Sadly, as the painful mercury treatment involved spending months in hospital, some soldiers deliberately set out to get infected, braving the pain and ignominy, so they could escape the horrors of life in the trenches, hoping the war would end before their treatment did.
Life in the trenches was a grim, terrifying, desperately uncomfortable existence, where you risked being killed or injured and had to watch helplessly as your mates were shot or blown to pieces. But even on the Western Front there were times of relaxation, camaraderie and fun to be had. For a soldier in the trenches his mates were the most important thing he had, so they made the most of any opportunity to kick back and have a few laughs, play some sport, watch a concert, have a few drinks or even just chat over a cup of tea.
Sources; Wikipedia, BBC History, Talbot House website
© 2014 CMHypno