Trench Life – In Words & Pictures
Scaife’s Writings about Trench life
Those of you who saw the television film “The Great War” which was shown twice during the 1960’s and gave a very fair representation of what took place, but naturally it did stress the bad times rather than the good times and, of course, there were the quiet times in the line when there would be only desultory firing of rifles or machine guns and perhaps no artillery and these, of course, when the weather was good, made life in the trenches much more bearable than when there was “strafe”, which meant that we had a bad spell of shelling, or a “show” which meant that there had been either an attack on our trenches, or we had been involved in an attack on the German trenches. These were the bad times.
The general organisation was that we as a battalion were part of a brigade which was part of a division which was part of a corps which was part of an army, and the brigade was given a stretch of trenches which was divided up between the battalions, and the battalions divided its stretch up between companies. I think I am right in saying that a battalion would have, say, three periods of a week each in the front line trenches in a period of five weeks, and at the end of two or three months one was sent back to rest. The trenches were divided into front line trenches which were linked by communication trenches to the support trenches, which were up to 800 yards, say, behind the front line, and then behind were the reserves which might be in old farm buildings or anything like that. The weather, particularly in the winter, played a very important part in making life bearable or almost unbearable.
In the Ypres salient, in which I spent most of my wartime activity in France, the soil was such that one very quickly found water when you started to dig. As a result the trenches here were built up by sandbags whereas further south in the line you got into chalk land and there you were able to dig in and underground without finding water, and the trenches here and the dugouts were very much better than those in the salient. When it was wet it became muddy and one’s recollection is of mud everywhere, which you got used to. I remember feeling the cold in the winter of 1915/16, and we had snow. Of course you were not allowed to take your boots off in the frontline trenches, but of course this order was disobeyed at times when it became really impossible to sleep because your feet were so cold, and we used to manage to bring dry straw up and when we were off duty and had got to our dugout, taking off one’s boots and stuffing the straw all around one’s feet to try and get them warm and go to sleep.
Anyone who spent time in the trenches will remember RATS. Rats swarmed all over the place, in the trenches, behind the trenches and in the no-man’s-land in front of the trenches. They were enormous bloated and loathsome. We used to spend some of our spare time trying to shoot them with our revolvers: in fact, the only time I ever used my revolver was shooting at rats. I remember I was off duty and lying flat on my back in my dugout fast asleep. I woke suddenly, heard a squeal, felt a movement on my chest, put my hands up towards this movement and felt an enormous rat. My disturbing him must have frightened him and he bit my nostrils and hung on and I had to pull him away and threw him away from me. It drew blood. The sequel to this came some six years later when I suddenly developed a very high fever which lasted two or three days and then repeated itself after about a week. This occurred three times. The doctors were nonplussed. A sample of my blood was sent for examination and the reply came back “Has this patient ever been bitten by a rat?”
It was a matter of carrying out routine duties wherever you were. In the trenches this meant fatigue duties in bringing up stores, night patrols in patrolling “no-mans-land”, patrolling your own stretch of trenches and having so many hours on duty and so many hours off duty. Every officer and man had to stand to at dawn and at sunset, and remain so until at least half-an hour or until a stand down came. I had one period of leave of ten days which were marvellous and most of which I spent at Briery Close, Windermere (ed. The mansion home of Mr. and Mrs. Oswald Hedley where Fay Bagnall was a governess to four children) but I was honestly glad to get back to the front line because there was such a barrier between those who were at home and those who had been at the front. It was impossible to establish a real relationship with those who had not had the same experience. I spent most of the time in the Ypres salient at such places as Hill 60, Hooge, Sanctuary Wood, Canada Huts, Dickebusch, Zonnebeck, Kemmel, Bailleul and Tiu Locre.
Photographs from the album of L.C.P. Scaife 1916, at Ypres, Kemmel, Locre, Meteren, Bailleul. Images will auto-advance every 10 seconds or you can navigate by using the left/right arrows to the sides or dots beneath the images.
What Happened to Scaife’s Friends
Recent research into the fate of those listed by Scaife in the album cover shown above reveals:
- Frank Priestman Lees 2nd Lt. k.i.a.* 17.6.1916 buried La Laiterie Cemetery, Kemmel, Belgium.
- John Thomas Henderson Capt. k.i.a. 15.9.1916 buried Adanac Miltary Cemetery, Miramont, Somme.
- John Angus Bagnall (Jack) 2nd Lt. k.i.a. 15.9.1916. buried Adanac Military Cemetery, Miramont, Somme.
- David Thompson Turner Capt. k.i.a. 30.5.1918 buried Chambrecy Military Cemetery.
- John Wilfred Robinson Capt k.i.a. 15.11.16 commemorated Thiepval Memorial
- Tom Clough Lund Lt. k.i.a. 23.3.1918. commemorated Pozieries Memorial.
- Robert Allen Capt. prisoner 27.5.1918 repatriated 25.12.1918.
- Clive Montague Joicey Lt. and Temporary Capt. k.i.a. 5.6.1917 buried Brown’s Copse Cemetery, Roeux.
- Lionel Davey Plummer Capt. k.i.a. 15.9.1916. Adanac Military Cemetery, Miramont, Somme.
- 2nd Lt. Henry Cheesemond. North’d Fus. Military Cross.
- 2nd Lt. Norten Butller Napier Good North’d Fus. Machine Gun Corps.
- Lt. John Baxendale Wilson North’d Fus. Military Cross.
* k.i.a. – killed in action.