County Cavan, Ireland
The familiar colourful paper decorations criss-crossed the kitchen and holly sprigs adorned the pictures on the walls. Daddy Davy sat by the fire, his pipe smoke wafting around the room. Erich liked the smell, despite his experience of smoking earlier in the year. The pungent aroma was more pleasant from a distance.
Erich sat in the chair on the opposite side of the fire. Companionably they watched the fire crackle in the grate, its heat warming the large room.
“Did you have Christmas in your war?” Erich asked.
Daddy Davy gazed pensively into the fire, appearing not to have heard the question. Erich waited hopefully.
Finally he said, “The First World War was a long time ago. But I still remember it well. On Christmas Day we stopped fighting for one day. That morning we peered over the edge of our trench at the Germans and shouted ‘Happy Christmas!’ to them. They answered and we came out and met in the middle. We sang carols and shared food parcels.”
“Didn’t they try to shoot you?” Erich asked.
“Not on that one day,” he replied.
“How did you know they wouldn’t?”
“Because they kept their word, just as we did. Christmas was more important than a war.”
“What was it like there?” Erich asked.
“We lived in trenches. They were just holes in the ground. We had to dig them. When it rained they got full of water and mud,” he replied. He did not describe the full horror of the freezing, damp conditions in the mud-filled trenches where disease was rampant.
“Did you swim in them?” Erich asked. Daddy Davy merely smiled at the boy’s imagination.
“Was God there?” Erich asked.
“God is everywhere.”
“Why did he let you fight?”
“God lets us make our own way. He tells us what is right and wrong and we have to do our best to follow it,” Daddy Davy replied.
“Did you ever see an angel?” Eric asked.
Daddy Davy was silent for a minute, staring into the fire. He scratched his head and puffed on his pipe. Taking it out of his mouth, he replied, “Yes.”
“Did you! With w-w-wings and a w-w-white gown? W-W-Was it here?” Erich asked, wide-eyed.
“No, not here. It was during the war. At Mons we were surrounded by German soldiers and didn’t know how we could get out. We were trapped. Suddenly clouds came down covering us. The Germans couldn’t see us. Then we saw bright lights in the sky and angels were all around us. When they left the Germans had gone. The angels saved us.”
Erich looked at Daddy Davy, amazed. He could barely contain his excitement.
“I wish I was there!” he said.
“Oh, no, you don’t, lad. We’ve both seen enough of wars.”
Excerpt from ‘Hitler and Mars Bars’ by Dianne Ascroft
Trafford Publishing, 2008
Ten year old Erich’s childish idea of life in the trenches wasn’t anything like the reality of the soldiers’ experiences during the First World War. Their reality was much more barbarous and harsh.
By the end of the war there was an extensive system of trenches that stretched from the North Sea in Belgium to the Swiss border in France. Most were built in a zigzag pattern, rather than straight, to make attacks on them more difficult. The British Army’s guidelines for trench construction estimated that it would take 450 men six hours overnight to dig 275 yards of a new trench. On the Western Front the distance between the Allied and German forces opposing trenches varied between 100 and 300 yards. In some places, such as Vimy Ridge, the distance between opposing trenches was as little as 30 yards.
Not all trenches were built underground or in fields. There were some unusual trenches. In Flanders the trenches were built above ground because the water table was only a metre below ground. Underground trenches soon filled with water and mud and were useless in such conditions. So they constructed fortifications made from sandbags and clay on the surface to form makeshift trenches. Trenches were even constructed in the Alps. They were dug into the hard rock and also into glaciers. The highest trenches in the Alps were at 12,795 feet above sea level.
British Expeditionary Forces soldiers spent on average between one day and two weeks at a time in the front line trenches. Over 200,000 men died in them. Most died during battle but there were also significant casualties due to disease and infection.
The conditions in the trenches were appalling. They were cold, wet and muddy. Fungal foot infections were common among the troops. During winter the temperature often dropped below 0 degrees Celsius and men died from exposure.
The soldiers also had unpleasant companions to share their trenches with. And their trench mates far outnumbered them. Millions of frogs lived in the wet trenches and in the water-filled shell holes in the No Man’s Land between the opposing forces fortifications. Millions of rats also shared their accommodation. They sometimes grew to the size of a cat and they ate dead bodies before they could be buried. Lice were also unpleasant and dangerous companions. They caused a serious, painful disease called Trench Fever but they were not identified as the carriers of the disease until 1918.
Only 1 in 8 men who fought in the trenches returned from the war alive and uninjured.
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. No doubt the soldiers who fought in the First World War were courageous. They deserve our respect and gratitude. But, as we remember the sacrifices of the armed forces and civilians during war time, shouldn’t we also ask ourselves, ‘Haven’t we seen enough of wars?’