A Poilu in the Trenches

By Alex Bibisi

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The word “trench” carries with it a great amount of unpleasant imagery: lice, mud, and diseases like trench foot. However, for Louis Barthas and his fellow infantry soldiers, these simple holes in the ground, with all of their negative aspects, became glorious salvation compared to the hell and death that awaited them on the no-man’s land battlefields above. No matter how simply constructed the shelter was, a trench was to Barthas a valued shelter, a home, despite the challenges brought on by rain, mud, and death. In our own limited experiences with trenches while on a 2015 winter term workshop in France and Belgium, we witnessed some of the hardships of trench life, such as the mud and tight quarters. There is perhaps no greater testament to the horrors of the Great War than that it transformed such dreadful conditions as mud-soaked trenches into beloved places of safety and refuge.

Twice during our trip, we were granted the opportunity to briefly experience walking through trenches in Verdun and Ypres, where the terrible conditions became blatantly obvious almost immediately. How anyone could live in these tiny tunnels, only a few feet wide at most, floored with mud, and without a good roof to cover one’s head, is beyond conception. Even though the mud we waded through was nothing compared to the clay-like mess soldiers experienced, it was nonetheless sufficient to come to an understanding of how bad being in a trench truly must have been. Add on thunderstorms, constant artillery shelling, and death and dying all around (and the smells of death), and such a place becomes even more hellish.

Indeed, conditions in these trenches were miserable. Barthas identifies one occasion of many where he woke up with rainwater coming down “in buckets,” and falling all day long into his trench, flooding it with water and mud (243). What little rain we witnessed must have seemed like nothing to a veteran like Barthas, trapped in a hole by German gunfire, and stuck for days and days without end, subjected ceaselessly to the filth of trenches. Tales abound of rats and insect life proliferating in the trenches, particularly flies, being attracted to the decaying and rotting flesh of deceased soldiers just outside (or, in some cases, inside) the trenches. Barthas on many occasions identifies the smells of the trenches, one of the most prolific sensations mentioned by those who experienced trench life. Unfortunately (maybe), we have no way of finding out exactly what this terrible stench was like, though one can imagine that it only adds to the array of other conditions making even existence painful.

But for Barthas, trenches were homes. Barthas describes most of the trenches he encounters as being crude, describing “Rascals Trench” in Verdun as “[not] much more than a miserable bayou dug in one night” (249). He later describes his command post as “no more than a shell hole half covered by a wooden plank” (243). Yet for Barthas and his fellow soldiers, these crudely constructed shelters served as a place of safety and security, and the only unlucky soldier was one who did not have the comfort of a clumsily dug hole in the ground, and who would thus be subjected to shelling, wind, and enemy gunfire. On one occasion, Barthas describes the crudely constructed “Circé Trench” as “the safe harbor, salvation,” which kept them sheltered from the Germans at the Somme (315), and soldiers displayed “hesitation” (320) when ordered to exit the relative safety of these shallow holes in the ground, as the specter of death awaited above in the form of German artillery, rifles, and machine guns. Anything was better than to face the enemy’s guns, it seems, even the hell on Earth that was trenches, for the trenches provided life in the midst of immeasurable death.

Trenches provided no safety against gas attacks, however. As our guide at Ypres explained, poison gas, being heavier than air, would sink down into the trenches, creating hellish scenes such as in Ypres, where Canadian soldiers were forced by a poison gas assault to stand and expose themselves to enemy gunfire in order to avoid the certain death that awaited them below, in the trenches. Though Barthas doesn’t ever describe being attacked with gas while in a trench, he certainly would have had his perspective on trenches altered when his place of refuge became the source of death for so many.

My own brief minutes of trench navigation were sufficient to grasp the basic idea of what makes living and fighting from such positions a terrible endeavor, and though I can never hope to understand how miserable conditions above ground must have been to have caused these pits to become such glorified places of refuge, despite the discomfort and griminess associated with them, my experiences have certainly given me a wider perspective than previously. That even something so horrid as a rat-infested trench filled to the brim with rainwater and mud can be praised so heavily by soldiers like Barthas shows the true horror of the war that Barthas and his colleagues lived through.

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The author’s photos of trenches near Ypres, Belgium.

About Stephen Norris