January 18, 2020
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The first World War was one
of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human
race, in which over 40 million military men
and civilians died. The life of a trench
soldier was a living hell. They endured disease, hunger,
rats, horrific smells, corpses everywhere. And most importantly,
they had to come to terms with the reality that
they could die at any moment. Today we’re going
to find out what it was like to be a World
War I trench soldier. But before we do, be sure to
subscribe to the Weird History Channel. And let us know what
historical events you would like to hear about. Now, on to the trenches. From October, 1914, to March,
1918, British, French, German, Russian, and Ottoman
forces fought in trenches, an interconnected
series of muddy paths dug about seven feet deep and
six feet wide into the ground at the front lines
the battlegrounds. While the trenches gave soldiers
cover and protection from enemy fire, they also,
ironically, were the cause of many deaths due
to their sewer-like conditions. When you hear about the
trenches of World War I, you might envision a bunch
of crudely dug walkways. But these trenches had a
purposeful, strategic design. The Allies and
the Central Powers designed their trenches
as a defense mechanism. Aggressive, heavy weapons forced
both sides to hunker down. So trenches became a way to
hold a line without making soldiers vulnerable. The trenches were also dug
in zigzags and curves, which created corners and corridors,
giving soldiers better vantage points and hiding spots. Those zigzag patterns
kept infiltrating enemies from jumping into the trench and
wiping out everyone in sight. And these trenches all
served a different purpose. Some trenches served
as holding corrals for troops on R&R. Some trenches
were for supply storage. And other trenches
were for waste. Something about being
covered in soupy mud is fun. People pay good money to
get slathered in organic mud at fancy day spas in the
name of healthier skin. But during World War
I, prolonged exposure to flooded, muddy trenches
could cause trench foot. You could lose your toes–
or worse, your feet. Trench foot was so
rampant and commonplace, it impacted roughly 75,000
British soldiers alone. It was also discovered
in World War I that soldiers gave each other
regular foot inspections. The men would be
paired up in twos, and each partner
made responsible for the feet of the other. And they would generally
apply whale oil in an effort to prevent
trench foot, that could happen under all cold, wet conditions. As a matter of fact,
some concertgoers were reported to have developed
trench foot at the Glastonbury Festivals, the Leeds Festivals,
and Download Festivals as a result of the consistent
cold, wet, and muddy conditions at those events. Even though advanced
medical techniques meant that doctors
were better equipped to manage the health of
soldiers in World War I than they had been in
previous conflicts, it was still common for soldiers
to simply get sick and die. The cold, damp, and unsanitary
conditions in the trenches did nothing to fortify soldiers. And the unforgiving elements
made them prone to illness. Lice circulated in the
trenches and spread maladies like trench fever. And it wasn’t
uncommon for soldiers to wake up finding rats
eating their rations– or them. Yes, the rats were so
bold they’d take bites out of sleeping soldiers. And let’s not forget that the
trenches were the breeding ground for one of the
deadliest outbreaks in history, the influenza pandemic of 1918. Due to World War I, soldiers’
already low immune systems, weakened by malnourishment as
well as the stresses of combat and chemical attacks, their
susceptibility to the disease was imminent. World War I changed
on April 22, 1915, when German forces
shocked Allied soldiers along the Western Front by
firing more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against
two French colonial divisions at Ypres, Belgium. The United States, which
entered World War I in 1917, also developed and
used chemical weapons. Future President Harry S. Truman
was the captain of a US field artillery unit that fired
poison gas against the Germans in 1918. All in, approximately 100,000
tons of chemical weapons were used in World War I,
injuring around 500,000 troops and killing nearly 30,000 men,
including 2,000 Americans. Gas attacks were terrifying. It was a new level of warfare
that no one was expecting. A gas attack could
severely injure or end anyone unlucky enough to
come into proximity with it. It also could depend on
how the breeze was blowing at that particular time. Soldiers weren’t in the
trenches 24/7 for months on end. Soldiers actually only
spent between one and seven days at a time in the trenches,
in close reserve, and at rest. This process limited
the amount of time a soldier spent in
the bleak trenches. And the rotation was incredibly
important in managing their stress. “Rest” could be a
misnomer, though. If regiments were
understaffed, soldiers were usually recruited to
expand and repair the trenches. On the other end
of the spectrum, some soldiers also took
advantage of their time away from the trenches
by visiting brothels. By 1918, 1 million
French soldiers had been treated for STIs. Front-line soldiers,
who were forced to confront death and
violence for days on end, naturally developed damaging
psychological wounds. The high-stress climate
of the trench warfare led to extreme anxiety
and panic attacks, though medical and military
officials used terms like “shell shock” to
describe what was happening, which is now what we call
post-traumatic stress disorder. Many soldiers who
had shell shock were sent to convalescent
homes to recuperate. As a matter of fact,
the term “shell shocked” was coined during World
War I. Some soldiers that suffered from the condition
were put on trial, and even executed
for military crimes, including desertion
and cowardice. Think about it. 266 British soldiers
were executed for desertion, 18
for cowardice, seven for quitting a post
without authority, five for disobedience
to a lawful command, and two for casting away
arms, all because no one knew how to handle PTSD. Trench food was a big thing
during World War I. Naturally, it was horrible. But it was important to
keep the troops going. The British Army alone
employed 300,000 field workers to cook and supply the food. The men’s diet was made
up of small rations of boiled beef, bacon,
vegetables, and bread, although it could take up
to eight days for the bread to reach the trenches. And by then, it was stale. But crafty soldiers solved
the stale bread dilemma on their own by tearing the
hard loaves up, adding potatoes, onions, raisins, or
whatever else was available, and boiling the
mixture in a sandbag. By the winter of 1916, flour
was in such short supply the bread was being made
with dried, ground turnips. And the main meal
was now a pea soup with a few lumps of horse meat. Soldiers may have had to
deal with crappy food. But the one thing they
had to look forward to was the alcohol they received
that provided liquid courage for the men in the trenches. Even though millions
of people perished and it seemed like there
was a new battle every day, a soldier’s life in
the trenches was often spent sitting
around, doing nothing but waiting around for the
next volley of gunfire. It seems like it would be
impossible to get bored when you’re surrounded by the enemy. But boredom was the most
common state of being. And officials and
officers knew this. They were worried that
soldiers with nothing to do would just get into trouble. So the British
military pushed them to be creative as a
way to raise morale. One of the most memorable
British artifacts to come from the sheer boredom
that came with trench life was producing a trench magazine. The Wipers Times was one such
magazine that soldiers printed. English soldiers
stationed near Ypres– which they mispronounced
as “wipers”– in Belgium found an old printing
press and put it to good use by publishing their own
magazine and circulating it in the trenches. The magazine didn’t report
on the hard news of the war, though. It was filled with
poems, essays and jokes, and lampoons of the
war they were fighting. The tone was dark, humorous,
and, at times, touching, like a cross between The Onion
and a high school newspaper. As bad as World War I
was, the first Christmas of World War I, in
1914, brought forth a spirit of humanity and unity
that stood in stark contrast to life in the trenches. On Christmas Eve,
a chorus of carols from both British
and German trenches resulted in a tentative
truce for the holiday. Soldiers from opposite
sides of No Man’s Land emerged from their
trenches and met, bringing goodwill
and makeshift gifts. It was odd to see
French, German, and British soldiers
crossing trenches into No Man’s Land to exchange
seasonal greetings and talk. But there they were– bartering for
cigarettes, playing football against each other, and
exchanging food and souvenirs. Unfortunately, the
peace did not last long. Fighting resumed the next day. And the goodwill hardened
again into animosity. The following year, a few
units arranged ceasefires to congregate and
retrieve the dead bodies of their fellow soldiers
shot down in No Man’s Land. But the truces weren’t nearly
as widespread as in 1914, due in part to orders from those
in high command of both sides prohibiting truces. One of the most interesting and
surprising World War I legacies was its effect on language. The blending of
soldiers’ nationalities, languages, dialects, accents,
and social backgrounds of the trenches produced
an unusual glossary of military slang. For example, British soldiers
called enemy grenades “potato mashers,” and used the
phrase “storm troopers” to describe soldiers
that performed risky, lightning-fast attacks. The term “basket case”
was another bit of slang that originated during World War
I. “Basket cases” were injured soldiers who were carried
out of the trenches in long, casket-shaped baskets
because of their lost limbs. “Cooties” is a word that
came into play in 1915 from the coot, a
type of duck known for being infested with
lice and other parasites. So would you want to be a
trench soldier in World War I? Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our weird history.

Tony wyaad

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