Life in the Trenches

The trenches of the First World War

The development of the trench system, and the soldiers’ experience.

Second Battle of Ypres

First large-scale gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915

A description of the first large-scale use of poison gas in WW1 that marked the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.

John McCrae

‘In Flanders Fields’ – the historical background to the poem

On 3 May 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, which inspired the symbol of the poppy to commemorate members of the military killed in war.

McCrae had published his first poems while studying medicine at the University of Toronto, after which he served in the Canadian Field Artillery during the Boer War. Returning to Canada after the war, he embarked on a successful career as a pathologist and was made a member of the Royal College of Physicians prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

McCrae was appointed to the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery) where he assumed the position of Medical Officer and Major. While serving in Belgium he fought at the Second Battle of Ypres that began on 22 April 1915, an experience he described in a letter to his mother as a ‘nightmare’. During this battle his close friend Alexis Helmer was killed, and McCrae himself performed the burial service on 2 May.

The next day, while apparently sitting in the back of an ambulance, McCrae composed ‘In Flanders Fields’. Cyril Allinson, a Sergeant Major in McCrae’s unit, later recounted watching McCrae write the poem. He was apparently unhappy with the final piece and threw it away, but it was retrieved by another member of the unit.

McCrae edited the poem and submitted it to The Spectator for publication, but following that paper’s rejection succeeded in getting it published in Punch on 8 December 1915. It was met with universal acclaim at the time, and its imagery of red poppies led to the flower’s associated with remembrance in the years following the war.

McCrae continued to serve in the army, but died of a pneumonia-related illness on 28 January 1918. He is buried in France.

Conditions for generals in WW1

Sarcastic account of conditions for generals in WW1 by a dispatch rider

This newspaper cutting from The Times on 20th November 1914 can be useful source for revealing attitudes of some regular soldiers towards their commanding officers. While not directly critical, the writer’s final sentence contains some evident sarcasm!

A Cambridge undergraduate, who is acting as a motorcycle dispatch-rider, sends home the following account of his experiences after being wounded:-

I was pushing off the next field, when four big shrapnel shells burst near by, searching for a battery, but all they found was my left foot, which got in the way of a piece. I was very annoyed about it for the moment, but by the time I had hobbled a mile and a half, and found the destination of the message I carried, I was resigned to my fate. A pal of mine cut my boot off and put a field dressing round my foot, and the kind-hearted old general let his car carry me off to a field ambulance. It’s rotten for generals out there, you know; they get worried stiff – poor old chaps, and get loads and loads of responsibility and anxiety and have to sit about all day in cold, damp ditches and splinter-proof shelters, and fume and scheme, and feed on bread and chicken and ham paste and sardines.

Download a copy of the original cutting here.

The Christmas Truce including an interview with a survivor

Christmas Football match

The Christmas Truce and Britain vs. Germany football match

The Horrible Histories account of the Christmas Truce and a fictional account of a football match in No Man’s Land.  For ideas on how to teach the Christmas Truce and the idea of WW1 football, please see this comprehension lesson outline and set of resource.

Winter in the trenches and trench food

Battle of the Somme

The end of the Battle of the Somme

On the 18th November 1916, the Battle of the Somme ended when German troops retired from the final large British attack at the Battle of the Ancre amid worsening weather. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig called a halt to the operation, claiming the Somme offensive to have been successful.

By the end of the battle the Allies had advanced more than 6 miles into German-held territory, and as well as refining their use of aircraft had also introduced the tank for the first time. In his dispatch from the front, Haig stated at the end of the battle that “Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the Western front; and the enemy’s strength had been very considerably worn down.” He then went on to say that “any one of these three results is in itself sufficient to justify the Somme battle.”

However, the Somme offensive and its enormous number of casualties that totalled more than a million men on both sides has drawn criticism ever since. For example Lloyd George, a fierce critic of Haig, wrote in his War Diaries that “over 400,000 of our men fell in this bullheaded fight and the slaughter amongst our young officers was appalling.”

German losses were also significant, however, and some historians have since claimed that the battle left Germany unable to replace its casualties like-for-like, which contributed to their ultimate defeat through a war of attrition. However it was to be another two years before the war finally ended, after Germany signed the Armistice of Compiègne on the 11th November 1918.

The Red Baron

Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron: a short biography

The German fighter pilot Baron Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, was shot down and killed on 21st April 1918.

Richthofen was born into the German aristocracy in 1892. He began military training when he was 11 years old, and served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer in the early months of the First World War. However, the advent of trench warfare made the cavalry virtually obsolete and his unit was disbanded.

Frustrated at being reassigned to non-combative roles, Richthofen applied to the Imperial German Army Air Service and was granted permission to join in May 1915. Having begun as an observer on reconnaissance missions, he began to train as a pilot in October and joined one of the first German fighter squadrons the following year.

Richthofen quickly gained a reputation as a formidable fighter pilot. Having scored his first confirmed victory on 17 September 1916, Richthofen went on to shoot down a total of 80 enemy aircraft although only 19 of these were made in the red Fokker Dr. I triplane that is commonly associated with him. As a squadron leader Richthofen ensured that his squadron followed the Dicta Boelcke, a series of formalised tactical rules for air combat that had been developed by his mentor, Oswald Boelcke.

Richthofen was fatally wounded over Morlancourt Ridge near the village of Vaux-sur-Somme. Despite the single bullet severely damaging his heart and lungs he managed to land his aircraft in a field before he died. He was buried with full military honours by No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in France, although his remains now lie in Richthofen family grave.