This week we continue the account of a cycling tour along the Western Front by local history enthusiast Willie Reid and four friends. We began the story last week when the party had reached the Menin Gate.

Here they had witnessed the moving spectacle of the Last Post being played, as it has been every day at 20.00 hours, apart from when the Germans occupied the town during the second world war. Willie continues:

Next day we took our bikes to Passchendaele where the Third Battle of Ypres was fought. Such devastation was wreaked there that it is estimated 435 men died for every square metre gained. Here also lies Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in the world, where 11,954 souls are buried.

In some places the old trench network can still be seen. One of the starkest memorials to the First World War are the trenches recently uncovered at Massiges between Reims and Verdun. Standing there you can see the zigzag line they followed, how deep the digging had to be and the need to shore up the sides with planks of wood and sandbags.

Look-out holes were placed in the walls at various points allowing a clear view of the enemy positions whilst barbed-wire offered some protection from attack across no-man’s land.

These trenches were dug all across the Western Front and can also still be seen today at Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge. Behind the forward trenches there were a series of reserve trenches dug about 25 metres away and behind these again were the supply trenches.

Men in the front line trenches were usually there for 4-6 days before being evacuated to a ‘safe village’ behind the lines for 7-10 days whilst those in the reserve trench moved up to replace them. They in turn were replaced by those in the supply trench.

Because of the static nature of the First World War men spent most of their time in trenches. Food was randomly served and many often went hungry. There was often little variation, it was seldom hot and could be foul-tasting. At the same time fresh water drinking water was often in short supply and men would gather rain water.

Privacy was completely absent and there was generally poor hygiene. Initially men crouched in primitive holes before makeshift toilets were constructed in deep underground dugouts.

Soldiers had a towel, soap, toothpaste, clean underwear and a spare shirt in their bags but washing, changing clothes and removing boots were all difficult or even impossible.

In trenches the men also shared their lives with lice and rats. Mites were a constant bugbear whilst numerous rats, some the size of rabbits, could climb over soldiers bodies during sleep to steal food.

Below ground level the most frequent source of light was a candle and troops kept warm by huddling round small stoves.

In the long drawn-out days boredom was never far away but cards and board games helped pass the time.

Writing and receiving letters from family and friends kept up morale, many often found solace in prayer and satirical newspapers like the Wipers Times could help bring light relief. About once a year soldiers were given leave to return home though this often amounted to just a few days.

When the rain came battlefields and trenches could became like ‘porridge’ with soldiers getting stuck in the thick mud. (You still hear sports commentaries today describing conditions under foot as being ‘like the Battle of the Somme’) This situation resulted in numerous cases of trench foot from not being able to change socks.

Artillery projectiles were responsible for 2/3 rds of all deaths in WW1. Developments had given these huge guns a greater range than ever before. If a shell exploded in or over a trench hundreds of shrapnel bullets and metal shards would fly off in different directions causing devastation: soldiers could literally be blown to bits.

The other big killer was the machine gun. It was reckoned that three men and a machine gun could hold up an entire battalion of 1,000 men. Machine guns changed war beyond recognition - they decimated troops and needed little skill. The British soldiers called them the ‘devils paintbrushes’ whilst the French called them ‘coffee grinders.’