chertsey museum

Life at the Front

Territorials in Egham

Territorial soldiers in the High Street, Egham, 1914

Five hundred Chertsey men enlisted within the first week of the war, a statistic which was replicated across the country. The Surrey Herald reported on 23rd October 1914 that members of the 6th East Surrey Regiment, including Companies from Egham, Chertsey and Addlestone set off from Chertsey Station to the accompaniment of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ played by the band of the School of Handicrafts. They were showered with gifts of cigarettes, fruit and books for their journey. By the end of 1914 the number of men enlisted from the Borough had doubled, although news of the first fatalities was already arriving.

cigarette card image of trenches

1915 cigarette card depicting life in the trenches

Whilst British soldiers were engaged in battle in Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, China, and the Middle East, it is the Western Front that saw most fighting between the Allied and the German armies. The image of the Flanders trenches is most closely associated with the Great War, and it was there where most young men lost their lives. The soldiers did not spend all their time living in the trenches, indeed, less than half of their time was spent there. The trenches were a complex system of dugouts and shelters. At the front of the system was the firing trench, a 7ft deep ditch tall enough for the soldiers to move about without being seen but vulnerable to grenades and incendiaries.

To limit the damage from such missiles the trenches were designed with switch-backs or zig-zags so that the effect would be confined to a small section. It also offered protection should a German soldier make it across no man’s land and into the trench as they would not be able to fire down the trench for any great distance and kill many men at once. Behind the fighting trench there was a second line of defence, and beyond that, several hundred yards back, was a reserve trench. Within these trenches there were dressing stations, where immediate medical assistance could be given, and dugouts or shelters to protect from the elements. All these were linked together by a network of communication trenches which were used to move soldiers and supplies from one area to another.

Far back from the fighting line was where most of the soldiers spent the majority of their time engaged in all the activities that supported the trenches. This is where the war horses were shod, the rations distributed, the ammunitions stored and guns repaired. This is where the decisions were made. Whilst a British ‘Tommy’s’ time in the trenches was limited it was still a dangerous and squalid place to be. The heavy clay soil of the Flanders fields became sodden with rain and the soldiers, caked with mud.

chilblain advert

From an advert for chilblain cures

Chilblains and trench foot were common ailments, whilst rats and lice were in abundance. Cold and wet, the soldiers waited for the next round of gunfire with the occasional foray ‘over the top’. With both sides dug into their trenches there was soon a stalemate with each waiting for the other to act. In some places there was as much as half a mile between the opposing soldiers, but in many places the enemy was close enough for the soldiers to hear their counterparts talking at night. No man’s land in the middle was hotly fought over, any skirmish into it was always met by a hail of bullets. The Herald in March 1915 reported on one poor soul who was left in no man’s land for weeks, obviously beyond help, but with his comrades unable to retrieve his body safely. 

The soldiers were supported by a vast network of military and auxiliary personnel. Rations had to be brought out to the front on a daily basis by motor lorries capable of taking enough food for 30,000 men and 5,000 horses. This dangerous work was often completed under the cover of night, all the while enemy shells detonated and gun muzzles flashed in the darkness. At the beginning of the war, before food and supplies became scarce, soldiers and their prisoners ate well. However, as the war progressed and the nation was struggling to keep going, POW rations began to suffer. So much so that by the middle of October 1915 the Herald printed a request for food parcels for the British prisoners of war in Germany. Whilst this was used to show the success of Britain’s disruption to enemy supply lines, it was a burden on an already suffering country.

Life, however, could be very different for the soldiers away from the front. In December 1917, Signaller W.A. Spittle wrote to tell his mother about his Christmas lunch of ‘ham and pork, potatoes and cabbage, apple sauce, with Christmas pudding and custard, biscuits, dates and nuts, and to wind up whisky, Champagne and cigars.’ He added, ‘so we did not do so bad, did we?’ However, this seems to be the exception with most soldiers relying on food parcels from home.

Lilian Richardson

It was not just food that soldiers requested be sent to them by concerned loved ones, the newspapers were full of letters requesting all sorts of items. Some of them, like Corporal Miller’s request for a banjo or Private Cooper’s request for boxing gloves, show the need for soldiers to dispel the boredom of hours of waiting. Alas, Private Cooper’s use of the boxing gloves was short-lived as he was killed less than six months later. The Herald is full of requests for more standard items too. Mittens and warm clothes were regularly requested through the winter months, as were sturdy boots and puttees to protect the hem of their trousers from the sticky Flanders mud.

Whilst the front was predominantly the domain of the men, spare a thought for the women who went to France to do their bit too. Women like Lillian Richardson who was the first Chertsey girl to sign up for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. These brave women felt the need to do more than just sew uniforms. They knew that by going to the Continent and working in the field office sending messages or co-ordinating deliveries, they were freeing up a man to fight at the front.

Chertsey Museum
The Cedars
33 Windsor Street
Surrey KT16 8AT
Tel: +44 (0) 1932 565764