Trench life and the senses

Mud, shells, barbed wire, rain, rats, lice, trench-foot: these iconic images of the First World War have been etched on our consciousness through a handful of soldier-poets but there exist a wide variety of material – notebooks, diaries, journals, memoirs, sketches, interviews, trench songs, memorabilia, and thousands of photographs – which, read together, open up the sensuous world of the trenches. In the diary of J. Bennet, housed in the IWM, the phrase ‘Dull cold day’ is obsessively repeated, voicing the commonest complaint of trench-life, while Lewis gunner Jack Dillon recalled years later how ‘the mud there [at Passchendaele] wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge, it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud … a real monster that sucked at you’. Rain and artillery fire joined forces to turn the trenches into cesspools where the men floundered and even drowned; or, killed by shell-fire, their bodies dissolved into the slime. ‘A nightmare of earth and mud’ recalled infantryman and French novelist Henri Barbusse, while German officer Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his celebrated novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929): ‘Our hands are earth, our bodies mud and our eyes puddles of rain’. In the dark, subterranean trenches, men navigated their way not through the safe distance of their gaze, but through the immediacy of their bodies: ‘creep’, ‘burrow’, ‘crawl’ and ‘worm’ are recurring verbs in trench narratives, as the familiar visual universe was supplanted by a strange tactile geography. Touch became the ground of testimony and trauma: after three weeks on the Somme, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother, ‘I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness felt’. Amidst the deafening roar of a bombardment, sound was often registered as touch: ‘I felt that if I lifted a finger I should touch a solid ceiling of sound’ wrote A. McKee as he tried to describe the bombardment at Vimy Ridge. – See more at:

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