My upcoming book, Shell Shock, involves World War I, and I have been doing rather a lot of research on the war in order to make sure I produce a work that is factually accurate. Well, as factually accurate as a work of fiction involving supernatural aspects can be, I suppose. Like a video game developer, I feel the need to build a world with depth, therefore I have had to cover a lot of ground in my research in order to make sure my story has a wide open environment in which to play itself out. And when it comes to research, I always tend to overdo it. Part of it is a desire to create the best possible final product. Part of it, too, is a way of procrastinating doing the actual work of writing. Whatever the explanation, there will be a lot of notes I end up taking that will never make it into the book. Therefore I share with you now some facts which I have noted that I found to be interesting to myself. And when I say interesting, I mean deeply disturbing. Anything in quotations was quoted by those who actually experienced it.
In World War I, shovels were nearly as important as guns. They were used to dig trenches, in which the soldiers could hide from the near-constant bombardment of artillery, and they were used to dig graves for the millions who died in the trenches and in the area between the trenches, No Man’s Land. So many died in offensives that were nothing more than thousands running out into open territory to be mowed down by machine guns, that they often sat in No Man’s Land until the opportunity to retrieve them arose, which was sometimes a month or more. The dead were buried in shallow graves behind the trenches. As artillery was constantly blowing up both trenches and graveyards, digging new trenches would often mean digging through the corpses of the fallen.
The smell of the front lines “assailed you well before you could see it—a noxious compound of excrement, urine, smoke, cordite, lime, creosol, putrification.”
Rats, when corpses were scarce, would attack sleeping soldiers. When corpses were plentiful, they became gourmands, selecting only the finest bits of the corpses, which were for them the eyeballs and livers.
Factories in the towns behind the front lines ran saws day and night in order to build crosses for the graves of soldiers.
There were “Many on both sides who took a malicious pleasure in sniping at burial parties.”
When charging the enemy trenches, stopping to aid a fallen soldier was considered cowardice in the face of the enemy.
It was not the experienced troops who were better able to weather the storm of a sustained attack but the newcomers. "Rookies expect to become hardened by battle when in fact they are eroded by it."
After an attack, the cries and pleas of the wounded could be heard in no man’s land, but there was nothing their fellow soldiers could do to help them. To stick one’s head above the trenches would be as much as committing suicide, so one would have to not only endure the constant barrages, but when the artillery finally ceased, the cries of the dying would replace the sound of shells.
When possible, stretcher crews would go out into no man’s land and retrieve the wounded. It was not uncommon for a crew to pick up a wounded soldier but if another soldier was found who seemed more likely to survive, they would set the first one down in order to take the second.
Troops were given canvas bags in which to gather what they could and “often have I picked up the remains of a fine, brave man on a shovel, just a little heap of bones and maggots to be carried to the common burial place.”
“Limbs of the dead fell off as you lifted them. Bodies covered with a coat of flies that flew into your face, eyes, mouth as you approached.”
“Human flesh, rotting and stinking, mere pulp, was pasted into the mud-banks. If they dug to get deeper cover their shovels went into the softness of dead bodies who had been their comrades. Scraps of flesh, booted legs, blackened hands, eyeless heads, came falling over them when the enemy trench-mortared their position or blew up a new mine-shaft.”
Gibbs, Philip. Now It Can Be Told (p. 50). . Kindle Edition.
“Nobody could stand more than three hours of heavy shelling before they started feeling sleepy and numb, like being under anesthesia.” By the time the bombardment stopped and the ground attack began, they were “ripe for the picking”. When in the midst of an artillery attack, it was too loud to talk, so that every soldiers was cut off from the other, each of them entirely alone with their thoughts. At the battle of Verdun, the French endured nine days of bombing. “By the ninth day, almost every soldier was crying.”
“Lulls in shelling brought the sound of millions of flies disturbed from feasting on the dead and the high-pitched screaming of rats.
“Shimmering cloud of flies smelling of corpses…choking the combatants with its fetid odor.”
“Bodies crawled with maggots, making a noise like rustling silk as they gnawed their way through some dead man’s guts.”
In the first day of fighting in the Somme, 57,000 British and British Empire troops were killed, wounded, or missing in action. “One could walk across no man’s land on British bodies without setting foot on the ground.” The 1st Newfoundland Battalion lost 91% of its men in the first 40 minutes of the Battle of the Somme.