In the trench we see the ugly face of the First World War in all its dimensions: glowing nationalism, mobilization in all sectors, industrial mass killing, death, suffering, doubt and.chaos A place which systematically destroys hope breeds despairand fills the new emptiness with indifference. It is the centre of the "steel thunderstorm" into which millions of soldiers proceed only to fall victim. However, the trench is also a place which tells stories of nation-crossing comradeship, compassion and mercy, as well as incredible examples of bourgeois lifestyle and mentality. These aspects break through the one-dimensionality of the trench and make it possible to experience it in another way, as a place of fluidly interlocking contrasts, as a place of transitions.
The soldiers try to maintain a familiar and homely atmosphere in the trench and thereby create a safe haven into which they can retreat. It is an illusory world amidst war and dangers. The dugout is decorated with curtains or wallpaper, and named “Villa Waldfrieden” (“Villa Peace in the Forest”) or “Das Herz am Rhein” (“The heart of Rhine”). In times of idleness and boredom trench journals featuring jokes, cartoons, music and poems help to pass the time. Activities such as fixing the trench, cooking and writing letters to their families help to give the soldiers the feeling of ordinary everyday routineAt the same time, the trenches are rat-ridden, full of mud and artillery shells destroy the repaired trenches and kill their comrades. Both exceptional circumstance and normality can be observed in the diary of Captain Arthur Gibbs in the entry of May, 2 1916: “In the middle of rather a hot bit of shelling the day before yesterday I heard the cuckoo for the first time. My sergeant, who was crouching down close to me, asked me if I didn’t think it nice to hear the cuckoo again! I nearly kicked him!“
Euphoria and despair
The enthusiasm of the young urban middle-class, emanating from a cultural boredom of industrialised society, is quickly lost in view of the fatal outcomes of modern methods of warfare. Machine guns, poison gas and artillery fundamentally change the character of battles. Hand-to-hand combat is rare, anonymous killing becomes the norm. The only escape is below ground: trench warfare is born. Ernst Jünger wrote in 1922 in "Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis": „The trench […] turns war into an industrial art; and the combatants become day labourers of death, steeped in bloody daily grind.” The initial moment of national exaltation is replaced by horror at the monotonous atrocities of warfare. Instead of grand heroic conquests only a few meters of muddy trenches are gained at the front in Belgium and France, with disproportionate loss of life. Although attempts to conquer the enemy trench lift the soldiers’ spirits and fire their imagination it is an illusion which is short-lived and quickly lost. The uninterrupted thunder of artillery permanently changes their state of mind, and kills and injures many soldiers. The numbers of mentally ill soldiers returning home reaches unprecedented levels. “Kriegszitterer”, “shell schock” and “l’obusite“ become new words.
In the trenches the sheer fight for survival is soon the most important thing. Everything else is pushed to the background. Sometimes the soldiers are physically and psychologically closer to the enemy than to their own comrades. Richard Schmieder wrote in March, 13 in 1915 about an attack against the enemy trench: “There were eight men of the mountain infantry of the French Army, blown up by a mine, a big bloody crowd of smashed bodies, dead and wounded people […]. The whining and moaning of these poor men as they faced death was heartbreaking.” In situations like these sometimes lulls in the fighting are agreed, so that trenches can be repaired or dead and wounded comrades can be recovered from the battlefield, and personal treasures exchanged. In exceptional circumstances enemy soldiers give warning of artillery offensives or wilfully miss the mark. Often, especially on public holidays, the soldiers sing together, each side remaining in its own trenches, or even meet in no man’s land. Men on either side temporarily lose sight of the war, violence, hate and battles. Moments like these document the personal conflicts of the soldier: loyalty to one’s home country and one’s comrades is mixed with acts of humanity.