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We Were There

Felix Cullen

Life in the Trenches

Felix Cullen was born in 1889, in Renfrew, Ontario. A steelworker by trade, he enrolled in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Toronto, on November 12, 1914. On May 13, 1915, he set sail for Europe and, a few weeks later found himself in France, in the trenches, under enemy fire. Felix Cullen fought at various places on the European Front, including St. Éloi and the Somme, where some of the war's most deadly battles took place.

From the first months of the war, trench warfare predominated. The military authorities adopted an offensive strategy, stressing control over the territory, maintained by building and capturing trenches. Life in the trenches was difficult, with much labourious and tedious work to be performed, interspersed with terrifying episodes that had the potential of killing thousands of soldiers in just a few hours. The trenches also had a devastating effect on the European countryside, and left their mark there for a long time to come.

Military file of soldier Felix Cullen

The military file of Felix Cullen is a typical example of the average soldier's file. It includes his attestation paper, record of service, casualty form, discharge certificate, war service gratuity, hospital cards, medical history sheet, medical case sheet, temperature chart, last pay certificate, dental history sheet and medical examination certificate upon leaving the service. Library and Archives Canada ArchiviaNet database "Soldiers of the First World War -- Canadian Expeditionary Force" provides access to the military records of members of the Force. In some cases, individuals' attestation papers have been digitized.

Devastated Landscape

The existence of trenches and the massive deployment of artillery early in the First World War left a devastated, desolate landscape in its wake. At the end of the war, Canadian artist Mary Riter Hamilton travelled to Europe with the mandate to paint the European battlefields where Canadian soldiers had served so valiantly. Even after the hostilities, the destruction of the landscape was still evident, as seen in these works by the artist showing Mount St. Éloi and the village of Kemmel.

Life in the trenches

The soldier's daily life in the trenches was rarely easy or pleasant. A constant effort was required to maintain the trenches, subject to inclement weather and enemy fire. The soldiers had to perform this work at night, to avoid being too exposed to their enemy's fire. Aside from the manual labour, the soldiers had to watch the enemy closely, and were also required to take part in reconnaissance operations or raids on enemy trenches, thereby incurring many risks to their lives. Soldiers also had to live with the constant noise of shells and enemy fire, and their attacks, including gas warfare, a new innovation in the First World War. To carry out these tasks, the soldier was often issued weapons and other equipment that were up to twice the soldier's weight.

The soldiers also faced less tangible enemies than their German adversaries, in the form of vermin, unsanitary conditions and disease. Lice, the inability to remove their boots for several days in a row, bad weather and food that was limited in variety and quantity led to health problems, some specific to life in the trenches (chilblains, trench fever and Vincent's Angina, to name just a few).

This cave-dweller's life, as some soldiers saw it, led to the development of a trench culture, reflected among other things in music and in newspapers that were created for the soldiers, in which they expressed themselves through humour and poetry. By day, the soldiers often had moments to enjoy such reading, to play cards or write to their friends and family at home. A number of songs emerged from this trench culture, in particular the very popular, Mademoiselle From Armentières.

Heavy Equipment

One strain in the soldier’s life was the weight of the equipment he had to carry. In addition to his uniform, a soldier had to carry his weapons, ammunition, steel helmet, gas mask, trenching tools and rations. In some cases, this amounted to twice the soldier’s weight.

Living dangerously

Trench warfare was something new. In spite of the training received in Canada and England, the reality of the trenches was entirely different. Instead of deep, clean and dry trenches, with wooden walkways and lockers to store their weapons, the Canadians lived in trenches that were essentially mud ditches, filled with stagnant water and sometimes even with the bodies of soldiers who had already fallen victim to the war.

These macabre memories were a constant reminder to the soldiers of the dangers they faced. Aside from the ever-present threat of shells, enemy fire could strike at any time killing a curious soldier who raised his head or a brave soldier who ventured into "no man’s land." In 1916, another mortal danger was a reality; gas attacks became one of the deadliest and most painful aspects of life in the trenches.

While measures were taken to improve protection for the soldiers, including the use of the steel helmet and the gas mask, survival in the trenches depended on the soldiers being cautious and their willingness to follow the rules.

Vermin

One of the most unpleasant aspects of the soldier’s life was vermin, specifically lice. A soldier could find himself covered in lice within forty-eight hours of his arrival on the Front. Beyond the daily annoyance, the lice caused more serious health problems. Near the end of the war, studies showed that lice were usually responsible for trench fever, an illness striking a great many soldiers. The military authorities had to employ engineering know-how to help remedy the situation.

Staying healthy

The soldiers faced an enemy less tangible than the danger of German weapons, but no less dangerous, namely, disease. The conditions in the trenches, the dampness, cold, the lack of variety and insufficient quantity of food led to a myriad of health problems, the most serious being trench foot. Trench foot was a condition caused by wearing boots for extended periods in wet and cold trenches. Never dry, soldiers suffered from chilblains on their feet that made the skin swell and crack. In the worst cases, they lost toes or even the entire foot. The military authorities very quickly took measures to prevent this type of problem.

In a similar vein, some soldiers suffered trench mouth or Vincent’s Angina, an infection caused essentially by germs transmitted in the food, poorly cleaned utensils or sharing of pipes or cigarettes. Sanitary measures were taken to prevent this all too frequent problem in the trenches.

Trench Culture

Too exposed to work or attack the enemy during the day, the soldiers used that time to try to sleep, to read, write to their friends and families or play cards. The difficult life in the trenches, the boredom, danger, close quarters with other soldiers and the isolation from their friends and families led to the development of a trench culture. This popular culture was reflected in trench newspapers, in which the soldiers often ironically expressed their feelings about the war and their presence on the Front. Some trench newspapers, such as The Busy Beaver, were full of poems written by soldiers about their daily life and troubles on the Front. This trench culture was immortalized in many songs, such as the very popular Mademoiselle From Armentières.