One of the worst aspects of World War One is reputed to be the atrocious conditions in the trenches on the Western Front (although, no doubt, conditions on the Eastern Front were also hellish, as well as being freezing cold).

I happened across an article by Ann Bourdin on the problems of mud in warfare; it was quite an interesting read.

However, I liked the bit of dark humour she mentioned in her article about the man who lost his helmet in the mud. I’ve reproduced it below, along with an extract from the article, to give some wider context.

The full article is worth reading.

The Western Front took place in a low-lying area of northern France and Belgium, which needs drainage ditches, called polders, to drain the fields and make them suitable for crops and pasture. These ditches were soon cut by artillery fire and the whole area turned to a morass, which never really dried out during the whole four years of the war.

As trees were also blasted to smithereens, the root systems which might have held the land together were also destroyed and, because it was a very static war, rarely moving more than a few hundred yards in any direction, the same roads were used again and again and quickly became degraded, indeed destroyed.

Conditions at the front were appalling, and even the rotation system which allowed troops to retire for rest, offered little respite, since it was often a foot-slogging tramp for 5 miles, with clay sticking to boots and making them weigh several more pounds than they should. Even when you got back to the rest areas, the persistent rainy weather made them less of a haven than they should have been, but they did offer the opportunity to clean up and change clothes for something dry. In addition to all this, and a less than satisfactory diet, there was always the problem of helping out machinery which had become mired.

But if you couldn’t cry, you might as well laugh, and one persistent joke which went the rounds, and again in WWII was of a man losing his helmet in the mud. As he groped around for it, he encountered a face, staring up at him. “What are you doing, there?” he asked and received the reply “You won’t believe this but I am on horseback”.

The problem was compounded by the fact that you are talking about farmland, which is regularly ploughed and this enables it to hold more water than undisturbed land.

There are many horror stories of that war, not least of which are the cases of men who drowned in mud so deep they could not be rescued. I am sure that some of these are urban legends, but there are enough real cases for every old soldier who served on that front to have nightmares for the rest of his life, often about drowning in mud. There are many monuments to the missing in the area, the Menin Gate alone carried 85,000 names, and the reason many were never found is that they indeed lie drowned and buried in all that mud.

Ann Bourdin, A Century of Mud: 1860’s to 1960’s, The South African Military History Society