Eye-Deep In Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I by John Ellis

Ellis, John. Eye-Deep In Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. Baltimore, Maryland:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

     Eye-Deep In Hell: Trench Warfare In World War I is not an account of trench warfare or a sketch of trench construction. John Ellis has written a startling portrayal of life as it is lived in the trenches. Some soldiers were in these trenches for four years. They ate, slept, managed rat and lice infiltrations, and watched friends die while enduring the all-pervasive trench damp. Ellis uses personal stories from diaries and letters home to piece together how these men persevered in trench hell. Ellis decided to write this book giving a “day-to-day level,” in hoping “to discover just how the troops in the trenches managed to discern a necessary and logical reality that enabled them to survive and fight on.” (p. 5)

John Ellis once taught in the Department of Military Studies at the University of Manchester but spent the latter part of his career as a full-time writer. Two of his titles include Social History of the Machine Gun and Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War.

According to the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans hoped to encircle and crush France by way of Belgium. France’s slightly sketchy Plan XVII would see them taking the offensive against Germany on the frontier. Neither plan worked. Ellis points out that “head-on infantry assaults in the face of modern rifles, machine guns and artillery” were quickly shown to be a waste of soldiers and resources. (p.4)

Ellis sets the stage of what had initially been thought of as short-term earthworks. After the Battle of Marne, the Germans were falling back but General von Falkenhayn did not want to lose any more ground so he dug in. The French followed suit having unsuccessfully tried to break through German lines. Ellis writes that trench warfare actually began as early as September 1914. It is important to note that the battle line was a whopping 475 miles and covered every imaginable terrain. Lucky for the Germans, they got the higher ground. If Germany’s trench locale was considered the Ritz of trench hotels, then the British were stuck with a seedy, straight out of the seventies, trench Motel 6. The British terrain was so close to sea level that digging further than two to three feet meant the trenches filled with water. The British eventually had to build up versus down, as did the French.

Ellis outlines the soldier’s and the officer’s daily routine, which apparently consisted mainly of misery. He found that in most of the armies, the soldiers found ways of coping with trench living. Men rotated around from service in the front of the trench, further back in reserve, and then out for much-needed rest days. There were areas where it would take hours of slogging through mud filled trenches to reach billets, and this while carrying a pack that weighed more than half the soldier’s weight. Ellis adds a snippet from A. P. Herbert who describes these long marches. “He is only conscious of the dead weight of his load, and the braces of his pack biting into his shoulders, of his thirst and the sweat of his body, and the longing to lie down and sleep.” (p. 33) This description was written about trenches in Gallipoli that were dry.

Armies required roads and unending repairs to trenches, including additions. By the end of 1915, the British and Germans had created special labor companies to oversee the manual labor. France used men who were unfit for active duty. While regular soldiers had their fair share of hardships, it was not all roses for the officers either. Most officers got little sleep according to Ellis, and after inspections, visiting patrols, and organizing sentries, they had a heap of paperwork to contend with. A German officer was quoted as saying “…the stream of useless reports, questions and orders which pours in on us from above can only be the result of disordered brains.” (p. 42)

Ellis writes that the two most hated natural enemies were water and mud, especially for the British, as they were at sea level or below. A 19th London Regiment officer said a 400-yard stretch o trench took three hours to traverse. The worse consequence of the mud, Ellis explains, is that men would sometimes drown in it. Trench foot was another nightmare caused by the wet conditions. Rat infestation, Weil’s Disease, and trench fever from the dreaded lice were three nuisances to withstand.

Life in the trenches saw little action above the daily schedule of living, however, soldiers were never unaware of their enemies’ presence. Barrages would send several shells per minute targeting a certain vicinity. The noise and constant need to keep low, less shrapnel find you, kept soldiers on edge. One soldier, Henri Barbusse, poignantly writes that “A diabolical uproar surrounds us…an incessant multiplication of the universal frenzy; a hurricane of hoarse and hollow banging of raging clamour, of piercing and beast-like screams…where we are buried up to our necks, and the wind from the shells seems to set it heaving and pitching.” (p. 63)

Gas shells caused much suffering until gas masks, or improvised gas masks were provided. Ladies’ veiling provided decent coverage. Unfortunately, veiling would not stop a bullet from a deadly sniper. British troops alone suffered 3,85 head, face, and neck wounds, which Ellis believes were caused by snipers.

Ellis agrees with many historians, including Eric Dorn Brose, in that social status caused a “blindness” and “inflexible reliance” leading to an unpreparedness in a modern war. (p. 80) Ellis makes an excellent argument that “Eighteenth and nineteenth-century wars remained the model.” (p. 82) This is understandable, especially for Germany, as they were always on the winning side. It is difficult to change procedure when it has always worked. The unknown is frightening, however, technological advances refused to slow, and change was inevitable, whether the change was in tactics, or just not winning.

The seventh chapter, “Battle: The Reality” explores the continuous and ever-growing mistakes the British made during the Battle of the Somme. Ellis writes that “…the British…often simplified the German’s task.” (p. 94) The disillusionment and bewilderment that soldiers felt at the needless deaths show plainly in their letters. One British soldier is amazed at the sheer stupidity of his commanding officers who would have paths cut and marked days before an attack was planned. “Small wonder the machine gun fire was directed with such fatal precision.” (p. 94) However, even with the seeming disregard for human life, the soldier, as Ellis discovered, “…was afraid of nothing so much as showing his fear.” (p. 98)

No man’s land was littered with the dead but the wounded also suffered, some surely wishing for the oblivion of death. Stretcher bearers were limited and soldiers may lay in a state of agony for two to three days before they were able to be picked up. Ellis gives the reader a glimpse of the medical staff’s uphill battle to treat the thousands of cases before sending the worst on to hospitals. It is Ellis’s belief that the war’s medical needs would have been served more efficiently had the doctor’s stayed in the hospitals and allowed aides to run the field infirmaries, because, as Ellis states “1,000 British and 1,500 German medical officers were killed” during the war. (p. 110)

The reader may find Ellis’s chapter on “Patriotism and Honour” sad, but it might also strengthen one’s opinion of the innate goodness of mankind, even in the midst of such hell. Both sides were quite willing to set aside warring on occasion, at least at the beginning of the war, to get to know their neighbors. Ellis leaves no doubt that soldiers felt respect for their fellows regardless of whether they carried the moniker of enemy. They each knew the travails the other was suffering. It is no surprise that High Command squelched the “fraternizing” because it is much harder to point a weapon on someone who one might have shared a rum ration and song with the night before. Ellis writes that men were surprised to find so much in common with the enemy. One British soldier wrote, after Christmas Day 1914 that “They were really magnificent in the whole thing, and jolly good sorts. I now have a very different opinion of the Germans.” (p.172)

If a book dealing with battle strategies and troops movements is what you expected to read, then do not pick up this book, but if you are interested in discovering the day-to-day life in the World War I trenches, then Eye-Deep in Hell is an excellent choice. Ellis has used primary sources of the soldiers’ words to the best advantage and has packed numerous pictures throughout. It would be preferred if all of the pictures bore captions, but it does not detract from the whole. There are two problems that should be mentioned. First, Ellis’s focus is clearly on British troops. He does mention German and French troops but usually as a side note. He might have been better served with a narrower sub-title. The second problem is that the book contains no bibliography or notes section. This might have been the prerogative of the publishing press. Regardless, Ellis has noted almost all the source names or places he is writing about. A bibliography and notes section would have increased the potential value of this monograph exponentially if one wanted to use it as a tool for further research.

Ellis’s argument is understood. War was not all patriotic duty, grand plans, and tactics, nor “brotherhood,” but trench warfare “…was one of unparalleled brutality and suffering.” (p. 204)

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