Trench life involved long periods of boredom mixed with brief periods of terror. The threat of death kept soldiers constantly on edge, while poor living conditions and a lack of sleep wore away at their health and stamina.
Pests and Pain
Rats and lice tormented the troops by day and night. Oversized rats, bloated by the food and waste of stationary armies, helped spread disease and were a constant irritant. In 1918, doctors also identified lice as the cause of trench fever, which plagued the troops with headaches, fevers, and muscle pain. The unsanitary conditions of trench life, especially the cold, persistent dampness, resulted in trench foot, a frost-bite-like infection that in extreme cases, led to gangrene and amputation.
The Randomness of Death
Random shelling and sniping characterized trench warfare, with earth-shattering or deadly rifle shots periodically breaking the boredom of trench life. The enemy remained largely hidden from view and soldiers often felt powerless against arbitrary and sudden death. The inability to defend oneself against shelling or snipers, and the constant hardships of trench life, contributed to extreme stress and exhaustion. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Canadian soldiers were killed and wounded each day along the Western Front. The infantry and machine-gunners, which took the majority of casualties during the war, planned to lose 10 per cent of the total strength each month to death, wounding, and illness. The killing never stopped on the Western Front.