The use of machine guns and rapid-firing artillery made fighting on open ground impractical. Instead, soldiers dug in and sheltered below ground level.
Dense entanglements of barbed wire protected the trenches against enemy attack and a stretch of no-man’s-land separated the armies. Towards the end of the War, tanks, which were resistant to machine gun and rifle fire, helped bring an end to trench warfare.
Life in the trenches was hard. In addition to the threats of the enemy’s bullets and artillery shells, soldiers encountered other hazards. Trenches often filled with water making them unsanitary and causing trench foot. Latrines (toilets) also sometimes overflowed into them.
Lice infested soldiers’ clothing, spreading disease through their bites. At night, opportunistic rats crept out and fed on food scraps in the trenches as well as the dead in no-man’s-land.
Prolonged exposure of soldiers’ feet to the damp and cold conditions in trenches caused damage to nerves and small blood vessels, which led to a condition called trench foot. The tissue in the feet then started to die and could also swell. Advanced trench foot resulted in blisters and open sores, which potentially led to fungal infections. If left untreated, trench foot usually resulted in gangrene.
If trench foot was treated in time by keeping the foot dry and clean, complete recovery was possible. However, if gangrene had set in, amputation was required. Soldiers were given tins of whale oil to rub on their feet for a protective barrier.
On 19 July 1916, 19-year-old Rifleman Joseph Mercer disappeared. Mercer was stationed in a dug out with fellow soldiers, Callendar and Bellamy, when heavy shell fire erupted. Callendar managed to scramble away but Mercer and Bellamy were left hiding in the dug out. Just as the pair tried to escape, they were caught by German soldiers.
Mercer was later tracked down at a prisoner of war camp in Dulmen, Germany. He moved from camp to camp before finally being released at the end of the War only to catch influenza. Fortunately, Mercer recovered and made it back to New Zealand. Bellamy’s fate is unknown.