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Day-to-day life

III.1 Supplies and equipment

From the very outset of the war, troop numbers on the Western Front alone exceeded 4 million. Europe had never before seen military mobilisation on this scale, nor devoted such resources to equipping and supplying such a large number of soldiers. Once the front line had been stabilised and the warring parties had settled into their networks of trenches, an enormous logistical system was put in place to supply the needs of a warzone which demanded ever more men, munitions and supplies of all kinds. On either side of the front line staging areas were created, zones occupied by logistical warehouses, new railway lines, barracks for troops at rest or in training, hospitals and all of the other infrastructure resources required to maintain an army in the field. Abandoned after the war, these forgotten facilities are often unearthed by archaeological surveys, sometimes several dozen miles behind the front line and in the most unexpected locations. Examples include the American camp and French regulating station in northern Burgundy, some 125 miles south of Verdun, and the workshops where the British performed preparation and maintenance work on their tanks, 30 miles west of Arras. Excavating such sites can turn up new information on the everyday lives of soldiers behind the front lines, or else provide precious clues as to the logistical arrangements in place, an aspect of the war which has been almost totally lost to posterity.

Picture Distributing soup from the mobile canteen in a... - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture Non-commissioned officers from the British Army... - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture A British NCO prepares his meal on a makeshift... - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture A soldier and a donkey (Gaston and Chaurion)... - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture Distribution of mail in a German trench. - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture German soldiers occupying a British prefab ... - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
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Day-to-day life

III.2 Feeding the troops

The scale of land usage and occupation made necessary by a long war of attrition has left us with an exceptionally large corpus of archaeological data, providing evidence of the day-to-day lives of the soldiers in the context of their immediate surroundings, particularly in regard to food. Discoveries of food-related packaging and waste constitute an exceptionally rich source of information.

 

The use of tinned food, a nineteenth-century invention, took off on a large scale during the Great War. The soldiers may have preferred fresh produce, but tinned food was better suited to the constraints of life at the front, allowing troops to manage their own nutrition individually as time permitted, and with minimal preparation. The contents of these tins corresponded to the basic foodstuffs: meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.

 

On the front line rations often consisted of cold foodstuffs, and it was strictly forbidden to light a fire to heat them. It was only towards the end of the war that the use of solid alcohol fuel became widespread.

 

Glass was also very widespread, used primarily to hold liquids and thus supplementing the metal flask carried by all soldiers. Drinking water was very rare on the battlefields, and a steady supply was essential to the survival of the troops. The Germans set up small mineral water bottling plants near the front. The consumption of alcohol (wine, beer, spirits) is systematically attested in military quarters by the presence of glass bottles of various sizes. 

Slideshow - Cl. Dominique Bossut. Inrap
Slideshow - PAIR
Slideshow - PAIR
Slideshow - PAIR
Picture French soldiers break bread on the front line. - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture Group of German officers and NCOs on the... - Fonds documentaire Jean-Claude Laparra
Picture A British soldier seen in profile in front of... - Imperial War Museum
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Day-to-day life

III.3 Butchers at the airfield

In 2009, in the hamlet known as ‘Au-dessus du Clos’ on the eastern edge of the village of Châtelet-sur-Retourne (Ardennes), preventive archaeological excavations revealed a series of constructions dating from the Great War. These structures corresponded to descriptions of a German military air base established on the outskirts of the village, which served as a base for the rear lines.

 

Foundation trenches of large hangars, later re-used as rubbish dumps, yielded numerous animal fragments indicating the presence of a butcher’s shop on this site. Two of these ditches yielded horse skeletons, one of which was killed by a bullet to the head. The absence of the limbs and trunk of this animal suggest that it was stripped of its meat for alimentary purposes. Excavations conducted on a third ditch revealed almost 200 cow bones, including around thirty skulls. These remains all revealed traces of butchery; the technical precision and regularity of the traces left on the bones suggest that the meat was cut by a professional.

 

During the war the German army’s food supply came partly from the purchase and requisition of produce available in the occupied territories. Livestock liable to be requisitioned under this policy might include cows, oxen, bulls and calves. 

Picture - Cl. Yoan Rabasté. Inrap
Picture - Cl. Yoan Rabasté. Inrap
Picture - Cl. Yoan Rabasté. Inrap
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Day-to-day life

III.4 Civilians at war

In 1914 France’s total population stood at just below 40 million. By the end of the conflict, some 8,500,000 men had been mobilised. War was no longer a matter for the army alone, but for the nation as a whole. The vast majority of the working age male population would spend time in uniform. It was not rare for several members of the same family to be in active service. The same was true of almost all of the warring parties. The nations involved in the conflict would thus be permanently affected. The Great War deeply marked collective and individual memories, an impact which can still be felt in 2014 as we commemorate the Centenary of the start of the conflict. Archaeological excavations thus often turn up artefacts from civilian life, evidence of the day-to-day existence of these recent recruits as they adapted to life in uniform. These everyday artefacts include traces of the culinary practices specific to each nation, and rarer and more ephemeral traces of religious or funerary practices. The soldiers, particularly when at rest, made efforts to reproduce the living conditions to which they were accustomed. Photographic and archaeological evidence from the German rest camps are particularly moving in this respect: a ‘bucolic’ set-up with wooden cabins often lovingly adorned with decorations made from birch branches. Similarly, the numerous burial grounds found near the front bear a strong resemblance to traditional German cemeteries.

Picture - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture Factory at Courcelles (Pas-de-Calais).... - Photo allemande, fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture Saint-Martin-sur-Cojeul (Pas-de-Calais).... - Photo allemande. Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture A house in flames in a village in the Pas-de... - Photo allemande, fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture Aerial view of the Grand Place and Arras city... - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
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Day-to-day life

III.5 Arts and crafts in the trenches

A craft workshop trench was uncovered during excavations ahead of the creation of the Actiparc business park near Arras. One trench in particular, identified on British maps as ‘Tilloy Trench’, contained a large number of unusual offcuts from copper shell casings and aluminium drums. Further investigation of this detritus turned up a number of small objects such as match-box holders and belt buckles, allowing archaeologists to retrace their fabrication processes.

 

Shell casings were collected from the nearby battlefield. These copper cases were then cut and rolled out to obtain smooth sheets of metal, used to create a variety of objects: letter-openers, belt buckles, match-box cases, ink wells, candlesticks and scale models of British tanks. The sheet metal and aluminium recovered from drums and canteens was primarily used to produce non-regulation, oval identification tags. Tools from this workshop have also been found: punches, files and small hammers, ingeniously crafted from heavy artillery firing pins.

 

Detailed study of this workshop reveals that these objects were most likely produced by German prisoners of war, held here until 1919 in order to get the Arras-Lens railway line back up and running. The line passes less than 200m away from the trench where these objects were found.

Slideshow Examples of arts and crafts in the trenches‚... - Cl. Jean-Marie Patin. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture - Cl. Pierre MACHARD, 1915 © ECPAD / France (SPA 4 C 394)
Picture Limestone ashtray... - Cl. Bruno Duchêne. Inrap
Picture Limestone ashtray... - Cl. Bruno Duchêne. Inrap