The hellish muds of the front

Mud was one of the many tortures suffered by soldiers on the front during the First World War. Max Deauville (pen name of Doctor Maurice Duwez) made it famous by giving one of his war-novels the title “The Mud of Flanders”. Many others described it as hell on earth.

Try to represent yourself with mud up to the waist. Some boys even sink into it, and only with the greatest efforts do we manage to get them out of it. Up to 6 km from the Yser canal, that’s still all right, the recaptured territories are organised and you can find roads made of stone or logs, or at least duckboard paths. But after that! Wading through the tree remaining kilometers is a nightmare”. 327E R.I., c.p. 1st army.

Here comes the mud, the true one, the one and only muck! Everywhere it comes up to our knees. War is not the soldier’s only foe. All those stories about mud, constant worry in those trenches dug into the silt of the plateaus, in a maze of narrow passages. Our only solace is the thought that not one single Hun would see Berlin again if they ever took the chance to attack by that side. Orders came to send runners through the trenches to install communication lines. We answered with a flat refusal: our runners cannot swim”. Lieutenant Etévé, 417 IR

Mud was found not only on the most western sector of the front: it was part of the daily life of the trenches from Picardy up to Champagne. Environmental historian Martin R. Mulford compares the mudflows from the front to the phenomenon of liquefaction that sometimes occurs with unstable sandy soil during earthquakes. “Liquefaction is the process by which seemingly solid earth turns to a kind of a liquid when an earthquake shakes an area of soil of a particular structure.” This was seen in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

With the disruption by shelling of the land deprived of any vegetal absorbing water, and quantities of rain, the conditions of the soil mirrored this process and this created a truly dangerous ground. Martin R. Mulford reckons, using the findings of weather studies of the latter Twentieth Century as a base, that the acceleration of vast quantities of dust, smoke and chemical particles into the air, thereby augmenting the number of particulate nuclei around which water could condense, increased the rainfall in the area during the war years…

French bio-geographer Jean-Paul Amat remains more cautious when trying to explain these phenomenon’s: “Evidence shows that erosion of the soils happened because of the war. As for the rest, the direct impacts of war are more meteorological than purely climatic: we couldn’t observe a climate change due to the First World War, but undoubtedly, there were side-effects on the type of weathers. War climate archives make possible an interesting approach of the climate’s accidents: it has become an important stake, as we’re collecting large amounts of data in order to understand the current changes.”

Blaise Cendrars mentions those rainfalls in “L’Horizon”, newspaper of the trenches from July 1918: “This simple word - rain - that means nothing to a civilian with a roof above his head contains in itself all the horror of the battlefields for a soldier.”

Captain Paul Flamant of the 33d Infantry Regiment also relates the effects of those constant showers: “We live here in a dreadful mud. Torrential rains keep pouring down and when by chance the sun suddenly shines, swarms of filthy flies buzz over the wet mass-grave where our shelters and trenches were dug. The clay of these passages is full of mummified corpses, French and German, hard to differentiate from the dull colours of things, amongst the broken weapons and wrecks scattered across the ground, since the heavy fights from 1916. Here and there, a twisted hand surfaces from the earth; a boot still on a shin shows up in the crumbling earth. Our men use it to hand up their flasks with detachment, or rather with philosophy.” 

The mud not only made movements of troops difficult: it could kill and swallow a man or a horse in a few minutes: “Finally we manage to get to the trenches, but what a terrible weather! Mud up to calves; if you could see the horses, fallen in bomb holes, sinking into it, and that we have to shoot down; the trucks bogged down, up to the axle, no, really, it’s just ghastly; and the rain, the horrible rain that never stops”. (Unknown, quote in “ Les poilus ont la parole: dans les tranchées, lettres du front, 1917-1918 », Jean Nicot)

In the « Severed hand », Blaise Cendrars depicts the frightful and murdering effects of the mud: “We had gone back to the front line near Herbécourt , in the Clara trench, where being a hero meant no more than withstanding during four days the downwards-sucking muds… That was a really nasty place, a lake of muck where heaps of mud emerged, swollen like flabby scabs bursting when the shells hit them, spurting like thick geysers of different heights while the bomb holes slowly but inexorably filled with heavy and chalky waters. Men slipped in this jumble, jumped and swam into it, lying on their back or stomach more often than standing and, like exhausted castaways in a lagoon, moved leaning on a cane or a stick, paddled, sank and dived with water up to the chin, holding on tight to poles or pieces of wooden planks stuck between two drooling piles or stuck askew on the slimy sides, like rungs of a broken ladder with sunken endings, and the men felt lost and remained clung to their miserable supports, as if hanging over a chasm digesting everything falling into it, and if the filthy muck didn’t go up to their unstable fulcrum to grasp them in the end, you could see horror and distress growing in their eyes as they happened to understand their situation and feel their weakness growing. We were at one with cavalry men without horses, sent with us to the Clara trench as backup, the headcount of our squadrons being lower every day due to the evacuation of more and more men because of frozen feet, bronchitis, pneumonia, conjunctivitis, toothaches and other sequels of the miseries of this first winter of war, and it is in this very Clara trench that I saw one of those poor horsemen, impeded by their high shako, their spurs, their big sword, their cavalry coat with cape and train, their gaiters, slowly sucked and vanish in the mud without any of us managing to get him out of there, and we were at least ten of us around him, trying to lend a helping hand, poles or even our rifles, trying to advise on how to free himself, imploring not to move because he sank deeper with every move, trying to put pieces of wood under his armpits and pry him away with a long metal rod and not managing to achieve anything while in our confused moves we almost crushed his chest and dislocated his shoulder blades, the dreadful suction pad finally winning the battle. Poor him !”

The mud is merciless and soldiers sometimes had to show no pity themselves as can be read from the History of the 30th Infantry Regiment: “Night of April, 22 to 23. – First battalion of the 30th IR attacks the ravine of “La Dame”. It has rained and there is mud all over the sector. Looking for shelter, a man has thrown himself in a trench. Mud immediately surrounded him up to the waist. He screams for help; two men offer him their rifles to grasp; twice they slipped and soon took back their place in the passing-by column, deaf to the prayers of the man slowly sinking, left on his own”.

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