The Life of French Soldiers in WWI

The servicemen were confined between trenches and makeshift huts.

DIn this world of desolation and death, combatants were assailed by:

  • Mud
  • Vermin (rats, lice ...)
  • Thirst, hunger, fatigue
  • Fear, fading morale
  • Injured and deceased persons
  • Stench, noise
  • Dysentery
  • Asphyxiating gases.


Living in the trenches, as witnessed through the letters of painter Fernand Léger

« Human remains were everywhere. This first trail led me to the ravine where my platoon was supposed to build some barracks-huts. Nothing was there, absolutely nothing, so we had to create everything as quickly as possible so we could at least put our food under cover. I chose a medium-sized shell hole. I went to get some bits of wooden boards and, with the canvas of my tent, I built my shelter in which I spent six days, 24 hours a day. My concern was to avoid all dead bodies in the vicinity. I made the mistake of digging out my hole a little for a place to lay my head. I uncovered two feet with shoes on them. They were from the body of a Frenchman (the Krauts only wore boots). To find a better location, I climbed a little higher. It was no use. Human remains were everywhere. I even saw in a nearby hole what was left of a wooden cross with the inscription “Colonel” on it. Maybe the feet that were sticking out below belonged to the colonel. I have no idea. I decided to live with those two feet. Of course, I made use of them, and I hung my haversack on the one foot that held its position; besides, this turned out to be a common practice here. »

« You know, going up to Fleury was not a short trip, but I don’t regret what I saw. The place was devastated. You didn’t stumble into hell in one fell swoop. There still were signs of nature, until you were three kilometers away from the lines. And then, imperceptibly, all of that disappeared; you were left only with the sensation of desert and silence. At 6:00 a.m. you didn’t hear much artillery. It was the quiet time – in total contrast with the din of two days before. I was truly in the desert, with nothing alive around me. I knew that Fleury had one thing remaining, a small tree, a tiny tree, with one branch on the right side that stood out against the silhouette of Douaumont, with Thiaumont to the left. That’s all I had for a landmark. I walked straight ahead, on top, carefully looking at where I was and what I was stepping on. Human remains began to appear as soon as you left the area where there was still a road. I saw the strangest things. Human heads, almost mummified, sticking out of the mud. They seemed very small against this sea of soil. They looked like children. The hands were especially remarkable. There were hands I would have wanted to photograph exactly as I found them. It was the most expressive thing. Several hands had their fingers in the mouth, with fingers cut off by the teeth. I had already seen this on July 13 in Argonne, where there was a guy who suffered so much that he ate his hands. »

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