What they Think in the Trenches

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What they Think in the Trenches  (1916) 
by Daniel Desmond Sheehan

Daily Express, March 4, 1916

From the trenches of WWI
Newspaper articles
Why I joined the Army
In the Front Trenches
What they Think in the Trenches
The Resiliency of Mr. Atkins
Night Raid by the Royal Munster Fusiliers
How a Trench Raid V.C. was won
The Munsters at Mons
Father Gleeson and his Alter-Boy

I read recently in an editorial article in the Daily Express an earnest plea for greater economy in the homes of the country and in the expenditure of the people. The wonder to those who are at the front is that there should be even the need for such a plea. They cannot understand why the folk at home will persist in ordering their lives as if no great and devastating war were being waged, in which the rights of nationalities and the very destiny of the race are involved.

I find the feeling among officers and men at the front that the people at home do not yet seem adequately to realise the appalling nature and the tremendous magnitude of this war. Those who come home on leave what do they see ? The attempt, at least, on the part of those who remain behind to live the old life of ease and comfort in the old pleasant way. They grumble if any of their material comforts are curtailed. They set up an angry growl if the service that surrounded them in their homes has to be cut short. The maids are going to the munitions factories , where they have greater freedom and better pay. They have a grievance against the Minister of Munitions.


Be it clearly understood that the men at the front are not a growling or a grumbling lot. I have been associated in the service with Scottish and British regiments, and I have learnt to love and to respect them all. I have the most profound admiration for their pluck, their grit, their loyalty to one another, and, above all, their indomitable cheerfulness in the most trying circumstances and amid the most depressing surroundings. Sacrifice is their daily bread of life. They spend long and weary days and nights in the trenches in conditions that almost defy description. They endure all the multiplied horrors of continuous bombardments and rifle fire. They suffer a ceaseless round of duty and routine. Cold and wet, hardships and perils, danger and disease – the manifold trials of a campaign unparalleled in the history of warfare – all these they bear uncomplainingly and even cheerfully. They are out here to fight and to endure, and they know how to do both.

But there is one grumble I do find universal among them. Every Tommy returning from his leave has his “grouse” over what I may term the spendthrift luxury of the people at home. He finds all the outward and visible signs of affluence doing itself pretty well. There seems no lack of social enjoyment and good living. West Ender and suburbaner alike will persist – so it appears to him – in having the same “good old times” of it. Is it any surprise if he feels – and gives forcible expression to his feelings – that enough is not being done to bring this war to a speedy termination? I have heard them in the trenches discussing the selfishness of those at home. Even if they were obliged to exercise the strictest economy, see how much better off they are than the men in the firing line. They at least have decent roof-trees over their heads, comfortable beds to lie on, warm fire to cheer them, friends to meet, and a thousand and one ways of making life tolerable. What, on the other hand, can the men who are fighting their battles enjoy of comfort and cheeriness, or the things that conduce to content !


Let me give a few illustrations from my own case. I have been for some months in the midst of a severe winter without once sitting to a fire. At another period I have been for sixteen days and nights without once changing my cloths, sleeping – when one could get sleep – on a waterproof sheet spread on the ground with a greatcoat thrown over me. I hope there is no need to elaborate the physical discomforts of such a state, but it is merely campaigning and has to be endured. “Oh,” I have heard the people at home say, “but have you not got billets when you are out of the trenches ?” Great heavens, if the only knew ! They probably hear or know about the billets the recruits have at home, where Tommy lives with the family, gets a good bed, and has the freedom of the house.

Out here back billets mean nothing of this kind. They are outhouses, old battered lofts, miserable, wretched, abominable holes, where the wind whistles through unceasingly, and where sometimes the rain comes freely down. An yet your brave and faithful soldier does not grumble. It is all in the day’s work, a part of his life. No doubt if better could be got he would have got it, and so he accepts the inevitable, take his five francs or ten when he gets them, drinks his few glasses of mild French beer or coffee and rum, and is content.


Supposing the men are out on a march without greatcoat or macintosh, and it comes on to rain unexpectedly. They may get badly wet. They have only got the one set of uniform – and the warmth of their own bodies is the only fire that dries it. The officers equally share the hardship of this campaign. There are seven of us at one time billeted in a small room over an estaminet, and only two had any beds to sleep in ! The rest made themselves “comfortable” on the floor, and the bedclothes of all alike were a few army blankets, with possibly a greatcoat or British warm thrown on top if the night was exceptionally cold. As for luxuries in or out of the trenches, well, the occasions when company officers at least can enjoy them, as far as my experience goes, are very few and far between.

It is no exaggeration to say that there is no sacrifice the troops at the front are not making, and they have some right in the circumstances to criticise the wastefulness and extravagance of the masses of the people, and particularly of the wealthier classes at home.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.