Trench Life by Lacey Stepro

The University Archives & Special Collections contain many thrilling documents and artifacts. Being that Veteran’s Day is right around the corner, there is one collection that is worth a visit. The Kennedy Collection presents a look into the dreadful incident of World War I. The collection has many rare photos depicting the war. The photo album is interesting because it concerns the First World War and many people do not know much about this major occurrence in our history. How much do you really know about the First World War? I bet a few of you are sitting there thinking you have no idea how it began, what it was about, and the outcome of the war. If you cannot answer those questions don’t fret, let me give you a brief history lesson. The most common notion that started the war was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian. Germany supported Austria against Serbia while Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and later the United States supported Serbia. The Allied and Central Powers both wanted a quick victory, but it soon became a stalemate and the fight became a war of attrition. Soldiers on both sides of the battlefield lived in trenches full time. You cannot imagine what it was like to live on the front line.

Life on the edge of battle was dangerous, disgusting, and outright unlivable. As the war waged on soldiers began dropping like flies. As 1914 came to a close, soldiers on both sides of the battlefield squatted in the trenches for the winter. The war continued on, but it was a slow going and ineffective operation. Germans and the Allies tried fighting in short bursts to overwhelm the enemy, but this proved to be a disaster. Both sides lost many men and no combatant could outmaneuver the other. By the end of the war, the Allies lost 6 million men and the Central Powers lost about 4 million men. Most deaths occurred in battle, but millions of deaths also occurred because of the diseases that circulated among the men, such as Trench Foot and the Spanish Influenza. Honestly, the Germans and Americans were stuck in their trenches until the end of the war and no side fared better than the other. Trench life was the most horrendous part of the war. Living in a trench meant no shelter, sleeping in a dirt hole, and dealing with 2-3 feet of standing water every day. There are two photos in the Kennedy Collection that depict the true nature of what really happened on the front line.

MSS 256-021The first photo involves a German soldier, scurrying vermin, and dinner time.  While soldiers were trapped in their trenches in open battle, supply lines were cut off by the enemy. Cut supply lines meant no ammo, no necessities, and most importantly very little food. However, there were plenty of rats. Millions of rats poured into the trenches gorging on the fallen soldiers that had drawn them there. Many of the men tell frightening stories of how the rats were such a nuisance that they would devour what little food they had and when the men slept, they could feel the rats scurrying across their faces. The photograph down below shows just how useful the rats could be. Since food was limited on the front line German soldiers resorted to catching their vermin enemies and stringing them for dinner. This is just one example of how truly terrible trench life was. Can you imagine eating a rat? Embarrassingly enough,  I scream at the sight of these fowl creatures, there would be no way I would ever get close enough to catch one and then be able to scarf it down. If the war had not already toughened the men, trench life would get the job done.

The second photograph shows one aspect of the war that shocks people to the very core. If I had to sum up World War I with one word, it would be death. The image MSS 256-018is of an American soldier that rushed “over the top” before he could put his gas mask on, unlike his fellow allies. You see him grab his throat and reach towards the sky for help, but no relief came for this soldier. This is a powerful image because it shows the man’s last gasps for air. After the war ended many pictures surfaced of massive piles of dead soldiers, but very few showed men actually dying before their eyes. These images are a glimpse into war life; it was unkind and cruel. These images are important because it shows what these men went through in order to end the war. These men sacrificed many things in their life for the greater good, but their death was almost always imminent.

World War I is possibly one of the most overlooked conflicts in our history. Luckily, we have these images available to us so that we can look back on the war and learn what we can from the event. I have only mentioned two photographs from the Kennedy Collection above, but there is a whole photo album full of memories in the archive. The collection also includes a Prussian/German Picklehaube Helmet, a photo of Roy Kennedy in military uniform, and Kennedy’s discharge papers. In addition to the collection documents, the Rice Library Archive & Special Collections will be hosting a movie night featuring news reels from the days after World War I ended. Please join us on November 19th at 6 pm in the archive to witness these special reels.

MSS 256-019

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