Pocket springs, memory foam, comfort ratings, and a multitude of different sized and styled divans, frames and headboards – there has never been so much choice when it comes to finding the perfect beds and mattresses… but things haven’t always been so easy.
As the 100th anniversary Remembrance Sunday approaches, we take a look at the sleeping conditions for soldiers during World War I, to remind us all about the hardship endured and sacrifices made by the brave men who fought in it.
SLEEP – A MATTER OF RANK
The quality of sleeping quarters for soldiers in the frontline trenches depended heavily on rank.
The common soldier
Conditions for the common soldiers were basic at best – many simply slept on the hard, cold floor of the trenches, or on a fire-step, with just their overcoats as blankets, huddling together for warmth during the cold winter nights.
Others might benefit from a ‘shelter’ – a misleading name for something that was essentially a hole cut into the side of the trench wall! These shelters ranged massively in size, from small shelves designed to house a couple of men, to those deep enough for up to 10 men lying side by side.
Usually, shelters were built at least a foot off the ground, to try and prevent the mud, slime and water from getting in, but they offered little in the way of warmth, comfort or protection from the elements when sleeping.
WW1 officers fared a little better, and were stationed in dugouts – small rooms, cut into the side of the trenches, which might offer basic bunk beds for sleeping in, and a small chair and table.
Although offering better protection from shellfire and the elements, these sleeping quarters were far from luxurious. Damp, dark and dingy, they were windowless rooms often lacking doors, and were prone to flooding in wet weather. They also offered little protection from the rats that infested the trenches.
Soldiers weren’t the only things living in the trenches – the men had to share their already cramped sleeping quarters with a number of unwanted visitors.
With so many men living close together, and such basic washing facilities, lice infestations were rife – it’s estimated that up to 97% of soldiers had some kind of head or body lice at any one time.
Apart from causing constant discomfort and itching, making sleep difficult, they also caused a nasty condition known as ‘Trench Fever’, which caused high temperatures and extreme pain.
The trenches were also infested with slugs, frogs and beetles – but the most feared inhabitants were the brown and black rats, which gorged themselves on the dead, and infected the soldiers with diseases.
THE SOUNDS AND SMELLS
The front lines were rarely quiet, even at night, with the crack of rifle and machine gun fire, the screams of the injured and explosions from artillery and trench mortar fire making it hard for soldiers to get peace and quiet.
Added to this, the smell of body odour, latrines, damp, disinfectant, flooding, rotting corpses and cordite were a constant presence in the trenches, day and night.
These came together to act as a constant reminder of the danger soldiers were in, playing on the minds and impacting on the mental health and wellbeing on the soldiers.
Although some soldiers adapted to the noise and stench, it was difficult for anyone to get enough sleep, and exhaustion and sleep deprivation were extremely common.
A SOLDIER’S SCHEDULE
The front line trenches were the most basic, and the closest to the enemy, with the sides separated by as little as 50 metres in some places! These were then connected to a network of established trenches support lines a little further back.
WWI soldiers didn’t spend all their time on the front lines – they would typically follow a pattern of rotating in and out of the different trenches for a month, before having some rest away from the lines in the relative luxury of the army camps.
Even the hardest army camp beds and pillows must have seemed heavenly after the discomfort of the trenches.
IN BED WITH THE ENEMY
Not all trenches were created equally – and in many places, the German trenches offered far superior living conditions to their allied counterparts’.
This was because, at the start of the war in 1914, it was the Germans who decided to ‘dig in’ first. Getting a head-start on the allies gave them more time to prepare, resulting in an elaborate network of interlinked tunnels, many of which benefited from concrete construction, electricity and phone lines.
By building trenches first, the Germans also got to choose the higher ground, which enabled them to create much deeper, warmer and dryer trenches. In some places, the sleeping quarters for German soldiers were dug 15 metres deep, providing excellent protection and significantly warmer and more comfortable sleeping conditions.
Next time you lay down for a quiet, comfortable night’s rest on your king size bed, fitted with a luxury memory foam, temperature control or pocket sprung mattress – spare a thought for those that suffered such terrible conditions a century ago.
Remembrance Sunday 2014 will be held on November 9th, with services held nationwide.