There are many words that might come to mind to describe life in the trenches for the soldiers in the French army during the Great War: tough, dirty, horrific, ugly, dangerous, cold, hot, miserable. Some other words might come later, when considering the lack of baths, lavatories, burial places, and sanitation in general, as well as the mud and dirt that could quite literally rot a soldier’s foot clean off: smelly, diseased, rancid, rotten, sodden, filthy. One word which you might only think of if you’ve studied trench warfare is “monotonous”.
War movies tend to portray the “exciting” parts of life in the trenches – bombardments, or repelling an enemy incursion. Gas masks quickly going on, as canisters spewed out chlorine or phosgene or another of the deadly or debilitating agents used extensively in the Great War. The burials into the walls of the trenches (standard among the French troops, who valued safety from shelling over sanitation – the British tended to removed the bodies for burial outside). Digging and reinforcing.
But life in a given first- or second-line trench could go on for months, and while a soldier might devote most of his waking hours to reinforcing or digging, or keeping watch, or cleaning their rifles of the omnipresent trench mud, there had to be some personal time too, to break the monotony. The men in the trenches lived together, fought together, and slept together; they might take some time apart to read newspapers or write letters when a mail courier was on the way, but even commanding officers were often subject to practical jokes whilst taking some alone time.
But one theme that shows up time and time again, in memoirs, letters, and, of course, stereographic images, is card games:
The image above depicts soldiers playing a game in a “help station” – likely removed from the lines, and clearly taken with advance warning – you’ll notice several of the soldiers addressing the camera directly before the flash bulb illuminates the room for this exposure. The game is likely Manille – a trick-taking game, like a somewhat less sophisticated version of Bridge or partnership Whist, played with a 32-card piquet deck. It was the game of the day, and favored by French soldiers – some British soldiers would learn the game and bring it back home, where it failed to catch on.
But Manille wasn’t just played at help stations and in barracks and command posts – it was played in the dugouts of long-term reinforced trenches on the lines as well. Dugouts were more or less exactly what the sound like – areas dug out into the walls of the trench or surrounding hills, which allowed soldiers who were not actively manning the trench to dry their feet, to relax in a dry area, and to enjoy leisure activities. Whereas a newspaper, soldier’s bulletin, or book could be shared around and then discarded when no longer needed, these were solitary activities. When the men wanted to socialize and pass the time, Manille was often the answer, and the dugout would keep the cards (relatively) dry and clean.
The dugouts themselves varied in size and type, but all shared certain characteristics. They were never built at ground level – if they were, they would flood as soon as the trench did! They were usually only built in trenches that the unit expected to be able to hold for a long while – otherwise, the effort would be a waste, and if the trench were captured before the dugout could be collapsed, it would just aid the enemy. Dugouts took a lot of effort to build – they had to be dug out, obviously, and they had to be reinforced, in order to avoid being buried alive if the area was bombarded or if the ceilings got heavy.
In many cases, engineers would teach dugout construction as they went along to the men of the unit, who would then combine their knowledge when arriving at a new trench location with a new set of men. So dugouts evolved and changed throughout the war. Here is the entrance to one, still clearly under construction:
And here are some soldiers playing Manille in what is likely a very well established dugout – note the level of detail in the place, including hand-constructed furniture, shelving, and bunks (with the feet of a sleeping soldier at top left):
This image still looks a bit staged – at the very least, the soldiers are holding their cards out in unlikely ways that might have given away an easily taken trick. My favorite of the French glass stereoviews of soldiers playing Manille, however, comes from Brentano’s, and is quite common (in various degrees of quality).
A manufacturer that sold slides of various Great War topics outside of the French market after the war was over, Brentano’s made commercial sets of 45x107mm positives for general consumption. They were the only major manufacturer that supplied slides with English captions (although this is not one) under their “Over There Group” imprint. While the locations of the initial negatives (if shot on negatives) are unknown, it is known that they made “generations” of slides, with each new generation of poorer quality than the last – because they were printing positive-to-positive contact prints on glass, and each generation down would lose detail and gain contrast. Many of the originals were shot on 6x13cm glass, and these were far less common commercially – but the 45x107s are easy enough to find, even 100 years on.
Here’s a very good copy of the slide, courtesy of the Boyd-Jordan collection:
This might have been staged, and was likely professionally shot, as it necessarily employed a flashbulb – the only light source the soldiers were using for the game is the candle hung haphazardly by a wire over the center of the table. But in any case, it looks believable; here is a great portrait of what leisure time in the dugout was like – four men, intently planning their strategy to win the round; onlookers, watching these men take tricks and waiting for their turn. Other soldiers in the background, reading papers and books. All knowing that, one day or another, sooner or later, they would face the horrors of war once again – but for the moment, happily enjoying their cigarettes, cards, and newspapers in the dugout, free momentarily from the crushing monotony of life in the trenches.