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Dugouts and Trenches

Dugout. Location unknown - click to enlarge
The photograph to the left depicts a dugout. It is not annotated. Draycot is sitting in the foreground, again his moustache is well trimmed and his left leg is stretched across the entrance to assert control over all who enter or leave. Unlike his fellow soldiers, he is not sitting comfortably but leaning forwards, and appears to be ready to move at short notice. By sitting on the outside, he has left all his options open and can act independently of the soldiers with whom he is sharing the dugout.

There is little detail in the diaries of life in the dugouts. The entry for 26 September 1915, for example, describes a dugout near the Somme Canal as ‘very cleverly made’, but the details are conspicuous by their absence. The entry for 14 January 1916 records that the troops were ‘fairly comfortable save for the mud’. A different picture is given of the dugouts at Zillebeke, where accommodation was shared with ‘thousands of rats’ (12 February 1916). The style of the handwriting suggests that the annotation was added late in life.
Trench at Ypres - click to enlarge
There is, however, more detail about conditions in the trenches. Draycot’s World War One album contains the photograph to the left, depicting a spacious, clean and orderly trench at Ypres. We cannot be sure that his memory served him correctly when identifying the place, but we understand that the photograph continued to be important to him until late in life. Why did he take it? The focus is on the destruction outside rather than on any activity within. While the trench is clean and orderly, it does not provide a great deal of protection. At the same time, the photographer (who was, we must assume, Draycot himself) is not threatened, and is able to keep a distance from any unpleasant events in the past. Draycot has survived where others have fallen.

The world of the trenches as it is described in the diaries is much harsher than the photograph would suggest. For example, the entry for 2 January 1915 reads:
Another wet miserable day with high wind. Major Gault arrives back from the trenches. He says the men are being pulled out of the muddy trenches, being unable to get out themselves, legs swollen with rhumatics [sic]. Men in trenches standing on their fallen dead comrades to avoid standing in the water which is thigh deep. (Your King & country needs you?).
Draycot: in the trenches - Vimy Ridge - as seen in 'Text & Images' - click to enlarge
The narrator refers to the men as if he were not one of them. The question in parenthesis suggests that he believes that the suffering of the soldiers was beyond the call of patriotic duty. It is reminiscent of the last two lines of Wilfred Owen’s well-known poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est.’ The misery was enhanced by coldness and vermin; rats, mice, frogs & worms were their constant companions.

The final photograph here excludes all such discomforts; this is the world of myth/romance. While there is water in the trench, the image suggests an organised existence. Draycot is the centre of attention and ready for action, as demonstrated by his resolute look and the grenade clasped firmly in both hands. This is the soldier who is determined to be in control of his destiny.



Next: Defying Death
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