Now the mud at Passchendaele was very viscous indeed, very tenacious, it stuck to you. The mud there wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge, it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you.
At its centennial, there is mounting interest in the sensory history of the Great War (World War I). A decade ago, Santanu Das became the first to devote a book to the subject. In Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2005), he immersed readers in “the sensuous world of the First World War trenches and hospitals.” Four years of slaughter of millions on the Western Front along thousands of miles of hellish trenches: the nightmare is well known. But Das deepens our appreciation for the ordeal of soldiers by emphasizing the many ways soldiers (and nurses) experienced the conflict’s moments of agony or tenderness through their skin.
In a chapter entitled “Slimescapes” (now available in a revised version here), Das uses soldiers’ narratives to evoke “the horrors of trench mud”:
The constant source of trauma in war writings is that the mud was not just churned up earth, but compounded of organic wastes, empty shells, iron scraps and rotting human flesh.
Trench mud upended pre-war class identities and sensory values, removing from men “the cloak of cleanliness and heroism that Victorian ideology and war propaganda had wrapped round them: soldiers realized that they were not ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’ but rather ‘houseflies upon a section of flypaper.'” In many of the war narratives, “mud – not shell – is the main agent of violence,” conveying a feeling of man “regressing into primordial slime.”
“The ritual repetition of the word,” writes Das, “bears witness not only to the viscosity of the trench mud but to the terrors of experiencing a malign world through the skin.” What Das finds that “recurs obsessively” in the novels, memoirs, letters and oral histories of the war is the “sucking mud,” the “sucking clay,” the “sucking, clutching death.” Simply put, soldiers lived, fought, and died in the bloodiest war in history amidst a vast slimescape. For all of the Great War’s reputation as the first modern total war, soldiers came to know their own bodies as things, writing of them as “larvae of pollution,” or “rubber tyres.”
Drawing on Das’s work and his own archaeological research on the trenches, Matthew Leonard argues that we miss the war when we overlook the mud:
Almost every painting, photograph, poem, diary or book about the First World War involves mud. It is as much a part of the war as artillery or trenches, barbed wire or machine guns, hopelessness or heroism. Yet mud as material culture from the war does not exist for modern day observers, except in the literature and imagery of the time. One can visit museums and see tanks, guns, bullets, uniforms and so on. It is even possible to visit old trenches on the battlegrounds of Europe and beyond, but there are no museums of mud.
Leonard explains the mud’s ubiquity in soldiers’s accounts. “The trenches of the Western Front were always ‘muddy,’ even when it was dry.” The topography and climate of Flanders has much to do with it, as does the hasty and subpar standards of the Allied trenches (the British commanders did not plan on trench warfare as a long war of attrition, thinking their aggressive, offensive strategy would produce a war of movement). The Allies and the Germans bombarded one another and the earth, too, their unprecedented storm of artillery turning the front into “a sea of mud that seemed to have no beginning or end.” The mud killed thousands who fell and never rose from it, and no survivor of the trenches forgot the mud’s remorseless assault on all of the senses.
A recently translated French infantryman’s memoir long admired in Europe as a classic (Poilu, by Louis Barthas), reveals mud as a killer. As Marc Wortman writes,
The fear of being buried alive or lost in the blackness was a constant. On one nighttime march through a rain-filled trench, his squadron came across a soldier cemented into the mud and left behind by his own fellow infantrymen. “We made some vain efforts to pull him out,” Barthas recorded, “almost to the point of pulling his arms and legs out of their sockets. Seeing that we too were abandoning him, he begged us to put him out of his misery with a rifle shot …
“While we were trying to dig out this poor guy, our comrades in the squad ahead had disappeared. We called out to them, and got no answer. Were they already that far away, or had they all drowned?”
No matter how vital the political consequences of the war, our centennial is best devoted to embracing the reality of that mud, and the horror it represented. Multi-sensory ordeals of the combatants leave little doubt of the true meaning and cost of the Great War.