Colour Photos of World War One

The deadliest job


This photograph and caption appeared in the Daily Mail Weekend magazine in 2007

A British sentry, rifle at the ready, `keeps a sharp lookout' as he stands guard at a loophole in a -sandbagged trench wall. The most nerve-shredding time of day for men in the front line trenches was dawn - generally soon after 5am - when, each day, every man had to turn out and stand on the trench `firestep' (firing ledge) with guns and grenades at the ready, in case the Germans, masked by the rising sun in the east, should choose that moment to launch an attack. This daily ritual was called `stand to'. Once the sun had risen, the danger was deemed to have passed and the men `stood down' to cook and eat their breakfast. At all times of day, however, sentries were posted to `watch the Hun' (as the Germans were insultingly called). Sometimes small trenches, called `saps', were driven under the barbed wire into No Man's Land to watch and listen to whatever the enemy was up to. In `quiet' sectors, both sides occasionally adopted a 'live and let live' policy, not deliberately provoking an inevitable counterattack by pre-emptive firing or shelling. At other times, more aggressive officers would send out night patrols into the body-strewn moonscape of No Man's Land to raid the enemy trenches, generally with the aim of seizing a prisoner to interrogate. But there were no truly quiet times on the Western Front: in the six months leading up to the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, although there was no major battle in progress, the British Army still suffered 107,776 casualties. At all times, maximum alertness was a sentry's duty - and falling asleep on the job was potentially a capital offence. Sentries were forbidden to smoke, as it could attract the unwelcome attention of a sniper. The short story writer Saki's last words were, `Put that bloody cigarette out!' before he was shot by a sniper on the Somme in 1916.