The length and static nature of World War I made it in some ways like going to camp; a very dirty, dangerous camp, but one that demanded men to live outside in all sorts of weather. As units settled in their patch of front and men claimed small dugouts (and in some cases pilfered furniture), the trench became more and more a home.
Image above: Primus stove, private purchase, [1914-1918]. Collections CCGW/CCGG
As a result, civilian businesses were able to capitalize on the perceived need for special products made “for your boy”. Not only were families back home encouraged to send care packages to their relatives at the front that would help bring luxuries like chocolate, non-ration cigarettes and jam to the troops, they were also deluged with various products made especially for trench warfare, at least trench warfare as the merchants well behind the front lines saw it.
Officers were a prime marketing target, as they were required to have a private income and therefore had more purchasing power than a regular private soldier. They could afford many of the flashlights, primus stoves and collapsible dishes frequently marketed to soldiers and their families. The running joke of the “Christmas tree”, or the first-time recruit leaving home festooned with various gadgets, none of which he would need, surfaced soon after the war settled in the trenches around 1915.
Some of these products actually worked and were very helpful, like a good trench flashlight or a waterproof groundsheet. However, many were simply preposterous, like commercially manufactured “bullet-proof” armoured jackets, and were not designed to either stand up to the conditions in the trenches or to be functional in a military situation.
Robert Graves commented that the more veteran a man was, the less he carried with him, as most of it would get lost anyway and if he died would probably disappear with him. Of more interest for most men, was food from home to break up the monotonous diet of the infantry man.
Mud-filled warrens littered with dung, detritus, and the dead may sound like a less than hospitable environment, but to the myriad millions that scurried along