[Photograph] “Richard Walter Rayner”, Date Unknown, Collections CCGW

Living in the trenches with

Richard Walter Rayner

served with

10th Field Battery

3rd Brigade,
Canadian Field Artillery

rank

Gunner

Promoted to Sergeant and then Lieutenant in 1916 during the war

Age upon enlistment: 27

Place of Birth: St.Catharines, Ontario

Previous Occupation: Public Worker

Significant Other: Engaged, then married to Juanita R. Gansdale

Richard Walter Rayner was part of the first wave of soldiers who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in August 1914 to go fight in the First World War. Rayner’s account of the war is lively and authentic. Contrary to other soldiers, Rayner wrote his diaries as a way to connect with his fiancee (later his wife). 

[diary] “Richard Walter Rayner – Diary”, May 19, 1918, Collections CCGW

"Another fine day. We went to church in the morning but I'll be darned if I can stomach Padre Hughes & his long face."

Rayner did not always liked his superior officers. In May 19, 1918, he discussed the chaplain (priest) of his battalion.

For this reason, he honestly described his boredom, sorrows and discomforts during the war. 

Opinionated, Rayner nevertheless earned the respect of his commanding officers, climbing the ladder until he was appointed lieutenant.

Rayner’s story gives us a better understanding of the hardships and inconveniences of life in the trenches.

Rain and Mud

[Photograph] “A.S.E. at Passcendaele”, 1917, Collections CCGW – ASE label, 2016.3.1.1.-56

A soldier walking in the mud, after a battle, in 1917
Rayner described the terrible conditions of the trenches in many instances, saying in July 1915: “Rained like the devil most of the night. […] The trenches are such an awful mess. Was out over the wires part of the time this afternoon & she was some wet believe me.”

Weather's Impact on Soldiers' Morale

Weather conditions had a colossal impact on the soldiers’ health and morale during the war. When they were on the move, soldiers often slept in neighboring villages where space was available. Rayner describes sleeping in barns, box cars or farm houses, where the soldiers were not always protected from the cold or the rain. 

However, nothing compared to the living conditions in the trenches. In these confined spaces, soldiers were at the mercy of the weather. Heavy rain could weaken the structural integrity of the trenches or create pools of mud.

On nights where it was particularly cold, soldiers in trenches were not allowed to burn a fire, as it would alert the enemy of their presence. Therefore, food and water were frozen and almost impossible to ingest. Without anything to keep them warm, soldiers were sometimes not able to sleep.

"On guard to night[sic] I bet it will be too cold to sleep."

FEBRUARY 22, 1915

[Photograph] “Free Tee at a Canadian Y”, 1918, Collections CCGW, 2020.02.1-14

Canadian and Imperial troops helping themselves to free coffee at Canadian Y.M.C.A. Advance East of Arras
Early on, a rotation system was put in place to preserve the troops. The soldiers usually spent a few days (four to six) in the front line trenches, before being positioned for the same amount of time in the support (or secondary) trenches, and finally moved back to the reserve trenches. They also had leave, a period of ten to fourteen days which they could spend away from the front. A soldier could expect one leave per year.

Trench Foot and that "Same Old Cough"

Diseases in the Trenches

If some soldiers were lucky enough to avoid being wounded on the battlefield during the First World War, few could avoid the ailments of a life in the trenches. 

Even before leaving for the front, Rayner would get sick from bronchitis at Salisbury Plain. He was not granted a leave despite his ailment, and that ‘same old cough’ and pain to his left lung would follow him during the rest of the war.

"If the weather does not change we will be dead before we get to the front"

NOVEMBER 30, 1914, in Salisbury Plain

[Photograph] “Laying Trench Mats at Passchendaele [ASE label]”, November 1917, Collections CCGW, 2016.3.1.1-92

Soldiers laid duckboards at the bottom of the trenches in order to protect their feet from dampness.

Because of the muddy environment in which they stayed, soldiers could also suffer from trench foot, caused by permanently damp and cold feet. The symptoms of this condition were blisters and fungal infections and, in the worst cases, gangrene.

Trench fever, carried by lice, was also an infectious disease characterized by shooting pain in the shins, fever, headaches, sore muscles and skin lesions. It is estimated that more than 450,000 soldiers were affected by this ailment during the war.

Finally, during the winter, when it was particularly cold, soldiers on the front line were not protected from the dangers of frostbite and exposure. More than one soldier lost his toe to excessive cold. Rayner, even though he got tired of the fact that it was often ‘cold as the devil’ in the trenches, did not have to suffer that fate.

[Container, Medicine] “Food Powder”, 1918, Collections CCGW.

"The Darn Rats Are as Big as Rabbits and as Friendly"

[Photograph] “”Funk hole” in Front Line Trench [ASE label] “, 1917, Collection CCGW, 2016.3.1.1-187

‘Funk holes’, small holes carved into trench walls, were the most basic form of dugout used by soldiers in the trenches. More elaborate dugouts which extended underground, propped up by wooden posts and corrugated iron, offered more protection from the elements as well as enemy fire. 

"The darn rats are as big as rabbits & as friendly. Was looking out through the peephole trying to get a line on Fritzies flash & one of them came & sat right in front of the compass, I reached for my gun but he moved too quickly for me."

FEBRUARY 5, 1918, trying to kill a rat in the trenches

The Trenches' Other Occupants

Rats were a constant irritant for soldiers. They reached enormous size, as they fed on army supplies. They also helped spread diseases and contributed to insect infestations in the trenches.

Soldiers were also not protected from lice, which thrived in the warm conditions provided by the soldiers’ body heat and clothing. Communal baths and clothing steamers were set up behind the reserve lines so the soldiers could wash themselves and their clothes at regular intervals. Sadly, clothing steamers rarely worked, and the soldiers had to use other methods to get rid of lice, like burning them with candle wax.

 

"The routine here consists of a Sulphur bath in the morning lay around all day & then have another at night I turn in. The M.O. [Medical Officer] says I have to do that for three day & I will be cured."

In his diary, Rayner discussed the treatment against scabies.

Rayner also complained of scabies, an infestation of the skin by microscopic mites. In June 1918, he left the front to visit a medical officer: “Left Bayers for Fresmcourt this A.M. to go to the corps rest station at Fresmcourt, to be treated for scabies “.

The United States Army, from 1917 to 1919, reported more than 34,000 cases of scabies in their military hospitals.

[diary] “Richard Walter Rayner – Diary”, June 3, 1918, Collections CCGW

Rayner's Journey During the War

"It sure has been one glorious day, but I had no letter from the little Lady [his wife Juanita]. That would have made the day better."

MARCH 9, 1918

As the war progressed, Rayner seemed to miss home more than before, waiting every day for letters from his family and dreaming of the ‘wee bungalow’ that he was going to occupy with Juanita after the war.

His diary stops brusquely in the summer of 1918, when Rayner was wounded on the battlefield at Mont St. Eloi. He suffered from gas poisoning, and was evacuated to England to Birkdale Officers’ Hospital, where he stayed until the end of the war. Discharged in Canada, Rayner nevertheless suffered from the after effects of gassing from several years, in addition to deafness brought on by years of exposure to heavy guns.

[Photograph] “”Mont Ste-Eloi” [ASE Label], 1914-1918, Collections CCGW, 2016.3.1.2-127