Thursday, December 24, 2009

Between the Lines: Bill in Combat- Life in a Foxhole

Existence in a foxhole at this time became a series of rituals, the most important of which was conversation. Men learned to know each other extraordinarily well, for they talked of the past, the future, their plans, their friends and families, politics, sex, hobbies, and anything else they could think about to pass the time. Each man’s hole was his little home, and friends would pay regular social calls- bringing their canned rations if they wished to stay for dinner. Preparing each meal became a ritual. One always had to discuss the time to eat, which can of rations to eat, (if there was a choice), the best way of heating, etc. As always, mail was the big event of the day, and if men received packages, they would share them with men in neighboring holes. Everyone read avidly anything he could lay his hands on. The “Stars and Stripes” was eagerly pounced on each day. However, these things could not relieve the continuous tension of necessary vigil nor could they help pass the endless numbingly cold nights. Then there were the long periods of depression and utter discouragement. The longer the time stretched out, the dirtier, more discouraged and weary the men became. It was a happy morning on January 11, when Company A evacuated their foxholes and pulled off to go back to Siersthal.


  1. For the GIs on the line, pulling back to some sort of indoor billet, even a barn or a warehouse, was luxury. I have read of the ways that infantrymen adapted their issue clothing and equipment to the cold weather. First, they wore just about everything they owned and the wool shirts and trousers seemed to work best in pairs. If they had them. One enduring complaint was that when the Army decided to supply the men with something like the new "combat boot" the Services of Supply troops always seemed to get their share before the men on the line.

    Some infantrymen cut the fingers off issue gloves so that they could operate their weapons and the technology of survival in cold weather spread quickly.

    The American GI tended not to have any winter camoflage clothing like his German opponent. One response was to obtain white bedsheets from civilians, cut a hole for the head and neck, then belt the cloth around the body. Sheets were torn up and smaller pieces went over the steel pot. It was better than nothing. In the feature film Battleground (1948), done with veterans as technical advisers, some GIs are seen using captured white parkas, but this had risks.

    The foxhole served an important role. First, it provided cover and concealment. If property dug it could also withstand near hits from artillery and even being driven over by a tank. If properly sited and camoflaged, the enemy could not see the GI until the last moment.

    German soldiers added an additional refinement to their foxhole. The U.S. introduced an artillery fuse that detonated the round above ground showering a wide area with fragments ("shrapnel" is something else). Fritz learned to dig down then in to provide some dirt between him and the sky.

    Of course one issue that got little publicity was "field sanitation." The GI had one unintended advantage, his helmet. The steel pot separated from the liner and provided a field-expedient commode.

  2. In WWII the foxhole replaced the trench of WWI as the very front of the front lines. Whereas the trench line was continuous and offered a degree of protection from head to toe the coffin sized foxhole was shallow and cramped.

    Front line soldiers dug their holes for the night following the end of an exhausting day. Digging the hole was demanding physical labor.
    A typical foxhole position would be in or on the edge of a wood, which meant many roots had to be hacked in addition to the ground which was frozen to a depth of a foot or more. Sometimes it took hours to chip away enough frozen earth to get to unfrozen ground. Men used grenades or satchel charges to blow away frozen earth.

    The holes were usually rectangular, under the best conditions four or five feet deep, two or three feet wide by six feet long. The digging was done mostly with only a shovel as pickaxes were hard to come by on the front. Dispite these hardships the men learned that soldiers who didn't dig in for the night didn't last long in combat.


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