woodbinesRead almost any soldier's account of life on the Western Front and three elements are always dominant: The fear of death, maiming and disease; The squalor of life in the trenches amidst the mud and detritus of war - material and human; And last, but by no means least, the all pervading boredom. The first two fears are clearly to be expected, but boredom comes as a bit of a surprise to the uninitiated. It arose from the fact that whilst a general state of war raged on continuously by night and by day, seven days a week, the more frantic activity of trench warfare took place more sporadically. It rarely raged continuously along all of the 470 miles front-line from the English Channel coast to the Switzerland border. Also, the period that the Great War soldier actually spent in the front-line in the two main trenches, called respectively the 'fire trench' and the 'command trench' was often relatively brief - often only a few days - but occasionally considerably longer. It was interspersed with longer periods behind the front-line in the support trenches - 100 yards behind the front-line - and the reserve line, 500 yards further back . When not directly involved in the front-line activity, the troops were usually engaged in more mundane tasks such as trench digging, sand-bag filling, manhandling supplies and ammunition and training exercises. All rather boring activities. Rest areas, where the infantry battalions could go for rest, recreation, integrating reinforcements, training in new tactics or preparing for a new offensives, were usually located some miles behind the front line, in so-called 'quiet areas'. For example, in the First Battle of the Somme, many such rest areas were located around the town of Albert. There were also sectors of the front-line that were relatively quiet compared with others, and tired and depleted battalions were often sent here for a break.

Even when they were 'in the line', soldiers spent much of their time just standing guard, watching the enemy, or waiting for something to happen.

History of military smoking

Since the Sixteenth Century soldiers have always found solace from the tedium of war by smoking tobacco. Usually, it was smoked in the white 'Church Warden' clay pipe that is the feature of many archeological sites associated with the battles of the recent and the not so recent past. The pipes were cheap, if not too durable, readily available almost anywhere, and when inverted could be smoked in really foul weather. The pipe-shrouded, burning tobacco was also shielded at night, thus evading the eye of the sniper.

The cigarette

For the 20th Century soldier of the Great War, a new even more readily portable source of smoking tobacco was the paper tube filled with tobacco - the cigarette [O.E.D. circa 1842]. The British soldier never did take to chewing tobacco - as their American counterparts did - although powdered tobacco in the form of snuff was widely used by both the lower ranks and their officers up to the highest ranks.

Morale factors

The British military and political authorities, aware of the and morale boosting affect of the cigarette - most had sons and other relatives serving in the trenches - facilitated the supply of cigarettes to the front where they would be distributed and sold by soldiers canteens. The free flow of mail packages to the Western Front was also facilitated, so that relatives and friends could send items of preserved food and packages of cigarettes to the men in the trenches.

Whilst many of the men in the trenches were not cigarette smokers - or smokers at all - before joining the army, the majority quickly took up the habit, and found that the ubiquitous cigarette became a staple of the life in the trenches. Although, perhaps the most famous character of the war, the cartoon figure of 'Old Bill' created and drawn by Bruce Bairnsfather, an officer of the Warwickshire Regiment who served in the trenches, stuck faithfully to his pipe - always depicted as inverted.

As the War dragged on, the favourite cigarette of the British soldier became the 'Woodbine' produced by the British tobacco giant W.H. Wills in their Bristol, England, factory.

But large numbers of soldiers preferred to roll their own cigarettes from loose tobacco held in leather pouches, and the famed Rizla cigarette papers. Often the more cash- stricken soldiers (the British Expeditionary Force infantryman's pay was one shilling a day [5p] minus barrack charges) 'recycled' their part spent-cigarettes into these pouches.

Health factors and customs

The deleterious effect of this sudden boom in tobacco smoking in all its forms, in these predominantly young men, is not recorded. Many people at the time, including doctors, some of whom were inveterate smokers themselves, considered smoking as beneficial to both mental and physical health. One brand of cigarette called 'Craven A' even claimed - uncontested - to be 'The cigarette that soothes the throat'. In infantry battalions that had suffered a 50% casualty rate on one, or even more, occasions, such musings about the harm tobacco could do, is likely to have fallen on deaf, or deliberately unhearing ears. Tobacco was a comfort in a very hostile environment. If anything the authorities approved of it, and on all except formal occasions and parades it could be indulged in without sanction. Moreover, cigarettes were readily portable in the pocket - usually stored inside a tin to prevent accidental damage and to keep them dry - so as to be immediately available on demand. Also, not to be depreciated, was the strong feeling of friendship that often came from offering and/or sharing a cigarette with one's comrades-in-arms.

One of the most enduring anecdotes of the Great War came from the practice of sharing cigarettes in the front-line. It was said that it was unlucky if three people shared the same light. When the first soldier lit his cigarette, the sniper would see the flame. When the second soldier lit his cigarette, the sniper would take aim. And when the third smoker lit his cigarette, the sniper would fire. No doubt superstition raised its head here, but assuredly events such as this did occur in the trenches. Also, after the Great War it was usual to see men who were smoking hold their cigarette cupped in their hand, rather than the usual stance of slotting it between the index and middle finger. The cupping action would be the one they learned to use in the trenches to shield the burning tip of the cigarette from view.

Perhaps, the first occasion when the deleterious effects of cigarettes did become apparent was in the victims of gas poisoning, where damage to the lungs had occurred. The natural by-products of tobacco were very pernicious to the damaged membranes of the lungs and led to chronic coughing and inflammation (bronchitis). Sadly many of the gassed men were so addicted to the nicotine in tobacco smoke by then, that they refused to give up; despite all the discomfort they suffered as they continued to smoke.


Inevitably, many of these gassed soldiers met a premature death and became yet another, if belated, victim of the Great War. The author's father was one of them.

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