Were Black Soldiers Eligible for th...
Were Black Soldiers Eligible for the GI Bill?

After a period of basic training that consisted of drill and shooting practice, an infantry soldier was considered well enough trained to go to war. If a soldier came from the south of England it was likely that he would go to Salisbury Plain for the final part of his training. Drill was done at more local barracks before the move. On Salisbury Plain, an infantry soldier did far more rifle work and those who scored over a certain number of points in marksmanship tests were offered the opportunity to become either a sniper or to join a Lewis machine gun team. The badge of crossed rifles, to indicate a marksman, also brought with it an extra 6d a day. Those who joined a Lewis machine gun team were given a ‘LG’ badge to wear on a sleeve. To those in the trenches the badge was nicknamed the ‘suicide badge’ as it was believed by the infantry that if the Germans captured you, you would be shot out of hand because of the terrible casualties caused by the Lewis gun. The Numbers 1 and 2 of Lewis machine gun crews (those who carried the gun and spare parts) were also required to hand over their Lee Enfield rifles, as these would have hindered ease of movement. Instead, they were issued with a Webley revolver.


A Lewis machine gun crew was made up of five men. Though they were members of infantry regiments they were not expected to do the traditional work of infantrymen – such as clearing out the latrines etc. This was because of their importance to the defence of trench lines – if they failed in their task of stopping the Germans, then a trench system could be overrun. It was also to do with the fact that the Lewis crew had to keep the machine gun in perfect working order and a great deal of their time was spent doing just this as a jam during a German attack could have serious consequences. If it rained, the groundsheet issued to the soldiers was used primarily to keep the Lewis gun dry as opposed to being used by any member of the crew.


Lewis crews had a Number 1 who was in charge and carried the machine gun around from post to post. The Number 2 carried the spare parts that accompanied the gun. Each man carried in the region of three stones in extra weight as a result – one of the reasons why they did not need to be encumbered by a rifle. The other three men in the crew carried the ammunition that the machine gun needed. Each of these three men was expected to carry two hundred rounds of ammunition in panniers. It was up to the Number 1 as to where a Lewis gun was placed. However, the five-man crew moved with a degree of frequency during a German attack, as they knew that the Germans would quickly establish where a Lewis machine gun was placed and artillery would home in on it. By moving with due frequency this risk was considerably reduced.


Infantry soldiers who fought at Ypres and Passchendaele recalled that fresh water was hard to come by and that the water that was provided for the front line troops could be brought to the front in empty petrol cans. Though empty, the smell of the petrol invariably tainted the water that the soldiers were meant to drink. The availability of fresh well water could also bring infantrymen into conflict with local farmers who feared that their wells would be emptied and, therefore, unavailable for farming purposes.


Few would dispute the view of Harry Patch, a survivor from the Battle of Passchendaele, that the conditions that soldiers faced in the trenches were very poor – “lousy, dirty and unsanitary”. Rats were a constant problem in the trenches to such an extent that men covered up their faces when they went to sleep to stop rats nibbling at their exposed flesh. Lice were something that soldiers had to learn to live with on a daily basis. Lit candles were used to kill the lice on uniforms – the flame was run along seams in the material – and a distinct cracking sound indicated to a soldier that one louse out of many in the uniform had been killed.