Did anyone survive in the trenches of World War I from beginning to end?
March 23, 2012 9:14 PM   Subscribe

How many soldiers (if any?) survived the entirety of the fighting of either the western or eastern front of World War I?

I don't know anything about troop movements of the war, so if someone started out in France and got moved to Gallipoli and then back to France or Russia, that's fine. Getting wounded in 1916 and sitting out the rest of the war, not so much.

Curious because with the atrocious mortality rate, I'm wondering if ANYONE survived from the start (or close to it) of the war all the way to the end in a front line/trench position.
posted by curious nu to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are probably more that would qualify on the German side than on the British or French; both the British and French rotated units in and out of front-line positions (in the latter only after P├ętain took over), while the Germans in large part did not.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:23 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

My Australian grandfather: 1914 - 1919 including Gallipoli (at the landing) and then on the Western Front including the Somme.
posted by Kerasia at 9:27 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Of course, I should have preference my answer above with "At least one."
posted by Kerasia at 1:46 AM on March 24, 2012

preference prefaced
posted by Kerasia at 2:37 AM on March 24, 2012

Best answer: Speaking from the British Empire side, no units were ever constantly on the frontline, they would regularly be spelled in quiet or rear areas, or would have to be reformed, typically back in Blighty. No serviceman could possibly have had four straight years in the trenches.

No ANZAC units entered the western front until 1915 at the earliest ( a handful), overwhelmingly not until 1916 or even 1917.

But I'm sure there would be many infantrymen who managed to spend extended periods in the trenches right through from 1914 to 1918. Particularly (deaf) artillerymen. Although the scale of the horror was immense, statistically you were still likely to survive it, it had a less than 50 percent casualty rate.

Germans had less manpower and so would have been more likely to have served right through.

Not on the eastern front - firstly it stopped in '17, and it was much more fitful/stop start anyway.
posted by wilful at 4:14 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm with wilful - it really depends what you mean by 'entirety'. I have ancestors who were involved in front-line fighting from 1914-18, but not constantly, because, as wilful said they were reformed or had leave/rest periods. But those of my male ancestors who were the right age and survived the war - they all spent extended time as front-line troops from 14-18. For Britain I suspect that this is the norm, with the exception of small numbers of troops which were posted to parts of the Empire which did not have a front-line (remembering that, for example, Egypt had a border with the Ottoman Empire and did form another front in WW1).

I don't have the books on this with me, but all British army reservists who re-enlisted voluntarily at the end of their service in 1916 or later (which wasn't really voluntary, since they'd be conscripted if they didn't!) got an extended period of leave before being sent back to the front. I think it was something like a month. So any who had started the war as reservists and survived to the end would have that long period of leave at some point.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:12 AM on March 24, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, I don't mean 1500+ days of continuous fighting, I know that troops had weeks on and off regularly. But if someone was wounded and pulled off the front lines for a year (say, all of 1917) and then went back, that wouldn't count for the purposes of the question. Didn't know about units being reformed, though (which makes sense in retrospect).

I really figured this would be a known number somewhere - something like, "Of the X soldiers who initially deployed in France at the beginning of hostilities in 1914, Y soldiers of that group continued to fight and survive in the trenches until Armistice Day."

Because, again: mortality rates! If 1000 guys go over the top on the first day of the war, and only 100 come back, and those 100 still have to go over the top the next day, and the day after that, and after that, how long before their luck ran out?
posted by curious nu at 8:46 AM on March 24, 2012

Best answer: There's part of your answer right there. They didn't go over the top every day. Or even get shelled every day. Lot of dull down time in the trenches, punctuated by large scale pointless assault which jacked up the statistics (further skewed by failure to distinguish between front line troops and support). Thus, figures like an eleven day to six week life expectancy in the trenches. But if you could get past the six weeks, you knew enough not to look over the top at the enemy lines, which safety tip would increase your life expectancy yet further.

Good memoirs (including R. Graves' somewhat fanciful work) came out of the Royal Welch Fusiliers which technically served the duration, (but who were rotated out regularly as per standard operating procedure).

Good question, though, and with luck the coming centenary will have someone answering it.

I have relatives who served from start to finish and moved about a bit. How many days of actual combat or front line service that involved, I've yet to determine. Some, certainly.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:44 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

How long before their luck ran out?

This idea also incorrectly presumes that the imaginary soldier you're describing is never promoted to a less dangerous role. If you don't get killed, you don't stay a buck private. If you don't stay a buck private, your odds of surviving go up, not down.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:25 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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