Shaving in the Trenches of World War 1 was a requirement of many soldiers and may seem like an unnecessary burden. As part of ANZAC day commemorations on 25 April we will be looking at the history of shaving during World War 1. Throughout April we will be publishing a series of articles looking at life in the trenches for the common soldier and the requirements and practicalities of shaving. In Part 1 we look at the Road to War, the role of Australian troops and the grooming requirements of front line soldiers. In Part 2 we will learn about the development of safety razors and the role of King C. Gillette during the war period.
Outbreak of War
On 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a young Serbian by the name of Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Auto-Hungarian Empire. At the time tensions were already high in the Balkans and the assassination set off a chain of events that would lead to the outbreak World War 1.
Prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Europe had experienced a period of stability that lasted close to a century. However to the south-east the Ottoman Empire was weakening its grip on the Balkans region and the influence of competing powers Austria-Hungary and Russia unsettled the region. Serbia, which considered itself a Serb homeland as well as part of Slavic Russia was angered by Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzogovina. Tensions between the two were strained further when Serbia announced that it had tried to warn Austria-Hungary of the assassination plot. A series of diplomatic events unfolded in July 1914 that led Austria-Hungary to issue an ultimatum to Serbia. The appetite for war was high in Austria-Hungary and the ultimatum was seen as impossible to meet by the Serbians who rejected it. On July 28 1914 Austria-Hungary formally declared war on Serbia.
At the time Europe was a complex web of alliances, Russian forces mobilized to support Serbia while Germany was in full support of Austria-Hungary. Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg before moving swiftly into France. In response Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 plunging Europe and the World into a war that would last over 4 years and see countless millions of men, women and children killed as hostilities raged on over land, sea and air.
Australia and Gallipoli
In 1914 Australia was part of the British Empire and due to close ties with Britain the outbreak of war was initially greeted with great enthusiasm. Almost immediately Australia began preparations for war and initially saw action when the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was sent to German New Guinea. At the same time, approximately 20,000 men were assembled for overseas deployment, forming the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The men were initially stationed in Egypt for further training and the Australians and New Zealanders were grouped together to form the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC).
On 25 April 1915 the ANZACs entered into battle against Turkish forces at Gallipoli, a campaign promoted and planned by future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. An estimated 8,000 ANZAC soldiers would lose their lives in battle against the Turkish army on the Gallipoli peninsula. From the moment the campaign started the ANZACs were met with heavy gunfire and bombardment despite landing under cover of darkness. The campaign stretched over 8 months resulting in a stalemate and eventual with drawl of ANZAC troops back to Egypt.
The Australians entered World War 1 as an overseas colony of the British Empire. They saw the war as their opportunity to show the world that Australia was its own country and gain a sense of nationhood. This sense of nationhood was achieved despite the withdrawal of troops as the ANZACs spent 8 months fighting face to face with a determined Turkish force. Freemas Journal, published on 27 April 1916 read “No matter how the war may end – and it can only end one way – we are at last a nation, with one heart, one soul and one thrilling aspiration.”
The Western Front
Following the stalemate at Gallipoli and subsequent recuperation in Egypt, the ANZACs were deployed to the Western Front in March 1916. Over the next two years the AIF were rotated in and out of front line duty and saw action in a series of major battles. One of the first battles they were involved with was the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Australian 5th Division was stationed on the left flank during the Somme, a battle that lasted from 1 July to 18 November 1916. On 19 July 1916 while stationed near Fromelles the Australians suffered a staggering 5,533 casualties in one single day. A similar fate met the ANZACs again on 4 August with approximately 7,000 casualties resulting in the division being relieved from the front line the following day.
The ANZAC involvement in the war continued with participation in many other major battles including the Battle of Bullecourt, Battle of Messines and the Third Battle of Ypres. The Australians played a pivotal role in the Third Battle of Ypres during mid-1917, specifically during the fight for the village of Passchendaele where the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Divisions fought side by side and captured several key objectives. Despite this initial victories however the Australians had to fall back. Heavy counter artillery and attacks from the Germans were too intense and having lost over 11,000 men the exhausted Australians could do no more. By 15 November 1917 they Australians were replaced by the Canadians on the front line.
After several years on the Western Front and the loss of thousands of men the stalemate eventually began to give way. During 1918 significant gains were made by the Allies on the Western Front. The Australians saw success at several battles including those at Mont St Quentin and Peronne and assisted in the capture of the Hindenburg Line, one of Germany’s key defensive lines. After several months of battle the Australians were withdrawn from the front line in October 1918 for rest and recuperation. One month later on 11 November 1918 the Germans surrendered and the war was over.
Life in the Trenches
Life for the soldiers of World War 1 was dominated not by fighting but by training and manual labour. Battles against enemy forces were intense with large casualties but were a rare event. A general rule for the soldiers was 4 days spent on the front lines, 4 days in close reserve and 4 days at rest. In between major battles soldiers were kept busy maintaining and expanding the trenches and support network of roads, railways lines and buildings which often involved long hard days of manual labour. Officers were generally exempt from this manual labour but instead were tasked with training, learning new tactics and keeping their men occupied with tasks to ward off boredom.
Shaving in the Trenches
Prior to the 1800’s facial hair in the British Army was rare. Some units such as the infantry pioneers wore beards but this was the exception rather than the rule. During the mid 1800’s attitudes began to shift as during this time the British Army was involved in campaigns across the Middle East and India where men with facial hair were considered wise and powerful. As a result facial hair in the British Army become more common, typically in the form of moustaches and side whiskers. During the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) all ranks were encouraged to grow full beards in an effort to combat the cold winters on the Crimean Peninsula.
Following the Crimean War regulations were introduced that restricted men from shaving above the top lip effectively making a moustache mandatory. British soldiers of the time became well known for their moustached appearance. This ruling continued until 1916 when General Sir Nevil Macready repealed it. Macready was unhappy at the appearance of his own moustache hence his desire to repeal the order. There is some evidence from photographs dated prior to 1916 that the rule to wear a moustache was often ignored and flaunted and many ranks of the British Army were clean shaven prior to 1916.
Following Macready’s abolishment of the moustache rule the British Army has allowed soldiers to be either clean shaven or to sport a moustache and or side whiskers. Beards are generally not permitted however.
But the reality of shaving in the trenches of World War 1 was much more difficult than you can imagine. Many soldiers initially carried razors as part of their standard kit. However the wet and muddy conditions of the Western Front meant that they soon became rusty and unusable. The lack of sharpening stones or strops also meant that razor blades became blunt quickly. By 1915 razors became scare on the front lines. There are records and letters from front line soldiers requesting socks, chocolates and razors from their loved ones back home.
During periods of conflict and battle some regiments relaxed the requirement to be clean shaven and stubble was permitted. However once battle had died down soldiers were expected to attend to their beards and resume shaving in the trenches. Resources were scare including shaving towels, basins and even clean water meaning that many men had to share, a single tub of water on occasions was used to serve an entire company.
Cutthroat razors were still the most common type of razor in the early years of the war. These were generally disliked as they were unforgiving and dangerous to those inexperienced with their use. The dangers of shaving the in trenches with cutthroat razors was further exasperated as many men on the front line suffered from shaking hands due to the constant stress of being on the front lines.
With the introduction of cheaper double edged safety razors shaving in the trenches became a little easier. Founded in 1901 the Gillette Safety Razor Company began supplying the US army with double edged safety razors as part of the front line soldier’s standard kit. We will explore this development further in the second part of our shaving in the trenches series, check back next week for the next instalment.