Bruce Bairnsfather’s Old Bill is supposed to have opined that the war would only end when all of Belgium had been put into sandbags.(1) Certainly millions of them found their way to the Western Front, 150 million of them from Dundee factories in just one two-week period in 1915.(2) As a result, the Dundee jute industry – and the jute factories in India – made greater profits during World War I than in any period since the Crimean War.(2)
Sandbags were usually filled, not with sand, but with whatever earth was to hand – often clay dug from new trenches that the bags were then used to line, two or three deep, in front (the parapet) and in the rear (the parados). “Trench lore had it that one bag would slow a bullet to half speed, and five were required to stop it cold.”(3) They mitigated the blast from an artillery explosion, but not the effect of a shell itself. The filling of sandbags was a frequent back-breaking task of army working parties.
Though the vast majority of sandbags came from factories, many volunteers and schoolchildren, the latter perhaps not entirely voluntarily,(5) set to work sewing them. The British Journal of Nursing published instructions in May 1, 1915. (6).
Apparently not everyone heeded the instructions. One ladies’ group provided sandbags that were “obviously too good to be put to such humdrum uses as parapets or traverses,” reported Guy Chapman of the 13th Royal Fusiliers. “Beautifully stitched – hand stitched … of colours which the doting Joseph might have dyed for Benjamin, they were too splendid to have mere clay thrust into them.” (3)
Chapman found other uses:
A really charming pair kept my boots from soiling my blanket when I slept… another of silken magenta pillowed my head, while a nattier blue affair held my washing tackle.(3)
Ordinary sandbags were equally versatile: they doubled as coffee filters, as leggings for warmth, as barrel-cleaners for rifles, and as lunch bags, “giving a grittiness to every meal.” (7) And, as we have seen, as bedding.
(1) Bull, Stephen. World War I: Trench Warfare I: 1916-1918. 2002. 23.
(2) Cox, Anthony. Empire, Industry and Class: The Imperial Nexus of Jute 1840-1940. 2013. 108.
(3) Persico, Joseph E. Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month: Armistice Day 1918. World War I and its Violent Climax. 2007. 68.
(4) Bairnsfather, Bruce. Bullets and Billets. 1916. Chapter 4.
(5) Teachers and pupils of Dr. Williams’ School, Dolgellau, Wales, made 140 during the month of July 1915.
(6) British Journal of Nursing. 54 (May 1, 1915): 367.
(7) Persico. 96.