Military Flooring – Part 3: Rising Out of the Muck and the Mud

This is the third post in our series on the history of military flooring. Here are links to part 1 and part 2.

It doesn’t take a systems’ modeling expert to figure out that an epidemic of trench foot can eventually drain an army of manpower and lead to heavy losses on the front. In World War I, leaders on both sides had to confront this challenge. How should they deal with the horrendous mud?

One solution: attack the problem at the source by fixing the conditions leading to trench foot. And this is just what the armies on both sides (eventually) did. As the trenches became less and less temporary, the soldiers improved not only their defenses but also their living conditions as much as possible. They improved trench engineering and constructed new ones with drainage in mind. They included things like gutters and sumps placed underneath raised wooden flooring.

Impressive model showing the "ideal" construction of a trench later in the war. Note the duckboards above the drainage sump
Impressive model showing the “ideal” construction of a trench later in the war. Note the duckboards above the drainage sump. (Photo credit: My Modern Met)

This raised wooden flooring took the name “duckboards” in English. Why they were called this is somewhat unclear, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary posits that, “according to one soldier, duckboards came by their name because someone walking on wet duckboards was liable to slide off them much like water slides off a duck’s back.”

Spending a few minutes on Google, one can find alternate theories:

– “The name originates from the trenches of the first world war. They became so muddy that the soldiers created the boards so they didn’t sink into it and so they felt like ducks with web feet.”
– “Suggested meaning for ‘Duckboards’: so that you would not sink into the mud/water any deeper than a duck. As in the famous last words, ‘That doesn’t look very deep; It only comes up to the knees of the ducks.’”

British soldiers crossing marshy ground on duckboards, while carrying duckboards, during the Battle of the Somme, 1916.
British soldiers crossing marshy ground on duckboards, while carrying duckboards, during the Battle of the Somme, 1916. (Photo credit: BBC)

Regardless of where the name came from, these “duckboards”—in combination with other preventative measures, such as proper drainage, enforced changing of socks, etc.—helped to save units from the ravages of trench foot. This work enabled units to remain in the line longer—and with a higher number of men—which in turn allowed commanders to accomplish more missions with fewer units. In a war of attrition like World War I, reducing the amount of men lost to non-combat causes like trench foot was essential.

The deep and thick mud also created transportation obstacles, primarily when it came to transporting supplies up to the trenches and evacuating casualties back from them. Because each side’s artillery could generally reach beyond the forward line of trenches, there were significant swathes of ground behind the trenches that were similarly torn up by shells, creating cratered and muddy wastelands that were essentially impassable to the vehicles of the day (primarily horse-drawn carts and early generation motorized vehicles). Therefore, most of the supplies of food, ammunition, water, and medical supplies needed by the men in the front lines had to be brought up at night on the backs of soldiers struggling through the mud being constantly harassed by enemy artillery fire. They could not navigate this wasteland during the day because of the risk of observation and attack from enemy artillery and airplanes. The darkness provided them cover from enemy detection but made their journey through the mud much more perilous.

Australian soldiers using duckboards to cross a shell-torn wasteland during the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917.
Australian soldiers using duckboards to cross a shell-torn wasteland during the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917. (Photo credit: Australian War Memorial)

In Poilu, the excellent account of Louis Barthas, a French soldier who miraculously survived four years of brutal trench warfare, the author provides an illustrative example of the obstacles the mud presented:

“What was curious and terrible was that underneath a thin layer of water or liquid mud there was a much thicker layer, which grabbed onto you like cement, holding tight onto feet and legs like a vise.
Those who complained the loudest were the signalmen, the rationers (the men bring up the rations of food and water), the couriers. In ordinary times they were envied because they were exempt from duty at forward listening posts or work details. But now, having to head out, sometimes by themselves, they could get stuck and not be able to get out, and be forced to wait for hours until someone came along and helped them.”

It was not uncommon for men to slip and fall into the giant shell craters filled with water and drown due to the heavy loads they were carrying; they couldn’t climb the slick and muddy walls of the craters.

German troops trying to rescue a French soldier from sinking in a mud hole, 1918.
German troops trying to rescue a French soldier from sinking in a mud hole, 1916. (Photo Credit: Rare Historical Photos)

To help the men traverse this horrible landscape, units occasionally used duckboards. This wasn’t a perfect solution: laying duckboards told the enemy your supply route, allowing them to focus artillery and harass men during their night journeys. Nevertheless, the solution kept men from getting stuck in the mud, or worse.

Duckboards were used in these capacities until the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 broke through the Allied trench lines, and maneuver warfare resumed on most parts of the Western Front (though trench lines remained nearly unchanged in some places almost until the end of the war in November 1918).

Of course, duckboards didn’t win the war for the Allies, but they did help combat trench foot, enabling greater mission accomplishment through reduced numbers of casualties from non-battle causes.

British soldiers in a well-established trench, with a high sandbag wall and duckboard flooring covering a drainage sump.
British soldiers in a well-established trench, with a high sandbag wall and duckboard flooring covering a drainage sump. (Photo credit: Discover Passchendaele)

After World War I

Fast forward a few decades, and the world once again found itself embroiled in a global war. This time, however, it was generally a war of maneuver. In most cases, gone were the days of static trench warfare, made obsolete by the increased mechanization and mobility of opposing armies. That doesn’t mean that the old enemy—common to all soldiers of all time periods—had disappeared. Rather, soldiers were rarely in place for long enough to do much about the mud.

American heavy equipment stuck in the mud on Okinawa, 1945.
American heavy equipment stuck in the mud on Okinawa, 1945. (Photo credit: World War Photos)

Think the mud on a battlefield was just a mere annoyance? Here’s a passage from what is widely considered the finest combat memoir ever written, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa:

“From the gun pit, which contained several inches of water, we looked out on a gloomy scene. The rain had settled into a steady pelting that promised much misery. Across the muddy fields we saw our soaked comrades crouching forlornly in their muddy holes and ducking, as we did, each time a shell roared over.

This was my first taste of mud in combat, and it was more detestable than I had ever imagined. Mud in camp on Pavuvu was a nuisance. Mud on maneuvers was an inconvenience. But mud on the battlefield was misery beyond description. I had seen photographs of World War I troops in the mud—the men grinning, of course, if the picture was posed. If not posed, the faces always wore a peculiarly forlorn, disgusted expression, an expression I now understood. The air was chilly and clammy, but I thanked God we weren’t experiencing this misery in Europe where the foxholes were biting cold as well as wet.”

The characters E.B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge and Merriel "SNAFU" Shelton in a muddy foxhole; from the HBO miniseries "The Pacific."
The characters E.B. “Sledgehammer” Sledge and Merriel “SNAFU” Shelton in a muddy foxhole on Okinawa; from the HBO miniseries “The Pacific.” (Photo credit: HBO)

Sledge, a 60mm mortarman in a U.S. Marine rifle company with the legendary 1st Marine Division, continues, resurrecting an old remedy to combat the mud:

“The rains became so heavy that at times we could barely see our buddies in the neighboring foxhole. We had to bail out our gun pit and foxholes during and after each downpour or they filled with water.

Snafu (his foxhole partner) and I dug a deep foxhole close to the gun pit and placed pieces of wooden ammo crates across braces set on the muddy clay at the bottom. At one end of this foxhole, beyond the extension of the boards, we dug a sump. As the surface water poured into our foxhole and down under the boards, we bailed out the sump with a C-ration can for a day or two. But the soil became so saturated by the continued downpours that water poured in through the four sides of the foxhole as though it were a colander. We then had to use a discarded helmet to bail out the sump, because the ration can couldn’t take out water fast enough to keep up with that pouring in.

The board ‘floor’ kept us out of the water and mud, provided we worked diligently enough at the bailing detail. Necessity being the mother of invention, we had ‘reinvented’ the equivalent of duckboards commonly used in flooded World War I trenches. The duckboards pictured and described in 1914-1918 in Flanders were, of course, often prefabricated in long sections and then placed in the trenches by infantrymen. But the small board floor we placed in our foxhole served the same function.”

The use of outdoor flooring in World War II was generally confined to the rear areas, in large base camps, etc., as opposed to its use in the tactical (front-line) areas of the previous world war. These generally took the form of wooden platforms with the tent or structure built on top of the wood. This remained the status quo well into the 1990s.

Brig. Gen. O. P. Smith's headquarters tent, with wooden floor, on the island of Peleliu, 1944.
Brig. Gen. O. P. Smith’s headquarters tent, with wooden floor, on the island of Peleliu, 1944. (Photo credit: A Tribute to Michael A. Lazaro)

For example, our resident Desert Storm veteran remembers the vehicles of the VII Corps headquarters rolling through the desert with sheets of plywood bouncing around in the back. They would put these modern forms of duckboards down when establishing their headquarters tents to make the living and working spaces slightly more comfortable. Even in the desert, a rainstorm can turn the dry sand into a sea of mud, the common enemy of every soldier. Thus, they kept these portable plywood sheets handy.

Plywood sheets used as flooring for tents and walkways during Desert Storm, 1990-1991.
Plywood sheets used as flooring for tents and walkways during Desert Storm, 1990-1991. (Photo credit: Desert Storm Forum)

It wasn’t until the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s that the U.S. military set about finding a better solution.

In our next post, we’ll cover the modern era of military flooring. For immediate assistance with your outdoor flooring needs, get in touch with Bike Track now at 888-663-8537.



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