Thousands of miles of trenches were built during World War I and, for the soldiers living in them, their day-to-day life was nothing short of horrific.
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Now that the last WW I veteran has passed on, there is no one left to attest to the god-awful experience of life in the trenches. Robert Hamilton's WORLD WAR ONE, LIFE IN THE TRENCHES, an English import, is a 24-page photo-book illustrating the life of Allied infantrymen in the most brutal, soul-crushing of environments.
Drawn from the DAILY MAIL newspaper archives, the 38 images found in Hamilton's book depict Tommies digging in, manning the parapets, coping with rain, at rest, going over the top, bringing in wounded, Allied dead, German dead, etc. Hamilton supplies short but insightful narratives that amplify and explain the images.
Because it's intended for general audiences, the images found in Hamilton's book touch rather lightly on the horrific aspects of life in the trenches. There are two photographs of soldiers standing in ankle- or knee-deep water, several pix of dead soldiers, others of Tommies struggling in a sea of mud, etc. Other books on the subject bring out the true horror of life - and death - in the trenches.
While WORLD WAR ONE, LIFE IN THE TRENCHES is a fairly good introduction, I wish it had included more graphic images so that modern-day audiences might have gotten a truer picture of what those brave, brave souls endured in that long-ago war. Recommended.
10 Photos of Life in the Trenches
The image of a soldier in a muddy trench is what many people visualise when they think of the First World War.
However, most soldiers would only spend an average of four days at a time in a front line trench. Their daily routine when in the front line varied according to where they were.
In active sectors, both sides would engage in aggressive trench raiding and the fire from artillery, machine guns and snipers would be a constant threat. By contrast, some sectors were quiet and relatively passive, with a 'live and let live' mentality. A soldier’s experience depended on this variety.
These ten photographs show different aspects of life in the trenches.
The Long, Long Trail
What were the trenches?
Although most of us think primarily of the Great War in terms of life and death in the trenches, only a relatively small proportion of the army actually served there. The trenches were the front lines: the most dangerous places. But behind them was a mass of supply lines, training establishments, stores, workshops, headquarters and all the other elements of the 1914-1918 system of war, in which the majority of troops were employed. The trenches were the domain of the infantry, with the supporting arms of the mortars and machine-guns, the engineers, the medics and the forward positions of the artillery observers.
Why were the trenches there?
The idea of digging into the ground to give some protection from powerful enemy artillery and small arms fire was not a new idea or unique to the Great War. It had been widely practiced in the US Civil War, the Russian-Japanese war and other fairly recent wars. Trench warfare of the First World War can be said to have begun in September 1914 and ended when the Allies made a breakthrough attack that began in late July 1918. Before and after those dates were wars of movement: in between it was a war of entrenchment. The massive armies of both sides dug in to take cover and hold their ground. By November 1914 there was a continuous line of trenches covering some 400 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. There was no way round.
What were the trenches like?
The type and nature of the trench positions varied a lot, depending on the local conditions. For example, in the area of the River Somme in France the ground is chalky and is easily dug. The trench sides will crumble easily after rain, so would be built up (‘revetted’) with wood, sandbags or any other suitable material. At Ypres in Belgium the ground is naturally boggy and the water table very high, so trenches were not really dug, but more built up using sandbags and wood (these were called ‘breastworks’). In parts of Italy, trenches were dug in rock in Palestine in desert. In France the trenches ran through towns and villages, through industrial works, coalmines, brickyards, across railway tracks, through farms, fields and woods, across rivers, canals and streams. Each feature presented its own set of challenges for the men who had to dig in and defend. In the major offensives of 1915, 1916 and 1917 many trench positions were only held for a few days at a time before the next advance moved them on into what had been no man’s land or the enemy position. These trenches were scratch affairs, created as the advancing troops dug in, and were sometimes little more than 18 inches deep.
Imperial War Museum image Q667. New Zealand troops of the 9th (Wellington East Coast Rifles) Regiment using a periscope rifle and a trench periscope in a front line trench near Fleurbaix, June 1916. A well-constructed and dry trench in a quiet sector. It is odd in that it seems to be very broad (the rear parados can not be seen at all), and is typical of Flanders in that it is built up with sandbags rather than dug deep into wet ground.
Imperial War Museum image Q62. British troops asleep in a support trench during the preliminary bombardment, previous to the attack on Beaumont Hamel, 1st July 1916. Note scaling ladders (duckboards) across trench. By most standards this would have been regarded as useful shelter but a poor trench: it has no dugouts, does not seem to have any duckboarding or revetment, and has no bays. An enemy shell bursting in this trench would give the men little chance of survival.
From simple hole in the ground to formidable defensive systemsStylised trench layout. Many officers and men would have given a great deal for trenches as clear and well laid-out as this sketch suggests.
The bird’s-eye view (above, from an official infantry training manual of March 1916) shows a typical but very stylised trench layout. There is a front line, or “Main Fire Trench” facing the enemy. It is not straight, but follows contours or other natural features allowing good defence or a view over the enemy lines. Thousands of men became casualties in fighting for, or making small adjustments to their lines, to give this cover or observation. It also is dug in sections rather than a straight line, so if a shell explodes inside one of these ‘bays’ (also called ‘traverses’), or an enemy gets into one, only that section is affected.
Behind it is another line, similarly made, called a support line. In this would be found ‘dugouts’ cut into the side of the trench wall, often very small but with room for perhaps three or four men to squeeze in for shelter, or for a telephone position for a signaller, or for a Platoon or Company HQ. Communication trenches linked the rear areas with both lines, and it was along these that all men, equipment and supplies had to be fetched, by hand. Probing out from the front line were trenches usually called ‘saps’, which often went beyond the protective belts of barbed wire, terminating somewhere in ‘no man’s land’ between the two opposing front lines in a listening post, manned by one or two infantrymen. The cross-section shows how the front and rear of the trench was ideally protected and built up using sandbags at the front and rear, or ‘parapet’ and ‘parados’.
The enemy had a very similar system of trenches. The distance between the two lines varied from as little as 30 yards (just under 30m) to several hundred yards. The space between the two opposing lines was called no man’s land. It was difficult to consolidate a captured enemy trench – in effect it had to be turned round as you now needed to have a protected front at what had been the unprotected rear when the enemy held it.
As defensive and offensive tactics developed later in the war, trench positions became formidable fortresses with barbed wire belts tens of yards deep in front of them, with concrete shelters and emplacements, often below ground level. Machine guns would be permanently trained on gaps deliberately left in the wire, and the artillery would also have the positions registered for firing at short notice.
A typical trench system eventually consisted of three main fire or support trenches, connected by communication trenches and with various posts, strong points and saps. By 1916, the German system of defence had three or four such trench systems layered back over a distance of a couple of miles. By 1917, the system had deepened even further so that the Allied assaults of 1918 faced complex defensive systems that were several miles deep.
Trench conditions varied widely between different theatres of war, different sectors within a theatre, and with the time of year and weather. Trench life was however always one of considerable squalor, with so many men living in a very constrained space. Scraps of discarded food, empty tins and other waste, the nearby presence of the latrine, the general dirt of living half underground and being unable to wash or change for days or weeks at a time created conditions of severe health risk (and that is not counting the military risks). Vermin including rats and lice were very numerous disease was spread both by them, and by the maggots and flies that thrived on the nearby remains of decomposing human and animal corpses. Troops in the trenches were also subjected to the weather: the winter of 1916-1917 in France and Flanders was the coldest in living memory the trenches flooded in the wet, sometimes to waist height, whenever it rained. Men suffered from exposure, frostbite, trench foot (a wasting disease of the flesh caused by the foot being wet and cold, constrained into boots and puttees, for days on end, that would cripple a man), and many diseases brought on or made worse by living in such a way.
Where possible, the floor of the trench was made by using wooden duckboards. One of the features the diagrams above do not show is the latrine, which had to be dug somewhere close to hand. This was generally as deep a hole in the ground as possible, over which was mounted a plank to sit on. Men would, with permission, leave their post to use the latrine. This rough form of sanitation was often a target for enemy snipers and shellfire and was also a considerable smell and health hazard for the men in the trenches.
Imperial War Museum image Q5098. A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) waiting in a sap for the signal to go. John Warwick Brooke, the official photographer, followed them in the sap, into which a shell fell short killing seven men. Near Arras, 24 March 1917. A sap was a crude, often shallow and temporary trench leading out from the main firing line into no man’s land. It was valuable cover for such a raiding party.
How long would a man have to be in a trench?
A general pattern for trench routine was for a man and his section to spend 4 days in the front line, then 4 days in close reserve and finally 4 at rest, although this varied enormously depending on conditions, the weather and the availability of enough reserve troops to be able to rotate them in this way. In close reserve, men had to be ready to reinforce the line at very short notice. They may have been in a trench system just behind the front system or in the dubious shelter of a ruined village or wood. The relief of a unit after its time in the front by a fresh one was always an anxious time, as the noise and obvious activity increased the risk of attracting enemy attention in the form of shelling, machine-gun fire or even a raid at the very time when the manning of the position was changing. Once the incoming unit had relieved the outgoing one, various precautionary actions would be taken. At least one man in four (at night, and perhaps one in ten by day) were posted as sentries on look-out duty, often in saps dug a little way ahead of the main fire trench. They would listen for sounds that might indicate enemy activity, and try to observe such activity across no man’s land. The other men would be posted into the fire trench or support trench, in sections. Unless they were a specialist such as a signaller or machine-gunner, men would inevitably be assigned to carrying, repair or digging parties, or sent under cover of dark to put out or repair barbed wire defences.
Other than when a major action was underway, trench life was usually very tedious and hard physical work. Officers had to ensure that there was if possible a balance between the need for work against the enemy, on building and repairing trench defences and for rest and sleep. This could only be done by a good system with a definite system of rotas and a work timetable. Obviously, in times of battle or extended alerts, such a routine would be broken, but such times were a small proportion of the time in the trenches. The main enemies were the weather and boredom. The loss of concentration – leaving oneself exposed to sniper fire, for example – could prove deadly. At dawn and dusk, the whole British line was ordered to ‘Stand To!’ – which meant a period of manning the trench in preparation for an enemy attack.
All of the men posted to the fire trench and most of those in the support trench had to wear their equipment at all times. Men in the front line had to keep their bayonets fixed during hours of darkness or mist, or whenever there was an alert of enemy activity. A man could not leave his post without permission of his immediate commander, and an officer had to approve him leaving the trench. One officer per Company was on trench duty at all times, and his NCOs had to report to him hourly. He was under orders to move continually up and down his assigned trenches, checking that the equipment was in good state, that the sentries were alert and that the men were as comfortable as the conditions allowed. The NCOs had to inspect the men’s rifles twice daily and otherwise ensure that fighting equipment and ammunition was present and in good order. From mid-1915, every trench had some form of warning of gas attack. Often this was an empty shell casing, held up by wire or string, that would be hit (like a gong) with a piece of wood or similar. If the gas gong was heard, all officers and men would know that they had to put on their gas masks as soon as they could. Some of the gasses used were invisible, and if their delivery by gas shells popping on impact with the ground had not been heard, they could sometimes be detected by their distinctive smell. Every day, the battalion holding the line would request from the nearby Brigade workshop a list of stores it needed. Some special items such as wire ‘knife rests’ (a wooden support for a barbed wire entanglement), signboards, boxes, and floor gratings would be made up at Brigade and brought to the trenches ready to use. Sandbags, wood, cement, barbed wire, telephone cable, and other supplies would also be sent up as needed. Men would be sent back to Brigade as a carrying party to fetch it.
Imperial War Museum image Q4649. Men of the Lancashire Fusiliers sit in a muddy puddle on the floor of a front line trench opposite Messines to clean a Lewis gun. Behind them, as the trench bends round to the right, a group of men can be seen standing in the trench, one of them with his bayonet fixed. To the left of the photographs, can be seen the gas alarm horn and wind vane. Several rows of sandbags form the top left-hand edge of the trench.
Rations and other supplies were invariably brought up at night, under cover of darkness. This was of course known to the enemy, who would shell and snipe at the known roads and tracks leading up to the front. The units holding the front would try to position their mobile field cookers so that the men could be provided with a hot meal, but this was not always possible. The men in the trenches would also cook – especially breakfast – using braziers in the trenches and dugouts. It was important that smoke from fires was masked so as not to give away a position.
WW1 Diary Reveals Shocking Details Of Life In Trenches
The diary includes first-hand details of the conflict, the loss of friends and the tragedy of war, but with a surprising level of humour.
Collecting Welsh Letters From The Front Lines Of War
A diary of a First World War officer who served in the trenches is going to auction.
The diary includes first-hand details of the conflict, the loss of friends and the tragedy of war, but with a surprising level of humour.
It was written by an unknown officer who served in the first Battle of Ypres with the Third Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers.
Appearing at an auction in Billingshurst, West Sussex, the document is well preserved and clearly legible, making the historical item a rarity for writing rescued from the trenches.
Bellmans Auctioneers books specialist Denise Kelly said:
“This incredible diary is so full of detail, I could not put it down, and turning the pages I was instantly transported back to the trenches as if I was standing next to the writer.
Final Diary Entries Of WWI Hero Released
“I experienced the close bond and trust between the officer and his men, I felt the cold, endless rain and horrific mud, I heard the endless noise of shelling and gunfire, realising very quickly why the life expectancy of these men was so short."
One of the most shocking revelations found in the diary says that German and British soldiers would warn one another in advance of shelling:
“When the Germans get word from their gunners our trenches are going to be shelled, they sign over to us, and the Brits do the same. General HQ would be pretty sick if they knew this”.
Inside his diary, which is expected to earn £600 at auction, are entries and copies of letters home from August 1914 - June 1915.
Despite the adversity the diary’s author faced, it features a surprising amount of humour - one passage reads:
“Billeted at Rosendaal Chateau, whole place shelled to pieces … had very fine Louis XV chairs to sit in and lovely china … a strange contrast!”
Denise added: “I have no idea how the writer survived as long as he did as I despaired reading endless names of his comrades falling to snipers, being shelled or missing.
“This is a fascinating, moving, historical record of horrific battles fought by very brave men”.
World War One: Life and Death in the Trenches
The First World War was a defining event that determined the course of the entire 20th century. The bloody quagmire of 1914-1918 led to the birth of modern “total warfare”, in which not just an enemy’s armed forces but his entire social capacity to wage war became legitimate targets, and the distinction between “soldier” and “civilian” became blurred. It also led to the development of modern weapons like the tank, the airplane, chemical weapons, the machine gun, the massed artillery barrage, the aircraft carrier, and the submarine.
In the political sphere, the Great War led to the emergence of the United States as a world power, to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, and to the appearance of the Soviet Union and then the Cold War which dominated the second half of the 20th century. The slaughter of virtually an entire generation in the trenches also led to labor shortages in the industrial nations which strengthened the positions of labor unions and socialist political movements, leading to sweeping social and political changes in Europe and the United States. And World War One and its aftermath re-drew much of the world map, particularly in places like the Middle East and Africa.
Today, 100 years later, we still live with the effects of the Great War.
At the opening of the 20th century, all of Europe knew that a major war was coming, though no one knew when it would break out. The newly unified Germany wanted to become a world power and build a global empire to rival that of France and Britain. France, still seeking revenge for its humiliating loss in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, wanted the return of its lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. France’s longtime imperial rival, Britain, now found itself sharing interests with the French, as both sought to limit German power and prevent the Kaiser from intruding into their global territories. The tottering Austria-Hungary Empire was wracked by ethnic and national strife in the Balkans, as numerous groups sought political independence from the Empire. Russia had its own territorial interests in the Balkans, which brought the Tsar into direct conflict with Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Tensions ran high, friends were picked, and alliances were made, and Europe became divided into two armed camps—the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, and the Triple Entente Allies, consisting of France, Britain and Russia. Everyone knew that conflict was inevitable.
On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist student shot and killed archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne. In the scheme of things, it was not a very significant event—just another in a long string of violence by ethnic rebels in the Balkans. But, in the tightly-wound network of alliances and agreements that criss-crossed Europe in 1914, those two pistol shots quickly snowballed. Austria-Hungary accused the Serbian government of aiding the rebels, and with the support of Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russia responded by mobilizing its own army in order to defend the Serbs. Germany, required to defend its ally Austria-Hungary and surrounded by an alliance of potential enemies, decided to strike first, and invaded Belgium and then France—which brought Britain’s entry into the conflict. The Guns of August sounded, and the war that everyone was expecting, had begun. Both sides confidently predicted victory “before the autumn leaves fell from the trees”.
Germany, faced on two sides by the Entente Allies, knew it had to act quickly. Counting on the fact that it would take some time for Russia to mobilize its large but poorly-equipped army, the German war plans, drawn up years before by General von Schlieffen, called for a two-part strategy. In the first half of the plan, a large German army would move through neutral Belgium, bypassing the French border defenses, and take Paris from the north, to quickly force France’s surrender before Britain would be able to get any significant forces across the Channel. With France’s rapid defeat, the German Army could then execute the second half of the plan, by turning on Russia before the Tsar could fully deploy his huge army.
The Schlieffen Plan almost worked. In the first week of August 1914, German troops had rolled through Belgium and entered France. By the end of the month, they were within 30 miles of Paris. But here, on the Marne River, the Germans ran into trouble. French resistance stiffened, and on September 6, a scout in one of the French army’s new “aeroplanes” spotted a gap between two German armies, which allowed French and some newly-arrived British troops to pour in and drive the Germans back over 40 miles. It became known as “The Miracle of the Marne”.
The war that both sides expected to be over by Christmas, now settled into a stalemate that was to drag on, virtually unchanged, for the next four years.
Within weeks of the halt at the Marne, both sides, unable to advance against the other, dug defensive positions. At first, these were simple temporary rifle pits, but as the deadlock continued, they were transformed into intricate trench systems, which stretched unbroken from the shores of the English Channel all the way across France to the Swiss border. “Trench warfare” became the iconic characteristic of the Western Front.
The typical trench was about seven feet deep and four feet wide. The sides were reinforced with wooden planks, corrugated metal, or wire mesh, to prevent the sides from collapsing. The bottom of the trenches quickly filled with water, and to help prevent “trench foot” (caused by constant immersion of the feet), a pathway of wooden planks called “duckboards” ran through each trench. On the front of the trench, sandbags were piled up to make a parapet a shelf running along the inside of the trench, called a “firing step”, allowed soldiers to shoot through small gaps in the parapet called “loopholes”. There were also machine gun emplacements (called “pill-boxes”) built into the parapets from sandbags, cement, or stones, placed together closely enough so that their interlocking arcs of fire covered the entire front, even if some of the guns were knocked out.
The trench was built in a zig-zag or corrugated shape, turning every twenty feet or so, to protect each segment from any artillery fragments or grenades that exploded in adjacent segments.
At intervals along each trench, an underground shelter called a “dug-out” was made, 10 or 20 feet below ground, where troops could rest in relative safety. In places where the ground made this impossible, individual soldiers dug their own little caves into the back side of the trench.
The trench system was usually built in two or three parallel lines. The forward trenches were used for observation, sniping, and defensive or offensive combat. The rear trenches were used for storage, sleeping, and emergency medical treatment. The parallel trenches were connected to each other by a series of perpendicular “communications trenches”, which allowed troops to move in safety from one trenchline to another. The artillery units were located some distance behind the trenches, and the rear area was also used for training, medical areas, and billets for troops who were not on frontline duty.
In most areas, the opposing trenches were 200-300 yards apart. In some areas, however, they were as close as 30 yards. The area between opposing trench systems was known as “No Man’s Land”. In general, when the war bogged down in 1914, the Germans withdrew to the best nearby defensive positions, and dug their trenches on the higher ground. British and French generals, on the other hand, believed that any retreat, of any distance, would be bad for the troop’s fighting spirit, so they ordered Entente troops to dig in at whatever position they found themselves in. As a result, the German trenches were typically stronger and drier than the Allied trenches, which were often built on unsuitable soggy ground in valleys, where the water table was close to the surface. It was the first of many blunders made by the Allied generals.
World War One is not the first example of trench warfare at the siege of Petersburg during the final stages of the American civil war in 1865, the besieging Union troops build networks of trenches that were very similar to those later used in France.
In the 50 years since the Civil War, however, military weaponry had undergone a quantum leap. In the Civil War, the most advanced artillery gun had consisted of muzzle-loaded rifled cannon that could fire black-powder canister shot or exploding cannonballs to a distance of several hundred yards. At each shot, the recoil knocked the cannon out of alignment, forcing the gunner to re-aim before he could fire again. In the Great War, however, breech-loading artillery pieces could fire self-contained cartridges of explosive or shrapnel shells (and soon poison gas) to a distance of several miles, and the recoil mechanism absorbed the shock without moving the gun, allowing shell after shell to be quickly dropped on the same spot. Artillery fire killed and maimed more men in the trenches than any other weapon.
Only slightly less effective as a killer, however, was the machine gun. Although the US Army had experimented with the crank-operated magazine-fed Gatling gun late in the Civil War, it was not until Hiram Maxim invented a gas-operated automatic machine gun which fired cartridge ammunition from long belts, that the rapid-fire gun claimed a dominant place on the battlefield. According to legend, Maxim, an American, began work on the design after someone told him that if he really wanted to get rich, he should make a weapon that the Europeans could use to kill each other more easily. The machine gun fit the bill. Both sides used the Maxim in the First World War (the British produced it under the name Vickers, and the Germans produced it under the name Spandau). Placed at intervals along the trenches, the guns were set to fire at knee height above the ground, sweeping the area ahead of them to strike advancing enemy troops in the legs, causing them to fall to the ground and be cut apart by the Maxim’s 800 rounds per minute. While the Maxim was too heavy to move easily, lighter versions of the machine gun were produced, such as the British Lewis Gun and the French Hotchkiss, allowing advancing troops to carry their own portable firepower. Later, the Maxim was replaced by the .50-caliber Browning.
The effectiveness of the machine gun was greatly enhanced by another staple of trench warfare—barbed wire. To slow the advance of enemy troops, both sides began placing strands of barbed wire in front of their trenches. The barbed wire was not intended to injure troops—its purpose was to slow and stop them, giving the riflemen and machine gunners an easy target. Soon, both Allied and German trenches were protected by immense tangles of barbed wire, some over 100 feet wide. In some cases, gaps were deliberately left, which channeled the unwary enemy into narrow killing fields directly in front of the machine gun nests.
The protection offered by the extensive trench system, and the lethal firepower from fixed machine gun emplacements, meant that advancing troops, exposed outside of the protection of their trenches, were ludicrously vulnerable, and the defending troops, safe in their trenches, enjoyed a huge advantage. This helped the Germans far more than it did the Entente, since the Germans were the occupiers and could therefore take an entirely defensive stance, sitting tight and challenging the French and British to come and drive them out. The unimaginative Entente generals, who had been trained in the tactics of cavalry and cannons, were entirely unable to deal with the stalemate in the trenches in an era of machine guns and howitzers. Nearly the entire history of the Western Front—Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun—consists of desperate human-wave attacks by British and French soldiers who bravely charged the waiting German lines, only to be hung up on the barbed wire entanglements and mowed down en masse by German machine guns. It was slaughter on a scale that had never been seen before. Post-war accounts referred to the Entente armies as “lions, who were commanded by donkeys”.
Both sides tried a number of ideas to break the stalemate and allow an advance through the enemy lines. None of them worked. One imaginative attempt to break through the German defenses was tried by a group of English soldiers who were former coal miners—they dug a long underground tunnel to a point underneath the German trenches, packed it with explosives, then set off an explosion to blow a gap in the lines. At the Messines Ridge, some 20 underground mines were detonated at the same time, an explosion so large it was heard across the English Channel in England and Ireland. Both the Germans and the Allies attempted to mine the other’s trenches, but with only limited success.
Another attempt to break the stalemate came in 1915, when the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas from hundreds of gas canisters near Ypres. New chemical weapons quickly followed from both sides. Chlorine canisters were replaced by chambered artillery shells, which delivered phosgene gas and then later mustard gas. It did not, however, have the hoped-for effect. No major battle was decided by gas warfare, and it did virtually nothing to break the stalemate. Gas warfare’s primary effect was simply to make things more horrible for everybody.
The tactic that was finally settled on by the Entente was to precede every attack with a massive artillery bombardment, lasting for days or even weeks. The hope was that the blizzard of shells would tear up the barbed wire emplacements, knock out most of the machine guns, and drive the German troops to the rear trenches, allowing the British “Tommies” and the French “Poilus” (and later the American “Doughboys”) to simply walk across No Man’s Land and mop up the remnants of the surviving “Boches”. Although the tactic never worked, the generals nevertheless tried it again, and again, and again, simply because they had no other alternative.
The troops, meanwhile, found trench warfare to be a nightmarish hell. Everyone lived like moles in underground burrows. The entire surrounding countryside had been pounded into a cratered moonscape by the constant artillery fire—not a tree or a blade of grass survived for long—and during the rainy season, everything was enveloped in thigh-deep mud. The trenches constantly filled up with water, and trench foot—in which the flesh literally rots and falls off—was a never-ending problem. Lice, rats, and unburied dead bodies were everywhere, leading to rampant disease. Since the German soldiers almost never attacked Allied trenches in force, and Allied mass attacks happened only rarely, the vast majority of British and French troops experienced long boring periods where there was no action.
Even in these inactive periods, however, death was ever-present. About 5,000 people were killed or wounded every day, even when there were no attacks. Random artillery shells fell everywhere, occasionally dropping directly into trenches or occupied craters and blasting everyone in the area to unrecognizable bits. Short-range trench mortars had the same effect. Even people in the rear areas were exposed to artillery fire.
Snipers were also a constant threat. They would wait patiently for hours on end, protected by a thick steel plate with a small trapdoor through which they could watch, until someone within range unwisely exposed himself for a brief moment—allowing the sniper to get off one well-aimed shot. Several stories mention fresh recruits, newly-arrived at the front, who cautiously peeked over their parapet to have a curious look across No Man’s Land at the opposing trenches—only to instantly attract a fatal bullet from an enemy sniper.
Only at nighttime was it reasonably safe to emerge from underground, and it was then that troops were able to repair trenches and parapets, bury dead bodies, place or repair barbed wire patches, or dig new trenchlines. The patrols also went out under cover of darkness, to scout out No Man’s Land, to raid the enemy trenches with grenades or knives, or to capture prisoners for interrogation. To discourage enemy patrols, machine gunners would often sweep the darkness ahead of them at random intervals, hoping to catch a group of enemy in the open.
Night patrol work became so dangerous that troops soon began taking illicit steps to avoid the danger. Often, a patrol would simply travel a short distance from its own trench, wait quietly in the darkness, crouched in a shell hole for a while, and then return (without ever having gone near the enemy trenches) and make a false report. This became such a problem that the Entente command began requiring its patrols to carry wirecutters and snip a piece of German wire to bring back with them, thus proving that they had actually been there. Enterprising troops got around that by creatively procuring rolls of captured German wire, from which they could snip off pieces in safety.
In many areas, both sides practiced what the British generals contemptuously referred to as “live and let live”, an agreement, either tacit or open, that “we won’t shoot at you if you don’t shoot at us”. The most famous example of this came in December 1914, when in a large section of the front, a temporary ceasefire to allow burial of the dead turned into a non-sanctioned truce, with troops from both sides mingling with each other, exchanging gifts and stories, and even playing soccer in No Man’s Land. The “Christmas Truce” ended the next day, but it shook the generals so badly that in December 1915, orders were issued authorizing anyone who fraternized with German troops to be shot on the spot.
Nevertheless, there are many accounts of sections of the front where troops on both sides had an “arrangement”. In many cases, this took the form of a simple cease-fire during dinnertime so everyone could eat in peace. In a few areas, though, both sides simply agreed to stop fighting. In some of these cases, one side, forced by an impending visit from some high-ranking officer to plan an artillery barrage, even went so far as to send advance warning to the other side so they could take cover.
By 1917, both the Entente and the German armies were bloodied and exhausted. A significant portion of the French Army broke out in open mutiny, flatly refusing to go out in any more suicidal attacks. The mutineer leaders were arrested, but the generals worried about more rebellion. It seemed as if the war would never end.
Then the United States declared war on Germany.
When Woodrow Wilson joined the Entente alliance in April 1917, the US was a virtual nonentity. Its military was tiny, and the only recent war experience it had was beating the aged and crumbling Spanish Empire in 1898, and ineffectually chasing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico in 1916. The first American troops to arrive in Europe had to be hurriedly provided with French equipment and weapons, since the US had none of its own.
Nevertheless, the entry of the United States was decisive. The Germans knew that not only would America’s massive industrial capacity soon be flooding the battlefield with brand-new equipment and supplies, but the fresh American troops, once they were trained and equipped, would shore up the wounded Entente forces and overwhelm the outnumbered Germans by sheer weight. If Germany were to have any chance at all of winning the war, it would have to be done quickly, before significant numbers of Americans could be trained and shipped to Europe.
The Kaiser had gambled that an all-out offensive by his submarine force would be enough to defeat Britain before the US could effectively intervene. He lost that gamble, however, and Germany seemed inevitably on its way to defeat.
In November 1917, Germany got a second chance.
The war on the Russian front had never bogged down in trench warfare, but the sheer weight of Russian numbers prevented German victory. Nevertheless, the poorly-equipped Russian Army managed nothing more than one spectacular defeat after another, and weariness of the war, combined with hatred for the Tsar, led to Revolution in March 1917. Kerensky’s new Provisional Government, however, made a fatal error—it decided to continue Russia’s participation in the war. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power under the slogan “Bread, Land and Peace”. The Russians quickly withdrew from the Entente and negotiated peace with Germany.
The end of the Eastern front freed up a huge number of German troops, and the Kaiser’s generals acted as rapidly as they could to move these armies to France and use them to beat the French and British before the Americans could begin arriving in large numbers. The 1918 Offensive, the first time since the war began that the German Army went on the strategic attack, was the only remaining opportunity for the Central Powers to save themselves.
The newly-reinforced Germans hit the exhausted British and French like a tidal wave, but it did not break them. The Germans, like the Entente, were unable to overcome the advantages held by the defender in trench warfare. The German offensive broke against British and French machine guns, just as the Entente attacks had always broken against the German.
Only a handful of American troops had so far arrived on the battlefield, but with the failure of the 1918 Offensive, the German generals knew that the war was already over. The Germans withdrew to the heavily-fortified Hindenburg Line and awaited the inevitable Allied assault.
The technical means of breaking the trench stalemate, moreover, now existed, and by mid-1918, with significant numbers of American troops finally beginning to arrive, the Allies were in a position to use it.
In 1916, the British had begun development of a tracked armored vehicle, armed with machine guns and light artillery cannon, that would be able to plow its way through the barbed wire and over the German trenches. Originally called the “land battleship”, it was given the code name “special tank” to hide its nature from German spies, and the name “tank” stuck. The British Mark I tank was first battle-tested in September 1916, and a group of Mark IV tanks proved their potential during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
The Germans had also developed an armored tank, but were only able to produce 15 of them by the end of the war.
By 1918, the British were turning out sufficient numbers of heavy Mark V tanks and Whippet medium tanks, while the French were manufacturing the Renault light tank. At the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, a force of Allied tanks, supported by ground-attacking airplanes, broke through the German lines. The decisive anti-trench weapon had been found.
Within weeks, the Allies had launched offensives all along the front, and the Germans were unable to stop them. At the same time, labor strikes and rebellions in Germany against the war, led by the German Communists, weakened the Kaiser’s regime. In October 1918, the Kaiser turned over power to an elected Reichstag, and in November, Germany asked for an armistice.
The last day of the war brought the final absurdity of futile death. By dawn on November 11, 1918, every Entente commander knew that the Armistice signed the night before would go into effect at 11 am, and all everyone had to do was sit tight and they would all get to go home intact. Instead, Allied commanders, especially American, launched attacks all along the front, in a final gesture to gain glory or just to strike one last time at the hated enemy. As a result, over 10,000 casualties occurred on the last day of the war, all to try to capture ground that the troops could safely walk across that very afternoon. The last man to die a futile death in World War One was American private Henry Gunther, who was killed at 10:59 am, one minute before the Armistice, while attacking a German machine gun nest.
Life in a Trench - HISTORY
During WWI, both the Allied and Central Powers used poison gases as weapons. Gas masks were used to protect soldiers from the toxic gases. Early masks had chemical-soaked cotton with eyepieces. They were very uncomfortable and the chemicals caused eye irritation and blisters. After those, they used the Small Box Respirator which was the most successful ("10 Things That Could Have Saved Your Life in the Trenches").
Steel helmets were used for protection in WWI. Before the British started using them, they only used cloth caps, which provided no protection. The steel protected soldiers from flying missiles and shrapnels. Also with the steel helmets, head injuries went down by 75% ("10 Things That Could Have Saved Your Life in the Trenches").
Soldiers used camouflage to blend in with the environment so they wouldn't be spotted by the enemy. One color used was "horizon blue" and it blended into the sky. Other suits represented colors from "No Man's Land," the area between trenches. As long as soldiers were less visible, they were less accessible ("10 Things That Could Have Saved Your Life in the Trenches").
In WWI, mosquitos and other insects spread disease such as malaria, which killed millions of soldiers. In the trenches, disease spread more quickly because of all of the soldiers in them. These mosquito nets went over a person's head that protected them from mosquitos. The nets spared people from being killed by malaria and other diseases ("10 Things That Could Have Saved Your Life in the Trenches").
The entrenching tool was a tool to dig trenches in WWI. This tool is a metal shovel with a blade. Soldiers used these to dig shallow trenches to hide in and to avoid bullets and shrapnels. Other times, the entrenching tool was used in hand-to-hand combat between soldiers. ("10 Things That Could Have Saved Your Life in the Trenches").
Year 9 History exam revision (i) trench life in WW1
Death was a constant companion to those serving in the line, even when no raid or attack was launched or defended against. In busy sectors the constant shellfire directed by the enemy brought random death, whether their victims were lounging in a trench or lying in a dugout (many men were buried as a consequence of such large shell-bursts).
Similarly, novices were cautioned against their natural inclination to peer over the parapet of the trench into No Man’s Land .
Many men died on their first day in the trenches as a consequence of a precisely aimed sniper’s bullet.
It has been estimated that up to one third of Allied casualties on the Western Front were actually sustained in the trenches. Aside from enemy injuries, disease wrought a heavy toll.
Rats in their millions infested trenches. There were two main types, the brown and the black rat. Both were despised but the brown rat was especially feared. Gorging themselves on human remains (grotesquely disfiguring them by eating their eyes and liver) they could grow to the size of a cat.
Men, exasperated and afraid of these rats (which would even scamper across their faces in the dark), would attempt to rid the trenches of them by various methods: gunfire, with the bayonet , and even by clubbing them to death.
It was futile however: a single rat couple could produce up to 900 offspring in a year, spreading infection and contaminating food. The rat problem remained for the duration of the war (although many veteran soldiers swore that rats sensed impending heavy enemy shellfire and consequently disappeared from view).
Frogs, Lice and Worse
Rats were by no means the only source of infection and nuisance. Lice were a never-ending problem, breeding in the seams of filthy clothing and causing men to itch unceasingly.
Even when clothing was periodically washed and deloused, lice eggs invariably remained hidden in the seams within a few hours of the clothes being re-worn the body heat generated would cause the eggs to hatch.
Lice caused Trench Fever , a particularly painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever. Recovery – away from the trenches – took up to twelve weeks. Lice were not actually identified as the culprit of Trench Fever until 1918.
Frogs by the score were found in shell holes covered in water they were also found in the base of trenches. Slugs and horned beetles crowded the sides of the trench.
Many men chose to shave their heads entirely to avoid another prevalent scourge: nits.
Trench Foot was another medical condition peculiar to trench life. It was a fungal infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions. It could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. Trench Foot was more of a problem at the start of trench warfare as conditions improved in 1915 it rapidly faded, although a trickle of cases continued throughout the war.
The Trench Cycle
Typically, a battalion would be expected to serve a spell in the front line. This would be followed by a stint spent in support, and then in reserve lines. A period of rest would follow – generally short in duration – before the whole cycle of trench duty would start afresh.
In reality the cycle was determined by the necessities of the situation. Even while at rest men might find themselves tasked with duties that placed them in the line of fire.
Others would spend far longer in the front line than usual, usually in the more ‘busy’ sectors.
As an example – and the numbers varied widely – a man might expect in a year to spend some 70 days in the front line, with another 30 in nearby support trenches. A further 120 might be spent in reserve. Only 70 days might be spent at rest. The amount of leave varied, with perhaps two weeks being granted during the year.
Stand To and the Morning Hate
The daily routine of life in the trenches began with the morning ‘ stand to ‘. An hour before dawn everyone was roused from slumber by the company orderly officer and sergeant and ordered to climb up on the fire step to guard against a dawn raid by the enemy, bayonets fixed.
This policy of stand to was adopted by both sides, and despite the knowledge that each side prepared itself for raids or attacks timed at dawn, many were actually carried out at this time.
Accompanying stand to, as the light grew, was the daily ritual often termed the ‘morning hate’.
Both sides would often relieve the tension of the early hours with machine gun fire, shelling and small arms fire, directed into the mist to their front: this made doubly sure of safety at dawn.
Rum, Rifles and the Breakfast Truce
With stand to over, in some areas rum might then be issued to the men. They would then attend to the cleaning of their rifle equipment, which was followed by its inspection by officers.
Breakfast would next be served. In essentially every area of the line at some time or other each side would adopt an unofficial truce while breakfast was served and eaten. This truce often extended to the wagons which delivered such sustenance.
Truces such as these seldom lasted long invariably a senior officer would hear of its existence and quickly stamp it out. Nevertheless it persisted throughout the war, and was more prevalent in quieter sectors of the line.
Inspection and Chores
With breakfast over the men would be inspected by either the company or platoon commander. Once this had been completed NCOs would assign daily chores to each man (except those who had been excused duty for a variety of reasons).
Example – and necessary – daily chores included the refilling of sandbags , the repair of the duckboards on the floor of the trench and the draining of trenches.
Particularly following heavy rainfall, trenches could quickly accumulate muddy water, making life ever more miserable for its occupants as the walls of the trench rapidly became misshapen and were prone to collapse.
Pumping equipment was available for the draining of trenches men would also be assigned to the repair of the trench itself ( click here to view brief film footage of British troops pumping water from trenches in 1914). Still others would be assigned to the preparation of latrines .
Given that each side’s front line was constantly under watch by snipers and look-outs during daylight, movement was logically restricted until night fell. Thus, once men had concluded their assigned tasks they were free to attend to more personal matters, such as the reading and writing of letters home.
Meals were also prepared. Sleep was snatched wherever possible – although it was seldom that men were allowed sufficient time to grab more than a few minutes rest before they were detailed to another task.
Dusk: Stand To, Supply and Maintenance
With the onset of dusk the morning ritual of stand to was repeated, again to guard against a surprise attack launched as light fell.
This over, the trenches became a hive of activity. Supply and maintenance activities could be undertaken, although danger invariably accompanied these as the enemy would be alert for such movement. Men would be sent to the rear lines to fetch rations and water ( click here to view film footage of British soldiers receiving rations in 1914).
Other men would be assigned sentry duty on the fire step. Generally men would be expected to provide sentry duty for up to two hours. Any longer and there was a real risk of men falling asleep on duty – for which the penalty was death by firing squad.
Patrolling No Man’s Land
Patrols would often be sent out into No Mans Land. Some men would be tasked with repairing or adding barbed wire to the front line. Others however would go out to assigned listening posts , hoping to pick up valuable information from the enemy lines.
Sometimes enemy patrols would meet in No Man’s Land. They were then faced with the option of hurrying on their separate ways or else engaging in hand to hand fighting.
They could not afford to use their handguns while patrolling in No Man’s Land, for fear of the machine gun fire it would inevitably attract, deadly to all members of the patrol.
Relieving Men at the Front
Men were relieved front-line duty at night-time too. Relieving units would wind their weary way through numerous lines of communications trenches, weighed down with equipment and trench stores (such as shovels, picks, corrugated iron, duckboards, etc.). The process of relieving a line could take several frustrating hours.
…And the Smell
Finally, no overview of trench life can avoid the aspect that instantly struck visitors to the lines: the appalling reek given off by numerous conflicting sources.
Rotting carcases lay around in their thousands. For example, approximately 200,000 men were killed on the Somme battlefields, many of which lay in shallow graves.
Overflowing latrines would similarly give off a most offensive stench.
Men who had not been afforded the luxury of a bath in weeks or months would offer the pervading odour of dried sweat. The feet were generally accepted to give off the worst odour.
Trenches would also smell of creosol or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection.
Add to this the smell of cordite, the lingering odour of poison gas , rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke and cooking food… yet men grew used to it, while it thoroughly overcame first-time visitors to the front.
The Real Story On How Trench Coats Got Their Name
From khaki pants to pea coats, international military has always had an effect on the fashion and style of everyday civilians.
And trench coats -- double breasted, generally oversized coats with deep pockets and a belt -- are known as such today because British military soldiers wore them in the trenches of World War I. But they existed in the years leading up to that war, and would live long after it, thanks to celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich -- eventually becoming as mandatory to have in your wardrobe as blue jeans or that J.Crew gingham shirt. Here's the story.
The trenches of Europe in the 1800s and 1900s were nasty places to fight for your country. Long, winding tunnels, "they smelled, of both the unwashed living bodies crammed in there and the dead ones buried close by," a Smithsonian article describes it. Exposed to the elements, "[trenches] were muddy and filthy, and often flooded with either rain or, when the latrines overflowed, something worse."
The soldiers, then clad in woolen "greatcoats" -- long overcoats of a thick twill fabric called serge -- were warm but too bulky for agile soldiers.
Obviously, a military unit is going to be interested in clothing that protects its soldiers from the elements -- but in the mid-1800s, the predominant weather jackets were known as Macks, which started showing up thanks to inventor Charles Macintosh around 1823.
Rubberized and inflexible, Macks would keep rain out but your sweat in. Still, they were successful enough to create a market for consumers who wanted jackets that would protect their wearers from the weather.
Enter Thomas Burberry, who at the age of 21 in 1856 launched a new shop where he'd invent a fabric called gabardine in 1879 -- Burberry's was much more breathable and still weather proof.
At around the same time, Aquascutum, a brand whose name translates from Latin into "water shield," invented what it called the world's first waterproof textile. Their "Wrappers" were soon seen on guys who liked to dress up while still staying dry in a rainstorm (the two brands both claim to have invented the trench coat, but The Smithsonian says nobody knows for sure who deserves the credit).
When the British commissioned Burberry in 1901 to make his generously sized overcoat to be a part of its military kits, "it would make his fortune," according to the "Fashion Dictionary," edited by Baldini Castoldi Dalai, which further explains:
"The garment had shoulder straps, a waist belt with rings from which to hand anything a soldier might need in a trench, more small belts to make it a sort of diving suit to protect oneself from water and cold, doubled fabric in the parts most exposed to rain, and many pockets."
Today, still a cornerstone of its business, Burberry's trench coats come in a glut of styles and fabrics -- suede, cotton silk and gabardine, fetching thousands of dollars -- and during WWI, officers forked over £3 and £4 for this good Burberry trench coat, which would have been a soldier's three or four months' pay.
Here, see how much (or little) has changed between the early trench coats and those that are available in Burberry's London collection online today.
WWI Diaries Tell Of Life and Death In The Trenches
During World War I, many soldiers kept diaries while fighting from the trenches. Recently one written by a British soldier has surfaced and the 162-page book will go up for auction on April 10 with Bellman’s. The identity of the soldier is unknown, but it appears he was a member of the 3rd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers on the Western Front for almost a year in 1914 and 1915, one of the Battalions that participated in the Christmas Day truce. After getting together for a friendly game of football and socializing all day, it was difficult to go back to being enemies.
The soldiers worked out a plan. When an attack on the British troops was forthcoming, the Germans would signal the British troops to let them know, and the British soldiers would do the same for the Germans. The diarist noted that “General HQ would be pretty sick if they knew this.” The diary also tells of the compassion the men felt for each other after meeting and speaking with each other when a German soldier was wounded. When the British men were unable to pull him from the battlefield, the diarist lamented the fact that the soldier had to die a slow and inhumane death.
1st Lancashire Fusiliers, in communication trench near Beaumont Hamel, Somme, 1916. Photo by Ernest Brooks.
World War I trench diaries have been found by family members, buried away in old houses and among old books. One, written by Sergeant Horace Reginald Stanley during the battles of Ypres and the Somme, was found by his daughter, Heather Brodie, when she was cleaning out the attic. In the diary, Sargent Stanley recounts seeing his brother killed at Arras, France, when a shell hit his dugout. Stanley wrote of the incident, “Could we return to the happy days of 1914, things can never be the same again, my brother is dead. I expected this but my poor mother will never be the same again.”
Stanley also tells of seeing nearby soldiers being horrifically wounded, “Some poor wretch has the side of his skull blown away and it is obvious nothing can be done for him. Oh the horror of it all. Why does it take so long for a man to die? We are trapped like rats, we cannot go forward, the way is barred and even if we could, machine guns and rifles are waiting to mow us down like a scythe. We cannot go right or left, we cannot go back, we can only wait numbed or stupefied.”
Stanley survived the war, but his family was not aware of the diary until Heather found it. Her daughter, Juliet, published the diary with Poppyland Publishing in 2007, under the title Grandad’s War – The First World War Diary of Horace Reginald Stanley.
Trenches of the 11th Cheshire Regiment at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, on the Somme, July 1916. One sentry keeps watching while the others sleep. Photo by Ernest Brooks.
Another British soldier in France, Captain Charlie May, also kept a diary during the war that was stored in an attic for eighty years. As a journalist before the war, May was accustomed to writing and documented his wartime experiences, fears, and longing for his family in seven notebooks. May, who was a member of B Company, 22nd Manchester Pals Battalion, spoke of the ghastly deaths of his comrades in arms and the dreadful conditions in the trenches having to deal with rain, mud and rats.“They ran over my legs, body, chest and feet. But when they started on my face I must own that I slavishly surrendered, fell to cursing horribly and finally changed my lying place. I can tell you they are some rats, these.”
Sadly, Captain May did not survive the war as he was killed by a shell when he and his Company charged the German line on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His aide, Private Arthur Bunting, braved three hours of gunfire as he stayed with May’s body until he could bring it back to the trench. Bunting retrieved all of the diaries and mailed them to May’s wife and baby daughter.
Gerry Henderson, Captain May’s great-nephew, published the diary called To Fight Alongside Friends: The First World War Diary of Charlie May in 2015.