LIfe in the Trenches
Men in the trenches of World War One were far from comfortable, every day they faced the possibilities of drowning
in mud, inhaling toxic and corrosive gases, being overrun by huge rats and of course the threat of being killed in many ways
It would have been very rare that soldiers would feel comfortable in their trenches by our standards, one of
the worst conditions was having a waterlogged trench.
Every day, hundreds of artillery shells would fall on the trenches, soldiers could spend up to 50 days on the
front-line and wouldn't get the chance to leave except in intense attacking and counter-attacking that occured during offensives.
Men would die every day, not just from enemy fire or friendly fire for that matter but simply from the conditions under which
During fierce combat, it was rare that the soldiers had the opportunity to construct proper irrigation systems.
The result of this was the build up of water on the bottom of the trench, this could sometimes fill the entire trench with
4-5 feet of water. The fact that many of the areas they fought in were no more than a few feet above sea level, made
it even worse.
If soldiers spent too much time in a trench filled with water they could contract trench foot, which could lead
to amputations of the feet.
The rats were also were also a major discomfort to the soldiers in the trenches. The build up of dead bodies
on the bottom of the trench would attract the rats which eventually relied on the bodies to survive off of. Surviving
soldiers described them that they were so huge, that a wounded man could be killed by one if he couldn't defend himself.
Dysentery was a disease of the intenstines which caused diarrhoea and occasionally vomiting. The bacteria
was ingested by means of poor food and water quality. Dysentery was a huge problem at the start of the war because they
only supplied the soldiers with canteens that had to be refilled at a water station, hundereds of yards to the rear, but during
combat it was rare that soldiers would get the chance to make the journey so they turned to contaminated water that they found
at the bottom of the trench or in shell craters.
Along with the lack of good water, food became more and more scarce as the war progressed, soldiers were
well fed at the beginning of the war but as the armies swelled with volunteers and attacks on supply lines became more frequent,
the food only managed to trickle through so soldiers were just given the bare essentials. Usually they only received
3,574 calories a day, which they believed was sufficient but many dieticians disagreed with.
Possibly the worst problem in the trenches was lice. Lice ran rampant throughout the trenches on both sides
during the war and could drive men insane. They shaved their heads and ironed their shirts regularly but, the lice breeded
in the seams of clothing and were never completely rid of for more than a few hours.
It's clear to see that trench warfare was an extreme environment that tested human endurance twenty-four hours
a day. Most people living under today's standards wouldn't have survived a day in the trenches, let alone years like
these young men endured and eventually grew to accept it as daily life.
Trenches were very complex and tested the skills of army engineers and soldiers. It's a marvel that such
a system could be created for the times that this war took place but that doesn't excuse the fact that this kind of warfare
After the Battle of the Marne, the German armies were in full retreat. The Germans realised that they had
to hold onto the conquered territory in France and Belgium at all costs so they began to entrench themselves to gain the strategic
advantage. The Germans chose their new defensive positions carefully and effectively. When the Allies realized
that they couldn't break through the German lines, they also began digging trenches.
Because the Germans chose the location of their trenches, they held the high ground which made them even more
efficient. The Allies had to dig trenches in the low ground which was only a few feet above sea level and would often
discover water just three to four feet under the ground, to solve this they created breastworks, which was an above ground
trench made with, logs, stones and anything that could be stacked to give the soldiers the same seven foot protection
that they got while in trenches, in some places, breastworks were made 30 feet tall. Waterlogged trenches were a major
problem for Allied soldiers on the Western Front until they began gaining higher ground.
The model frontline trench would have been seven feet deep and six feet wide. The parapet was the lip of
the trench facing the enemy, this was usually built up with two or three feet of sandbags. The trench lip which faced
the behind them was called a parados which was also reinforced with sandbags and was usually higher than the parapet for several
reasons. A higher parados meant that when a soldier stuck his head over the top of the trench, his sillhouette on the
horizon was broken by the higher wall of sandbags behind him. The higher parados also protected soldiers from other
allied soldiers to their rear who were firing at the same time. Trenches that met the seven foot depth were impossible
to look over so they made a two or three foot ledge, called the firing step that they stood on when they were intending to
fire or charge over the top. Duckboards were placed on the bottom of some trenches which rested above the water to keep
the soldiers' feet dry. The front-line trenches were never dug in a straight line, otherwise if the enemy managed
to get into a part of your trench, they could shoot straight down the line. The average distance between opposing trenches
was 250 yards but at Cambrai, it was over 500 yards and at Zonnebeke, the British and German soldiers were only 7 yards apart.
Dugouts were created in the side of trenches to house soldiers. Early dugouts would hold up to ten men
at a time but by the end of the war in 1917, dugouts could hold up to two whole batallions of men (600+). Larger dugouts
were also dug in the side of communication trenches, so they weren't directly in the line of fire of enemy artillery, these
made them safer and often housed the batallion headquarters or Officer's quarters.
Funk holes were also made by soldiers in the trenches, they were holes scraped in the side of a trench so that
a soldier could fit himself in it and sleep, or take shelter when it was raining. Funk holes were deemed exteremely
hazardous to be in, and Officers banned men from sleeping in them. Front line trenches were protected by massive
entaglements of barbed-wire and machine-gun posts. Short trenches that were dug straight out into No-Man's-Land
were called saps, they were usually 30 yards out and were used as listening posts at night.
Behind the front-line trenches, there were support and reserve trenches. All three rows of trenches usually
covered 200-500 yards of ground, communication trenches were dug at an angle and connected all the rows of trenches, they
were used to transport, men, food and equipment to the front-line trench.
The Germans were famous for creating large, concrete boxes which housed up to three machine-guns at a time.
The German machine-gunners were hated by the Allied soldiers and were more likely to be killed after capture. The concrete
boxes were calls 'pillboxes' by the Allies becaues they resembed the boxes that doctors gave to the soldiers which stored
The Germans made these miniature fortresses to strengthen their lines. Pillboxes generally measured 30
feet long and 10 feet wide with very thick walls. They could usually survive a direct hit from an artillery cannon.
They became huge obstacles by Allied soldiers during the war and often required a company of men to capture or destroy one.
The Allies didn't create pillboxes at the same level of quality as the Germans and made far fewer than the
Germans did. They believed that they weren't worth the labour or the cost of building.
Trenches in World War One were very complex and effectively, but it's safe to say that this is the most horrible
kind of war to wage. The conditions that the men live under were horrific, the cost of life was great and the progress
was painfully slow. With today's technology, we can rest easy knowing that this kind of warfare will never again occur.