Life In The Trenches During WWI

World War I or the Great War began in 1914 and ended in 1918. It was one of the largest wars in history with 70 million military personnel involved, 60 million of whom were Europeans. By the end, over nine million combatants and seven million civilians had died, making it one of the deadliest conflicts of history. With the development of new technology and weaponry, a tactical stalemate emerged producing a horrific trench warfare between the two sides. For four years the two sides remained in a stand-off as millions died in a war that changed the world. See what it was like to live in the trenches and the everyday horrors experienced by soldiers in the trenches of World War I.

Troops Lived, Fought, And Died In The Trenches

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The trenches of World War I were a series of man-made ditches intended to protect the troops from enemies artillery attacks. They were primarily utilized on the Western Front of the Great War and served as the front lines through WWI. Behind the lines were training establishments, stores, supply lines, headquarters and just about everything that involved the war, so it was crucial that the trenches weren’t overrun by the enemies. Because the trenches were where the majority of battles occurred, troops lived, fought, and died within the tight confines and deplorable conditions of these makeshift trenches.

The Trenches Were Built In 1914

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In the early weeks of the war during the summer of 1914, the German initially went through parts of Belgium and northeastern France as they continuously gained territory. During the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the Germans were pushed back by the Allies where they decided to dig a trench in order to avoid losing more ground. The Allies could no longer break through the German defenses and decided to dig trenches themselves. At first, generals thought that the trenches were a temporary strategy, but little did they know that this system of fighting would dominate for the remainder of the war.

Trenches Date Back Prior To WWI

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Although trench warfare is mostly associated with World War I, it wasn’t a brand new strategy adopted for the war. Using trenches for fighting goes back hundreds of years, with the most recent before WWI being the American Civil War, the Russian-Japanese War, as well as a few others. It was a way to prevent the enemy from moving forward into your territory, while also providing some semblance of shelter for the soldiers from the new kinds of developing weapons. This way, soldiers didn’t have to meet each other on an open battlefield where the casualties would be astronomically high. However, the trenches didn’t prove to be much better.

The Trenches Made Up 25,000 Miles

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The trench system on the Western Front in WWI began around the winter of 1914 and ended in the spring of 1918. By the end, it stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium southward through France, also containing the Ypres Salient. The trenches also went in front of many French towns such as Soissons, Reims, and Verdun unit it reached its southernmost point in at the Swiss border in Alsace. In total, all of the trenches built during WWI would make up 25,000 miles — 12,000 of those miles belonging to the allies, and the rest by the Central Powers.

There Were Different Types Of Trenches Depending On Location And Battle Type

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During the war, there were numerous types of trenches depending on the geographical location, and the type of fighting. For example, near the River Somme in France, the trenches needed to be reinforced with wood and sandbags because the ground was soft and could be easily dug, but the walls would collapse in the rain. At Ypres in Belgium the ground was wet and boggy, so the trenches weren’t dug, they were built up using wood and sandbags which were known as “breastworks.” In various parts of Italy, the trenches were dug into the rock as well as Palestine in the desert. Every location was different so soldiers had to adjust according to build and defend them correctly.

Trenches Had An Unlikely Layout

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Trenches were typically constructed around two meters deep and two meters wide. Contrary to popular belief, they were never built in straight lines, but in a zig-zag manner. This helped defensively so that if ambushed, the enemy couldn’t just shoot straight down the line of the trench, and also helped with the spreading of militarized gases as well as fires.

There were three lines of trenches. First, there was the front line, which directly faced No-Man’s Land and the enemy’s front line. Then, there was the support trench, which was the backup for the men at the frontline. Finally, there was the reserve trench. This is where large amounts of soldiers would be housed and waiting for a counter-attack. Traditionally, soldiers would rotate through the three lines for an opportunity to rest.

Soldiers Worked The Trenches For 8 Day-Periods Before Having A Day To Rest

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For the most part, soldiers would rotate throughout the three trench lines in order to cycle out old and new soldiers. Soldiers would usually spend four days at the front line, four days in the reserve line, and finally four days of rest. However, this all depended on the availability of soldiers, weather conditions, and fighting. During the relieving and switching of soldiers was a popular time for the enemy to attack in order to take the enemy off-guard, usually resulting in a slaughter. During this time, at least one man for every four would be at a sentry post keeping guard for an enemy attack.

No Man’s Land

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Above the entrance to trenches, there was lines of barbed wire, sandbags, and other barriers in order to prevent the enemy soldiers from having easy access to the trenches. Yet, beyond those defenses was an area between the two opposing sides referred to as No Man’s Land. The size of No Man’s Land varied on the Western front from 250 yards to 500 yards. It was a place riddled with dead bodies, broken equipment, masses of barbed wire, and shell holes. It was also the place that men were ordered to cross in hopes of invading the other sides trench. Here they were shot at by machine guns and heavy artillery with virtually no cover.

The Trenches Were Packed With Corpses

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As if fighting wasn’t bad enough already, the conditions in the trenches were described as being nothing short than hell on earth. They were cramped, dirty, muddy, cold, and miserable.They were constantly packed with rotting corpses, there was no sewage system, limited running water, and endless sickness. Sometimes, the water in the trenches would be waist high with temperatures being below zero on occasion in the winter. The weather conditions and lack of sanitation would lead to frostbite, trench foot, and worse sicknesses that brought on unbearable suffering. With the death and rot came the rats which also brought diseases and overran the trenches.

Rodents Were A Big Concern In The Trenches

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Living in such harsh conditions attracted rodents and other undesirable pests. For the most part, rodents were the biggest concern because they carry disease and can multiply faster than you could ever kill them. They would eat the soldiers’ food, the dead bodies, and burrow inside of corpses. They would also attempt to eat those who were wounded or sleeping. There are some reports of rats growing to be the size of domestic cats in the trenches. Eventually, with food running low, soldiers would use dogs to hunt down the rats in large numbers in order to eat them. Another organism that was a major problem in the trenches was lice. They would spread trench fever and also cause great discomfort to the soldiers that they hosted on.

Soldiers Had Daily Routines To Give Them A Sense Of Regularity

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Believe it or not, there were routines in the trenches in order to keep the soldiers organized and give them a sense of regularity. Although schedules varied among armies, at 5 a.m., the soldiers were called to “stand-to,” which means to be on high alert for an enemy attack. At 5:30 a.m., they were given a rum ration to calm their nerves. There was another stand-to at 6 a.m. followed by breakfast at 7 a.m., and cleaning at 8 a.m. Dinner was at noon with tea at 5 p.m. and another stand-to at 6 p.m. Then, from 6:30 p.m. on, soldiers worked all night with very limited amounts if rest.

Soldiers Worked All Day In The Trenches

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Aside from fighting a war, dealing with the crippling anxiety of being attacked, and trying not to die, the soldiers also had a variety of labor-intensive jobs to complete each day. They had to work to continue building defenses, keep watch for the enemy, clean their weapons, refill sandbags, fix the barbed wire, the list goes on and on. Soldiers got very little rest between working, being prepared for battle, and keeping watch which didn’t help with mental or physical health. They were always on edge and often had to drop whatever they were doing to fight off an attack or take cover from a bombardment of enemy shells or gas.

Life In The Trenches Was Dull At Times

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Aside from work, constant fear of invasion, bombardment, and sniper fire, for the most part, life in the trenches was rather dull. There were only so many things a soldier could do to keep their mind off of the war. Reading and writing letters were one of the most popular past times. Letters from home were very important to the soldiers because it let them know the news from their loved ones as well as gave them a sense of humanity again. The letters they wrote back were usually sugar coated; about the positive things in their lives rather than the horrors of war they were suffering. During the war, approximately 12.5 million letters a week were sent to the soldiers on the Western Front. Besides that, soldiers kept journals, made art, gambled, and socialized during their free time.

Going Over The Top To No Man’s Land

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The fighting in the war been described as some of the most horrific in human history. This is so because military tactics didn’t take into account improved artillery, or the introduction of heavy machine guns, poison gasses, and tanks. At times, soldiers in large numbers would be ordered to “go over the top.” This meant leaving their trench to run across No Man’s Land in an attempt to engage the other side. While charging, they were met with heavy machine gun fire, artillery, gas, barbed wire, and other defenses. Soldiers that retreated were sometimes shot by their own army as a warning to others. Attacks usually resulted in failure and countless casualties on the attacking side.

Combat In the Trenches

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If the attackers made it to the opposing side’s trench, it meant brutal hand-to-hand combat for both sides. Guns and other technologies were no longer much use in the close confines of the trenches and soldiers did whatever they could do to survive. The fighting that took place in the trenches has been described as nothing less than medieval with soldiers armed with crude weaponry with the sole purpose to kill or maim as many enemies as possible. Fighting within the actual trenches has been described as some of the most horrible aspects of the war with people preferring to get shot in No Man’s Land rather than face-off with an enemy in a knife fight.

Trench Raids Were Common

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Trench raids were also common in the trenches. Typically, the raids were carried out by small groups of men that would crawl across No Man’s Land in the dark to the enemy’s trench. Here, they would infiltrate the trench killing men as quietly as possible with rudimentary weapons. Here, they would go about stealing information, weapons, sabotaging the equipment or whatever their objective was in just a few minutes. After they completed their job, they would throw grenades and hurry back to their own line hoping to not be killed by friendly fire.

Trench Weapons Were Used To Kill Silently

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The weapons used during trench combat were deliberate. They were used in order to kill silently during trench raids or because mechanized means were no longer an option. These weapons were designed for effectiveness and close-quarter combat. Popular weapons included trench raiding clubs, bayonets, trench knives, brass knuckles, combat shovels, and hatchets. Weapons such as the trench knife were developed specifically for such combat. The most popular was the combat shovel which was fast and effective, with the ability to deliver a killing blow in one swing. Soldiers often carried grenades and pistols in the trenches but only used them in emergencies.

Mechanized Weapons

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In a firefight, or while charging through No Man’s Land, soldiers used a variety of weapons in order to protect themselves and kill others. A weapon used by all nations during the war was the rifle. Although everyone had it, they varied depending on the nation, however, they were the same for the most part. They weren’t the rifles we think of today, but they got the job done. Then there were machine guns which shot 450 to 600 rounds per minute. These were usually used specifically for defense since they so big. As it turns out, machine guns weren’t the deadliest weapon in war, it was artillery. Artillery killed more men than any other weapon in World War I and was a constant threat while in the trenches since they could be fired from such a distance. There were also tanks, gas, and other machines used as well.

The Secret War Of The Tunnelers

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Another military tactic used during the war was the utilization of miners that were later referred to as tunnelers. Their jobs weren’t to storm the enemies trenches, but to dig beneath them. Some argue that this was one of the most horrific aspects of the entire war. The tunneling companies remained a secret both during and even for years after the war. They would dig up to 100 feet underground in order to lay and detonate explosives beneath the enemy’s trenches. While tunneling, they worked in constant fear of being buried alive or suffocating from carbon-monoxide poisoning They would also often run into enemy tunnelers and engage in underground hand-to-hand combat. Being a tunneler was a highly respected position yet took its toll on those brave enough to do it.

The Unnoficial Ceasefire Is Considered The Most Human Aspect Of The War

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Somehow, through all of the death and horror, there was a moment of peace on the Western Front. Around Christmas in 1914, there was a series of widespread yet unofficial ceasefires across the Western Front. In the week leading up to Christmas, French, German, and British soldier ventured across No Man’s Land to talk and celebrate the holidays. There were joint burial ceremonies as well as prisoner trades. Many even played sports with the opposing side. The truce of 1914 is remembered as one of the most human aspects of the entire war. Unfortunately, ceasefires like this weren’t as common after 1914 as the war became more brutal and both sides became increasingly more bitter.