World War One: The Trenches

The best known feature of World War One are the trenches. It is true that digging a trench – essentially putting the soldier in a hole and letting the earth defend him – was a common feature of modern warfare before and after the Great War. But what was unusual about World War 1 was the way armies on the Western Front stayed in their trenches for years, and the way these trenches covered such a long length of European real estate.

France had 10,000 km of trench, Britain a slightly smaller amount, and Germany more than 19,000 km. (de Groot, The First World War, p. 164) The Eastern Front was much more fluid.


The form of the trenches varied by time, location and nationality, and could even just be loose lines of shell craters blasted out of the mud: at first trenches were basic lines dug into the earth as quickly as possible. ‘Trenches’ could also be formed in places where you couldn’t dig – such as regions with a very high water table – by building walls and barricades of earth, sand and wood above ground. But as soldiers stayed put, the trenches evolved into near permanent structures with multiple lines of trenches for defence in depth and safe movement to and fro, connected by communications trenches. The British had three lines – front, support and reserve – with several trenches across each, the French just front and support, and the Germans a system up to 5,000 yards deep.
The lines zig-zagged along to prevent attackers having a line of fire along long stretches and to soften artillery blows. They were protected by masses of barbed wire, and had internal rooms and bunkers for people to work, shelter from artillery, or sleep. Some soldiers had to sleep in special outdoor platforms cut into the trench walls.
Lines of trenches could be as close as 100 metres.

Germany was content to stay on enemy soil without moving too much backwards or forwards, and was thus happier to sink greater resources into more permanent trenches, improving both defence and quality of life. They poured concrete and pulled back to higher ground above the water line. Britain and France, on the other hand, were planning to expel Germany from French and Belgium land, and kept their trenches supposedly more temporary, and thus more unpleasant. While Germany built deep bunkers, the French refused to do so in case their soldiers refused to come out. However, it’s important to remember that, as the frontlines ebbed and flowed – sometimes only a few hundred yards per battle – so new trenches were dug, creating a multi-levelled maze in which entire units could get lost.


Trenches were full of irritants, from the mass of rats on the floor, to the ever present lice on the soldier’s bodies. The habit of hungry rats to eat the corpses of dead soldiers made them especially disliked, and soldiers frequently tried to kill them, although there was usually others to take their place. About the only positive thing soldiers ever said about poison gas attacks – once they received working gas masks – was that it provided some respite from the rats. Lice lived on people and bred in the seams of uniforms, giving the soldier a constant itch and sometimes Trench Fever, an illness which required being removed away from the trench to cure. Even a good wash only offered a few hours relief, as the eggs were difficult to remove.

The trenches stank. Part of this was the odour of the living bodies, and part the stench of the decaying corpses which the tools of modern war frequently left in pieces and shallowly buried in No Man’s Land. Latrines were a particular cause of odour, to the extent that in some areas both sets of enemy soldiers had an unspoken agreement not to shoot anybody who had left a trench to relieve themselves. Trenches were often very damp, if not partly filled with water, and Trench Foot was common at the start of the war before conditions settled down.

If left untreated, this fungal infection could cause amputation.

Soldiers didn’t spend their entire lives on the front line, but were rotated through the different levels of trench and occasionally given leave away from the trenches altogether. However, the likelihood of staying in a trench varied hugely, determined by your role in the army, your front, your location on the front, and what the enemy were doing.

In many parts of the trenches, away from the major attacks, a ‘Live and Let Live’ system appeared. This included the troops from each side of the trenches trying to ensure that patrols missed each other (or passed quietly when they met), fired at the same place and time every day so people could avoid it more easily, and let people go to the toilet or deliver rations. Indeed, in many locations there was a marked lack of hatred between the soldiers.

The Fear of Death

It was true that Germany calculated that it took them 100 artillery shells to kill a single enemy soldier (de Groot, The First World War, p. 167), but there were so many shells fired that being blown to pieces, or buried by the explosion, was an ever present danger, even on quieter parts of the front where no attacks were planned. Soldiers also risked being shot by snipers or opportunistic enemy soldiers if any part of them rose above the trench parapet, and a good many newcomers to the trenches died on their first day by taking a peek at No Man’s Land.