The use of trenches on the battlefield is an ancient warfare technique dating back to Roman times. In World War One it was accepted practice and, though we often associate trenches primarily with the Western Front, they were also used on the Eastern Front, in Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia.
The use of trenches during World War One came largely as a result of new technology that made defensive operations far more effective than offensive. This technology included the development of quick firing artillery and the machine gun. Together these weapons made it so dangerous to set foot into No Man’s Land that offensive actions became horrifyingly costly.
This would only be solved by the introduction of the tank in 1916, which allowed the British to take on the deadly machine gun positions without suffering such high losses.
Rats and lice were a constant problem. The large number of decomposing bodies in and around the trenches meant they were overrun with rats, who grew fat on their diet of food scraps and human flesh.
Trench warfare has since become the enduring image of World War One. This is not only a result of the shocking casualty rates suffered by troops on all sides who were sent “over the top”, but also due to the often horrific conditions the men endured whilst living in the trenches.
Life in the trenches was governed by routine. The men would be woken just before dawn and ordered to get ready to defend against dawn raids, this was known as “stand-to”. They would then have their breakfast and go about their chores, which might include fixing broken duckboards or pumping water out of the trenches using special pumping equipment. At dusk the men had to “stand to” again in case of a dusk raid by the enemy. When the sun had set and it was easier to move around there were more chores to be done.
Supplies were brought up from the rear by the communications trenches and some soldiers would be sent into no man’s land on patrols. The issue of supply was of particular importance. Getting food to soldiers on the front line was not easy. On the Western Front rations for both sides normally consisted of stale bread, hard biscuits and dried vegetables, while meat came in the form of tins of corned beef or “bully beef”. Field kitchens were set up in the rear and food was brought up through the communications trenches but it rarely arrived hot.
In Gallipoli, water also became an issue during periods of extreme heat. Soldiers had to sink wells and some stole half-filled water bottles from their dead comrades.
To keep spirits up each British battalion on the Western Front had a ration of rum, which was handed out after trench raids and when cold weather set in. German and French troops enjoyed daily rations of wine and brandy.
Aside from the danger of enemy attacks, soldiers in the trenches faced other challenges. Trenches frequently became waterlogged and particularly heavy storms could lead to flooding. It was not uncommon for soldiers to drown in their own trenches – especially in Gallipoli where heavy rains led to flash floods.
Duckboards were laid at the bottom of the trenches to try and keep soldiers’ feet as dry as possible to prevent trench foot – a common problem. Trench foot began with a gradual numbness in the feet followed by them turning red or blue and becoming swollen and blistered. Sometimes they became gangrenous and might need to be amputated. Soldiers were encouraged to rub oil into their feet twice a day and they were encouraged to inspect each other’s feet to watch out for the first signs.
On the Western Front in the winter of 1915 the trenches became so wet that in one sector German soldiers reportedly began sitting on top of the trench walls just to dry off and avoid such nasty ailments. British soldiers did likewise – shouting “don’t shoot!” – until an order came through from GHQ that such “fraternisation” would not be tolerated.
Rats and lice were also a constant problem for soldiers in the trenches. The large number of decomposing bodies in and around the trenches meant that they were overrun with rats, who grew fat on their diet of food scraps and human flesh. Soldiers would carry out rat hunts to cure the boredom that frequently plagued the trenches. Others caught rats and kept them in cages as pets. Rats spread the potentially fatal Weil’s Disease but they weren’t the only pest infesting the trenches. Soldiers also had to deal with lice, which hid in the seams of their clothes and left blotchy red bites all over their bodies. The lice carried a disease known as trench fever, which could put a soldier out of action for months.
Soldiers in the trenches must have dreamt of the day they could leave. A soldier would typically spend about two months of the year in the front line trenches. The rest of his time would be spent in reserve or support lines, resting to the rear of the lines, or recovering on leave.
However, even two months proved too much for some soldiers, who couldn’t face another day of trench life. Some men went as far as to shoot themselves in the foot or leg, just so they might get some respite in a hospital or even sent back home. However, attempting this was a capital offence and carried the death penalty if discovered.
Others saw no way out whatsoever and committed suicide, often by simply standing above the top of the trench and waiting to be picked off by enemy snipers.