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In the trenchesWhat 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 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 can be said to have begun in September 1914 and ended when the Allies made a breakthrough attack in August 1918. Before and after those dates were wars of movement: in between it was a war of entrenchment. The massive armies of 1914 initially fought a war of movement, and any trenches dug were only for temporary cover. But from the Battle of the Aisne onwards, both sides dug in to take cover and hold their ground. The successive movements to outflank (get around the outside of) the enemy trenches came to an end by November 1914. By then 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 on the Western Front, 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, the ground is naturally boggy and the water table very high, so trenches were not really dug, more built up using sandbags and wood (these were called 'breastworks'). In parts of Italy, trenches were dug in rock; in Palestine in sand. 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.

The bird's-eye view (below, 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 consisting 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 assaults of 1918 faced defensive systems several miles deep.

Keep your head down! While this idealised training view of a trench system shows a depth of 5 or 6 feet, in battlefield conditions trenches might be much shallower.

Living conditions

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.

This photograph of a soldier of the 5th Scottish Rifles in the flooded trenches near Armentieres in the winter of 1914-15 is used with the kind permission of Donna Smillie, and is from her excellent website Different Worlds

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.

How long would a man have to be in a trench?

A general pattern for trench routine was 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.

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.

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Q: Living conditions of the western front?
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