World War One - What is a Trench?

Last Updated: 08/05/2014 - 07:38

Trench warfare characterised much of the fighting during World War One, particularly along the Western Front. Trench systems were complicated with many interlinking lines of trenches.

Front Line Trench Cross Section

Artillery Line

The artillery line was where the big field guns were located. They were used to fire shells at the enemy. The noise from a barrage of guns was deafening.

Communication Trench

The communication trenches were used to move between the front and rear trenches. They were also used to transport injured men to the field hospitals.

Support Trenches

The support trenches provided a second line of defense in case the front line trench was taken by the enemy. They also contained first aid stations and kitchens to ensure men in the front line had medical treatment and hot food.

Bunker

The underground bunkers were used to store food, weapons and artillery. They were also used as command centres and had a telephone link to report information and receive instructions. The underground bunkers also offered the men protection from fire and the elements. 

Traverse

Trenches were not built in straight lines. This was so that if the enemy managed to get into the front line trench they would not have a straight firing line along the trench. Trenches were therefore built with alternating straight and angled lines. The traverse was the name given to the angled parts of the trench.

Machine Gun Nest

The machine gun nest was where the machine guns were located. They were manned by two or three soldiers who fired on any advancing enemy.

Front Line Trench

The front line trenches were generally about 8 feet deep and between 4 and 6 feet wide. Soldiers would spend around a week in the front line trench then would spend a week in the rear trenches or a rest camp. Life at the front line was not pleasant; soldiers were liable to be hit by enemy fire or sometimes by their own artillery. The soldier in the picture is standing on a fire-step - built to enable men to see out of the trench and also to climb out to venture into no-man's land.

Barbed Wire

Barbed wire was used extensively in the trench warfare of world war one. It was laid, several rows deep, by both sides to protect the front line trench. Wire breaks were placed at intervals to allow men access to no man's land. However attackers had to locate the wire breaks and many men lost their lives through becoming entangled in the wire and shot. 

Listening Post

Listening posts were used to monitor enemy activity. They were usually approximately 30 metres in front of the front line trench. The man in this picture is using a stethoscope to listen to the enemy.

No Man's Land

No Man's Land was the name given to the area between the two lines of trenches. It was the land that both sides were fighting to gain control of.

Sandbags

Sandbags were used to protect the soldiers from enemy rifle fire. They were, however, less effective in the event of shell fire. Sandbags were also sometimes placed in the bottom of the trench to soak up water.

Parapet

The parapet was the name given to the front wall of the trench - that is, the wall nearest to the enemy. It would often be strengthened with wood and then covered with sandbags. The sandbags protected the heads of the men standing on the fire step from rifle fire.

Bolt Hole/Dug Out

The bolt hole or dug out was built into the sides of the trench. The earth was shored up with wood and the roof often lined with corrugated iron. The men used the bolt hole for protection, eating and sleeping.

Duck Board/Sump

To prevent the trenches from becoming waterlogged, a narrow drainage channel known as a sump would be built at the bottom of the trench. This would then be covered with wooden trench boards known as duck boards.

Soldiers who spent prolonged periods of time standing in waterlogged trenches were liable to suffer from frostbite and/or trench foot. To prevent trench foot, soldiers were instructed to change their socks frequently, wear waterproof footwear and to cover their feet with whale oil.

Parados

The parados was the name given to the back wall of the trench - that is, the wall farthest away from the enemy. It would often be strengthened with wood and then covered with sandbags.

Trench Block

A trench block was a wood and wire structure that was made to block the trenches and prevent the enemy from advancing through a trench system. 

Machine Gun

The machine gun was the most widely used weapon in world war one. The guns were very heavy and had to be supported on a tripod. They also required three or four men to operate them. The men in this picture are also wearing gas masks for protection against gas attacks.