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“Rats came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. A new officer joined the company and…when he turned in that night he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand.” The scene that Captain Robert Graves described in his autobiography was common for that of many soldiers. There were perhaps few places in the history of warfare as miserable as the trenches. Unlike most armies, which are constantly on the move, the armies of WW1 stayed locked in positions for months or even years. There they festered in disease, cold, hunger, and the fear that the whistle would blow and they would have to go “over the top” and face a hail of enemy artillery as they tried to charge No Man’s Land.

The world of the trenches quickly took on a reality as a word apart. And trench warfare made a permanent imprint on the western imagination. Phrases like “over the top,” “in the trenches,” and “no man’s land” became a permanent part of the vocabularies of the languages of the various powers.

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  1. The Structure of Trenches

    1. Trenches became increasingly elaborate.

    2. Barbed wire barriers were built in front of each side’s trenches.

    3. Trenches began to be built in zigzag formations.

    4. Boards had to be put at the bottom of the trenches due to moisture.

    5. They were typically about 10 feet high and were lined with sand bags. They had a parapet in the front.

    6. Trenches had a “fire step” that allowed people to see over the edge.

    7. They had machine gun and mortar batteries placed at intervals.

  1. Between and Behind the Trenches

    1. The area in between the two sides was called “No Man’s Land.” It could be anywhere from 30 yards to several hundred yards wide.

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    2. It was filled with shell holes, the remains of fortifications, and dead bodies.

    3. It was usually about 275 yards across.

    4. Trenches consisted of several lines: front lines, support lines, reserve lines, and retreat lines. Also there were supply lines, workshops, training facilities, and HQ.

    5. They had dugouts, where up to 3 men could squeeze in for shelter.

    6. Trench networks were so complicated that there had to be maps and guides.

    7. Behind the trenches were bunkers that were reinforced with concrete. There

    8. Behind the bunkers were artillery positions.

    9. Some trenches had railways in them, which could be used to quickly bring in reinforcements.

  1. Life in the Trenches

    1. Soldiers were constantly exposed to the weather.

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    2. Snow and mud were commonly present.

    3. Soldiers took on near-primitive existences. Filth was everywhere. The smell was horrible due to rotting bodies of men and animals, overflowing latrines, and the inability of the soldiers to bathe.

    4. Rats and vermin were everywhere.

    5. Extreme boredom prevailed, although it was punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Soldiers would read and do other time-killing activities to beat the boredom.

    6. Heroism seemed pointless. War seemed to be all about technology, not individuals. Soldiers felt dehumanized.

    7. Soldiers would be rotated, spending (perhaps one week on the front lines, then a week in the reserve trenches, then time behind the lines (sometimes on leave).

    8. The daily routine involved getting ready (“Stand To”) for an attack at the beginning of the day. Then there would be “The Daily Hate”, a big artillery or machine gun barrage. Then if no attack happened, there would be meals, sentry duty, repairing and adding on to trenches, cleaning weapons, inspections, and other duties. At the end of the day, they would “Stand To” again.

    9. At night, soldiers had to be prepared for attacks. Lack of sleep was the norm. Sentry duty was assigned in 2 hour shifts.

    10. Disease was rampant, like “Trench Foot” and “Trench Fever” (which came from vermin and lice). The British army alone suffered about 20,000 casualties from Trench Foot by the end of 1914. Trench foot decreased as the quality of trenches increased.

    11. There was also “Shell Shock” (PTSD).

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    12. Soldiers gave names to sections of their trenches. The names often evoked places back home.

    13. Soldiers tried to make the best of things, often with dark humor. At a British salient at Ypres, there was a spot where an arm was sticking out from a trench wall. Soldiers called the arm “Jack” and would shake the hand on their way out of and back into the trenches (Dr. Vejas Liulevicius).

    14. They also published trench newspapers, put on plays, and showed movies.

    15. About 1/3 of Allied casualties on the Western Front occurred in the trenches.

    16. Dan Carlin: Unlike in WW2 and other wars, in which the armies often moved, in WW1, they mostly stayed put (at least on the Western Front). This means that the soldiers had to fight where they also lived. Bodies had to be buried very close to where the soldiers stayed, and often shellings and the digging of more or deeper trenches caused them to be unearthed.

  1. Technology

    1. Machine Guns: Had a range of more than 1000 yards. Fired 600 rounds per minute. One machine gun crew could hold off masses of enemies.

    2. No-recoil artillery. It was not jolted out of position by every firing. It also did not have to be re-sighted or recalibrated. This allowed for precise attacks.

    3. Poison Gas: First used by Germany on April 22, 1915

    4. All this gave the defense a great advantage. The “Cult of the Offensive” was dead.

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  1. A Typical Attack

    1. A massive artillery barrage (intended to cut barbed wire and damage enemy defenses). But the barrages seldom accomplished either of these things. Instead, they ruined the element of surprise.

    2. Attacking units were ordered to go “Over the Top”…out of the trenches with bayonet charges, through no man’s land, and into enemy trenches.

    3. However, the artillery barrages made attacks more difficult by tearing up no man’s land. Soldiers sometimes got caught on barbed wire.

    4. The attackers would be mowed down by machine guns operated by the defenders.

    5. “Defense was mechanized; attack was not.” – AJP Taylor

    6. Many commanders refused to adapt to the new reality. They stubbornly clung to old notions of warfare, including cavalry, heroic bayonet charges, and the Cult of the Offensive.

  1. The “Live and Let Live” System

    1. Soldiers on both sides would make agreements to not attack at certain times (for example, at breakfast, at religious ceremonies) or in certain places.

    2. They might also pretend not to see each other in no man’s land, where soldiers might be repairing barbed wire.

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    3. Commanders were infuriated by these agreements and forbade them.

    4. The most famous example is the famous “Christmas Truce” of 1914. This began with the displaying of Christmas trees and the singing of hymns and carols. Eventually meetings and games between the two sides occurred. Photographs were taken and signatures were exchanged. Commanders were angry about the truce and tried to cover it up.

  1. Superstitions, Legends, and Myths

    1. Never light three cigarettes from the same match (this supposedly gave snipers the chance to see the soldier, to aim, and then to fire)

    2. At the Battle of Mons, many British soldiers believed that angels had rescued them from the Germans (this was based on a short story).

    3. At the Battle of the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary was leaning. It was believed that when the statue fell, the war would end (this didn’t come true).

    4. The “Crucified Canadian”, supposedly crucified by the Germans (not true).

    5. The “No Man’s Land Army”, made up of deserters and other soldiers acting independently.

    6. The “Trench Community”: Alleged that soldiers in the trenches had been forged into a community. Class and other backgrounds were broken down (there is truth to this).

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Cite This Article
"Trench Warfare: The Hellish Fighting Conditions of WW1" History on the Net
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September 28, 2020 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/trench-warfare-the-hellish-fighting-conditions-of-ww1>
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