World War I, which was fought between 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918, has become closely associated with trench warfare due to the horrible life of the soldiers in the trenches which permanently affected most of them. Trench warfare is a type of combat in which opposing troops fight from trenches facing each other. WW1, or the Great War, saw the most famous use of trench warfare on the Western Front. At the time, trench warfare gave the defender the advantage and it was difficult to break through lines. After German loss at Marne in September 1914, both sides extended their trench systems from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea; and the Western Front became a stalemate which lasted till the last year of the war. Know more about the trench system in the First World War through these 10 facts.

 

#1 Trench Warfare in WW1 was started by Germans to avoid losing ground

When the conflict began on the Western Front in August 1914, the commanders anticipated a war that would involve a large amount of troop movement. The Germans had performed an initial sweeping movement through the Belgian territory and into France. The defeat at the First Battle of Marne, however, made the Germans retreat. But they were unwilling to let go of the territory they had occupied thus far. They thus decided to “dig in” to avoid losing any more ground. On the other hand, the French and British troops found themselves unable to break this line of defense. The development of modern machinery like the machine guns and heavy artillery had suddenly made forward moving strategies, like head on infantry attacks, redundant. Thus the Allies followed suit digging trenches to provide cover for their own troops.

German soldiers in a WW1 trench
German soldiers in a trench in France, Western Front, 1916

 

#2 Hundreds of miles of Trench Systems were built

The trench system began as a temporary strategy but it would become the order of the day on the Western Front, as no side would be able to decisively penetrate the defensive lines of the other in the next four years. Hundreds of miles of trenches were built on the Western Front, starting at the North Sea near Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast, running through Belgium and northern and eastern France, to the Swiss border. Trenches were not like single lines. Trench systems had multiple layers of trenches, supply trenches, dug outs, forward casualty stations and so on.

Western Front Map WW1
Map of the Western Front of WW1

 

#3 Trench systems became elaborate with time

Early trenches were little more than ditches built with the intent of providing protection during short battles. However, as a stalemate started to settle on the Western Front towards the end of 1914, the needs for a more elaborate system became apparent. Most of the trenches built followed a basic plan. A front wall or a parapet was built facing the enemy and averaged about 10 feet. This was lined with sandbags from bottom to top extending 2 to 3 feet above ground level. Most trenches were about 3 meters deep and between 1 and 2 meters wide. They were reinforced with wooden beams for support. A ledge was built on the ditch which allowed a soldier to step up and see over the top, usually through a hole between the sandbags. The back wall was also lined with sandbags which helped to soak up blasts; and reinforced the walls from the threat of rainfall and enemy shelling. Moreover, concrete bunkers were constructed at strategic points which housed machine guns.

Trench diagram
Illustration of design of a common trench

 

#4 They were built in a zig-zag pattern

Trenches were built in zigzag pattern. This was to stop shrapnel flying down the length of the trench and to soak up blast. Also if an enemy managed to enter the trench he could not simply fire straight down the line. Barbed wire was used extensively in front of the front lines; and as and where needed, becoming a major obstacle for those enemies who managed to reach it.

French soldiers in a WW1 trench
French infantry manning a forward line of trenches in Lorraine, January 1915

 

#5 Trench systems usually had two more supporting lines

Most trench systems had at least 2 more trench lines to support the front line, the support trench and the reserve trench. These lines were few hundred meters apart and were connected by communicating trenches, allowing movement of supplies and soldiers. Some trenches contained dugouts that were constructed below the trench floors. Dugouts sometimes offered more conveniences such as beds and furniture. The German dugouts were generally more sophisticated; some are known to have toilets, electricity, ventilation and even wallpaper. The long range artillery stood some miles behind the trench lines, while the area between the two opposing armies’ front lines was known as “no man’s land”. This area had continuous shell firing and became a mass of mud in wet weather, making it further difficult to cross.

WW1 Trench System diagram
Diagram of a WW1 Trench System

 

#6 Life in the trenches was horrible

World War I in its aftermath is often remembered for the horrible life of the soldiers in the trenches. Though trench warfare was not a new development, the Great War saw it being used on an unprecedented scale on the Western Front. Life in the trenches was difficult with the soldiers facing numerous challenges on a daily basis. Poor sanitary conditions in the trenches meant many soldiers suffering from infectious diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever. Even when they weren’t fighting, soldiers had work to do – including repairing the trenches, moving supplies, cleaning weapons, undergoing inspections and guard duty. One in ten men did not survive the trenches.

Dying Soldier in a Trench (1915)
Dying Soldier in a Trench – 1915 painting by Willy Jaeckel

 

#7 Rainfall made life even more difficult for soldiers in trenches

Heavy rainfall flooded trenches and created impassable, muddy conditions. Not only were the soldiers supposed to drain out the water and repair the damages; but some are also known to have been trapped in the thick, deep mud and drowned. A dreaded disease named trench foot, which was similar to frostbite, developed as a result of the men standing for long hours in the water. In some cases this developed into gangrene and led to amputations. The trenches were mostly infected with a foul smell. Many men did not bathe for weeks; and the trenches also smelled of rotting sandbags, cigarette smoke and poison gas.

Water-logged trench WW1
Soldiers in a water-logged trench at Bois Grenier, 1915

 

#8 Many soldiers in trenches suffered from “shell shock”

The conditions in trenches made sleeping and resting very difficult. Apart from the uncomfortable surroundings and fear of enemy attack, the noise from shell firing was a major disturbance. The constant artillery bombardment made many soldiers suffer from shell shock, the debilitating mental illness which may find its closest relation in what we know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) today. Moreover, rats, which could grow as large as cats, were a problem. A pair of rodents could produce as many as 900 young a year in trench conditions so soldiers’ attempts to kill them were futile. Frogs, spiders and lice were also pests that the soldiers had to battle daily.

British soldiers in the Battle of the Somme
British soldiers leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme

 

#9 Mining operations were carried out to blast away enemy trenches

As trench warfare became the order of the day on the Western Front, the Engineer-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Brigadier George Fowke, proposed a deep mining operation in September 1915. Thus a group of miners, operating in total secrecy, dug tunnels up to 100ft underground to plant and detonate mines beneath the enemy’s trenches. Work continued for months as the miners fought the risks of carbon monoxide, tunnel collapse, water and worse; encountering German tunnel diggers who had begun their own mining operations.

Messines Ridge explosion in WW1
Dead German soldiers in a trench destroyed by mine explosion, Messines Ridge, 1917

 

#10 A mine explosion produced one of the loudest man-made noise in history

As the conflict wore on, the Allied tunnel miners began to gain ground on their German counterparts, and at Messines Ridge in Flanders, they were to have their greatest success. The mines were detonated at the start of the Battle of Messines (7–14 June 1917), at 3.10am. 19 mines were blown along the Messines Ridge in West Flanders, Belgium. The joint explosion ranks among the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time with the sound of the blast among the loudest man-made noise in history. The explosions are said to have registered on a seismograph in Switzerland and were heard by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George over 150 miles (241 km) away in Downing Street, London. It managed to kill approximately 10,000 German soldiers between Ypres and Ploegsteert.

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