Trench Life

Trench Life

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, the medics and the forward positions of the artillery observers.

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 of the First World War can be said to have begun in September 1914 and ended when the Allies made a breakthrough attack that began in late July 1918. Before and after those dates were wars of movement: in between it was a war of entrenchment. The massive armies of both sides dug in to take cover and hold their ground. By November 1914 there was a continuous line of trenches covering some 400 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. There was no way round.

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 in France 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 in Belgium the ground is naturally boggy and the water table very high, so trenches were not really dug, but more built up using sandbags and wood (these were called ‘breastworks’). In parts of Italy, trenches were dug in rock; in Palestine in desert. 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.

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An officer of the Scottish Rifles leading his men out of a trench.
An officer of the Scottish Rifles leading his men out of a trench.