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World War I: Trench Warfare

Trenches | National WWI Museum and MemorialSource: WWI National Museum and Memorial

World War I was largely defined by its trench warfare, a brutal military tactic that saw opposing forces bunkered down in dug out trenches in opposing lines with a short open field filled with barbed wire and open to enemy fire known as No Man's Land stretched between. Those fighting in the trenches faced terrible conditions, with knee high mud, constant shelling, gas bombs, and disease rampant throughout the trenches. Read through the resources below to learn more about this military style.

Life in the trenches, 1914-1919 (The National WWI Museum and Memorial, n.d.)

World War I was a war of trenches. After the early war of movement in the late summer of 1914, artillery and machine guns forced the armies on the Western Front to dig trenches to protect themselves. Fighting ground to a stalemate. Over the next four years, both sides would launch attacks against the enemy’s trench lines, attacks that resulted in horrific casualties. Read through this article to learn more.

1918: Trench warfare - hell on earth (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

Although there had been some trench warfare in the American Civil War of 1861 - 65, and the Russian-Japanese War of 1904 - 05, it wasn't until the First World War that fixed trench warfare became the standard form of fighting. The trench system along the Western Front ran for approximately 475 miles, in an "S" shape across Europe, from the North Sea to Switzerland. Read through this website to learn more about trench warfare.

What was life like in a World War One trench? (BBC, n.d.)

On the Western Front, the war was fought by soldiers in trenches. Trenches were long, narrow ditches dug into the ground where soldiers lived. They were very muddy, uncomfortable and the toilets overflowed.  Read through this website to learn mroe about life in the trenches, including videos and images.

Life in the trenches (World War One, n.d.)

Life in the trenches during the First World War took many forms, and varied widely from sector to sector and from front to front. Read through this website to learn more.

History of trench warfare in World War One (ThoughtCo, 2020, January 22)

During trench warfare, opposing armies conduct battle, at a relatively close range, from a series of ditches dug into the ground. Trench warfare becomes necessary when two armies face a stalemate, with neither side able to advance and overtake the other. Although trench warfare has been employed since ancient times, it was used on an unprecedented scale on the Western Front during World War I. Read through this article to learn more.

WW1 trenches: the heart of battle (History on the Net, n.d.)

This website has a great breakdown of how a trench looked and operated, with lots of diagrams and pictures.

Trench conditions (Canadian War Museum, n.d.)

Trench life involved long periods of boredom mixed with brief periods of terror. The threat of death kept soldiers constantly on edge, while poor living conditions and a lack of sleep wore away at their health and stamina. Click through the headings on this website to learn more about trench conditions.

Trench warfare (Lumens Learning, n.d.)

After the German march on Paris was halted at the First Battle of the Marne, both sides dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France. The Western Front settled into a battle of attrition, with a trench line that changed little until 1917. Read through this website to learn more.

Trench warfare (Sir John Monash Centre, n.d.)

One image above all dominates the memory of the war on theWestern Front — that of the trenches. For most of the war, after the initial more fluid battles of late 1914 and before the more open warfare that began in March 1918, the Allies and the Germans engaged in a long period of static war. From the North Sea off Belgium to the Swiss border, there stretched through Belgium and France major lines of defence which, at periodic intervals, each side would try to break through in the search for a decisive victory Read through this fact sheet to learn more.

Voices of the First World War: trench life (Imperial War Museum, n.d.)

For most people, the phrase ‘First World War’ conjures up images of deep, waterlogged trenches and mud-spattered soldiers. But what was trench life really like? In this episode, those who survived it describe their experiences. The trenches could be a shock to those who knew little about them in advance.  Read through first hand accounts of trench warfare to learn more.

The real story of the Christmas Truce (Imperial War Museum, n.d.)

The Christmas Truce has become one of the most famous and mythologised events of the First World War. But what was the real story behind the truce? Why did it happen and did British and German soldiers really play football in no-man's land? Read through this article to learn more.

A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches - Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916

Trenches came into widespread use in 1914 as a way for soldiers to protect themselves against the firepower of modern weaponry. Over time, they developed into huge networks. As shown here, trenches were given names to help identify them. Sometimes these names related to familiar places from home.

Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier in January 1915

Water and mud could be a problem in the trenches, particularly in the autumn and winter months. Wooden ‘duckboards’ were used to line the bottom of trenches and the sides were reinforced with sandbags.

Despatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters

Trench conditions varied across different fronts. In Gallipoli in Turkey, mud was less of a problem but rocky and mountainous terrain posed different challenges. Soldiers also suffered from the heat.

Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Croix du Bac, near Armentieres

Hot food was not supplied to front line soldiers until late 1915 and even then it wasn't always a regular occurrence. Troops in the front line had a repetitive diet of tinned food, sometimes served cold.

Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme

This photograph shows an infantryman on sentry duty, whilst some of his comrades snatch a few moments of sleep behind him. They are in what was previously a German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme, July 1916.

Men resting in sleeping shelters dug into the side of a trench near Contalmaison

When able to rest, soldiers in front line trenches would try and shelter from the elements in dugouts. These varied from deep underground shelters to small hollows in the side of trenches – as shown here.

Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval

Most activity in front line trenches took place at night under cover of darkness. During daytime soldiers would try to get some rest, but were usually only able to sleep for a few hours at a time. 

Australian troops: Men of the 10th Brigade who had been in the front line trenches for several days have a foot inspection at Dragon Farm.

Soldiers in wet and muddy trenches were at risk from trench foot, caused by continually wearing tight, cold and wet boots.  If untreated, trench foot could lead to gangrene, but it could be prevented by regular changes of socks and foot inspections – as shown here.

John Warwick Brooke, the official photographer, followed them in the sap, into which a shell fell short killing seven men.

Life in the front line always carried an element of danger. The threat could be from snipers, shellfire or from taking part in a trench raid or a major offensive. This rare photograph shows the moment when the first men go over the top during a raid in spring 1917.

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

The terrible casualties sustained in open warfare meant that trench warfare was introduced very quickly. Trenches provided a very efficient way for soldiers to protect themselves against heavy firepower and within four months, soldiers on all fronts had begun digging trenches.  This photograph shows French infantry manning a forward line of trenches in Lorraine during January 1915.

Lancashire Fusilier Sentry in a trench looking through a box periscope. Opposite Messines near Ploegsteert Wood, January 1917

Although trenches protected soldiers in them they also led to a state of deadlock.  Trench systems developed significantly over the course of the war.  This photograph was taken in 1917 and shows a sentry from the Lancashire Fusiliers looking through a box periscope to observe No Man’s Land and avoid being seen himself.

Battle of the Ancre. 13 - 18 November 1916. German barbed wire entanglement at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre after the village was captured on 14 November 1916, by 63rd (Royal Naval) Division during the closing phase of the Battle of the Somme.

Artillery bombardments were designed to destroy enemy guns, cut through dense barbed wire and blast men from the trenches.  Often, however, they did not succeed in these objectives. On 24 June 1916 1500 British guns began a week long bombardment to smash German defences on the Somme before the infantry attacked.  Many of the shells they fired, however, were duds and when the infantry advanced it soon became clear that the artillery bombardment had failed.  German troops emerged and gunned down advancing British infantry, killing 20,000 on 1 July alone.

Battle of Albert. The mine under German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. 45,000 pounds of ammonal exploded. The mine caused a crater

Tunnelling was used by both sides to try and dig beneath enemy trenches and lay large volumes of explosives.  Tunnellers faced many dangers including the use of poison gas, hand-to-hand combat with enemy tunnellers and the threat of being buried alive.  This image shows a mine exploding underneath the German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt.  It was detonated 10 minutes before the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. With 45,000 pounds of explosives, the mine caused a crater 130 feet across by 58 feet deep.

Aerial vertical view showing trench lines of Beaumont Hamel, 10 October 1916. British trenches are on the bottom left.

Trenches were introduced very quickly during the First World War. Trenches provided a very efficient way for soldiers to protect themselves against heavy firepower. Over time, they developed into elaborate systems like these trenches at Beaumont Hamel, photographed in 1916. Trench systems included different features, like support trenches and communication trenches, as well as the front line trenches themselves.

Casualties from a Scottish infantry battalion of 77th Brigade being evacuated along a communication trench in the 'Birdcage' Line outside Salonika, February 1916.

Trench systems weren’t confined to the Western Front and were established in a variety of different landscapes across different fronts. This photograph shows stretcher-bearers carrying an injured man down a narrow communication trench in Salonika.  In this area of northern Greece, extremes of climate and the threat of disease led to more casualties than the fighting.

Private Papers of A Tattersall

Twenty seven ms letters (63pp), May 1915 - April 1916, written to his parents whilst serving as a Private with 'A' Company, 20th Battalion Manchester Regiment (22nd Brigade, 7th Divison), together with two ms letters and one postcard (5pp), December 1915, written to two of his brothers and sister, describing training, conditions in the trenches, unfounded rumours of leave for his Company, refusing promotion, helping to dig mines under German trenches, Zeppelins raids over Britain and rumours of Turkish forces surrendering thereby bringing about an end to the war; two ms letters and one postcard (7pp), June 1916, from his parents including details on the introduction of conscription in Britain; one ms letter (4pp), 24 June 1916, from his brother Fred; one ms letter (2pp), 22 June 1916, from E J; one ms letter (2pp), 23 October 1915, from Bertha Hall; two postcards of bomb damage; two photographs of A Kirkman and W L Tweedale; a document listing personal effects returned to his parents after he died from wounds in July 1916; five field service postcards and various address cards. The collection also includes the New Testament, a Book of Psalms and Daily Readings from the Soldiers Christian Association, an Order of Service for the funeral of John Ward, a ts transcription (24pp) of the letters and a photograph showing Albert with his two brothers John and Norman, all in military uniform.

British troops receiving dinner rations from field kitchens in the Ancre area of the Somme, October 1916

Hot food was not supplied to front line soldiers until late 1915, but even then kitchens could not always get close enough to provide a hot meal for all soldiers. Troops in the front line often endured a repetitive diet of cold tinned food.  A unit would spend a few days in the front line, followed by periods in reserve and rest.