A trench system provided a great deal of protection in World War One. It
consisted of a frontline trench, a support trench and a reserve trench.
Connecting these trenches to one another were communication trenches, where men
from one trench could easily communicate with the men within the other trenches.
All trenches were designed to be deep enough to conceal the men from enemy fire.
Metre after metre of barbed wire was laid out ahead of the trenches to provide
even more protection from storming troops. Each trench contained a fire step, on
which a soldier could fire at, or briefly observe the enemy trenches. The
trenches also acquired a zigzagged look, which would unable an enemy troop to
fire down the trenches. That is, if they were able to capture one.
The troops also dug out listening posts, or saps, where they would listen
for enemy movement within underground tunnels, or storming troops at night.
These listening posts extended into “no man’s land.” This was the land
between enemy positions, which averaged 250 metres in length. Anyone who stepped
out into no man’s land stood little chance of surviving. The soldiers would
have been mowed down by the opposition’s machine guns, which were able to fire
450-600 rounds (bullets) a minute, that’s 7.5-10 rounds a second, faster than
any weapon at that time. Many British soldiers were poorly trained with heavy
artillery. During training they may have fired a few shots from a riffle, and
that’s about it.
At times of heavy enemy bombardments, the troops would take cover in
underground tunnels. The German tunnels were about 15 metres bellow ground, much
deeper than the French or British tunnels. That was because the Germans wanted
to stay where they were, and fight a defensive war on enemy turf. The British
and French hadn’t enough time to fight a defensive war. They needed to push
the Germans out of France and Belgium.
Mines were tunnels that were dug underneath enemy trenches. Explosives
would be packed at the end, the tunnels were then sealed, and the explosives
detonated. Sealing the tunnels forced the explosion upwards. These mines were
quite efficient. The soldiers in the saps were equipped with very sensitive
machines, which could detect the faintest noises below, and could detect enemy
Once the mines were set off, they left the enemy in total confusion. If
the men in the saps detected a tunnel being dug, they would have to stop the
enemy from setting the mines. To stop the explosives from being placed and
triggered, they would send a counter-mining team, which would dig its way into
the tunnel and they would try and prevent the mines from being placed. Many
fights would break out in these tunnels. The effect of the mines was
spectacular, but not good enough to allow an infantry attack.
Before an infantry or offensive attack, a great deal of preparations took
place. Extra troops were brought up to the frontline, extra ammo and supplies
were also needed, but also many coffins had to be prepared. The coffins were
placed on the roadside, in plain view of the soldiers. Even before they left the
trenches, they knew they were doomed. The enemy had air support, planes that
flew over the battlefield and observed what was going on. They then dropped
messages to their troops. The biggest clues of a future attack did not come from
the planes, but from the heavy artillery bombardments beforehand.
Before any big frontal attack, both sides used their heavy artillery to
fire shells at the enemy trenches, hoping to kill the enemy and destroy their
defences. The bombardments unfortunately told the enemy what was going to happen
next. The bombardments usually stopped when the troops were about to leave the
trenches, this was to stop the shells from hitting their own men. But this also
gave the enemy a chance to defend, because they knew what was coming. Some
planners used a technique called a “creeping” or “rolling” barrage. The
troops would still fire the shells, but in front of their own men. This way the
men could advance whilst the enemies were hiding from the shells. The problem
was, sometime the shells would drop short, and kill many of their own men.
The night before the attack, soldiers would go out and cut gaps in their
own barbed wire, and marked the pathways with tape. This not only gave further
proof of an attack, but it told the enemy machine gunners where the troop where
to emerge. When the order of attack was given, the soldiers went “over the
top.” In one situation, the soldiers were told they did not have to run, but
walk towards the enemy lines, because all the Germans would have been killed
from the barrage. How wrong they were.
Many generals were convinced they could easily defeat the enemy if a
large number of soldiers were concealed in a small section of the front. They
would then out number the enemy and break through the enemy lines. They forgot
one small thing. The enemy could bring in extra reserves in very little time.
The soldiers became bitter towards their generals and their “wonderful”
conditions in the trenches were appalling, and even dangerous. Wooden planks
lined the bottom of the trenches, which were to stop the soldiers’ feet from
becoming wet from water and mud. These planks hardly did anything. Many trenches
were not built like they were supposed to be.. Many soldiers suffered from a
thing called “Trench Foot,” where the foot swells from being in water for a
long period of time. The swelling then causes the boot to cut of the circulation
to the foot. The foot then rots. This can also be caused by frostbite from cold.
Soldiers had to rub whale oil and water proof substances onto their feet, to
stop them from swelling. If they didn’t, they would be punished. Many soldiers
tried to get trench foot and they wanted to be sent home, even at the cost of
loosing some toes or even a foot. That’s how horrible life in the trenches
The soldiers had poor hygiene. The toilets, or latrines, were holes dug
into the ground, in sap, away from the trenches. Many soldiers disliked using
these, not because they had a horrid smell, but because the enemy would
occasionally lob shells into them, hoping there might be someone using them.
There were also lice. Lice fed upon the blood of their hosts, they bite, and lay
hundreds of eggs. Their bites would itch, cause blisters and boils, and even
trench fever. It was almost impossible to kill the lice and their eggs. When
bored, soldiers would rip the eggs from their armpits and burn them with
cigarettes. They would then pop and sizzle.
Soldiers may spend 8 days in the front line, 8 days in the reserve
trench, and then sixteen days in town. The soldiers became bored and
uncomfortable. They tried to take comfort in anything. They made jokes, sang
songs etc. They mostly made fun of the food. They called sausages “barkers”
because they were supposedly made from dog meat and called the cheese “bung”
because it caused constipation.
Experience of Battle
soldiers did not look forward to battle, but accepted it. They developed a thing
called comradeship, and would do anything to help a fellow soldier. This gave
them the courage to fight and go “over the top.” Soldiers knew that being
wounded was a honourable way of getting out of fighting. But self-inflicted
wounds were the cowards’ way out. Even if you shot yourself by accident, you
probably would have been sent to court. Before an attack, there was much fear
and anxiousness. The soldiers would be running across and open field, in clean
sight of the enemy. Many say this was the worst part of the war…the waiting,
knowing you hardly stood a chance.
Soldiers feared the artillery shells the most. They were designed to
explode a few metres above ground, and pieces of red hot metal, and the shrapnel
balls could easily maim a person. The explosion could blow a man to bits. Many
soldiers were uncounted for, because their bodies were never found. There were
deaths not caused by war, but by nature. Soldiers would go “over the top”
and drown in mud-filled shell craters. Soldiers were scared about being shot,
blown apart, drowning, and even just finding dead, rotting bodies. They were
open to disease, lice, rats and other horrible things. Life in the trenches was
awful. The men would rather be injured and sent home without a foot, arm, leg,
etc than live in the trenches for a day longer.