Life in the trenches during WWI: your essential guide
Peter Hart answers questions about the experiences of the men who served in some of the harshest conditions of World War I
What exactly is a trench?
Trenches are defensive structures that have been used in conflicts right up to the present day, but they are perhaps most commonly associated with combat during World War I.
In its simplest form, the classic British trench used during the 1914–18 war was about six feet deep and three-and-a-half feet wide. It had a fire step, which was about 18 x 18 inches, where soldiers could stand and shoot at the enemy. In front of the trench there was a parapet, which was about three feet tall and six feet deep, to protect soldiers from bullets. Behind the trench, there was a similar structure called a parados. Trenches could also have an A-frame, with wood and chicken wire riveting to prevent collapse. However, it’s important to note that trenches varied in design and structure depending on the location and circumstances. Some were just ditches, while others were concreted. But their main purpose was to provide a safe place for soldiers to defend themselves against the enemy.
How far did trenches stretch during WW1?
The trenches stretched from the North Sea all the way down to Switzerland, covering a distance of about 475 miles. However, this was just the front line; there were also communication trenches, support lines, and lines that stretched back from the front line.
So, that’s an approximate distance of 1,500 miles.
But that’s not all. There were many other trenches – sometimes multiple systems of trenches – stretching many thousands of miles. It’s quite a remarkable feat when you think about it, but also important to remember that it was the soldiers who had to dig them, which was a very difficult task.
From daily routine and diet to warfare and survival, Peter Hart answers listener questions about life on the frontline during the First World War
How was trench warfare on the Eastern Front different to that on the Western Front?
The two were similar in many ways, but there were some key differences. To start with, the Eastern Front covered a much larger area, with the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian armies fighting each other for three or four years. The trenches of the Eastern Front stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and covered a distance ranging from 800 miles to 1,500 miles.
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The fighting on the Eastern Front, however, was just as brutal and the casualties were actually often higher there than on the Western Front. The trenches themselves were similar, but their sophistication depended on the terrain on which they were built. For instance, breastworks [hastily constructed fortifications built to breast height] were often located in marshy areas.
- Read more about how trench warfare was fought in WW1
Another thing to note is that the Eastern Front was much colder during winter than the Western Front. Siberian winds would rush across the area, making life even more difficult for soldiers. Overall, it’s important that we remember the Eastern Front and not just focus on the Western Front; life there was just as bad.
Who was stationed in the trenches?
Everyone who was in the army – other than women – and in a fighting unit was stationed in the trenches at some point. The British had a system where battalions were rotated constantly, so soldiers would spend a maximum of two or three days on the front line before going back to the support or reserve lines, and then on to rest. This preserved morale and gave soldiers something to look forward to.
The Germans and French did not have such an organised system, so soldiers often spent longer on the front line. And of course, behind the fighting battalions were other essential groups such as Britain’s Army Service Corps, who provided food and supplies, artillery, and people working in the camps and railways.
What role did empire troops play on the front line?
The role of the empire troops during World War I was a crucial one. The Indian Army, which included soldiers from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, made the biggest contribution in terms of numbers. Many Indian soldiers served on the Western Front, with two corps – some 30,000– 50,000 men – arriving in October 1914, just in time to aid the British Army. They proved to be good fighting men and really saved the day. Their contribution was immense, and many of the soldiers were later sent away to serve in Palestine and Mesopotamia, where they formed the backbone of the force. Both of those campaigns were ultimately successful.
- Read more | David Olusoga shines a light on forgotten clashes of WWI in distant lands, and on the extensive contributions of Africans and Asians
Aside from the Indian Army, soldiers from other countries in the empire also made significant contributions. The Australians and New Zealanders, commonly known as the Anzacs, were regarded as elite formations by themselves and others. Although they took some time to learn the ropes, by 1917 and 1918 the Anzacs had become a formidable group of fighting men and were actually reserved by Field Marshal Haig as an elite force. The Canadian troops were also brilliant.
So, all together, the empire troops – along with soldiers from many other countries that I haven’t mentioned – made incredibly important contributions on the Western Front.
How much time did soldiers in the trenches spend in actual combat?
When it comes to the amount of time soldiers spent in actual combat during World War I, there is an interesting perspective provided by the historian Gordon Corrigan, who pointed out that the British Army spent more time playing football than it did going over the top. Of course, this is because a football match takes an hour and a half, whereas going over the top doesn’t take very long at all.
- Read more | The Somme: was it really a monstrous failure?
However, Corrigan’s point is a serious one – on average, soldiers would only attack or be attacked a couple of times during their entire trench experience. Again, this varied depending on how long a soldier was stationed in the trenches, but even during a two or three-day stay it was unlikely that a soldier would engage in actual combat. Instead, most losses were incurred through shellfire or sniping.
When soldiers were attacked, it was an incredibly tense and horrible ordeal. RC Sherriff’s play (and later film) Journey’s End depicts the lead-up to a big German attack in 1918, and it conveys just how awful it was for soldiers who faced this kind of threat. They knew it was coming, and they knew that the Germans would cut them off with shellfire. It was a nightmare experience that left a lasting impact on those who survived it.
How did soldiers on the front spend their free time?
Most of the free time that soldiers had was at night, or in between their sergeant coming around and giving them orders. One thing that many soldiers did during in their downtime was drink tea. It became a bit of a fixation, actually; soldiers of the British Army still drink lots of hot, sweet tea to this day.
Crucially, soldiers would also write letters home and read letters from loved ones. This was incredibly important to them, because in those days they never knew if they would hear from their families again, and some soldiers were wonderful authors. They would sit around and talk about what they wished they were eating, like steak and kidney pie, and imagine fantastic meals. They talked about anything and everything to keep their minds off the war.
Another thing soldiers did in their free time was sleep, because they were so tired. Even though they might only be on the front line for two or three days, it was a tiring and stressful experience.
What sort of food did the soldiers eat, and how did they cook it?
British soldiers were provided with a diet that contained roughly 4,000 calories a day. This was meant to ensure they had enough energy to perform their duties despite the physical and mental demands of the war. However, the food was often tinned and canned, which meant it lacked variety and freshness. They also had dog biscuits, which were highly nutritious but not very tasty, as well as salted bacon, which they could fry and then use the lard for other dishes.
In addition, there was Maconochie, which was a meat and vegetable stew that was quite unpopular among soldiers due to its unpleasant taste, especially if it wasn’t warmed through properly. Finally, they had pork and beans – mainly beans, with very little pork – but this was still considered tasty by some soldiers. The soldiers used portable stoves known as Tommy cookers to prepare their meals, but it wasn’t the same as cooking – it just warmed the food up a bit.
What would you say is the biggest myth about life in the trenches?
There is a common perception that the British generals during World War I were incompetent and spent their time in châteaux far away from the front lines. However, this is simply not true. Yes, generals were often stationed in châteaux, but they served as communication centres from which they could effectively command their troops. It’s important to remember that four lieutenant generals (each commanding of a corp of around 60,000 men), 12 major generals (each commanding a division of 12,000 to 18,000 men), and 81 brigadier generals, (each commanding 3,000 to 4,000 men) were killed during the conflict, with a further 146 wounded or taken as prisoner of war. So many of those in charge lost their lives as well.
Another myth is that the British generals were old and incompetent buffoons. However, many of them were actually only in their forties or fifties, with some even younger, and had already proven themselves in previous conflicts like the Second Boer War (1899–1902). They had a lifetime of experience behind them, so it’s unfair to dismiss them as inept. Life in the trenches was a brutal and deadly experience for all involved, including the officers who led their troops into battle.
Interview by Emily Briffett
This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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