Top 10 Facts about the Trenches and Life in Trenches during World War I
When World War I is mentioned, the first thing that comes to every person’s mind is muddy and rat-infested trenches with dead bodies in every corner. The trenches of World War I are primarily associated with suffering and death where soldiers lived in constant fear of enemy attacks or contracting deadly diseases.
Although they provided soldiers with relative protection against increasingly lethal weaponry, living conditions in the trenches were the most inhumane imaginable. Soldiers had to endure wet and muddy trench floors, contend with a lack of clean drinking water, and fight off the mischief of rats.
Moreover, Nervous and mental breakdowns among soldiers were common, due to unrelenting shellfire and the deplorable trench environment. In this article let’s explore the Top 10 Facts about the Trenches and Life in Trenches during World War I.
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1. Trenches were between Eight and Twelve Feet Deep
A typical trench in World War 1 was between eight and twelve feet deep to allow men to walk upright and still be protected from enemy fire. There was also an embankment at the top of the trench and a barbed wire fence to make it hard for the enemies to break through.
On the inside, the trenches were reinforced with wood beams and sandbags to prevent them from collapsing, in case of a direct artillery hit. At the bottom, the trench was covered with wooden boards called duckboards which were meant to keep the soldiers’ feet above the water that would collect at the bottom of the trench.
There were three standard ways to dig a trench: entrenching, sapping, and tunneling. Entrenching, where a man would stand on the surface and dig downwards, was most efficient, as it allowed a large digging party to dig the full length of the trench simultaneously.
2. There were four types/ lines of Trenches
In order to make trenches more effective, there were usually four types/ lines of trenches on each side of the opposing armies. Three trenches were dug parallel to each other, while the fourth one crossed and interconnected them.
The first or the front trench was known as the outpost line and was usually located 50 yards to a mile from its enemy counterpart. It was the first line of defense and was guarded by scattered machine gunners distributed behind dense tangled lines of barbed wire.
The second line, also known as the support Trench, was the second line of defense and was usually located several hundred yards behind the front-line trench. The third line was the reserve trench, usually located several hundred yards behind the support trench. This trench contained reserve troops ready for deployment to the front line trench on very short notice in case of an emergency.
Finally, all three parallel trenches were interconnected by the fourth trench known as the communication trench. This trench was also very important as it was used for troop movement, communication, and bringing in fresh supplies.
3. Diseases were Rampant in the Trenches
The threat of diseases in the trenches was as real as the threat of enemy fire. Soldiers living in the trenches were in constant danger of contracting various infectious ailments such as dysentery, cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, and many others.
This was due to poor hygiene among the soldiers, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of clean water which made trenches a perfect breeding ground for these highly contagious diseases. Infestation of rats and lice in the trenches also contributed to the spread of other dangerous diseases among the soldiers.
Furthermore, prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions in the trenches also caused deadly trench foot and trench fever diseases which were the most rampant on the western front. Although there is no official figure of how many soldiers died from these diseases on both fronts, the number is estimated to be as high as 100,000 fatalities.
4. Rats made life in Trenches unbearable
For the soldiers fighting in the Trenches during World War 1, nothing made their life unbearable more than millions of rats who had also made the trenches their home. They were attracted to the trenches by the abundance of food, poor hygienic conditions, and sheltered environment.
Reproducing faster than they could be controlled, rats quickly became part of soldier’s life in the trenches, creating menace and eating almost everything could find including uneaten rations and dead corpses. These rats grew so bold that they would sometimes crawl over sleeping soldiers and steal food from their pockets.
Rats were also responsible for the spread of dangerous diseases which made some soldiers more afraid of them than any other horror found in the trenches. However, some soldiers still partook in rat hunts as a form of entertainment while others would even keep them as pets.
5. The Germans were the first to dig Trenches
The Germans began trench warfare because they were losing territory. The defeat at the First Battle of Marne would have meant they needed to retreat and lose land. Instead, they dug trenches which made it difficult for French and British soldiers to cross.
In the following years, the Germans concentrated on digging trenches and strengthening their defensive positions more than launching attacking their enemies. Their well-constructed trenches soon became an impenetrable barrier that the Allies found impossible to breach. The deadlock greatly frustrated the allied powers as they were eager to keep on attacking attack, gain more territories, and deliver a decisive blow to their enemies as quickly as possible.
As the war progressed, it quickly became clear that the final outcome of the war will be determined in the trenches, a fact that prompted the allies to start digging their own trenches on the other side. By the time trench warfare reached its peak, German trench systems were far more sophisticated and well-equipped, probably because they were the first to build them and has gained more experience than their enemies.
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6. Trenches were not built in a Straight Line
Although there were over 2000 kilometers of trench lines dug during the First World War, they were not straight but were dug in a zigzagging pattern. All straight sections were generally kept less than a dozen meters long to prevent raiding enemies from firing down the full length of the fortification.
Apart from the frontline trenches, there were the support trenches which were used for supply and medical purposes. The communication trenches connected all the trenches and allowed for the movement of troops.
7. Trenches also served as Living and sleeping Quarters for the Soldiers
Although the trenches’ main purpose was to provide attacking and defensive platforms for the soldiers, they also doubled up as living and sleeping quarters for the soldiers.
This proved to be a physical and psychological nightmare for the soldiers, who had to continuously contend with relentless artillery shells and deplorable conditions in the trenches for days.
8. Soldiers spent only a few days in the Trench
Contrary to most people’s assumptions, soldiers did not spend all their time in the trenches in World War 1 trench warfare. They rotated into and out of the front lines to provide them with a break from combat stress.
To provide much-needed relief, each group of soldiers would usually spend between four to six days in the front-line trenches before being relieved by another group. However, the 31st Australian Battalion is recorded to have once spent 53 days in the front-line trench, which was an isolated case.
9. “No man’s land” was the most dangerous place for the Soldiers
Although the term “No Man’s Land” was an ancient name referring to waste or unowned land, it is commonly associated with World War 1 trench warfare. “No man’s land” was a stretch of land separating the front lines of the opposing armies which often ranged from several hundred yards to in some cases less than 10 yards.
Constant artillery bombardment and machine gun fire had destroyed all trees and vegetation, creating a nightmarish wasteland littered with fallen logs and bare tree trunks. Furthermore, heavy rains has had turned the landscape into a thick layer of mud, as deep as one meter in some places.
During the battle, “No man’s land” was the most dangerous place for the soldiers, as they were supposed to run across the waterlogged landscape where they faced a hail of enemy bullets, artillery fire, land mines, and snarls of barbed wire.
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10. The Trench systems on the Western Front were roughly 475 miles Long
Although at first, the Germans started building trenches as a stop-gap measure to slow down the allied troops’ advances into their territory, it soon became the defining feature of the entire war.
By the end of 1914, both sides had built a series of trenches that went from the North Sea through Belgium and France to the Swiss Alps. In total, the trench systems on the Western Front are estimated to have stretched for roughly 475 miles. Additionally, if all the trenches built along the western front were laid end-to-end they would total over 25,000 miles long.
Although Trenches in World War 1 provided soldiers with the most needed protection from bullets and shells, they also did carry their own risks. Diseases in the trenches, such as trench foot, trench fever, dysentery, and cholera were as threatening to the soldiers as the enemy fire.
Amazingly, amid all these unimaginable hardships, a remarkable sense of camaraderie and brotherhood emerged among the surviving soldiers, forming strong bonds that lasted throughout their lifetime.