How It Works

Life in a World War One trench


Trench warfare defines the bloody combat of the First World War. Take a look at how these deadly defences operated and what life was like for the soldiers that manned them…

World War I represented a major shift in warfare practice. Aircraft and machine guns were two examples, but what truly dictated this conflict was trench warfare. The first trenches of note were dug by Germans in September 1914 after their charge through France was halted by Allied forces. In order to avoid losing ground, they dug in, creating deep crevasses to hide in. The Allies quickly realised they couldn’t breach these defences and followed suit. What ensued was a race to outflank the opponent along northern France. The first trenches were fairly shallow ditches, but evolved into an elaborate system of frontline trenches, support trenches and barbed wire fences.
It would take 450 men six hours to construct a trench of just 250 metres (820 feet), after which sandbags, wooden walkway planks and barbed wire needed to be strategically placed to stop flooding, collapsing and enemy advances. They were dug in zigzag patterns to stop enemies taking out an entire group of soldiers in one attack. The most time-effective method of trench digging was standing on the ground and digging downward, but that left soldiers at the mercy of enemy fire. The alternative was to dig down then along, while still in the hole. This was safer but much slower. The illustration below shows just how these defences were laid out and how effective they were in combat, click the image to see it close up…

WWI trench revealed
Trench warfare resulted in a strategic stalement that was to cost hundreds of thousands of lives


Located in north-east France, Marne was the site of the war’s first example of trench warfare. German and Allied forces both realised the defensive power of this strategy so engaged in a shovelling ‘Race to the Sea’, building trenches all the way to the North Sea at Ypres, Belgium. This then became the location for a bed-in that lasted for the remainder of the war, with attacks and counterattacks barely gaining any ground at all, but at the cost of millions of lives. Verdun was another bloody site, with the Germans launching a devastating attack on the fortified town. They broke French resistance but the counter-offensive eventually drove them back to their starting point, resulting in a similarly prolonged trench standoff.

The German forces failed to conquer Verdun because they had to focus on the British army’s assault on the Somme. This began with a massive week-long bombardment followed by an infantry attack. However, the German trenches were so well fortified that the British shells barely made an impact, so thousands of Allied troops fell victim to the ruthless German machine guns. The end came at St Quentin Canal in France. The British managed to storm through the Hindenburg Line, forcing the Germans back and bringing about the first discussions of surrender.

trench firepower
The anatomy of a British trench

A day on the front line

The average day on the front line would begin with a stand to. This would be around an hour before sunrise and involved all soldiers standing on the fire step, rifles ready and bayonets fixed. They would then begin the ‘morning hate’, firing their guns into the morning mist. This had the dual benefit of relieving tension and frustration, as well as helping to deter a possible dawn raid. Breakfast would then be served, consisting of biscuits or bread and canned or salted meat. Following breakfast would be a period of chores. These could range from cleaning weapons and fetching rations to guard duty and trench maintenance. The latter would often involve repairing shell damage or trying to shore up the damp, underfoot conditions.

A day in the trenches would start with the morning “Stand to”

One of the main challenges in everyday trench life was the food. At the start of the war, each soldier received 283 grams (ten ounces) of meat and 227 grams (eight ounces) of vegetables per day. However, as the war wore on, the meat allowance reduced to 170 grams (six ounces) of meat and, if you weren’t on the front line, you only got meat on nine out of 30 days. Diets were bulked out with corned beef, biscuits and bread made of dried ground turnips. As the kitchens were so far behind the front line, it was nearly impossible to provide hot food to the troops at the front, unless the men pooled their resources and bought a primus stove to heat their food and make tea. Other common meals included pea soup with horse meat and Maconochie, a weak soup containing sliced carrots and turnips.

BJW059 Staff officer in a dugout studying details before an offensive, World War I, 1914-1918
A Staff officer in a dugout studying details before an offensive

As dusk fell, the soldiers would engage in an evening version of the morning hate. Essential tasks like repairing barbed wire and rotation of troops were done after dark, as the enemy was less likely to be able to launch an effective attack. Guards would look out for night-time raids, with watches lasting no more than two hours. Off-duty men would try to snatch some precious sleep before the process began again. Falling asleep while on watch resulted in death by firing squad. Most of the men would sleep in hollowed-out sections of the trench or on the fire step.

This article first appeared in How It Works issue 58, buy the digital edition here. Orignally written by Jamie Frier.

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