What were the trenches?
Only a small number of the army actually spent their time in the trenches.The trenches were the equivalent of the front line but also happened to be the most dangerous place. Behind the trenches were many more trenches leading to civilisation and neighbouring towns, these trenches were training establishments, stores, workshops and headquarters. The trenches were the area of the soldiers, with space for the machine-guns, the engineers and the space where the soldiers spent a lot of time, with guns in their hands and on watch for the enemy. Why were the trenches there?
The trenches were there to protect the armies from powerful opposition, from the use of their snipers and bomb shells. The idea of trenches was not an original idea for the war, before the 1st world war it was used in the US civil war, and other wars close to the time. “Trench war fair” in World war 1 was said to have started in 1914 in september and ended in 1918 when the Allies had a large attack on the enemy. Massive armies in 1914 continuously fought the war, and during that time many trenches were built just for protection and to home soldiers, until the day when they went over the top. From the Battle of the Aisle onwards, both armies dug trenches to take cover and to help them hold there ground. By November 1914 there was a continuous line of trenches covering some 400 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. There was no way round, from both armies
What were the trenches like?
The the size and the conditions varied a lot, depending on the local conditions of the area. In the area of the River Somme on the Western Front of france, the ground is chalky and is easy to dig in to so they can get a lot more done and make it more spacious . The walls of the chalk trenches would start the crumble away after rain so they had to line the walls with wood, sandbags or any other material to prevent crumbling. At Ypres, the ground is naturally boggy and the water would create large puddles, so the trenches were not really dug they were built up with wood, sandbags these sort of trenches were called ‘breastworks’. In parts of Italy, trenches were made in the rock, in Palestine and in sand. In France the trenches ran through towns and villages, through industrial works, coal mines, brickyards, across railway tracks, through farms, fields and woods, across rivers, canals and streams. Each trench presented its own set of difficulties for the workers who had to dig by hand and at the same time defend.
In the major offensives of 1915, 1916 and 1917 many of the trenches dug were not used for more than 2-3 days before they advanced on to a new plot of no-mans land of a plot of germans land. Usually when they arrived there were already trenches dug in the ground from the army before they were usually about 18 inches deep The map (above) shows a typical but very stylised trench layout. There is a front line, or “Main Fire Trench” facing the enemy. It is not straight, but follows contours or other natural features allowing good defence or a view over the enemy lines. Thousands of men became casualties in fighting, or making small adjustments to their trenches to give cover or more observation points. It was also dug in sections rather than a straight line, so if a shell explodes inside one of these ‘bays’, or an enemy gets into one, only that section is affected.
Behind it is another line, similarly made, called a support line. In this part ‘dugouts’ cut into the side of the trench wall would be found, they were often very small but with room for perhaps three or four men to squeeze in for shelter, or to telephone for a signaller and they also used it to host meetings or they would use it as a HQ. Support trenches were also used then he 1st line gets taken down or captured so they have to use the support trenches. They also had first aid stations so men could get seen to right away and also it included kitchens and hot food. Communication trenches were in contact with the back of each line, it was along these trenches that all men, equipment and supplies had to be collected from, by hand. Out from the front line were trenches called ‘saps’, which often went out further tan the barbed wire, ending somewhere in ‘no man’s land’ in the middle of the two front lines in a listening post, inside were one or two men. The cross-section shows how the front and rear of the trench was ideally protected and built up using sandbags at the front and rear.
The enemy were very similar. The distance between the two main lines started from as little as 30 yards to several hundred yards. The space between the two opposing lines was called no man’s land. When you capture an enemy trench you need to turn it around which is very difficult, because before they were viewing your side, but now you are viewing theirs so you need to move all of their sand bags and wood and get it facing the right way. As defensive and offensive tactics developed later in the war, trench positions became stronger with barbed wire belts tens of yards deep in front of them, with concrete shelters in the trenches for the men, often below ground level. Machine guns would be permanently trained on gaps deliberately left in the wire, and the artillery would also have the positions registered for firing at short notice. A typical trench system consisting of three main fire or support trenches, connected by communication trenches and with various posts, strong points and saps. By 1916, the German system of defence had three or four such trench systems layered back over a distance of a couple of miles. By 1917, the system had deepened even further so that the assaults of 1918 faced defensive systems several miles deep. How long did soldiers spend in the trenches?
A typical trench cycle we be two weeks in the frontline, a week in the support lines, two weeks in reserve and one week at rest. They would swap between the front line, the support line, and the reserve line, and then spend a short amount of time in rest (however soldiers even have to complete tasks whilst they were resting.) They then had to repeat it all again. Soldiers would spend far longer in the front line than normal and less time at rest. Men would be expected to serve a fairly long time on the front line followed by a break. The duration of time that soldiers spent in the trenches was decided by the needs of the situation. In a year a man might expect to spend around 70 days in the front line, with another 30 day trenches. 120 days might be spent in reserve and only Only 70 days might be spent at rest. When the army was short of men, soldiers had to spend much longer in the front.
Where possible, the floor of the trench was made by using wooden duckboards. Trench conditions varied widely between the time of year and weather. Trench life was however always one of considerable filthy, with so many men living in a very restrained space. Scraps of discarded food, empty tins and other waste, the general dirt of living half underground and being unable to wash or change for days or weeks at a time created conditions of severe health risk. Rats and lice were common; disease was spread by both of them, and by the maggots and flies that flew by the nearby remains of decomposing human bodies. Troops in the trenches were also subjected to the weather: the winter of 1916-1917 in France was the coldest in living memory; the trenches flooded in the wet, sometimes to waist height, whenever it rained. Men suffered from exposure, frostbite, trench foot (a wasting disease of the flesh caused by the foot being wet and cold) and many diseases brought on or made worse by living in such a way. Death was constant in the trenches and since the men were open to all diseases and living in such conditions it was not only the guns and bombs that would kill them.