The First World War: Trench Warfare

The Western Front during World War 1 stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier with France.
Both sides dug themselves in ending any possible chance of a quick war; this caused a stalemate, which was to last for most of the war. Over 200,000 men died in the trenches of WW1, most of who died in battle, but many died from disease and infections brought on by the unsanitary conditions.
The first thing a new recruit would notice on the way to the frontline was the smell, rotting bodies in shallow graves, men who hadn't washed in weeks because there were no facilities, overflowing cess pits, creosol or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection. Cordite, the lingering odour of poison gas, rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke, and cooking food. Although overwhelming to a new recruit, they soon got used to the smell and eventually became part of the smell with their own body odour.
Rats were a constant companion in the trenches in their millions they were everywhere, gorging themselves on human remains (grotesquely disfiguring them by eating their eyes and liver) they could grow to the size of a cat.
Men tried to kill them with bullets shovels or anything else they had at hand, but they were fighting a losing battle as only 1 pair of rats can produce 900 offspring in a year.
Some soldiers believed that the rats knew when there was going to be a heavy bombardment from the enemy lines because they always seemed to disappear minutes before an attack.
Lice were a constant problem for the men breeding in dirty clothing they were impossible to get rid of even when clothes were washed and deloused there would be eggs that would escape the treatment in the seams of the clothes.
Lice caused Trench Fever, a particularly painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever. Recovery - away from the trenches - took up to twelve weeks.
It was not discovered that lice were the cause of trench fever though until 1918.
Millions of frogs were found in shell holes covered in water; they were also found in the base of trenches. Slugs and horned beetles crowded the sides of the trench. Many men chose to shave their heads entirely to avoid another prevalent scourge: nits.
The cold wet and unsanitary conditions were also to cause trench foot amongst the soldiers, a fungal infection, which could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. Trench Foot was more of a problem at the start of trench warfare; as conditions improved in 1915, it rapidly faded, although a trickle of cases continued throughout the war.
Death was everywhere in the trenches, at any time of day or night it could be your corpse laying in the mud, whether through the shell bombardment, poison gases, disease or a random bullet from a sniper.


Trench Warfare developed due to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. When Germany realised that they would have to fight a war on two fronts, and that this meant that they would have to split their already small army in two, Count Von Schleiffen, Chief of the German General Staff, devised a plan which would solve this problem. The plan involved invading France through neutral Belgium and catching them off-guard. They would then defeat France within six weeks and be ready to fight Russia, who by this time should have mobilised their army. However, the plan failed, and this led to the introduction of trench warfare.

Trench Warfare was a form of field fortification, consisting of parallel rows of trenches. During World War 1 trenches had begun to appear by late 1914. On the western front, trenches ran from the Belgium border to the Swiss Border, and they soon became home to millions of soldiers.

The front line directly faced the enemy, who would usually be between 200-800 metres away. The space in between the front lines of the defenders and the attackers was known as "No Man’s Land".

The front line was protected by barbed wire, which was secretly erected or amended during the night.

Behind the front line were the "reserve trenches", also known as the "second line" or the "support trenches". These were the second line of defence and they were used if the front line was captured by the enemy.

Sometimes, there was even a third line of defence. These were known as the "communication trenches" and they ran over 1km back to safety. All things going up the line, such as fresh troops, water, food, mail, ammunition, etc, had to use these lines. Also, wounded soldiers went in the other direction to hospitals.

Almost all trenches were deep enough for a man to stand up straight without being seen by the enemy. However on the occasions when they weren’t deep enough the men had crouch or crawl all day long, for if enemy snipers saw so much as a hair on the soldiers head, they would blast the soldiers head right off.

The mud that was dug out of the trench was piled up in front to form a parapet, which helped to protect from bullets. Sandbags were also used as reinforcements.

The "firing step" was another feature of many trenches. These were used only at night, for obvious safety reasons, by sentries, but they were also used in battle when troops were shooting.

Trenches were formed in zigzags, as opposed to straight lines. This was to prevent attackers from shooting straight down the trench, and it helped to reduce the effects of blasts from shells. It also meant that it was more difficult for the trench to be captured as the enemy had to fight round each corner to capture more and more of the trench. Another method of slowing down the process of the enemy capturing the trench, were barbed wire doors, which were common in trenches. When open they fitted into gaps in the side of the trench, but when they were closed they were lethal. They were situated at intervals along the length of the trench.

Wet weather made the trenches become very muddy, very quickly, so flat planks of wood called duckboards were laid end-to-end along the ground, and were then nailed together. These helped to provide a floor, which could cope with the soldiers walking on them from day-to-day. As these did not sink into the mud, they soon became a common sight in British trenches.

Living conditions in trenches were very basic and extremely unhygienic. The troops slept in little holes cut out of the side of the trench known as "dug outs".

Planks and sandbags were used to support the roof of the dug out in an effort to make them safer, as there was a huge risk that the roof could fall in on the soldier. This risk was greatly increased if shells had weakened the trench. Planks were also placed on the ground in the dug out to provide a hard wood base for the soldier to use as a bed. Blankets were hung over the front of the dug out to give the soldier a bit of privacy, but they did not however, give any protection against shell splinters.

Living conditions for the soldiers were also very wet. The soldiers often had to stand with water up to their ankles, sometimes even their knees, and this caused them to suffer from a condition called "trench foot". This was a condition in the feet where they started off by wrinkling up like when you’ve been in the bath too long, but as time goes on, blisters developed and the pain for the soldiers was immense. Although the troops were advised to rub whale oil on their feet regularly it didn’t do a lot of good. They were also supposed to change into dry socks regularly, but rain and mud just made them wet again.

The trenches were a perfect place for germs to thrive. Any diseases caught by soldiers were spread easily from one to another.

Likewise, there were no antibiotics for the wounded, and their wounds often went septic. This in turn led to gangrene.

Unhygienic living conditions in trenches were to blame for many deaths. Probably the main cause of death due to living conditions in trenches was the rapid spread of disease, but wounds infected with gangrene could also be fatal.

In the trenches, each day was much the same as the last. Nothing really ever changed, unless there was a battle.

At first light, the order "Stand down!" was given and knowing that the threat of a night raid was over, the sentries could relax.

Breakfast for the troops usually consisted of, if not bacon, at least a cup of tea. The cooking in the trenches was done on small fires made of scraps of wood found usually in local ruins.

The troops were rarely hungry, unless due to shell damage, the communication trenches were damaged and the ferrying of food up and down the line was temporarily prevented. However although there was usually enough food to go round, the choice was rarely varied.

The usual selection was tinned "bully beef", a loaf of bread to be shared among up to 10 men, and jam, which was usually Tickler’s plum and apple flavour, which the men soon got fed up of. Occasionally there was an abundance of cheese, but this caused constipation and the men thought that it was a deliberate attempt to ease the problem of trench toilets.

In case of an emergency, there was always a supply of hard biscuits, but these were like cement and caused immense problems to men with false teeth – they had to soak them in water!

By mid-morning most of the troops were at work. The day-to-day work consisted of repairing damage to the trench, filling sandbags, carrying supplies, running errands, etc… The most common task carried out by soldiers was cleaning their weapons. Every soldier possessed a Lee Enfield rifle and it was their duty to keep this thoroughly clean to prevent it from jamming at a vital moment.

Daily medical checks were also part of the soldier’s daily routine. Every soldier was crawling with lice – in their hair, on their body, in their clothes. Occasional de-lousing took place but this rarely did any good because the lice always seemed to find a safe hiding place in the folds of clothes.

Another problem which soldiers dealt with was water. In the trenches water was usually brought to the front line in petrol cans, and chloride of lime was added to kill off bacteria. The chloride of lime however, gave the water an awful taste.

In winter, water was less of a problem because snow and ice could be melted. Occasionally, however, bodies were found frozen in the ice, and this could cause the soldiers distress.

Obviously, when asked what the most life consuming aspect of the soldier’s daily routine in the trenches was, the reply would have to be the battles. But these were not daily occurrences. Also life threatening, however was the risk of catching disease from contaminated food and water.


In World War 1, there were three main ways of attacking.

The first tactic I am going to discuss is bombardment. This was probably the most common tactic. The idea of bombardment was that the attackers used shells to destroy the opposition’s communication trenches as well as the front line – this was to prevent reinforcements from reaching the front lines. They then went "over the top" of their trenches and approached the opposition across No Man’s Land in the hope that when they reached the opposition’s trenches, all the enemy soldiers would be dead, the barbed wire would be destroyed, and they could successfully capture part of the trench.

However this was rarely what they found. The reality was that the German’s had dug their trenches so deep that they had sufficient protection from the shells. The Allies had not predicted this and were surprised to find the German’s still alive, the trenches and the barbed wire still intact and the German artillery not destroyed.

Another method used was called the "Creeping Barrage". This was a very well developed tactic, which comprised of the British firing guns and shells, and the soldiers went creeping behind the shells. The shellfire caused the Germans to be too scared to leave their trenches, allowing the British to capture part of the trench. However there was one drawback to this tactic - if the cannon was not on target then some of the British men might be killed.

The third tactic that I am going to mention involved the soldiers digging a tunnel under No Man’s Land in an effort to reach the enemy without being seen and therefore catching them off guard. However, this was not a very effective tactic due to the fact the opposition could hear the digging and they too began to dig. This led to them meeting in the middle, and a battle was fought underground.

These tactics all resulted in many deaths from shell fire, machine gun fire, etc… But they were necessary for the war to eventually come to an end. Perhaps, if the plans had been made more carefully, then fewer deaths would have occurred, but no one could foresee the extent to which the deaths went.


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Quotes about war....

"War grows out of the desire of the individual to gain advantage at the expense of his fellow man."
--Napoleon Hill

"We have failed to grasp the fact that mankind is becoming a single unit, and that for a unit to fight against itself is suicide."
--Havelock Ellis

'Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."
--Mao Tse-Tung (1893 - 1976)

"I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
--George McGovern

"The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic."
--Joseph Stalin

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.
--Voltaire, War

In war, truth is the first casualty.
-- Aeschylus

"The ability and inclination to use physical strength is no indication of bravery or tenacity to life. The greatest cowards are often the greatest bullies. Nothing is cheaper and more common than physical bravery."
--Clarence Darrow, Resist Not Evil

"The victor will never be asked if he told the truth."
--Adolf Hitler

"To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilization."
--George Orwell

"Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country."
--Bertrand Russell

Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself.
--Francis Meehan

Snippets From History

German Soldiers in Russia: Part 1

Hubert Menzel was a major in the General Operations Department of the OKH (the Oberkommando des Heers, the German Army headquarters), and for him the idea of invading the Soviet Union in 1941 had the smack of cold, clear logic to it: 'We knew that in two years' time, that is by the end of 1942, beginning of 1943, the English would be ready, the Americans would be ready, the Russians would be ready too, and then we would have to deal with all three of them at the same time.... We had to try to remove the greatest threat from the East.... At the time it seemed possible.'

Battle for Berlin, 1945

'We started to fire at the masses,' says one former German machine gunner. 'They weren't human beings for us. It was a wall of attacking beasts who were trying to kill us. You yourself were no longer human.'


Berlin after it fell to the Russians, 1945

"Vladlen Anchishkin, a Soviet battery commander on the 1st Ukrainian Front, sums up the horror of the whole event, when he tells how he took personal revenge on German soldiers: 'I can admit it now, I was in such a state, I was in such a frenzy. I said, 'Bring them here for an interrogation' and I had a knife, and I cut him. I cut a lot of them. I thought, 'You wanted to kill me, now it's your turn.'
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Hitler's response to General Friedrich Paulus' request to withdraw from the city


Points To Ponder....

The fall of France was shocking. It reduced France to virtually a non-player in the Second World War. The efforts of Charles de Gualle were more symbolic than material. But the martial instincts of the French must never be doubted. Under Napoleon they were a formidable military power. The French definitely have more iron in their blood then say, the Italians [I do not mean it in a derogatory sense. War never makes sense]


Bias Of Western Historians

Soviet resistance made possible a successful Allied invasion of France, and ensured the final Allied victory over Germany.

It can hardly be called mere 'resistance'! If it hadn't been for the Russians, Hitler would have made mincemeat of British forces in Africa and landed on British shores in no time. Hitler attacked Russia first because it had more land and resources than Britain. It is as simple as that.

Eastern Front: Bias Of Western Historians