The Great War 1914-1918
When war broke out in 1914, both sides dug themselves into trenches along the Western front.
The Western Front stretched over 430 miles from the Belgian coast to the border of Switzerland.
Trench warfare meant that a war that many thought would be over by Christmas, would now be a long and drawn out war. The "Digging in" meant that gaining territory from the enemy would be much more difficult to achieve for the armies because it was almost impossible to move over land without falling prey to a stray bullet or shell.
The trenches of the Western Front claimed the lives of millions of men, not only did they die in battle but almost 2 million men died from illness and disease caught from living in the horrific trench environment.
Map Showing the Western Front of World War 1
WW1 Trench Diagram
British Soldiers Digging Trenches 1915
The Trenches of WWI
The trenches of World War 1 were in reality big holes dug into the ground where soldiers ate drank worked and slept.
Around 12 feet deep and between 3-5 feet wide, the floor of the trench was made from wooden planks or duckboards.
Men slept in dugouts cut into the sides of the trenches and smaller cut-outs were used to store food and equipment.
Parapets were built at the top of the trench and firing steps around 5 feet from the floor of the trench were made for men to stand on to spy on or shoot at the enemy over the parapet.
At the top of the trenches were sandbags to protect the soldiers from enemy fire, there were often small gaps between the sandbags for the soldiers to watch enemy movements or to fire through.
The trenches were lined with a wire mesh to prevent them from collapsing.
A soldier in the trenches could see no more than 10 meters either side of him, trenches were built in a zigzag fashion to ensure that if any part of the trench was shelled only that part of the trench was damaged, and the men in trenches either side were safe from shrapnel.
WWI Trench Foot
With the rain came the mud, Trench foot became a common complaint in the trenches, The constant immersion of the mens feet in the wet mud took its toll, the soldiers foot would become numb, and turn either a red or a blue color, as the condition worsened the skin would become flakey and the aroma of rotting flesh would be smelled when the soldier took off his boots. In more advanced cases the feet would begin to swell, blisters and open sores would appear in the skin and if left untreated fungal infection would set in.
Common Diseases in the Trenches
Diarrhea and Dysantry
Common Respitory Disease
WWI Trench Living
Living conditions in the trenches were barbaric; being in Europe rain became a major problem for soldiers living in the trenches, no matter how well the trenches were constructed, the rain turned them into filthy, muddy holes in the ground.
Smells in the Trenches
A new soldier going in to the trenches for the first time would notice the smell before anything else. The acrid cordite smell from the constant shellfire. The smell of rotting flesh from dead soldiers lying in shallow graves. There were no toilets or washing facilities for the men the smell of faeces and urine filled the air, even the creosote used to mask the smell of the cesspits had its own unique aroma. Stagnant mud, cigarette smoke, the smoke from cooking food. Rotting food left by soldiers in the heat of battle and the smell of the men themselves. Unwashed for days and living in the trenches the soldier’s clothes and bodies held on to all of the other smells around them. Soldiers may never have gotten used to this combination of smells but they learned to live with them.
Disease in the Trenches
With so much death and decay, rats soon became a nuisance in the trenches, eating the flesh of soldiers who had fallen in combat. The men tried to kill as many of them that they could but it was an ever-losing battle.
In the unsanitary conditions of the trenches, head lice and body lice became a major problem for the soldiers. No one living in the trenches escaped them, men shaved their heads and shaved all of their body hair to try to avoid infection but the lice lived in their clothes. Even after their clothes were washed, eggs laid in the seams by the lice would hatch and re-infect the soldiers.
Lice were responsible for trench fever a debilitating disease that could last for up to 12 weeks.
Insects were everywhere flies, bees, wasps, horned beetles, worms, ants all adding to the unsanitary conditions.
With the rats, lice and the creepy crawlies everywhere in the trenches sickness and disease was inevitable.
Disease was rife; men were taken from the front line everyday suffering from infections and disease that had been caught whilst doing their duties. Field hospitals were over run and over worked, not only were men dying from gunshot and shell fire but the death toll from illness and disease was growing, over 2 million men died from disease and infections caught in the trenches of World War I.
A Field Kitchen in World War 1
What The Soldiers Ate in the Trenches of WWI
There were Field kitchens set up away from the front line cooking meals for the soldiers fighting in the trenches. The kitchens provided stews, meat and potato dishes and other cooked meals with the food that was available to them. A lot of the time in the heat of a battle this food could not be delivered to the soldiers on the front line because of shell or gunfire, when this happened ration kits were issued to give the men enough sustenance to get them through their day.
Typical Daily Rations for a British or Allied Soldier
1 Half Ounce
A Soldiers Daily Food Ration
Typical Daily Ration for a German Soldier
Bread or Biscuits
Dried Egg Buiscut
1 half Ounce
1 half Ounce
The Reality of World War One
WWI Trench Warfare
Fighting in the trenches was horrific and futile, before an attack a bombardment of shells would be fired into the enemy lines. Thousands of young men would then climb out of the trenches, "Go over the top", and run as fast as they could toward the enemy trenches.
The enemy knowing an attack was underway because of the heavy shelling would set up machine gun posts and shoot at anything that moved, Soldiers were mown down in their hundreds without gaining an inch of land from the enemy; most were killed without even getting 3 feet away from their own trenches.
in the video, right, soldiers go "Over the top" Warning this video contains actual footage of soldiers being killed in action.
Daily Routine of soldiers in the trenches
- World war 1 A Day in the Trenches ww1
World war 1 a day in the trenches, a look into the daily routine of a soldiers life in the trenches of world war 1
Virginia Allain from Central Florida on November 07, 2014:
This is most informative. I'll add a link for it onto my hubs about my grandfather and my great-uncle in WWI.
I've been reading about the rations for a Civil War soldier lately and it's interesting to compare their daily food to that provided to the soldiers in WWI.
Eric Dockett from USA on February 28, 2013:
Very interesting Hub. WWI trench warfare must have been horrible for anyone who had to endure it. A truly sad period in world history with too many lives needlessly lost. I've heard about trench warfare all my life, but only recently have begun to realize just how awful it really was.
Lightshare on July 25, 2012:
Amazing hub! War never can't be an answer!!
LauraGSpeaks from Raleigh, NC on June 29, 2012:
What a wonderful, complete hub. The history is so interesting, excellent photos and tables. I am astounded by how many diseases were prevalent at that time. Thank you for putting so much time into this hub.
Barry Wood from Scotland on June 21, 2012:
What great Hub! I cannot begin for an instance to know what these young men went through. And for nothing really, the First World War was an aristocrat dispute which annoys me. Too many innocent lives lost.
Janis Goad on June 21, 2012:
Jimmy, great hub about the trenches in WW1.
Did you ever read All Quiet on the Western Front, by Rainer Maria Rilke? It is written as a novel, but he wasn't making it up. It's just like what you wrote in your hub.
It is one of the recommended novels for the final year of high school in British Columbia, and it is grim, poetic, beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.
Every high school student should read your hub, too.
Well done, and thank you for keeping the facts alive as the veterans who lived it pass--"to you from failing hands we throw/The torch. Be yours to hold it high and/Keep the faith with we who die in Flanders Fields." (John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields."
Judi Brown from UK on June 21, 2012:
Great job as usual Jimmy. Typical army to lecture soldiers on keeping their feet dry and clean - of course they would've, if they could've!
Jools Hogg from North-East UK on June 21, 2012:
Jimmy, great hub. The info re: rations was interesting, Germans were certainly better looked after. This kind of warfare is mind boggling to us now when we look at advances in military strategy and the like.
Voted up and shared.
Genevieve on June 21, 2012:
Awesome summary, Jimmy. I'm researching for my book at the moment - any idea where I could find out about men hired by the army as scientists? ie Toxicologist vs poison gas?
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 21, 2012:
Another great article, Jimmy. I don't think many realize how much disease there was in the trenches. "Trench foot" sounds mildly comical (I sense the slang mentality at work there) but if you saw a bad case, you wouldn't think it so. J.R.R Tolkien suffered from "Trench Fever" after the Somme and it basically knocked him out of fighting even though he told them he was fine months later, but he relapsed. Can one imagine millions of men sleeping outside in northern European winters? Voted up and interesting.
Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on June 21, 2012:
Great hub. Spot on photographs and text. Photo and information on rationing were really informative. The day to day reality of the general conditions were unbearable. Indeed a lost generation.
Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on June 20, 2012:
What a dreadful dreadful war and so good to be told and told again what it was like for the poor soldier. This Hub is wonderfully written. Thank you.
onlinecashdigest from Manila, Philippines on June 20, 2012:
War really brings so much suffering that we must do all we can to avoid it.
India Arnold from Northern, California on June 20, 2012:
I am amazed at the difference in ration sizes of the British or Allied soldier vs the German soldiers. What a miserable place the trenches must have been. I am honored to have read this hub, and wish to thank all those who served, or are serving their country in military service. Well done Jimmy, quite a tribute.