- Trench life means soldiers were stuck fighting from a hole in the ground for a long time.
- The soldiers always had to be careful because they might die. They were scared sick.
- They were very tired of the living conditions and didn’t sleep well, so they didn’t feel good.
What were trenches?
During World War I, the war was fought on the Western Front by soldiers in trenches.
The trenches were long and narrow ditches dug into the ground where soldiers lived. It was very muddy and uncomfortable.
The toilets overflowed too, which made the conditions even worse. This caused some of the soldiers to develop medical problems like trench foot.
There were over 2,500 kilometers of trenches dug during World War I. Most trenches were 1-2 meters wide and 3 meters deep.
Trenches weren’t straight lines; they had a zigzag pattern with many different levels along the lines. There were paths that soldiers could take to move between the levels.
On one side of the trenches, they were German. On the other side of the trenches, there were Allied. In between was No Man’s land. Soldiers crossed to attack each other.
Fighting from the trench
The fighting in the trenches for soldiers was hard. They were always being attacked by snipers and artillery.
Soldiers got tired and stressed from living in the trenches and getting constantly killed or wounded.
In trench warfare, there were random shots and sniper fire. The enemy was not always visible and it was hard to know when you might die.
PTSD and Shell Shock
When something bad happens, it can make you feel scared and sad. It is called PTSD. People have had this problem for a long time. Thousands of years ago, when soldiers were fighting in a war, they would get PTSD too.
Traumatic events can be scary. The person will have the energy to run away and, at the same time, not remember anything that’s happening.
People with PTSD get scared more often than other people and they have a part of their brain that remembers things more. This is called the amygdala. The hippocampus is also larger in people with PTSD.
Many people in the military had PTSD problems during World War I. The problem was called “shell shock” then.
It first appeared as a medical condition in February 1915, about six months after the Great War began. Soldiers who were exposed to exploding shells had many symptoms like anxiety, nightmares, and impaired sight and hearing.
Shell shock is a nervous breakdown from war. Doctors know now that it was also a type of nerve problem, but in the past, they thought it was just caused by the exploding shells.
There were about 80,000 cases of shell shock in the British army alone during World War I. Soldiers usually had to go back to war after only a few days’ rest.
Weapons in the trenches
At the beginning of the war, most soldiers carried only a rifle and a bayonet.
As the war went on, armies used more weapons to help their troops fight in trenches and across No Man’s Land. They had grenades, rifle grenades, mortars, and many types of machine guns.
Knives, clubs, and catapults were also weapons that could be used to kill people.
Artillery bombardments are used to attack the enemy, break through barbed wire, and make men go away. They also might not work.
The soldiers raided enemy trenches. They would kill the enemy and try to find out what they knew.
As a result of the Great War, people used chemical warfare and poison gas. The trenches were thought to offer some protection against these chemicals.
Later in the war, people started attacking at night. They would attack the enemy when they were asleep or not paying attention. This was a good idea because it’s hard to see if you’re fighting at night.
Trench war was very deadly. For example, in the Battle of the Somme, British troops lost 60,000 people on the first day of fighting. This is a very brutal way to fight a war.
On June 24th in 1916, 1500 British guns began a long bombardment to destroy German defenses before the infantry attacked. The artillery bombardment did not work because many of the shells were duds and when the infantry advanced it became clear that artillery had failed because German troops shot at them with machine guns and killed so many British soldiers on July 1st.
Types of soldiers
Most soldiers from the trenches were in the infantry. They marched and carried their equipment on foot. They had to be ready at all times with their rifle.
Artillery soldiers used big guns. They were heavy to move. Soldiers would fire a lot of shells from the guns before the infantry ran forward. This was called a barrage.
Soldiers wore stripes on their coats to show they had a rank. Some started as privates and gained more responsibility, like a corporal, sergeant, or officer. The higher the rank, the more stripes you got.
Sappers were the people who plan where trenches should be dug.
Miners dug tunnels themselves. They had a dangerous job because it can collapse or there could already be an explosion in the mines they are carrying. This was why miners were sometimes called moles, which means “little creatures that live underground.”
Equipment for each trench soldier included a gas mask, weapons and ammunition, protective clothes like boots and a helmet, webbing equipment that also had things like shaving kits and water bottles in it. There was also a shovel to keep expanding the trenches.
In trench warfare, soldiers had to wear soft uniforms. These did not protect them against danger. Soldiers died because they were not wearing enough protection like body armor, which is used for stopping bullets and other dangers.
Families sent food to their relatives in the war. They would send things like chocolate, tobacco, and canned food. Soldiers had just six ounces of ‘bully beef’ (called corned beef today).
Many soldiers ate meat stew with biscuits. Sadly, the meat was mostly fat. The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables made it hard for many soldiers to keep from feeling sick.
Soldiers were allowed to write letters home and sometimes they got free postcards or paper. But most of the letters had to be read by an officer who checked for secrets or things that made the soldier feel sad.
Many soldiers in the trenches were tormented by rats and lice.
The big rats ate the food and the waste from armies. They spread diseases too.
Lice caused trench fever which gave people headaches, fevers, and pain. The conditions in trenches were bad with persistent dampness which led to trench foot (which is like frostbite).
The Christmas Truce
During the first Christmas of the war, soldiers from both sides put down their weapons and met in No Man’s land. They sang carols like ‘Silent Night’. The Germans gave sausages to the British and the British gave chocolates to the Germans.
On Christmas Day 1914, a football was kicked out of the British trench and the Germans joined in. They played for three hours and it was reported that Germany won 3-2.
The British High Command was not happy with the truce. They thought that the Germans were planning an attack on Christmas Day 1914.
But they were ignored and no guns were fired on this day. The truce lasted until New Year’s Eve in some parts of the Western Front, but it didn’t last long before soldiers returned to fighting again in trenches.
Dogs and trenches
Dogs played an important military role in World War I. Dogs helped people by carrying things and delivering messages. They also helped people who got hurt by taking them to the doctor.
French soldiers had dogs that helped them in battles. These dogs were trained for months to find wounded soldiers and bring back help. They brought first aid kits with them to heal the injured soldier.
Dogs were popular with soldiers during the war because they gave people a feeling of home. Soldiers loved dogs and took them to war with them. For example, Moritz, the Danish hound who belonged to the Red Baron, would often fly with him in his plane.
Trench warfare made World War I the deadliest conflict in history. It is likely that many people died because of trench warfare, but it was also the first time that more people had died from combat than from disease spread during the fighting.
Trench warfare was also used during World War II and in the Korean War to some degree, but it has not been used much since then.