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German troops in France in 1916 advance from support and communications trenches established just behind the front lines. Among the most enduring images of World War I are those vast expanses of mazelike trench lines—miles of zigzagging, sandbagged excavations fronted by complex barbed-wire entanglements and dotted by massive, artillery-proof command shelters. Over the intervening decades films such as Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front have accustomed audiences to scenes of soldiers mounting sturdy firing steps shoulder to shoulder before clambering “over the top” and charging off toward the enemy.

While such images are accurate—earthworks on either side of the lines in Europe did ultimately become intricate and extensive—they do not present a full and faithful picture of how trenches originated in the early months of the war or of just how miserable life could be in even the best-engineered systems.

For such details we must turn to the accounts of those who were there.

French poilu Louis Barthas left a stark record of conditions in the Western Front trenches.

Louis Barthas, a barrel maker from the small wine-making town of Peyriac-Minervois in the south of France, arrived in the trenches on the evening of Nov. 12, 1914. He had never seen combat and later recalled running in terror across several hundred yards of open ground exposed to German gunfire and tumbling into a frontline trench. It was, he recalled, “a wide, shallow stream at the bottom. No protective barbed wire. No parapets, no loopholes. No trace of a shelter for us. And yet this trench, so poorly equipped, which would have made the Romans of Julius Caesar smile with pity, seemed to us a precious refuge.”

Early in the war French trenches were indeed known to be poorly made and equipped, as the French high command remained confident—against all available evidence and reason—their armies would soon gain ground and thus had no need for more permanent emplacements. British trenches were somewhat better constructed, but the stopgap ethos they brought to combat, the “muddling through” in which they took such unreasonable and inexplicable pride, meant their trenches also were less than ideal.

German trenches were the best—a sentiment shared by their original occupants and those who captured them. The excavations were deeper, and their walls were reinforced with timber and sandbags to prevent collapse during bombardments or in heavy rains. At regular intervals the German built dugout rooms, some as deep as 30 feet underground, in which troops could shelter with little fear of harm from enemy artillery.

‘This trench, so poorly equipped, which would have made the Romans of Julius Caesar smile with pity, seemed to us a precious refuge.’

The German systems also had better drainage, a critical attribute, given that water has always presented one of the great challenges of trench warfare. Where Barthas first fought, in Flanders, it was an especially difficult problem. Average annual precipitation was high, and the terrain largely flat, thus the water table was high, and mud a nightmare. Shelling only made it worse. Artillery fire stripped the landscape of whatever cover might have stabilized the ground, and the resulting craters inevitably gathered water. The water level often rose knee high, while the mud never seemed to dry out. Drowning was a real concern, particularly for wounded men.

Before the conflict erupted none of the future combatants had anticipated the sort of static warfare that made such earthworks necessary. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, for example, foresaw a rapid advance through Belgium into France, around the left flank of existing French fortifications, then on to Paris and victory in a single campaign lasting fewer than 40 days. Overwhelming force and speed of execution were the basis of German strategy, and it worked—for a little while. The invaders quickly took Liége, Brussels and Antwerp, then advanced into France, and they moved swiftly—so swiftly, in fact, that they outran their supply lines. At that critical juncture German Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke decided to split his forces, sending some to the west of Paris, some east, as if encircling the capital were more important than taking it.

As the French regrouped and British reinforcements arrived in significant numbers, resistance stiffened. The overall German advance slowed, leaving the troops little choice but to settle into defensive positions. They bogged down in northern France along a line some 40 miles south of the Belgian border. There they began to dig trenches. Four years of stalemate and static warfare ensued, years when an advance of 50 yards was considered significant and might cost thousands of lives.

While most of us associate trench warfare with World War I, it was hardly new. Soldiers employed trenches during 18th-century wars on either side of the Atlantic, the 1861–65 American Civil War, the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War and the 1899–1902 Second Boer War in South Africa. During the latter conflict the greatly outnumbered Boers utilized trenches to great effect, and neutral German observers came away deeply impressed by the defensive capabilities of such earthworks. In 1914, as the Western Front devolved into stasis and both sides took to burrowing into the earth, the Germans put their advanced concepts of trench warfare into practice.

In his 1920 memoir Storm of Steel veteran German infantryman Ernst Jünger described the well-constructed wartime dugout he occupied:

I was master of an underground dwelling approached by 40 steps hewn in solid chalk, so that even the heaviest shells at this depth made no more than a pleasant rumble when we sat there over an interminable game of cards. In one wall I had a bed hewn out.…At its head hung an electric light so that I could read in comfort till I was sleepy.

Some German dugouts had steel doors, water taps, doorbells and even wallpaper for a touch of home. No one would call them luxurious, but at least the accommodations were livable.

British trenches suffered mightily by comparison. Before hard combat experience taught them the value of deep entrenchments, the British—like the French—relied largely on skimpy ditches. Military historian John Keegan noted that at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 British trenches were at best “hasty scratchings 3 feet deep.” As the war dragged on, Commonwealth troops did make improvements, but their dugouts remained relatively shallow and thus vulnerable to plunging artillery fire. Early on British works tended to the haphazard, mirroring the French attitude that the troops weren’t going to be in them long—a breakout was always just around the corner, and mobile warfare would surely return to the battlefield.

The result of such thinking, of course, was that conditions in the British trenches were generally squalid, and in Flanders, perpetually wet. In The Great War and Modern Memory historian Paul Fussell, an infantry veteran of World War II, quotes British poet Wilfrid Owen in a letter to his mother from the front: “In 2½ miles of trench which I waded yesterday, there was not one inch of dry ground. There is a mean depth of 2 feet of water.” Fussell cites a similar, albeit snarky, observation from the diary of another British soldier: “Water knee deep and up to the waist in places. Rumors of being relieved by the [Royal Navy’s] Grand Fleet.”

Between the opposing entrenchments lay acres of seemingly endless barbed-wire entanglements. The American-invented hazard accumulated exponentially with each passing year, and the relentless artillery fire both sides used to disrupt the wire only served to entangle it more thoroughly. The wire demarcated the vast open space known as no-man’s-land. It was aptly named, as those who ventured into it risked being mowed down by machine guns and/or registered artillery fire. Even men who dared peer into no-man’s-land from the trenches were at risk, as snipers on either side became adept at putting a lethal round into any target that presented itself for even a moment.

Rather than expose themselves to such fire, troops on the lookout for enemy movement used periscopes—which, oddly enough, were not government-issued but purchased in the “trench requisites” sections of fashionable London department stores. British officers with accounts in high-end establishments could even order picnic baskets filled with tinned food and other delicacies and have them shipped to the trenches in a day or two. Britain was just across the English Channel from Flanders, after all. Indeed, when the shelling in France was particularly heavy, residents of the Kentish coast could sometimes hear it.

Some German dugouts had steel doors, water taps, doorbells and even wallpaper for a touch of home. No one would call them luxurious, but at least the accommodations were livable

As the machine of war ground away, so many corpses accumulated in no-man’s-land that the stench of rotting flesh became ubiquitous. The corpses in turn attracted fat brown Norway rats in extraordinary numbers. Soldiers killed the vermin whenever possible, but the rats were stealthy and persistent. “They have eaten nearly everything in the mess, including the tablecloth and the operations orders!” one British officer at Ypres noted. “We borrowed a large cat and shut it up at night to exterminate them and found the place empty next morning. The rats must have eaten it up, bones, fur and all.”

And then there were the body lice, which no one escaped. Delousing stations were available at the rear, but they provided only brief respite. In his poem “Louse Hunting” British war poet Isaac Rosenberg wrote of troops at the front stripping nude to hunt body lice, casting “gibbering shadows” on the dugout walls as they danced a “demons’ pantomime” around a comrade’s flaming shirt. Other tormented soldiers recalled lice growing thick on their bodies. “Our primary occupation was hunting lice,” wrote Frenchman Barthas. “Each of us carried thousands of them.”

German trenches like this one — dry, orderly and reinforced with sandbags and timber to prevent collapse — were the standard to which all other combatant armies aspired. (Hip/Art Resource, New York)

The opposing trench systems grew in scope and size as time passed. The usual arrangement centered on frontline trenches that, depending on the terrain, might be as close as 100 yards or as distant as 1,000 from corresponding enemy earthworks. Behind those were support trenches, while farther back were reserve trenches, often the site of command bunkers. Between each of these lines snaked perpendicular trenches, used for communication and to move troops back and forth unexposed to enemy fire. Utility trenches known as “saps” jutted from the frontline earthworks and often delved below ground. The term derives from the French verb saper (“to undermine”), hence the term “sappers” for those who dug such trenches. Some saps served as forward listening posts or provided access to no-man’s-land for such activities as wire repairs, recovery of the wounded or burial of the dead. Others extended far underground to terminate beneath enemy fortifications. By packing such tunnels with explosives, sappers could destroy the sturdiest of fortifications. None of the entrenchments ran straight, thus denying enemy troops direct lines of fire should any make it across no-man’s-land and enter a trench.

Given the scope of the works, digging was a near constant activity, accomplished largely at night by either auxiliary work details or the soldiers themselves. “When all is said and done,” considered British officer and poet Siegfried Sassoon, “the war was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.” By war’s end the “ditches” on the Western Front stretched 475 miles from the English Channel to the Swiss border, though historian Keegan estimated that if one takes into account all the reserve and support trenches, the actual mileage was closer to 1,300. Put another way, a soldier might well have been able to walk from the channel to Switzerland entirely belowground.

And that is a deeply depressing thought. To look out over the hellish landscape of no-man’s-land was to risk a bullet to the forehead, while to charge across it in another futile attempt to gain ground usually meant death by artillery, poison gas or machine gun. The only alternative for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on either side was to look up at the sky, or rather at the little bit they could see of it, to remind themselves they were indeed amid nature. What men mostly noticed at such times, wrote historian Fussell, were sunrises and sunsets, whose unexpected depth and beauty, so far removed from the squalor of the trenches and miserable drudgery of their lives, moved them. “The sky,” Sassoon reflected, “was one of the redeeming features of the war.”

‘Even the stupidest understood that we were going to our deaths, without the slightest hope of success’

While soldiers in the trenches may have treasured glimpses of the sky, chances to do so were few and far between. Combat never ceased along the front lines, or never seemed to, thanks largely to the incessant barrages of shells each side lobbed at the other. “Even in the quietest times,” Fussell wrote, “some 7,000 British men and officers were killed or wounded daily, just as a matter of course. ‘Wastage,’ the staff called it.” It is hard to say how seriously to take this figure, but artillery fire certainly accounted for vast numbers of casualties. The numbers of guns involved and shells expended are staggering. American troops, for example, were in combat in Europe only from June 1917 to November 1918, yet during that relatively brief period U.S. factories produced some 20 million rounds of artillery ammunition. German, French and British numbers are equally mind-boggling.

There is no mystery behind the vast numbers of shells fired during the conflict. The opposing armies preceded nearly every attempted advance into no-man’s-land with an hours-long preparatory barrage against one another’s trenches and rear areas. Then, as troops struggled from the trenches, friendly artillery would pound no-man’s-land with huge “creeping barrages,” hopefully keeping enemy troops in their bunkers and unable to repel the attack. The problem, of course, was that such barrages signaled an attack was imminent, and they often ended too soon, allowing defenders time to filter back into the trenches and engage the onrushing troops by then all too exposed in no-man’s-land.

Frenchman Barthas recounted a vivid example. One morning his unit was tapped to attack the German line, the assault starting from a forward sap immediately following an ineffectual barrage by French 75 mm guns.

“Even the stupidest understood that we were going to our deaths, without the slightest hope of success,” Barthas wrote. “As soon as each of us left the trench, we took off at full speed and flattened ourselves against the railway embankment. This slightly elevated slope protected us only imperfectly from the bullets.…Just as I arrived at the slope, out of breath like after a long run, I saw one of those guys who had already taken cover there get hit in the back with a bullet. I’ll never forget the sight of that hole, like it was made with a drill—a little whiff of smoke from burnt cloth, the man’s violent somersault, a groan and then the stillness of death.”

The French attack quickly sputtered, soldiers seeking cover where they could. They had gained no ground. When darkness fell, they simply rose and walked back to their trench line, carrying the wounded on their backs.

Imagine such a scene repeated thousands of times on all fronts over four years, and you get some idea of what combat in the trenches was like. Winter often brought long periods of relative peace, but spring offensives always came, and the assaults continued through summer and well into fall. Three years into the war French soldiers in several sectors simply stopped fighting, refusing to make another senseless advance into certain death; it was months before commanders could coerce or coax them back into combat. The attrition rate was so high that every major country began to run out of men. Again and again troops in great waves were sent into ill-conceived and largely suicidal frontal assaults, the resultant casualties reaching into the thousands. On the first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme alone the British army suffered 57,470 casualties—the worst single-day loss in its history.

It was the most senseless form of “wastage.”

The shadow of World War I has never left us. The mindless horror of the trenches epitomizes the mindless horror of the war itself, one that in retrospect might easily have been prevented. It was a war of monarchs and empires, of entangling alliances and failed diplomacy. It was also a war that spawned revolution and the rise of communism in Russia and the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. World War I also laid the groundwork for many subsequent conflicts, including the current ones in the Middle East.

Nearly 10 million soldiers died in World War I, as did some 7 million civilians. Add the wounded, and the casualty total rises to 38 million. And unexploded ordnance from that long-ago conflict is still killing and maiming people. From time to time teams of archaeologists unearth frontline trenches in various states of preservation, seeking insight about the men who lived and died in them. Those abandoned in haste remain eerily intact, personal belongings seemingly waiting for the return of their owners.

Mostly what they find, though, are human bones. MH

A frequent contributor to Military History, Anthony Brandt is the author of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage. For further reading he recommends The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell; The First World War, by John Keegan; and Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914–1918.