When thinking about World War I, the image of soldiers in trenches immediately comes to mind. Trenches were an effective way to protect against gun shots and assaults and – despite many attempts – proved impossible for enemy soldiers to break through.
The first trenches
The first trenches were dug after the Battle of the Marne in 1914. Stretching over 400 miles between the Swiss border and the North Sea, the trenches marked the outer edges of the territory under the control of the two combatants, the Allied and Central Powers. The unoccupied land between the two enemies was known as No Man’s Land. This is where, famously, the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 took place, with enemy soldiers chatting to each other and playing friendly games of football.
The trench system
Most accounts of the trenches understandably focus on the front line. However, the vast majority of the soldiers’ time was spent further back in support or reserve trenches, or even out of the trench system entirely. During shift changes, soldiers moved from one level of trench to the other through a series of interconnecting communication trenches. Throughout the system were dressing stations (providing medical treatment) and shelter points (providing protection against enemy fire and bad weather).
Daily life in the trenches
The usual depiction of soldiers under intense shell fire, or charging into No Man’s Land, were not events taking place each day. Daily life on the front line typically involved routine chores and catching up on sleep. Away from the trenches, soldiers spent their time training, recovering and healing from injuries.
Nevertheless trenches were a breeding pit for vermin and disease.
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