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.
German infantrymen in a trench on the Western Front during WWI, France, 1914-16 (b/w photo)
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.
Left: WWI, allied troops fighting from trenches, German troops surrender in trench, Ludendorff and Hindenburg discuss movements over map. 1917 Right: Postcard depicting French soldiers in the trenches, 1914-18 (coloured photo), French School, (20th century) / Private Collection
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).
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.
Left: Soldier cleaning a trench in the Champagne region, 1915-16 (b/w photo), Jacques Moreau (b.1887) / Archives Larousse, Paris, France Right: A barber in a trench, c.1916 (b/w photo), Jacques Moreau (b.1887) / Archives Larousse, Paris, France
Nevertheless trenches were a breeding pit for vermin and disease.
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