Photo story

10 Photos Of Life In The Trenches

The image of a soldier in a muddy trench is what many people visualise when they think of the First World War.

However, most soldiers would only spend an average of four days at a time in a front line trench.  Their daily routine when in the front line varied according to where they were.

In active sectors, both sides would engage in aggressive trench raiding and the fire from artillery, machine guns and snipers would be a constant threat. By contrast, some sectors were quiet and relatively passive, with a 'live and let live' mentality. A soldier’s experience depended on this variety.

These ten photographs show different aspects of life in the trenches.

  • 1. Trench names

    A sentry of the 10th Gordons at the junction of two trenches. Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August.
    A sentry of the 10th Gordons at the junction of two trenches. Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August.
    Q 4180

    Trenches came into widespread use in 1914 as a way for soldiers to protect themselves against the firepower of modern weaponry. Over time, they developed into huge networks. As shown here, trenches were given names to help identify them. Sometimes these names related to familiar places from home.

  • 2. Water and mud

    Colonel Philip R Robertson returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier 1915.
    Colonel Philip R Robertson returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier 1915.
    Q 51569

    Water and mud could be a problem in the trenches, particularly in the autumn and winter months. Wooden ‘duckboards’ were used to line the bottom of trenches and the sides were reinforced with sandbags.

  • 3. Trenches on other fronts

    Despatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters.
    Despatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters.
    Q 61079

    Trench conditions varied across different fronts. In Gallipoli in Turkey, mud was less of a problem but rocky and mountainous terrain posed different challenges. Soldiers also suffered from the heat.

  • 4. Tea time in the trenches

    Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Crois du Bac, near Armentieres.
    Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Crois du Bac, near Armentieres.
    Q 583

    Hot food was not supplied to front line soldiers until late 1915 and even then it wasn't always a regular occurrence. Troops in the front line had a repetitive diet of tinned food, sometimes served cold.

  • 5. Sentry duty

    Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench.
    Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench.
    Q 3990

    This photograph shows an infantryman on sentry duty, whilst some of his comrades snatch a few moments of sleep behind him. They are in what was previously a German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme, July 1916.

  • 6. Getting to sleep

    Men resting in sleeping shelters dug into the side of a trench near Contalmaison.
    Men resting in sleeping shelters dug into the side of a trench near Contalmaison.
    Q 4135

    When able to rest, soldiers in front line trenches would try and shelter from the elements in dugouts. These varied from deep underground shelters to small hollows in the side of trenches – as shown here.

  • 7. Daily life

    Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval.
    Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval.
    CO 2533

    Most activity in front line trenches took place at night under cover of darkness. During daytime soldiers would try to get some rest, but were usually only able to sleep for a few hours at a time.

  • 8. Keeping healthy

    Men of the 10th Brigade who had been in the front line trenches for several days have a foot inspection at Dragon Farm.
    Men of the 10th Brigade who had been in the front line trenches for several days have a foot inspection at Dragon Farm.
    E(AUS) 939

    Soldiers in wet and muddy trenches were at risk from trench foot, caused by continually wearing tight, cold and wet boots.  If untreated, trench foot could lead to gangrene, but it could be prevented by regular changes of socks and foot inspections – as shown here.

  • 9. Out of the trenches

    Soldiers bathing near Aveluy Wood.
    Soldiers bathing near Aveluy Wood.
    Q 913

    When soldiers were out of front line trenches and behind the lines they would be able to enjoy a full night’s sleep and a hot bath. There were also laundries where they could have their uniforms washed.

  • 10. 'Over the top'

    An officer of the 9th Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap during the spring battles of 1917.
    An officer of the 9th Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap during the spring battles of 1917.
    Q 5100

    Life in the front line always carried an element of danger. The threat could be from snipers, shellfire or from taking part in a trench raid or a major offensive. This rare photograph shows the moment when the first men go over the top during a raid in spring 1917.