Trenches were not always dug underground. Where the ground was too wet to dig, trenches could exist as breastworks built up above the ground. This painting by Paul Nash, who served at Ypres with The Hampshire Regiment, demonstrates this and captures some of the atmosphere of a trench illuminated at night by the harsh and eerie light of a star shell. Most trench raids would be mounted at night.
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Soldiers had dug trenches in wars long before 1914, and they would continue to dig them in other wars after the armistice of 1918. However, the association with the Western Front has proved enduring; the image of men living in muddy trenches under constant fire from the enemy defines the ‘Great War’ for many people.
Trenches came into widespread use following the end of mobile warfare in 1914 as a way for soldiers to protect themselves against the firepower of increasingly lethal modern weaponry. Over time, they developed into elaborate systems featuring belts of barbed wire, machine gun and mortar positions, and sometimes concrete bunkers, with the entire system covered by artillery.
Trenches were difficult to attack because they gave the defender many advantages. As a result, this encouraged the development of new tactics. By 1918, both sides were using artillery, tanks, aircraft, gas and new infantry weapons in close co-operation. These tactics enabled them to break enemy lines, but the depth of most defences meant that advancing further than a few miles remained difficult.
Between major actions, the intensity of trench warfare could vary enormously. In quieter sectors, troops of both sides might be content to let their time in the front line pass with only the minimum of offensive activity, sometimes just for show. In other sectors, a common activity between battles was night raiding of enemy trenches, with mortars and close-combat weapons such as hand grenades and bayonets playing key roles. These active sectors might also see frequent sniping, mortaring and shelling, all intended to harass or demoralise the enemy.
Soldiers of The Cheshire Regiment occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers on the Somme. German trenches were often stronger and more comfortable as they occupied higher defensive positions. This photograph also captures something of the nature of trench warfare – as one man looks anxiously towards the enemy, his comrades lie sprawled all around him, fast asleep.