Living in the Trenches

Use these sources to learn about some of the challenges faced by people serving in different parts of the world.

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  • Aerial view of a trench system

    Aerial view of a trench system
    Aerial view of a trench system
    Q 61479

    Trenches were introduced very quickly during the First World War.  Trenches provided a very efficient way for soldiers to protect themselves against heavy firepower. Over time, they developed into elaborate systems like these trenches at Beaumont Hamel, photographed in 1916.  Trench systems included different features, like support trenches and communication trenches, as well as the front line trenches themselves.

  • British Army Shovel

    British Army Shovel
    British Army Shovel
    FEQ 5255

    General service shovels like this one were widely used in the excavation and construction of trenches. The trained sappers of the Royal Engineers used larger shovels, with broader blades, to help them create more extensive trench networks.

  • Oppy Wood by John Nash

    Oppy Wood by John Nash
    Oppy Wood by John Nash
    Art.IWM ART 2243

    Trench systems included different features, like support trenches and communication trenches, as well as the front line trenches themselves.  This painting of a trench also shows the area of land between enemy trench systems, known as No Man’s land.

  • Trenches in Salonika

    Trenches in Salonika
    Trenches in Salonika
    Q 31794

    Trench systems weren’t confined to the Western Front and were established in a variety of different landscapes across different fronts. This photograph shows stretcher-bearers carrying an injured man down a narrow communication trench in Salonika.  In this area of northern Greece, extremes of climate and the threat of disease led to more casualties than the fighting.

  • Anti-Mosquito Clothing

    Anti-Mosquito Clothing
    Anti-Mosquito Clothing
    HU 82035

    It was essential that soldiers were equipped to deal with conditions in the trenches. These conditions were different depending on where you were fighting, what the weather was, and the time of year. This photograph shows Lance Corporal Harrison wearing protective clothing which was issued to troops on night duty during the summer months in Salonika.

  • Living in the Trenches

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    Discover more about life in the trenches from Phil Dutton, one of Imperial War Museums curators .  This video includes archive film footage of soldiers in the trenches.

  • The Ypres Salient at Night by Paul Nash

    The Ypres Salient at Night by Paul Nash
    The Ypres Salient at Night by Paul Nash
    Art.IWM ART 1145

    Night time was often the busiest part of the day in the trenches, as it was easier to avoid detection by the enemy. It was the only time to repair your defences and go on patrol across no man’s land, whilst sentries would be on guard throughout the night.

  • Canadian Soldiers on the Western Front

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    During the day time soldiers often slept or wrote letters, like these Canadian soldiers photographed near Willerval.  In this interview James Pratt, of the Gordon Highlanders, describes an average day in the trenches.

  • Albert Tattersall

    Albert Tattersall
    Albert Tattersall
    Documents.15774

    Albert Tattersall (sitting down with his arms folded) was born in 1893.  He volunteered in 1914 with his brothers John (standing) and Norman (seated).  Albert came from Moston in Manchester and served with the Manchester Regiment (5th City Pals).

  • Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 1)

    Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 1)
    Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 1)
    Documents.15774

    In this letter home Albert describes life in the trenches.

  • Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 2)

    Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 2)
    Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 2)
    Documents.15774

    In this letter home Albert describes life in the trenches.

  • Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 3)

    Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 3)
    Letter from Albert Tattersall (Page 3)
    Documents.15774

    In this letter home Albert describes life in the trenches.

  • Cigarette Tin

    Cigarette Tin
    Cigarette Tin
    EPH 9795

    These cigarettes belonged to Albert Tattersall. Cigarettes were an important part of life in the trenches, and were given to soldiers as part of their rations.  If you didn’t smoke yourself they could be swapped and traded for other goods. Albert’s cigarettes were sent home after he died of wounds received on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

  • Army Biscuit

    Army Biscuit
    Army Biscuit
    EPH 2012

    Food was an important part of the daily routine and Biscuits like this one were part of the rations given to soldiers in the British Army.  They were infamous for being tough and hard to eat and were often crumbled or mixed with water to make them more edible.

  • Dinner Rations

    Dinner Rations
    Dinner Rations
    Q 1582

    Hot food was not supplied to front line soldiers until late 1915, but even then kitchens could not always get close enough to provide a hot meal for all soldiers. Troops in the front line often endured a repetitive diet of cold tinned food.  A unit would spend a few days in the front line, followed by periods in reserve and rest.

  • A party of WAACs marching through Etaples

    A party of WAACs marching through Etaples
    A party of WAACs marching through Etaples
    Q 8668

    The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed to carry out essential non-combatant tasks, so that more soldiers could be freed up for service in the front line.  The first party of 14 women arrived on the Western Front in March 1917 and eventually, 9,000 women served with the unit in France.

  • The Chinese Labour Corps

    The Chinese Labour Corps
    The Chinese Labour Corps
    Q 8447

    Men from China were recruited by the British Government from 1916 onwards to perform support work and manual labour as the Chinese Labour Corps . These duties included digging and maintaining trenches.  In this photograph men can be seen unloading duck boards from a train.

  • The British Army on the Western Front

    The British Army on the Western Front
    The British Army on the Western Front
    Q 5100

    This is one of the few photographs which shows the moment of an attack.  It shows an officer of the Scottish Rifles leading his men out of a trench for a raid on German trenches near Arras on 24 March 1917.

  • Camouflaged Steel Helmet

    Camouflaged Steel Helmet
    Camouflaged Steel Helmet
    UNI 8312

    Soldiers faced many dangers in the trenches, but most casualties on the Western Front were caused by artillery shells, explosions and shrapnel. The German army introduced this type of steel helmet in 1916 to help protect soldiers from head injuries and you can see an impact dent where this helmet has been struck.