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.

Photographs

1. Trench names

A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches - Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916.
© IWM (Q 4180)
A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches - Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916.

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.

Photographs

2. Water and mud

Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier in January 1915.
© IWM (Q 51569)
Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) returning from a tour of his unit's positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier in January 1915.

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.

Photographs

3. Trenches on other fronts

Despatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters.
© The Rights Holder (Q 61079)
Despatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters.

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.

Photographs

4. Tea time in the trenches

Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Croix du Bac, near Armentieres. A variety of cooking methods were employed including primus stoves and braziers and soldiers produced a lunch of hot 'bully beef' hash from tins of corned beef.
© IWM (Q 583)
Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Croix du Bac, near Armentieres. A variety of cooking methods were employed including primus stoves and braziers and soldiers produced a lunch of hot 'bully beef' hash from tins of corned beef.

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.

Photographs

5. Sentry duty

Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme. In this photograph one man keeps sentry duty, looking over the parados and using an improvised fire step cut into the back slope of the trench, while his comrades rest.
© IWM (Q 3990)
Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme.

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.

Photographs

6. Getting to sleep

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

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.

Photographs

7. Daily life

Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval. Night time in the trenches was often a busy time; wiring parties, fatigue parties and raiding parties would all be sent out at night. The day time, therefore, was the time for relaxation and trying to catch a little sleep.
© IWM (CO 2533)
Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval. Night time in the trenches was often a busy time; wiring parties, fatigue parties and raiding parties would all be sent out at night.

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.

Photographs

8. Keeping healthy

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

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.

Photographs

9. Out of the trenches

British soldiers bathing near Aveluy Wood, August 1916.
© IWM (Q 913)
British soldiers bathing near Aveluy Wood, August 1916.

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.

Photographs

10. 'Over the top'

An officer of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap and is being followed by the party. Note shells bursting in the distance. Near Arras, 24 March 1917.
© IWM (Q 5100)
An officer of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap and is being followed by the party. Note shells bursting in the distance. Near Arras, 24 March 1917.

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.

Watch: Trench warfare explained

When it comes to the First World War, there’s one thing that we all think of. Trenches. Muddy, rat-infested hell holes with death around every corner. Places so bad that only going over the top could actually be worse. Trenches dominate our perspective. But are our perceptions actually accurate? Well, today we’re going to answer three big questions: Why did trenches exist? What were they actually like? And how did the Allies manage to break the trench deadlock?

But before we do that, a reminder to subscribe to Imperial War Museums YouTube channel, for more videos just like this every two weeks.

So let's start simple, how prevalent were Trenches during the First World War?

Trenches were really the defining concept of the First World War. They were literally on every front. The Western Front most famously in France and Belgium, they were in Gallipoli, they were in the mountains of Northern Italy, they were in the Middle East, even in Africa. Trenches were everywhere.

Which then begs the question why? What did trenches offer to First World War armies?

Trenches are really an antidote to modern weaponry. When the First World War comes along everybody thinks it's going to be a war of movement with masses of infantry and cavalry moving forward. Classic old-style battle. The reality though was very different. Attacking Armies were confronted with previously unimaginable amounts of firepower thanks to new warfighting technologies. Machine guns are firing hundreds of bullets per minute, a modern magazine rifle can fire 20-30 rounds a minute and then you have artillery firing shrapnel. These are shells that explode in the air and fire lead bullets towards the enemy. An absolute killing zone can be created and that really puts the emphasis and the advantage with the defender. So they begin to dig in in 1914 and they never stop until the end of the war.

Initially, Trenches were seen as a temporary measure, one which armies would move on from soon enough. These early trenches were more like ditches, the kind you'd see at the side of a road today, but over the course of the war they developed into more complex systems.

And you end up with a fire trench, which is your frontline trench, then a support trench and then behind that a reserve trench. So you've got three lines connected by what's called communication trenches so that men and material and supplies can move up and down between the trench lines without having to go over open ground. As trench systems developed, sometimes particular trenches were given names to help identify them. As you can see in this picture, sometimes those names related to familiar places from home.

If you look at the battlements of a castle and you lay them down on the ground that's the pattern you get on a frontline trench. The idea was that if a shell lands in one of these bays it's contained, the explosion's contained so you cut down the casualties.

Though trench systems developed, life inside one was far more rudimentary. 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 the trench – as shown here.  Most activity in front line trenches took place at night under the cover of darkness. While during daytime hours, soldiers would try to get some rest, but we’re usually only able to sleep for a few hours at a time.

And of course rats, they proliferate around the trenches, they feed on the dead bodies. Men would wake up face to face with a rat sitting on their chest. You would also get problems in summer or in hotter climates from masses of flies. Of course, flies move from corpses to toilets to food, that way spreading diseases such has dysentery etc. So just your basic daily life is pretty monotonous.

And if you think trench life is boring, the food was worse. According to Harold Mayall of the Durham Light Infantry: "Rations were very poor... You’d try to brew tea and you couldn’t, it was always cold and probably the water was all tastedof petrol because it came up in petrol tins – which were never cleaned out properly – and the tea was half petrol and cold. The food, they were supposed to give you some bacon, well you were lucky if you got a piece of bacon it was all cold and greasy. I mean you couldn’t get any... And the cooks, probably if a man was a chartered accountant they’d make him a cook or something like that because it was always square pegs in round holes, you know. They couldn’t cook; we used to say they couldn’t boil water without spoiling it or something. The food was terrible."

Though the food was nothing compared to the ever-present danger. An artillery shell, a sniper's bullet. Those are two of the most almost random ways you can die. The shells aren't aimed they're just aimed at a particular area of trench and if you happen to be there at the wrong time potentially you're going to get killed. One minute you were talking to your best mate and the next minute he could be gone. And that, almost random, death took a real psychological toll on the soldiers.

For that reason, the armies tried to rotate people through the line. So the idea, you'd stay in the frontline for say 4-6 days and then if possible you'd move back to the support line for a similar period of time and then the reserve line and then you'd get a period actually behind the line. Naturally, being behind the line was a favourite time for many soldiers. You could get a hot bath, a good nights sleep and a clean pair of clothes. Many played sports, took part in amateur dramatics or even got to head back to Britain for home leave.

During all this time there were many attempts to break the deadlock, large and small, new ideas were being continuously experimented with.

The First World War is almost like an arms race between the defence and the offence. So the defence develop a new way of holding ground then the attacking side has to find a way of overcoming that. If they achieve that, then again the defence needs to come up with a new tactic. Despite the many well-documented disasters, from the Somme to Passchendaele, all the time armies were learning. Officers who had been trained on classical battle techniques were beginning to learn how trench warfare worked, while generals were beginning to master the management of giant armies.

And they try a number of things. They use massed artillery fire. So they have what are called barrage lifts, where they fire on set lines for a certain period of time, then they lift forward and fire again, then lift forward and fire again and the infantry follow up. They use poison gas as well, the idea of poison gas floating and then later shelled into the lines. The idea is it makes you put on a gas mask. Once you put your gas mask on its very hard to see or hear anything, it's hard to breathe and it just debilitates your ability to actually fight.

In 1916, the British bring the tank onto the battlefield. Initially it's not very successful, later in the war, they redefine the tactics and the way it's used and the numbers of tanks used. They have new infantry tactics. You now have light machine guns, rifle grenades, trench mortars. The light machine guns and mortars etc lay down fire and the infantrymen move forward and occupy a position.

All of these weapons were invented at different times and in 1918 for the Allies, they all come together. At the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, the largest combined arms offensive of the war, the Allies were finally able to break the trench deadlock. Those 4 years of turgid learning finally brought about the resumption of open warfare. In just one day, the allies had made almost unheard of advances. Pushing into the German line 11km deep on a 24km wide front. It was so successful that General Ludendorf called it 'the black day of the German army'.

I think the trench captures the public imagination and probably goes down as the defining feature of the First World War. The incumbent view is that every day was like the first day of the Somme which it blatantly wasn't. Casualties were terrible and on a terrible scale, but we were fighting a total war at that time. The whole trench experience was a terrible experience, but the men fought through it and they never lost their faith in the fact that they had to fight that war to a successful conclusion. And I think that's a really important.

In this episode of IWM Stories we answer three big questions:

Why did trenches exist?

What were conditions like inside the trenches?

And how did trench warfare come to an end?

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