From late 1914, the opposing armies in France and Belgium began to dig trenches to protect themselves from murderous fire

You're listening to Imperial War Museums, First World War Galleries, podcasts presented by James Taylor, head of the First World War Galleries team.

James Taylor: “From late 1914, the opposing armies in France and Belgium began to dig trenches to protect themselves from each other's murderous fire. The war on the Western Front was now deadlocked. The trenches became complex systems in which, for the soldiers who inhabited them, even finding your way around could be a challenge. Louise MacFarlane is a member of the First World War Galleries team.”

Louise MacFarlane: “The trench network grew across the European continent, from the channel to the Swiss border, but furthermore they also became a much larger network in which these men had to actually live and function, so they were communication trenches, they were supply trenches. So, it became an incredibly complex network that was essentially all about saving men's lives. Having been the invading army, Germany was occupying higher grounds, and this meant the Germans could consolidate their position and stay where they were, whereas the British and French had to find ever increasingly inventive ways to try and break through that German defence. The sort of side consequence of that means, of course, that the momentum in the war has now been lost and the deadlock area of the new galleries is all about what tactics, what new weapons, what new technologies were explored in an attempt to finally break out of that deadlock. One of the key objects that always comes to my mind when I think about these trenches are trench signs. The one that I like because it's evocative of where I live, is one named Piccadilly Circus, and it's particularly interesting to me because it gets to the core of what these signs were all about. This new subterranean world that soldiers would have had to encounter was a very complex network, so in order to help men they created these trench signs and some of them were incredibly sombre and serious, they acted as warning signs. There's one for instance called Hellfire Corner, which leaves very little to the imagination in terms of it being a place you want to avoid, while others were places that reminded you of home.”

James Taylor: “Trenches were much more than just ditches, and they varied in size and construction depending on who built them and where they built them.”

Louise MacFarlane: “There was a difference between the German and the British trenches. The German trenches, certainly ones that were discovered later on in the war when the British actually managed to move forward and capture their dugouts, were discovered to be incredibly luxurious and comfortable. They had great amenities in them. Some photographs suggest that they look almost like mini flats. They look very, very surprising. Whereas the British trenches, by comparison, tended to be less comfortable, there was a hope, I think maybe a belief that these would be temporary measures. The terrain across the European continent is obviously very, very different in different places, so around areas like Ypres, which was an incredibly muddy, waterlogged area, the trench would obviously be very difficult to maintain because the land would slip and slide and the trenches have to be constantly pushed back up again. Whereas in areas around the Somme the land was very chalky, so it was possible to build more secure, deeper trenches than they would have elsewhere.”

James Taylor: “Trench warfare was a deadly game of hide and seek against an almost invisible enemy. Danger could even lurk undetected below ground, teams of engineers tunnelled under enemy trenches, laying huge explosive mines.”

Louise MacFarlane: “German and British miners could encounter one another underground because they could obviously hear one another and so there was almost a race to get even deeper below the other, below their enemy and there are stories of them having encountered one another underground and, and basically fighting to death.”

James Taylor: “By 1915, commanders on the Western Front were frustrated by lack of progress and worried about soldiers’ morale. British troops were ordered to launch regular trench raids to keep up their fighting spirit. These raids were a chance for soldiers to attack the enemy rather than just to endure the trenches.”

Louise MacFarlane: “And these trench raids would literally involve men running across no man's land and actually trying to raid the enemy’s trench. So of course, it would have to be in an area where the trenches weren't too far apart and in order to do that, they would take close combat weapons with them, so things like grenades, clubs and knives, which I think is quite shocking to us really because while on the one hand we have modern artillery forcing men into the grounds into these subterranean worlds into these trenches, in a bid to try and overcome that, there's a return to more primitive weapons. For instance, we have one example that belonged to a private Harold Starting, and he made his club from his entrenching tool, and he took that handle, applied a clay mould to the end of it to create a trench club and we actually know of the first victim of this trench club because when Harold started and donated to the club to the museum, he told us all about it and he told us how effective it was as a weapon. And I think when we encounter those sorts of stories, we start to get to the reality of what it would have been like for many men there.”

James Taylor: “Harold Starting recorded that he had killed a German Sergeant from a Saxon regiment with his club. A number of objects in the galleries carry equally shocking or sad stories, but others tell us of human creativity and ingenuity.”

Louise MacFarlane: “One of the key objects that we have on display is a camouflage tree, and it's an incredible object that beggars belief that it actually even existed. But it's about, say 2 metres tall and you can see that it's marked with bullets all across the outer steel rim, which again is an incredibly evocative sense of the reality of the tree in situ. And what these trees were used for were observation posts. So, what would happen would be a team of artists that, for instance, in the British Army, were employed in the Royal Engineers would sketch a tree that had been its branches have been blasted off in no man's land. They would then at nighttime carefully and as quietly as possible, knock down this tree so as not to arouse the attention of the enemy. They would then take this tree behind the lines and create a replica, a steel core replica, and then again at nighttime they would erect. This new tree so that an observer could crawl up inside and be protected with a steel rim. Every time I look at it, I can't quite believe this as this thing was actually used that a man would have crawled up inside.”

James Taylor: “Life for a soldier could be tense and terrifying, but it was mainly horribly uncomfortable and dreary. There was an often exhausting schedule of working parties. Food was important not just for keeping men fighting and working, but also for keeping up their spirits. Laura Clouting is a member of the First World War Galleries team.”

Laura Clouting: “When you are engaged in this war, when you are fighting, when you are undergoing all sorts of drudgerous hard work, digging trenches, maintaining trenches, it's food that can really boost your morale, it's vital energy as much as anything. The ordinary British soldier can expect to have around 4000 calories provided to him a day by the British Army. Now, that's quite generous in terms of its calorie content. So, I think the issue from most soldiers isn't that they are not getting enough food, it's that the food that they're getting is pretty dull and it's pretty monotonous. Often it's things that come in tins all the time. So, we're talking tinned stews, bully beef tins, the same old jam every single day put on your army biscuit, which is so hard that it probably hurt your teeth when you bite into it. And so, what you see is men trying desperately to find other stuff to supplement their diets. We've got some great photographs from the collection which show cows being milked by soldiers just to give themselves a bit of you know, something else on the kind of more exotic fronts you know out in Mesopotamia, you find people find dates, melons, that kind of thing, using what's around them to supplement and boost their morale through food. I think something that's also really important to think about is what you're drinking. Cup of tea is probably going to be one of the highlights of your day and then found all sorts of ways to cook this food. Now, there were field kitchens a bit behind the front lines, but you've also got little small personal cookers, little Tommy cookers that you could buy privately and bring them over to the Front so you could make some food yourself. You would obviously have to be very careful not to send up telltale trails of smoke and be the victim of a sniper, but you do have these ways of making your food.”

One of the other morale boosts was rum. Now every soldier was given a tot of rum before battle, sometimes every single day if they were lucky and it was up to their commanding officer to dish out this rum and it would provide warmth, I think it was apparently very, very strong stuff administered out of clay jars and that in itself would just give you this perk.”

James Taylor: “Soldiers also looked for ways to keep themselves busy when not in action.”

Laura Clouting: “When you look at the ordinary soldier, it's quite easy just to see a number if you like, you see someone who's wearing the same uniform as the man next to him, got his army issued number, you know, where’s his personality in all of this? And I would argue strongly that men found so many ways to keep their own sense of identity, to keep their own sense of humour, to keep their own sense of self, and to offset boredom and the ways in which they did that were through all the different pastimes. They were very inventive, finding ways to occupy themselves. One of the amazing ways that they found to do this was through creating trench newspapers, even in the hostile conditions of trenches they found means to create these lovely little publications, humorously updating the unit with the latest news about Sergeant so and so has done this today, and this is the situation of the war, but done with such humour.”

James Taylor: “Some of the more artistically inclined soldiers made amazing creations from battlefield debris. Others looked for souvenirs to send home to their families.”

Laura Clouting: “Trench art, now there's a huge phenomenon of this during the First World War, which is basically taking rubbish used in warfare, so for example brass cases and turning them into really beautiful decorative bits of art. One of the things we have on display is this beautiful trench art jug made out of an 18 pounder shell with all sorts of beautiful inscriptions on it and even we have a walking stick made out of bullets. It's incredibly ornate stuff. I mean a lot of it is actually a lot more low key it's ashtrays made out of the bottom of the shell, cigarette lighters made of brass, you also have men souveniring. Now this is a big thing whereby it's a bit of kudos to take something of the enemies and to keep it as your own. You see men in battle taking Pickelhaube, the German helmets. You have, for example, one of the items going to put on display is a hunting knife found on a dead German soldier that has been sold eventually to the man who keeps it and writes home to his wife, sends it back home and says, ‘could you put this up in the dining room? Because I think it will look very nice on the mantlepiece’. It's that kind of idea of taking souvenirs of your time in battle, it's really, really popular. One of the huge morale boosts for ordinary soldiers was staying in touch with their families and their loved ones back home, and there is an immense effort involved in the sending of letters and parcels. Now there's an Army Postal Service and it handles millions of letters and parcels, parcels full of goodies to supplement your day. So, for example tea and cigarettes and OXO cubes and chocolates and puddings. These things are crossing over the sea to the Western Front, readily because men are in constant correspondence. Now our documents archive at the museum is incredible, it's a testament to all of the correspondents that survives. It's just really important to remember this war isn't being fought in a bubble, that soldiers have lots of communication with home. Not all soldiers liked writing home, let's make that clear. Some men were illiterate, couldn't write home, or just didn't like the drudgery of writing home and say so in their letters but most people loved the thread that it kept them together with their families.”

The First World War Galleries at IWM London are open now. Find out more at

By late 1914 the war on the Western Front had become deadlocked. Neither side had achieved victory in northern France and Belgium. They now dug trenches to protect themselves from each other’s murderous fire. Life for a front line soldier could be tense and terrifying. But it was mainly horribly uncomfortable and dreary.

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British First World War period trench sign

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