Life in the Trenches

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Life in the Trenches:

Life in the Trenches World War I


Death Death was a constant companion to those serving in the line. Inexperienced soldiers were cautioned against their natural inclination to peer over the parapet of the trench into No Man’s Land. Many men died on their first day in the trenches due to a precisely aimed snipe’s bullet. It has been estimated that up to one third of Allied casualties on the Western Front were actually sustained in the trenches. 

Rat Infestation:

Rat Infestation Millions of rats infested trenches.  Two main types, the brown and the black rat.  Both were despised but the brown rat was especially feared.  Gorging themselves on human remains (grotesquely disfiguring them by eating their eyes and liver) they could grow to the size of a cat. A single rat couple could produce up to 900 offspring in a year, spreading infection and contaminating food. 

Frogs, lice and worse:

Frogs, lice and worse Lice were also never-ending problem causing men to itch unceasingly. Even when clothing was periodically washed and deloused, lice eggs invariably remained hidden in the seams. Lice caused Trench Fever, a particularly painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever.  Recovery - away from the trenches - took up to twelve weeks.  Frogs by the score were found in shell holes covered in water; they were also found in the base of trenches.  Many men chose to shave their heads entirely to avoid nits.

The Trench Cycle:

The Trench Cycle Typically, a battalion would be expected to serve a spell in the front line.  This would be followed by a stint spent in support, and then in reserve lines.  A period of rest would follow - generally short in duration - before the whole cycle of trench duty would start afresh.

Trench Foot:

Trench Foot A fungal infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions.  It could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. 

Stand to:

Stand to The daily routine began with the morning ‘stand to’.  An hour before dawn everyone was ordered to climb up on the fire step to guard against a dawn raid by the enemy, bayonets fixed. This policy of ‘stand to’ was adopted by both sides, and despite the knowledge that each side prepared itself for raids or attacks timed at dawn, many were actually carried out at this time. Both sides would often relieve the tension of the early hours with machine gun fire, shelling and small arms fire, directed into the mist to their front: this made doubly sure of safety at dawn.

Rum, Rifles and the Breakfast Truce:

Rum, Rifles and the Breakfast Truce With stand to over, in some areas rum might then be issued to the men.  They would then attend to the cleaning of their rifle equipment. Breakfast would next be served.  In essentially every area of the line at some time or other each side would adopt an unofficial truce while breakfast was served and eaten.  Truces such as these seldom lasted long; invariably a senior officer would hear of its existence and quickly stamp it out.  Nevertheless it persisted throughout the war, and was more prevalent in quieter sectors of the line.

Inspection and Chores:

Inspection and Chores With breakfast over the men would be inspected by either the company or platoon commander.  Once this had been completed NCOs would assign daily chores to each man. Daily chores included the refilling of sandbags, the repair of the duckboards on the floor of the trench and the draining of trenches. Particularly following heavy rainfall, trenches could quickly accumulate muddy water, making life ever more miserable for its occupants as the walls of the trench rapidly became misshapen and were prone to collapse.

Daily Boredom:

Daily Boredom Given that each side's front line was constantly under watch by snipers and look-outs during daylight, movement was logically restricted until night fell.  Thus, once men had concluded their assigned tasks they were free to attend to more personal matters, such as the reading and writing of letters home. Meals were also prepared.  Sleep was snatched wherever possible - although it was seldom that men were allowed sufficient time to grab more than a few minutes rest before they were detailed to another task.


Dusk With the onset of dusk the morning ritual of stand to was repeated, to guard against a surprise attack as light fell. This over, the trenches became a hive of activity.  Supply and maintenance activities could be undertaken.  Men would be sent to the rear lines to fetch rations and water. Other men would be assigned sentry duty on the fire step.  Generally men would be expected to provide sentry duty for up to two hours.  Any longer and there was a real risk of men falling asleep on duty - for which the penalty was death by firing squad.

Patrolling No Man’s Land:

Patrolling No Man’s Land Patrols would often be sent out into No Mans Land.  Some men would be tasked with repairing or adding barbed wire to the front line.  Others however would go out to assigned listening posts, hoping to pick up valuable information from the enemy lines. Sometimes enemy patrols would meet in No Man's Land.  They were then faced with the option of hurrying on their separate ways or else engaging in hand to hand fighting. They could not afford to use their handguns while patrolling in No Man's Land, for fear of the machine gun fire it would inevitably attract, deadly to all members of the patrol.

Relieving Men at the Front:

Relieving Men at the Front Men were relieved front-line duty at night-time too.  Relieving units would wind their weary way through numerous lines of communications trenches, weighed down with equipment and trench stores (such as shovels, picks, corrugated iron, duckboards, etc.). 

And the Smell:

And the Smell Finally, no overview of trench life can avoid the aspect that instantly struck visitors to the lines: the appalling reek given off by numerous conflicting sources. Rotting carcasses lay around in their thousands.  Overflowing latrines would give off a most offensive stench. Men who had not been afforded the luxury of a bath in weeks or months would offer the pervading odor of dried sweat.  The feet were generally accepted to give off the worst odor.

Works Cited:

Works Cited