Life in the Trenches

Life in the trenches was all about discomfort, dirt, dislocation, disease and death. Above all was a sense of grinding boredom, punctuated by moments of extreme danger.

On average, soldiers spent only 15% of their time on the front line, 10% on the support line, 30% in reserve and 45% out of the trenches altogether. They typically spent no more than two weeks on the front line and often less than a week, although this could vary a great deal. It was not all chaos and carnage in a welter of blood and high explosive; by mid 1915 the British trench was a highly organised method of living and fighting which, paradoxically, saved lives. Though no trench was ever comfortable or entirely safe, things like weather, communications and suitable ground could affect daily life as much as the proximity and actions of the enemy.

Equipment belts were issued to every soldier and used on all fronts throughout the war. © IWM (EQU 3810)

Equipment belts were issued to every soldier and used on all fronts throughout the war. © IWM (EQU 3810)

Life in the trenches demanded high levels of discipline, efficiency and morale. It was a topsy-turvy world. Daytime saw dreary domesticity in the trenches and dugouts: the daily round of standing to arms and ‘morning hate’ (firing at the enemy at sunrise); digging latrines, repairing trenches, cleaning weapons; attempting to rest, writing letters, playing cards. At night, the trenches came alive as men performed duties that could not be safely done in daylight: replenishing supplies, repairing wires, recovering bodies, conducting raids and so on.

Along with hard physical labour and extreme discomfort, soldiers had to cope with extraordinary mental stress – both from boredom and from the horrors and brutality they witnessed. They often experienced a sense of dislocation between this grim environment and the normality of life back home.

Trench warfare is often portrayed as a static kind of fighting punctuated by titanic battles and the dreaded event of going over the top. In reality, it was a constant round of small but vicious engagements to establish physical and psychological dominance over the enemy, and men rarely engaged in major daylight assaults. Instead they undertook continual raids, reconnaissance, sapping, sniping, bombing and mining to put the enemy on the back foot.