The Front Line

British soldiers occupy a captured German trench. © IWM (Q 3990)

What had begun as a war of movement came to a standstill in September 1914, as both Allied and German troops dug in to take cover and hold their ground. By early 1915, trenches sliced across France from the North Sea to the Swiss border. By 1918, if the trenches along the Western Front were laid end to end they would have stretched for about 25,000 miles – equivalent to the Earth’s circumference.

Often the Germans held the best positions on higher ground, while Allied troops had to dig in on poorer ground. Local conditions threw up different challenges: chalky ground was easy to dig but prone to collapse, while boggy ground and a high water table that meant trenches had to be shallow with high sandbag and timber parapets. The sandy clay soils at Pollok Country Park are similar to those at Mametz, where more than 4,000 British soldiers (many of them Welsh) were killed or injured over five days in July 2016.

The Allied and German lines were entrenched in deadlock until 1918, but technology and tactics were constantly evolving in the attempt by both sides to gain the upper hand. Trench designs and field equipment developed to protect troops from increasingly lethal weapons, improve communications and make life in the trenches more viable during what would become a very long stand-off.

Trenches began as simple, improvised scrapes in the ground to provide basic protection. They evolved into complex, interlocking defensive works spanning huge areas, with shell-proof dugouts designed to resist artillery bombardments and mass infantry assaults. They typically consisted of three lines, all connected by communications trenches: a front line guarded by lines of barbed wire, a support line and a reserve line.

Trenches zigzagged along their course rather than running straight, or were broken into firebays connected by traverses in a Greek key pattern to limit the effects of sweeping machine-gun fire (enfilade), exploding shells and poison gas. Between the enemy lines lay No Man’s Land, and both sides dug tunnels beneath it for mines and listening posts. Dressing stations provided emergency medical treatment for the wounded, who were then moved to field hospitals behind the lines.