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Trench Warfare and World War One: 400 Miles of Hell

James is a WWI enthusiast. When he writes he tries to paint a picture in the readers' mind rather than tell a story.

The brutal reality of trench warfare hit home for millions during World War One.

The brutal reality of trench warfare hit home for millions during World War One.

The Western Front: North Sea to the French-Swiss Border

From 1914 until 1918, the world was at war. The Great War, as it was known at the time, was the most horrific and bloodiest war that the world had ever witnessed. Millions of young men were wounded or lost their lives fighting for their countries.

Almost 11% of the population of France was killed or wounded and roughly 116,000 Americans were killed—even though the U.S. was only in the war for about 7 months.

The Western Front, which stretched over 400 miles from the North Sea at Belgium to the French border with Switzerland, became the main focal point of the war once both sides dug themselves into trenches.

Trench Warfare Meant No Progress

Trench warfare changed peoples thinking of the war. Before the soldiers dug themselves in, it was thought that the fighting would be over quickly and the soldiers would be back at home with their families by Christmas.

A war fought in trenches meant that it was extremely difficult to make progress in battle. Taking ground from an enemy was almost impossible because as soon as an enemy trench attacked evasive action was immediate and effective. Machine gun fire, heavy shelling and counterattack meant that attacking forces rarely made progress.

The soldiers who fought in the trenches of the war often said that it was the closest thing that man could create on earth that compared to the damnation of Hell. Men living in cramped conditions with death, illness and disease all around them.

A Smell Never Forgotten

It is difficult to describe the smell that the soldiers endured from day to day in the trenches. It was a stagnant bitter cocktail with many sources that some said was the true smell of death.

Rotting soldier corpses mixed with the acrid cordite from shell and gunfire. The soldiers' latrines or toilets were open pits offering an aroma of raw fresh human waste. Cooking smells from the trench kitchens, rather than improving the smell, added to the putrid stench. Men smoking and going unwashed for days at a time also contributed.

It was a smell that the men who survived the trenches would never forget.

A severe case of trench foot, which often led to amputation.

A severe case of trench foot, which often led to amputation.

Rain turned trenches into mud holes. Soldiers constantly had their feet in mud and water, which became a major problem. Many began to show symptoms of trench foot, a debilitating infection that often resulted in amputation of toes, or even the whole foot.

Trenches Were Incubators of Disease

Disease was rife in the trenches as rats and lice spread disease and infection. House flies, horse flies, wasps and bees were some of the flying insects that soldiers had to cope with, and of course, there were slugs, snails, maggots and other creepy crawlies in the mud and guts.

Explosions and gunfire, screams from wounded and dying men, and watching friends and fellow soldiers killed on a daily basis took a mental toll on many young men. "Shell shock" became a major problem. Constant fatigue, dizzy spells, lack of concentration and severe depression were symptoms of shell shock, which if left untreated eventually turned into a full mental breakdown.

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Constant Degradation of Mental Health

Soldiers suffering from shell shock were removed from the front line and sent to a hospital in the UK. Most never made a full recovery and were given an honorary discharge from the army on medical grounds.

Some Western Front soldiers actually suffered fatal internal injuries and heart failure from shell percussion. They were found dead without bleeding or obvious wounds.

Trench Warfare Was Tactically Pointless

No matter which side you were fighting on, you always knew when an attack was coming, which meant you always had time to prepare.

Attacking forces started with a heavy bombardment of artillery fire for at least an hour, in an effort to break down enemy defenses. Unfortunately, it rarely worked out that way. Attacking soldiers were ordered to "go over the top," which meant climbing out of the trenches and marching toward the enemy with bayonets fixed to their guns.

Unless Bloodbaths Were the Point

As soldiers marched, they were bombarded by more heavy artillery, which rarely broke down their defenses, and actually gave them a warning that an attack was underway.

When the artillery fire stopped, defending soldiers emerged from their trenches and opened fire on the attacking units. This more often than not ended in a bloodbath for the attacking forces, who'd be forced back to their own trenches.

World War One and a Lost Generation

World War One was a horrific tragedy that left its mark on the world. When the war ended in 1918, a generation of young men had been lost, and the land was scarred forever by heavy bombardments.

Millions of young men fought and died in the trenches from gunshot wounds, artillery shrapnel, illness, disease and infection. And tens of thousands of soldiers came home from the war missing limbs. According to some estimates, Germany suffered 67,000 amputations during WWI, while Britain catalogued 41,000.

Mere Setup for World War Two

World War One taught humanity a tragic lesson about the futility of war. Leaders of the major powers agreed that a war on this scale should never be allowed to happen again. Sadly, as resolute as they may have been about peace in 1919, a second world war broke out in Europe only 20 years later.

© 2013 Jimmy the jock


Jimmy the jock (author) from Scotland on February 13, 2018:

The Battle Of Hazebrouck; 29th Division in an action known as The Defence Of The Nieppe Forest.

Sarah on March 16, 2015:

This is brilliant. Thank you so much. Definitely using your site for assignments later on in the year. Thanks!

Bianca Murray on March 16, 2015:

this is cool :)

Bianca on March 16, 2015:

yo brah this is whack

Amie Butchko from Warwick, NY on March 13, 2014:

What a beautiful hub, because it reminds us to be grateful to men that gave so much to our country. It is unimaginable what they went through and a tragedy that should be studied by every generation, and never be forgotten.

Highland Terrier from Dublin, Ireland on October 20, 2013:

Excellent piece, makes you realise just what people suffer in war, and then you wonder for what?

If I not mistaken we actually shot soldiers with shell shock as cowards.

Well done.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 19, 2013:

Sir John French, the overall British commander on the Western Front was ousted in 1915 by Sir Douglas Haig (don't be vague), whose wife Dorothy Maud was a lady-in-waiting at court. Haig's claim to fame as a military man was limited to cavalry operations and managed to 'squeeze in' a cavalry charge against the German front line with the result that nearly all the men involved were mown down. He didn't get the nickname 'Butcher' just for wiping out half the male population of the north and north west in the 'Pals' battalions.

He was well rewarded with a knighthood (Order of the Thistle) for his 'population control' methods, just as Goering thought he ought to be rewarded for slum clearance around the East End of London.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 19, 2013:

I couldn't resist an additional comment: if every general who uttered the words "the war will be over by Christmas" -- in any language-- were thrown out of the military, there wouldn't be enough left to fight the next battle.

watcher by night on October 18, 2013:

Hey, Jimmy, I noticed that you wrote a Kindle book on this subject and it certainly shows. Great research and very interestingly written. This also struck an extra chord with me because I recently wrote about the experiences of C. S. Lewis as a British soldier in the Battle of the Somme. Lewis wrote a short but powerful passage in his autobiography in which he talked about "horribly smashed men still moving like half crushed beetles..."

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 18, 2013:

Yeah! Congratulations, jimmy. I love it when history makes Hub of the Day-- especially a WW1 hub. Way to go!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 18, 2013:

Hello Jimmy. This is an extensive overview of the Western Front.

However some things have been left overlooked.

1. Gas: gas attacks were inflicted by the Germans initially, and reciprocated by exploding gas shells over German trenches. Gassing left many soldiers unable to breathe, many died and many more were permanently blinded - that's a general look at the issue you could develop here in detail;

2. Mining: towards the end of the war British sappers developed a form of warfare new to the Germans but which had been practiced as far back as the 100 Years War on the French fortifications - with a difference. Instead of the original undermining of castle or city walls, in WWI the mine shafts were dug first vertically and then horizontally, as 'faces' in coal mines, under the German trenches. When detonated, it was reported the explosions 'rattled tea cups in Downing Street'. The deep holes are still visible in the southern Belgian countryside. One effect of the mining was to demoralise the Germans to a great extent, leaving them wondering where the next attacks would be. However, mining could be counter-productive, with the Germans occasionally breaking into British tunnels and capturing the sappers, setting off the explosives under the British trenches.

JPSO138 from Cebu, Philippines, International on October 18, 2013:

I always love history not only about war but in general as well. This is an awesome hub, informative, educational and well written. Hubs like this encourages me to write more. Congratulations!

Jimmy the jock (author) from Scotland on October 18, 2013:

Hub of the day, Oh My, I am honored and flattered, thank you Hubpages and to all of you who have commented today.....jimmy

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on October 18, 2013:

Congrats of HOTD Jimmy! :)

MG Singh from UAE on October 18, 2013:

Excellent post. Trench warfare was peculiar to WWI and caused heavy casualities

Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on October 18, 2013:


Thanks for researching and writing this informative Hub. Congratulations for having your article named Hub of the Day today (October 18, 2013). It's a well-deserved honor.

Samita Sharma from Chandigarh on October 18, 2013:

Great hub with lots of interesting facts.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on October 18, 2013:

I had a history minor as an undergrad, but I didn't really "get" WWI until I read "Fall of the Giants" by Ken Follett in recent years. Articles like this shine a light on the War to End All Wars. Over one hundred thousand lost in seven months? Amazing.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on September 27, 2013:

Excellent historical Hub, Jimmy. The fighting in the trenches during World War I were truly hellish. This war was an example of war technology advancing so fast that it outstripped the understanding of the Generals as to how to fight it.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on September 23, 2013:

Very interesting and well written hub Jimmy. My grandfather was a King's Own Royal Borderer at the start of the war. He served in France, then Gallipoli, back to the Western Front as a machine gunner and then to Iraq. I never knew him, but I often wonder about the things he saw and had to endure during those years. He was incredibly lucky to survive so long, but it must have been tough going. When I hit a rough patch, I just think that if he could come through four years of that, nothing I'm going through can be that bad!

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 22, 2013:

Hey, Jimmy, great article. It's hard to imagine what life was like despite all the photos, movies, etc showing us. Maybe if we lived outdoors during the spring's rains, summer's scorching days, autumn's rains and winter's sub-zero blizzards for four and a half years in northern Europe whilst the ground randomly exploded, we might have a clue. But your hub, including the smells, is a good start.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 22, 2013:

World War I is a rarely discussed subject because it lacks the drama, glamour, and cast of evil villains of the second. Thanks for taking the time to bring us up to speed.

Jimmy the jock (author) from Scotland on September 21, 2013:

Thanks Graham for your visit and your awesome comment, you flatter me with your words.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on September 21, 2013:

Hi Jimmy. Breath taking that's what I say. I know you have an interest in this subject As I do myself. This I think is the best and most informative hub I have read on these pages. There's nothing you could have added. It is incredible that the Germans had such luxurious trenches, obviously only in certain areas, whilst we had nothing but trench foot. Well done.

Voted up and all.


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