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WWI Trench Warfare

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

Map of the WWI Western Front

The bolded black line on the map shows where the trenches stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

The bolded black line on the map shows where the trenches stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

WWI Trench Warfare

On the 28th of July 1914, WWI began and soldiers from both sides of the battle began digging big holes in the ground where they would live, eat, sleep, fight and die together.

The trenches became the battle ground of the Great War, as well as the final resting place for millions of young men, some as young as seventeen years old.

Most of the men who served in the trenches between 1914 and 1918 were not really solders. They were either volunteers who gave up their everyday jobs to serve their country in its time of need, or they were drafted; as the war progressed, subscription was introduced, and if your name was called then you had to enlist in the armed services.

After six weeks of basic traning, the young men were sent to war really unprepared for the unimaginable horrors that lay ahead of them.

The Western Front WWI

The Western Front during WWI stretched from the North Sea at Belgium to the Swiss frontier with France, over 240 miles long. Fighting a war in the trenches would bring an end to speculation of a quick war that would be over by Christmas.

Trench Warfare

Trench warfare meant a long, drawn-out war, a stalemate; men would be shot down in the thousands as they tried to go over the top into the enemy trenches. Most were hit before they could even get 50 yards out of their own trenches, making it almost impossible for either side to gain ground on the other.

Holes in the ground were home to millions of soldiers throughout the war years, and although many men died in battle, just as many were killed by disease or infection brought on by the inhuman, unsanitary conditions of life in the trenches.

Poison Gas in the Trenches of WWI

After a poison gas attack the smell would linger for days, adding to the many pungent aromas in the trenches.

After a poison gas attack the smell would linger for days, adding to the many pungent aromas in the trenches.

Smells in the Trenches WWI

New recruits on their initial approach to the trenches would often be overcome by the putrid stench that hit them; for some men it would be too much, and they would become physically sick even before they reached the front line.

Rotting flesh from bodies in shallow graves; overflowing cesspits full of feces and urine; and the creosote and chlorine used to cover up the cesspits and to try to stave off infections or disease all made up an unbearable stench. Adding to the smell were also millions of sandbags rotting from dampness from the rain, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke and even the smell of the men already in the trenches who hadn't managed to have a decent wash in weeks.

The smell of battle also filled the air, stinging the nostrils of new recruits: acrid cordite smells from the ever lasting heavy shell fire, the lingering odor of poison gasses that were sometimes used, and of course the gunpowder smell from the soldiers firearms.

The soldiers never really got used to the smell but became accustomed to living with it. Some soldiers claimed that the smell never left them, even years after the war was over.

WWI Trench Diagram

A typical trench used during world war one.  This diagram does not really show the difficulties soldiers faced every day.

A typical trench used during world war one. This diagram does not really show the difficulties soldiers faced every day.

WWI Trench Life

French soldiers in a captured German trench

French soldiers in a captured German trench

Disease and Infection in the trenches of WWI

The soldiers were never alone in the trenches; many creatures also made the trenches their home, which was not really unexpected when you consider the abundance of food that life in the trenches created for them. These creatures were to play a big factor in the health of the fighting soldiers, as they were all carriers of disease and infection.

Rats in the Trenches

Rats thrived in the trenches. Almost everywhere you looked, rats would be running around in the thousands, eating human remains, dead insects and anything else that would fit in their mouths. The rats were beyond human control because they were in their ideal breeding ground; for every 10 rats killed, another 100 would be born. Some of the rats were so well fed that they grew to the size of a domestic cat.

It was a widespread belief amongst the soldiers in the trenches that the rats knew in advance when the enemy was going to attack with a heavy bombardment of shells; the rats always seemed to disappear minutes before an enemy attack.

Lice in the Trenches

Lice were ever-present in the trenches and caused a lot of problems for soldiers. Although a lot of the men shaved off every bit of hair from their heads and bodies, the lice lived in their clothes and fed on their blood.

Even when their clothes were washed and deloused, some eggs still survived in the seams of the soldiers uniforms and would re-infect them.

Lice were carriers of trench fever, a particularly painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever which took up to 12 weeks to recover from. It wasn't discovered until 1918 that the lice were the cause it.

Frogs in the Trenches

Millions of frogs were found in water holes made by shell fire and in the bases of the trenches, along with slugs and horned beetles that lined the walls. Nits were also a major problem, again forcing men to shave their head and body hair.

Flies and Maggots in the trenches

With so much rotting flesh around, flies and maggots were a constant problem with the soldiers. They were everywhere and anywhere, and most soldiers wrapped scarves or towels around their mouths to avoid swallowing them. Flies were responsible for the spread of many infections and diseases in the trenches.

Trench Foot

The trenches were always waterlogged, which meant that the soldiers living in them always had wet feet. This caused a major problem called trench foot, especially if it was left untreated for a while. Trench foot is a fungal infection of the feet which if not treated can get easily infected and turn gangrenous, leading, in most cases, to amputation of some or all of the foot. In 1915, duck boards were quickly introduced into the trenches, placed above the common waterlines as a prevention, and although there were still a few sufferers throughout the duration of the war, trench foot saw a rapid decline.

Shell Shock

Constant heavy artilliary fire took its toll on many of the soldiers' mental health.

Constant heavy artilliary fire took its toll on many of the soldiers' mental health.

Two percent of the men serving in the trenches between 1914 and 1918, around eighty thousand of the men who fought in the war, were the victims of shell shock.

The early symptoms of shell shock included constant tiredness, irritability, dizziness, headaches and trouble concentrating. Eventually these men would suffer from a full mental breakdown, making it impossible for them to remain on the front line.

It was concluded that the constant barrage of shell fire from both sides was to blame; an exploding shell created a vacuum in the head, and when the air rushed into that vacuum, it would disturb the cerebro-spinal fluid and upset the workings of the brain.

WWI in Color: Slaughter in the Trenches

Trench Warfare: Hell on Earth

Trench warfare was often said to be hell on earth, and for good reason; there was no real living in a world surrounded by death. Even the soldiers who survived were haunted by nightmares of their time served fighting.

They may have survived the bullets and diseases of the trenches, and they may have gone on to live successful and happy lives; but the memories of dead friends and family members who fought beside them never left their thoughts.

They sacrificed everything for their country, and for that we should always remember them.

Questions & Answers

Question: What weapon was used to force Allied troops out of trenches?

Answer: In the early days of World War One, poison gas was used to force troops out of the trenches.

Question: What was the smell like while fighting in the trenches in World War I?

Answer: The smell in the trenches can only be imagined: rotting bodies, gunpowder, rats, human and other excrement and urine, as well as the damp smell of rotting clothes, oil, and many other smells mixed into one foul cesspit of a smell.


Gab on October 16, 2017:

Just letting you know that you wrote subscription instead of conscription in the third paragraph

Yusuf on August 26, 2014:

This article was amazing and helped me with my homework

Lana Adler from California on August 01, 2014:

I love how you are PAINTING the story rather than telling the story. Nicely done!

LFH on January 06, 2014:


Dorothy Kernoghan on July 05, 2013:

The site is interesting to me, I am researching my fathers time in the British army, unfortunately on the Military site all his records were destroyed by fire. He was a gunner in WW1 and in WW2 the Home Guuard, London Area,,also on the guns.I was an evacuee during that time. I cannot find any list of records. Any suggestions of sites that would be helpful?

frank on June 19, 2013:

good website, very helpful. poor people no one ever wins a war

bob on June 19, 2013:

this website is very helpful thanks

john jones on June 17, 2013:

This site is very useful to my history project and i loved read about it! in was like totz amazballs interesting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :DDDDDDDDDD::DDD

bob on May 17, 2013:


batha on May 13, 2013:

I think if there's a war you should seriously go and support your country ,not just sit there cause what if they come after you

BOB on April 30, 2013:

Good for a World War 1 project

Seth on April 29, 2013:

I'll tell you what this page was a life saver. It really helped with my Historical investigation for HOA. It gave me just what i needed to prove my thesis. Thank you!

pooja on April 28, 2013:

hmm... I don't think war is a waste of time. I like the fact that one has to establish him or herself in the world. But interesting info :)

zeynep elif koç on April 10, 2013:

To Almee Barker,

do you really think that the main reason of english soldiers' fight was for "saving England"? where do you put England and its allies' imperialist aims? how can you explain secret agreements with france,italy,russia about allocation of anatolia? there is only one truth in history and every human being is responsible to history about telling the only truth. so, please tell the history properly,

Zeynep Elif Koç

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lol on March 18, 2013:

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your mom on February 25, 2013:

i love this site i used it in my project thank you

Chris Bishop on February 10, 2013:

Hello my name is Chris age 16 and i was doing a report on trench warfare and what it was like. I was fascinated to find all this to find all of this information. I was very moved about what these soldiers did for their country even though it was a massacre. Id have to say they are definitly good role models for people to keep going no matter what the cause or what you think.

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this was amazing

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saved my life (homework)

KIRSTEN POLLARD on December 17, 2012:

what countries took part in the trenches ??? still don't get it

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great information

NOBLE 6 on September 24, 2012:

thanks man this article was very informing as i have to do a reasherach article on this

VirgilLawton on July 08, 2012:

This was a very good documentary world war I. Thought it had good content. Very . Good analysis of the ways of man today. It is the sign of the times.

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reagu from Los Angeles on May 24, 2012:

This is very interesting. Aside from bullets, soldiers are really in the forefront of the harshest conditions nature could deal.

Josh on May 20, 2012:

thanx for this article jimmythejock

KDuBarry03 on May 16, 2012:

Great Hub! Very informative; I've always been interested in World War 1. Thanks for sharing!

SilverGenes on May 15, 2012:

You have done a phenomenal job on a very difficult subject. My mind is reeling from what you have written and it brings tears to my eyes to think of these very young men not only enduring such conditions but fighting through them.

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anonymous on April 11, 2012:

really good and helped me with the majority of my project. There are so many diseases. thx

me(not saying my name) on March 26, 2012:

thx this helped me wiv my homework projrct

Gracie on March 23, 2012:

This is helping me with my extra credit of a soldier and his last breathe during a war, it's nothing really though...I just need to learn about trenches and I deicded to make a little one about how a guy couldn't hear his C.O yell retreat after a grenade impaited his hearing and how he dies there...but anyway, thanks for the help

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on March 23, 2012:

The rats, the bugs, the stench, the injuries, the deaths -- it's beyond our imagination except to read of it for a few minutes. This must have been a difficult hub to research and have on one's mind for quite awhile during the process of writing it.

bizzymom from New York on March 20, 2012:

Another great and informative hub. Thanks!

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kimmie on March 17, 2012:

i read through the comments and it seems like everyone is doing the exact same paper/project thing. interesting! well this helped but i need some more info... due tomorrow. :(

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i'm writing a letter from someone in the trenches right now thanks for the intel

me on February 26, 2012:

I had to write a letter back home as if I were in the trenches and this hub helped me to fill in some of the missing details. Thank you so very much.

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