In this guest post Dr Lucy Noakes, a social and cultural historian at Brighton University, highlights some of the horrors of the trenches in the Great War. 

‘We must look out for our bread. The rats have become much more numerous lately because the trenches are no longer in good condition. Detering says it is a sure sign of a coming bombardment’

(Remarque, E.M., 1929, p. 70). All Quiet on the Western Front )

Erich Maria Remarque’s now classic novel depicting life in the First World War for a group of German student volunteer soldiers who served on the Western Front, graphically describes life for soldiers in the trenches.

By October 1914 a 475 mile long line of almost continuous trenches, in which combatants from opposing sides faced one another across No Man’s Land, ran across southern Belgium and Northern France from the North Sea to the Swiss border. For Britain, France and Germany, trench warfare has come to symbolise the First World War; standing as a shorthand for the horrors of the conflict, and for the futility and waste of life that we associate with it.

However, at the war’s start, and again in its final few months, it was a war of movement. A conflict in which battalions chased one another across the borderlands of France and Belgium, fighting in fields, villages and town, on foot, on horseback and towards the end of the war, in tanks.

This was the kind of war that the military leadership on both sides was expecting, and had planned for. The German Schlieffen Plan relied upon fast and unexpected troop movement, and was largely successful in acquiring territory until the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. In this battle troops ‘dug in’ to protect themselves against the more accurate shellfire that was a result of the new technologies of warfare being used.

At first these were simple, shallow holes in the ground. But they were swiftly developed to become a deeper, more elaborate system of trenches which included sleeping and cooking quarters, firesteps and observation posts that extended into No Man’s Land. Communication trenches linked the ‘front line’ with two or three lines of support trenches further back, and troops would usually rotate between these trenches during their time ‘at the front’.

Corpses used to reinforce collapsed walls

Trench life was often uncomfortable, unpleasant and tedious. Outside of the large battles, daily life for soldiers largely consisted of repairing and maintaining trenches and equipment. In addition to the constant threat of shelling and sniper fire, the men were also plagued by rats and lice and by the cold, and often wet conditions they were expected to endure. These conditions led to trench specific illnesses such as trench foot, a debilitating condition caused by lengthy exposure to cold, damp conditions.

While some trenches, notably on the German lines, had deep dug outs, reinforced with concrete and offering some protection from shellfire, conditions in the worst trenches were shocking. Often dug into the low-lying ground of Flanders, they flooded when it rained and froze in the winter. And as the war went on, the bodies of the unburied dead were sometimes used to reinforce points where shellfire had caused trench walls to collapse.

Of course, a war could not be won by armies dug into a war of attrition, and military commanders on both sides tried again and again to break the stalemate. They launched attacks that were designed to break through the line of opposing trenches, and used new weaponry such as gas and tanks in an attempt to destroy the defences of the enemy. In the end, it was external forces – the Russian Revolution and the entry into the war of the United States – that ended the war of attrition. But the lessons had been learnt, not least by the military commanders of Nazi Germany, whose ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics were a direct legacy of the desire to avoid the deadlock of trench warfare.

Lucy Noakes is Reader in History at the University of Brighton. Her publications include War and the British (1998) and Women and the British Army (2006). She is currently researching death in Britain during the Second World War (with Susan Grayzel) and gender and civil defence in 20th century Britain. She is a Collaborative Research Fellow with the American Council of Learned Societies 2014-16 and a member of the AHRC ‘Gateways Engagement Centre’, working with community groups and museums to research the history of the First World War.

Image: British soldiers walking through a trench at dawn (© IWM Art.IWM ART 513)