Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

War IndexGlossaryEducational ResourcesAbout the Show
The Great War
Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Timeline Maps and Battles The Shaping of the 21st Century Historians
OverviewExplosionStalemateTrench WarfareWilhelm II / MeidnerJaures / Gibbs
NEED ALTThe poetry of the trenches is a thing of the past....The war which began as a fresh youth is ending as a made-up, boring, antiquated actor.  Death is the only conqueror. - Friedrich Georg Steinbrecher Soldier at the Battle of the Somme


The Trenches: Symbol of the Stalemate
By the war's end, each side had dug at least 12,000 miles of trenches.

Delousing Station

Play Video

 
German Trenches

Play Video

 
French Trenches

Play Video
The first major trench lines were completed in late November 1914. At their peak, the trenches built by both sides extended nearly 400 miles from Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, to the Swiss border. Among the Allies, the Belgians occupied 40 miles, the British occupied 90 miles and the French occupied the rest. Experts calculate that along the western front, the Allies and Central Powers dug nearly 6,2500 miles of trenches by the end of 1914.

"[the bodies] we could not get from the German wire continued to swell ... the color of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-gray, to red, to purple, to green to black." Robert Graves, poet, novelist, critic

Organization of the trenches

The Allies used four "types" of trenches. The first, the front-line trench (or firing-and-attack trench), was located from 50 yards to 1 mile from the German's front trench. Several hundred yards behind the front-line trench was the support trench, with men and supplies that could immediately assist those on the front line. The reserve trench was dug several hundred yards further back and contained men and supplies that were available in emergencies should the first trenches be overrun.

Diagram showing overhead view of trenches
Diagram of trench system
(click to enlarge)

Connecting these trenches were communication trenches, which allowed movement of messages, supplies, and men among the trenches. Some underground networks connected gun emplacements and bunkers with the communication trenches.

German trench life was much different. They constructed elaborate and sophisticated tunnel and trench structures, sometimes with living quarters more than 50 feet below the surface. These trenches had electricity, beds, toilets and other niceties of life that contrasted sharply with the open-air trenches of the Allies.

Morale Booster

French soldiers drying feet
French soldiers drying feet

On average, daily losses for the British soldiers were nearly 7,000 men killed, disabled or wounded. This figure remained fairly constant throughout the war. To keep morale as high as possible and to keep the soldiers on the front as fresh as possible, the British established a three-week rotation schedule. A week in the front trench was followed by a week in the support trench, which was followed by a week in the reserve trenches. During this third week, the men could relax with sports, concerts and plays, keeping their minds away from life on the front.

No man's land: The Territory Between the Trenches

By mid-November 1914, the territory between the opposing front trenches was marked with huge craters caused by the shelling; nearly all vegetation was destroyed. Whenever possible, both sides filled this land with barbed wire to slow down any rapid advances by the enemy. The machine gun and the new long-range rifles made movement in this area almost impossible.

Timing of Movements at the Front

American doughboys
American doughboys

Both sides quickly recognized that assaults against the enemy trenches were suicide if begun in broad daylight, so attacks tended to take place just before dawn or right at dawn. Poison gases tended to be more effective in the mornings, as the colder air and absence of wind allowed the gases to stay closer to the ground for longer periods of time.

Except for artillery shelling, daytime was relatively safe for the soldiers on the front line. Once the sun went down, men crawled out of their trenches to conduct raids, investigate the layout of the terrain, and eavesdrop near the enemy lines to pick up information on their strengths, weakness and strategies.

Top Photo: Soldiers in Trench


Trench Facts
* Each battalion had its own supply of rum that it distributed to its soldiers. Each division of 20,000 men received 300 gallons.
 
* Every soldier carried iron rations -- emergency food that consisted of a can of bully bee, biscuits and a tin of tea and sugar.
 
* A single pair of rats could produced up to 880 offspring in a year.
 
* A total of 3,894 men in the British Army were convicted of self-inflicted wounds. A firing-squad offense -- none were executed, but all served prison terms.
 
* The British Army treated 20,000 soldiers for trench foot during the winter of 1914-15.
 
* One-third of all casualties on the Western Front may have been killed or wounded in a trench.
 
* A lit candle was fairly effective in removing lice, but the skill of burning the lice without setting yourself on fire was difficult to learn.
 
* Soldiers in the trenches often depended on impure water collected from shell-holes or other cavities, causing dysentery.
 


 

Home Prologue Explosion/Stalemate Total War/Slaughter Mutiny/Collapse Hatred & Hunger/War Without End

Timeline Maps & Battles Shaping of the 21st Century Historians War Index Resources About the Show