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The Great War, week two: Life in hell of the trenches


Men of the 36th Ulster Division during the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916

Men of the 36th Ulster Division during the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916

Men of the 36th Ulster Division during the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916

Life in the First World War was not easy. On the Western Front, much of the war was fought in trenches, which were long, narrow ditches dug into the ground where soldiers lived all day and night. One side had lines of German trenches, and on the other side was the allied trenches. The middle area was called No Man's Land because it did not belong to either army. This was also the area crossed when soldiers wanted to attack the other side.

A trench was generally around two metres deep and two metres wide. They were never built in straight lines – that way, the enemy could not simply fire their weapons down the ditch. This zig-zagging also prevented any gas attacks from spreading in a straight line.

On top that, sandbags were often filled with dirt and soil and used around the trenches to lessen the impact from blasts caused by, for example, artillery.

Armies often built three lines of trenches. The first trench was the frontline. Being closest to No Man's Land, it was the most dangerous. There were also communications trenches here to move supplies, men and equipment forward when needed.

The second line, usually around 75 metres behind, was a support trench – a sort of back-up for the frontline.

Further back was the third, reserve trench. Here, extra troops could gather for a counter-attack if the first two trenches were occupied. This defensive layout was later abandoned as the power of artillery grew.

Soldiers in the trenches did not get much sleep. When they did, it was in the afternoon. At night, they got no more than an hour's sleep at a time and were woken up at different times, either to complete some of their daily chores or to fight.

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The trenches could be very muddy. Many dead bodies were also buried nearby, and the latrines sometimes overflowed into the trenches, so they could smell very bad.

In addition to this, there were millions of rats. And if the weather was bad, the trench floor would flood in no time and the walls could collapse. The soldiers' feet suffered and would often become infected because of the waterlogged trenches.

But even when the soldiers were not fighting, there was always something to be done – for example, emptying the latrines. In the evening, work continued, and any free time was spent playing cards, writing letters home or keeping diaries.

Food was heavily rationed and there was not very much of it. Most of the time, it came from cans and was served cold.

Throughout the war, neither side gained more than a few miles of ground along what became known as the Western Front.

The line of fighting on the eastern side of Europe between Russia and Germany and Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, was known as the Eastern Front and stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Here, trenches were less frequent because of the huge stretches of land involved.

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