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ARCHIVED - Oral Histories of the First World War:
Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

Trench Warfare

In this section:

Images of Trench Warfare

Essay on Trench Warfare

Although trench warfare defined the First World War, none of the combatants expected it. All the armies and commanders planned for wars of movement. Within months, however, it became clear that the power of modern weapons -- particularly quick firing artillery and the machine gun -- made it too dangerous for soldiers to remain in the open. The solution was to dig trenches from which the soldiers could fight while remaining under cover. Attacks against these dug-in defenders were usually repulsed with appalling casualties. The war was reduced to a stalemate.

The early trenches were unconnected holes in the earth. They quickly developed into a complex system. Behind the front line of trenches lay a secondary trench line. The trenches themselves were built in a ziz-zag pattern, to contain the blast from enemy shells and prevent the enemy, should he capture part of a trench, shooting along the entire line of the trench. The trenches, usually four or five feet deep (less than 2m), were further built up with three (1m) feet of sandbags. Wooden duckboards formed a walkway over the sludge of water and mud. There were dugouts to shelter troops, firing steps to let the soldiers see above the sandbag parapet to shoot at the enemy, and periscopes to let them observe the other side without exposing themselves to fire. No matter how well built, trenches were wet and muddy, infested with rats, and worst of all, within range of enemy artillery and sniper fire.

The great offensives of the war are well known, but most of the soldiers' time in the trenches was spent doing sentry duty, working on improving defences, writing letters, or just waiting for something to happen. Units staged night raids to capture prisoners and gain information; these raids could vary from a few men to hundreds of attackers in multiple parties. Unless actually attacking, soldiers were relatively safe in the trenches. But the front line troops suffered from great stress. Units were rotated through the front lines regularly, to give the men time in the rear areas.

When an attack was ordered, the men "went over the top," and advanced towards the enemy trenches. They were now vulnerable to artillery and machine gun fire. With the ground churned up into craters full of thick mud, the troops could only move slowly. The results could be terrible and units could lose most of their men in just a few hours.