Trench Warfare in World War I: Rot, Rats, Ruin

Life as a soldier throughout history has never been easy. But World War I’s trench warfare brought a whole new facet to the phrase “War is Hell.”

Sep 12, 2023By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

trench warfare world war i


World War I resulted in the deaths of millions, with many more wounded. Contributing to the carnage was the utilization of trench warfare, particularly on the Western Front. Filled with innumerable physical and mental challenges, life in the trenches could threaten a soldier’s life before he ever saw battle.


Tensions Set the Stage for War

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Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Achille Beltrame, illustration for the newspaper La Domenica del Corriere, July 12th, 1914, via


Tension was rife throughout Europe in the early twentieth century. A number of factors contributed to these feelings among a number of countries. Nationalism was on the rise. Alliances were being made in which countries such as Russia and Serbia were pledging to support one another if fighting ever broke out. Colonialism was ripe in places such as Africa, where European countries were divvying up land.


The spark that set off this tinderbox was the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, next in line for the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914. Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serbian Nationalist organization, the Black Hand, killed Ferdinand. A month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and World War I officially broke out as allies on both sides of the conflict followed suit. The two main adversaries in the conflict were the Allies, which included Britain, France, Serbia, Russia, Japan, and later the United States; and the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The war would continue through November 1918. At its conclusion, it would reconfigure boundary lines, kill and wound millions, alter countless lives, and set the stage for another world conflict just decades later.


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Russian infantry drills on the Eastern Front, via Warfare History Network


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The majority of fighting in World War I took place in two locations, or fronts: the Eastern Front, which stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and the Western Front, which was concentrated in Germany and France. This dual approach was a German strategy called the Schlieffen Plan, attributed to Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff. The fighting on the Eastern Front was, as one might picture when they think about warfare, large armies fighting overland in an attempt to capture one another’s territory. On the Western Front, however, the primary mode of battle was trench warfare.


What is Trench Warfare?

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Undated photo of a WWI trench, via the National WWI Museum & Memorial, Kansas City


Trench warfare was not new in the early twentieth century, as it was first developed in seventeenth-century France. It was used institutionally for the first time during the American Civil War, generally as a defensive tactic. However, trench warfare has historically been most heavily associated with World War I and experienced the most rapid development during this period.


Trenches began to show up late in 1914 after the original onslaught of the war led to major losses due to artillery and machine guns. Armies on both sides began digging trenches to protect themselves against this weaponry. Trenches were built in a zigzag pattern in order to be most effective for defense. There were several ways for soldiers to dig trenches, but regardless, they were dug by hand. Entrenching involved soldiers digging the trenches straight down from the surface. Sapping was the process of adding onto an existing trench from one end. Lastly, tunneling, the safest route, was digging a trench underground and removing the roof last.


Approximately 475 miles of trenches were dug on the Western Front, though this was not all a contiguous distance. Trenches ranged from 6-10 feet deep on average, though they could be deeper in certain areas. The front was lined with sandbags for protection. The sides of the trenches may have been reinforced with wood planks, woven sticks, or barbed wire. The floor may have been dirt or lined with wooden boards called “duck boards.” Trenches required constant maintenance and daily repair, as the area was incredibly wet and constantly under assault.


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An aerial photo of the trench lines at Fey-en-Haye, France, via the National World War I Museum & Memorial, Kansas City


The area between the two front-line trenches was called No Man’s Land. This area could range in size from fifty to several hundred yards and was often littered with barbed wire, booby traps, and dead bodies. It was almost impossible to cross, particularly during the day. Men did not spend the entirety of their time on the front lines in the trenches but rotated back to leisure areas periodically for rest and light duty. Injured soldiers were transported by train to field hospitals.


Daily Life in the Trenches

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Trench in Douaumont, France, 1918, via National World War I Museum & Memorial, Kansas City


Daily life in the World War I trenches alternated between extreme moments of adrenaline in battle and extended periods of boredom. During battle, soldiers had to make split-second decisions. They were often fatigued, uncomfortable, and, as the war went on, sometimes ill-equipped. A well-targeted artillery blast could cave in an area of a trench, burying men alive. Poisonous gas attacks became common during the war, and gas masks became standard equipment. Being lower in the trench gave men a little extra time to get their masks on before the gas did them in. A man might take his life in his hands by simply poking his head over the top of the trench to see what was going on.


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Members of the New Zealand Rifles enjoying a card game near the Western Front, via New Zealand History


When battles weren’t actively ongoing, men occupied their time the best they could. They rotated watch duties, played card games, and wrote letters. In fact, a number of men went on to be notable writers after their service in the war, with their unique style and success attributed to their time in the trenches. There were also opportunities for organized events, such as sports games, intended to boost morale. Officers organized boxing matches, soccer games, and cricket matches to keep the men engaged and their minds off their situation. Church services were provided to the men, and musical performances, whether impromptu or coordinated, were enjoyed.


Occasionally, soldiers spent time hunting the rats that populated the trenches or “chatting,” though not in the way you might think.


Pests & Putrescence

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After 15 minutes of trench hunting in France, 1916, via Rare Historical Photos


Pests were prevalent in the trenches, as conditions were ripe for their existence, reproduction, and longevity. Rats fed on scraps of food and dead bodies and were quite comfortable in the quarters soldiers had built for themselves. Rats would crawl over sleeping soldiers, even biting them, making it difficult to rest. They would steal food from men’s pockets and from the food storage areas. It was not unusual to see rats in broad daylight. However, men were prohibited from shooting at rats in order to not waste ammunition. Nevertheless, this did not prevent it from happening. Bayoneting rats was also common, and men devised creative traps to catch the pests. Cats and terriers were employed to help deal with the problem and could be quite effective.


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A body louse, 2022, via Everyday Health


Body lice were incredibly common due to the filth and close quarters of the trenches. Body lice burrow into skin, blankets, clothing, hair, and just about any other natural material. Bathing was not always an option for soldiers on the front line, and laundry services were few and far between. Delousing stations were sometimes available but only provided temporary relief. To make themselves more comfortable, men would spend time “chatting,” or delousing one another by hand. Lice, cooties, or shirt squirrels, as they were called, added to the discomfort of the soldiers’ daily lives but also spread diseases such as trench fever. Trench fever was characterized by headaches, fever, and muscle cramps.


Health Concerns of Trench Life

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Two British soldiers stand in water in a trench, via the National WWI Museum & Memorial, Kansas City


In addition to the threat of disease from pests, the trenches held other health risks for soldiers. Water was a constant peril, not just an annoyance but a genuine health danger. The areas where the trenches were built were very damp terrain, and digging down in elevation caused water to collect and gather until it was often up over soldiers’ boots. Constant dampness could lead to a condition known as trench foot, which had results similar to frostbite. A soldier’s feet would get white spots, then eventually blister and rot, turning gangrenous. Amputation might be required, and if the infection reached the bloodstream, it could be deadly.


Before World War I, a condition known as trench mouth was known as Vincennes Disease or Vincent’s Stomatitis. It was not directly related to living in the trenches but to neglecting one’s oral health due to more pressing concerns. An imbalance in oral bacteria leads to necrosis of the gums, causing pain, bad breath, and bleeding. Adding to the issue was the fact that during this time period, only about 7% of Americans regularly brushed their teeth. The army already considered dental disease a crisis, and conditions in the trenches added to this concern.


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A World War I mobile X-Ray, via Schools History


Infection resulted in more casualties than war-related wounds during World War I, and a great deal of the spread can be attributed to life in the trenches. While vaccination protocols had been implemented for some diseases, typhus was still a concern, often spread by body lice. The Spanish flu, which possibly originated in the United States, spread rapidly throughout the world, including the armed forces, late in the war.


Mental health was also a trench-related health concern, particularly as the war went on and conscription went into effect. With drafted soldiers, there was less regulation as to whether or not those with mental health concerns might end up in the field. The terror-filled life in the trenches, with the threat of mentally intimidating poison gas attacks, the looming fear of artillery bursts, and the specter of the enemy, could lead even the soldier with the greatest mental fortitude down a path of struggle. “Shell shock,” which would later be known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, became common. The combination of emotional and physical stress that soldiers on both sides were facing caused this condition to manifest on a number of levels.


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Soldiers in the trenches, via Smithsonian Magazine


Life in the trenches was not to be trifled with. It took all of a soldier’s resolve to face the challenges of war, coupled with the horrid living conditions that this style of fighting offered. A portion of the millions of deaths that World War I brought to the planet could potentially have been avoided had a different strategy been chosen for the Western Front. We’ll never know the true impact a trench-less war could have offered, but we will learn from the sacrifices of those who fought in the Great War’s trenches.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”