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Life in the Trenches

Aerial view Loos-Hulluch trench system July 1917

The small, improvised trenches of the first few months grew deeper and more complex at time went one. The main trench systems soon consisted of three parallel lines, interconnected by communications trenches. The space between the opposing trenches was referred to as no man's landTrenches were never straight however, but were dug in a zigzagging pattern so a blast could not travel far if a bomb or shell landed in it.

A major difficulty faced by soldiers in the trenches was the unreliable communications - wireless communications were still in their infancy, so the only available methods were: telephone, signal lamps, signal flares, homing pigeons and runners. 

British trenches were usually 2.4 to 4.9m deep whereas German trenches were typically much deeper, usually a minimum of 3.7m deep. The sides of trenches were often revetted with sandbags, wooden frames and wire mesh.

The banked earth on the lip of the trench facing the enemy was called the parapet and had a fire stepTo see out of the trench without exposing his head, many soldiers would use a periscope— in its simplest form just a stick with two angled pieces of mirror at the top and bottom. 

Periscope tranchée française

On an individual level, a typical British soldier's year could be divided as follows:
  • 15% front line
  • 10% support line
  • 30% reserve line
  • 20% rest
  • 25% other (hospital, travelling, leave, training courses, etc.)
The intensity of World War I trench warfare meant that 56% of soldiers were woundedPoor hygiene in the unclean and uncomfortable trenches - especially in northern France/Belgium where the ground would quickly flood - led to many soldiers getting fungal conditions such as trench mouth and trench footMedical services were primitive as antibiotics had not yet been discovered so relatively minor injuries often proved fatal.

In 1914 the famous Christmas truce took place on the front near Armentieres. German soldiers began singing Christmas carols to the British and soon soldiers left their trenches. They exchanged gifts and even played several games of football! Their commanders disapproved of this cease fire however and some of the soldiers involved were court-martialed (sent to a military court for punishment).