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The Western Front, 1914 - 1918
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Life in the trenches


Once the initial German attack on France had been repelled in the autumn of 1914, a new type of warfare - very different to the war of mobility envisaged in the Glossary - opens new windowSchlieffen Plan - evolved on the Western Front. Both sides consolidated defensive positions by digging trenches, which were protected by barbed wire, sandbags and armed soldiers. From these enclaves, they intermittently attacked enemy lines, often under the cover of heavy artillery fire, across the barren space between the two armies that was known as Glossary - opens new windowNo Man's Land.

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Christmas 1916 Blighty - opens new window
Front cover and first page
of the Christmas 1916 edition
of Blighty (225k)

This was trench warfare. It was the definitive military experience of most British soldiers during the First World War and - as the enduring influence of Glossary - opens new windowwar poets such as Glossary - opens new windowSiegfried Sassoon, Glossary - opens new windowWilfred Owen and Glossary - opens new windowRobert Graves illustrates - the driving force behind Britain's collective memory of the conflict ever since.


The threat of death

The experiences of British soldiers on the Western Front were many and varied. Conditions were more comfortable for officers, whose privileges included better dugouts and rations, than for ordinary soldiers. Parts of the trench system were quieter and safer than others. Tensions arose between different parts of the army - witness, for example, some infantrymen's hostiliy towards 'specialists' of trench warfare such as the Glossary - opens new windowRoyal Engineers.

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Life in the trenches also had many common features. On the front line, the constant threat of death on the battlefield afflicted men of all ranks. The First World War was the first major conflict in which more people died in combat than from disease - a testimony both to its bloody character and to the improved medical support available.

Particularly in major assaults such as the Battle of the Glossary - opens new windowSomme and the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowPasschendaele (July-November 1917), soldiers witnessed horrific scenes of carnage, in which death - from gas or mortar attacks, or in hand-to-hand combat - was commonplace. Men on leave often found it difficult to relate such incidents to their family and friends, thereby creating an inevitable barrier between themselves (and their 'muckers' in the trenches) and civilians back home.

Listen to description of battle:Victor Edgar Fagence
Loudspeaker - opens a new window
Life in the trenches - opens new window
Letter from the trenches(131k)

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Health and humour

The trenches also created a common set of health and hygiene problems. Lice and rats were constant torments. The deep mud and slime gave rise to a crippling condition known as Glossary - opens new window'trench foot', which, in the British sector of the Western Front during the winter of 1914, forced 20,000 men out of action. Though a cure was eventually found for this malady, living conditions in the trenches remained damp and filthy for the duration of the war.

Life in the trenches was not, however, an unremitting catalogue of misery and hardship. Britain's close proximity to the front enabled men to receive regular food and clothing parcels from their families. Trench newspapers and games of football provided diversions from the conflict itself. Black humour and patriotic songs helped to foster a sense of common identity within individual units.

These were the sides of the soldier's life on the Western Front about which the British public was told in publications such as the Daily Mail and the Illustrated London News. However, such sanitised accounts, as the troops themselves contemptuously acknowledged, gave largely misleading impressions. Real life in the trenches, as the horrendous casualty rates illustrated, was a good deal bloodier and more dangerous.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

WO 95: War diaries, First World War.
WO 154: War diaries (supplementary), First World War.
WO 153: Trench maps from the Western Front, 1914-18.
WO 297: Trench maps from the Western Front, 1914-18.
ZPER 34/145-153: Illustrated London News, July 1914-Dec 1918.

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