Voice of the First World War: Trench Life

By the end of 1914, lines of trenches snaked across the Western Front, stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier. They varied in quality and sophistication, but British private Walter Spencer described a typical construction.

Trench

We had duckboards chiefly in the firing line, not much in the communication trenches because the communication trenches were generally fairly good. Well we had sandbags on the top of the trench between us and the enemy to stop the fire, of course. Very little wire netting; there was barbed wire out in the front of the trenches, usually about 20 yards in front of the front line trench. Generally speaking – it varied a little – but it would be somewhere about 2 yards wide and it was erected on posts as far as possible, or was just left out what we called stranded in kind of circles.

Those manning the trenches would modify them according to their own needs, and even add some personal touches, as William Holmes of the London Regiment remembered.

Every trench was originally built by soldiers with sandbags which were, I suppose, about 18 inches long and about a good foot wide. They were filled with ordinary soil and tied and put one on top of the other to make a wall, if a wall was wanted, or any other construction that wanted to be big enough to take a sentry looking over. They’d make a little platform right from the ground upwards, you see. And the funny thing was, what we used to laugh about, was at the end of… the beginning of every long trench was a name of a famous London street, every one had it. And if you come to a place where you turned round you had to call it Piccadilly Circus or something like that. But they all had their names, all the trenches did.

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Charles Ward of the Middlesex Regiment commented on the necessity of adapting trenches to local conditions.

Trench system: in the front line you could have an ordinary trench, or if the ground was soggy you had, you built barricades of earth and rubble. And trenches could be all sorts of shapes and sizes according to how they’d originally been built and how they’d been knocked about by the enemy.

To make these things, you cut a piece out of the trench about 3 foot wide and about 4 or 5 feet deep into the side of the trench. Put a piece of boarding or something on top and perhaps a piece of something that might keep the wet out, and then piled the earth on top of that and in front you left a piece of blanket or something, so that the front could be excluded from the wind. And also the, if you had a candle in there at night time, the enemy wouldn’t notice it, the light in there. So at night time, the first thing you did when you got in this little bivvy place was to light your candle and you suddenly felt much warmer than you did outside; it made an enormous difference, the light.

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There were differences, too, between the trenches built by each nation’s front-line troops. Harold Oxley, of the Middlesex Regiment, compared British, French and German trenches.

Taking the French trenches first, we found when we took over the French trenches in the Kemmel area they were very much deeper than ours, but not kept in the cleanliness and order one would expect to find from taking over from a similar, what shall we say, infantryman to another infantryman – they weren’t in a similar condition to ours. They were dirty and the latrines at the back weren’t in a similar condition to ours as regards keeping clean. The German difference was that they would be reinforced with a kind of wattle fencing – wattle construction – the breastworks would be reinforced with those. But you didn’t find it with the British trenches, they’d simply be sandbagged.

While serving with the South Lancashire Regiment on the Western Front, Ted Rimmer was able to see how superior the German dugouts were.

We were in the advance to the Hindenburg Line, talking about dugouts, and we got to the Hindenburg Line and you ought to have seen dugouts they had. They were like hotel rooms, they were all fitted out with special pumps and everything – tables and everything there, you know, not like ours! Ours were just simply dugout earth and sort of, what you slept on was a wire netting mattress, just wire netting in our dugouts, they were deep big dugouts. But they were marvellous their dugouts, they had tables and all that and laid out with stuff on them!

Open to the elements and dug deep into the ground, trenches often became a muddy quagmire. British NCO James Payne recalled one of the problems this caused.