By Harley Wood
What were the trenches?
Although most of us think primarily of the Great War in terms of life and death in the trenches, only a relatively small proportion of the army actually served there. The trenches were the front lines, the most dangerous places. But behind them was a mass of supply lines, training establishments, stores, workshops, headquarters and all the other elements of the 1914-1918 system of war, in which the majority of troops were employed. The trenches were the domain of the infantry, with the supporting arms of the mortars and machine-guns, the engineers and the forward positions of the artillery observers.
Why Were The Trenches There?
The idea of digging into the ground to give some protection from powerful enemy artillery and small arms fire was not a new idea or unique to the Great War. It had been widely practiced in the US Civil War, the Russian-Japanese war and other fairly recent wars. Trench warfare can be said to have begun in September 1914 and ended when the Allies made a breakthrough attack in August 1918. Before and after those dates were wars of movement: in between it was a war of entrenchment. The massive armies of 1914 initially fought a war of movement, and any trenches dug were only for temporary cover. But from the Battle of the Aisne onwards, both sides dug in to take cover and hold their ground. The successive movements to outflank (get around the outside of) the enemy trenches came to an end by November 1914. By then there was a continuous line of trenches covering some 400 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. There was no way round.
How long would a man have to be in the trenches?
A general pattern for trench routine was 4 days in the front line, then 4 days in close reserve and finally 4 at rest, although this varied enormously depending on conditions, the weather and the availability of enough reserve troops to be able to rotate them in this way. In close reserve, men had to be ready to reinforce the line at very short notice. They may have been in a trench system just behind the front system or in the dubious shelter of a ruined village or wood. The relief of a unit after its time in the front by a fresh one was always an anxious time, as the noise and obvious activity increased the risk of attracting enemy attention in the form of shelling, machine-gun fire or even a raid at the very time when the manning of the position was changing. Once the incoming unit had relieved the outgoing one, various precautionary actions would be taken. At least one man in four (at night, and perhaps one in ten by day) were posted as sentries on look-out duty, often in saps dug a little way ahead of the main fire trench. They would listen for sounds that might indicate enemy activity, and try to observe such activity across no man's land. The other men would be posted into the fire trench or support trench, in sections. Unless they were a specialist such as a signaller or machine-gunner, men would inevitably be assigned to carrying, repair or digging parties, or sent under cover of dark to put out or repair barbed wire defences.