What Was Life Like In A WW1 Trench?

In between the fighting, everyday living was all about mud, blood and boredom…



A typical day in the trenches would begin early, with the "stand to". This was when soldiers would fix their bayonets and take up vigilant positions on the steps of the trenches, preparing for any devastating onslaught that might be coming their way. Most of the time, this was more of a formality than anything else, and the opposing soldiers would very likely be doing their own "stand to" rather than preparing an attack. Sometimes, "stand to" was accompanied by a volley of indiscriminate gunfire into No Man's Land, a tension-killing exercise dubbed the "morning hate".


Chores were a dreary fact of life in the trenches. Each man would be given his specific tasks, from repairing portions of the trench, to digging latrines, to filling sandbags. It was hard, filthy, tiring work, especially if it involved pumping out any water which had happened to flood the trench. In between chores, there were stretches of sheer boredom, with some snatching the opportunity to sleep, some writing letters, and some trying to kill the monstrously engorged rats that could infest their living spaces. There was also the omnipresent possibility of being suddenly killed by random shelling from the enemy. Men could easily be buried alive if their trench came under sudden attack.


When we think of trenches, it's the deadly battles on No Man's Land that spring to mind. But for the vast majority of their time on the front, soldiers dealt with the more mundane but ugly reality of simply existing in such squalid, filthy conditions. According to one soldier, the mud "wasn't liquid, it wasn't porridge, it was a curious sucking kind of mud, a real monster that sucked at you." Another soldier summed trench life up as a "nightmare of earth and mud", while the stench of nature's filth competed with the stench of death, as bodies would decompose around them. The legendary poet Wilfred Owen put it beautifully: "I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness felt."


Contrary to what many might think, calories weren't generally a problem on the front line. In the early stages of the war, families would send parcels bulging with cake, chocolates and other goodies to their fighting men. However, as the war dragged on and logistics became increasingly fraught, the average Tommy had to make do with less delicious grub. One of their staples was something called "bully beef", which was essentially tinned corned beef.

Another was the much-despised Maconochie's stew, a swill of fatty meat in a watery sauce which was just about tolerable when warmed, but disgusting when eaten cold. On a positive note, they did get their tea (which was useful to mask the residual taste of petrol, from water being stored in fuel cans), and there was even a regular rum ration. The rum jars were emblazoned with the letters "SRD", for "Supply Reserve Depot" (or "Soon Runs Dry" and "Seldom Reaches Destination", according to some witty troops).


There's a myth that soldiers would spend long stretches of time in the trenches. This wasn't so. There was a kind of trench cycle, with troops constantly being cycled through various posts. A typical man would spend a number of days in the front line, then get sent back to stay in the support lines for another set number of days, and then being given time off to rest. This probably went some way to preserving the sanity of those who had to endure the horror of the front.