What Life Was Really Like In The WWI Trenches

Trenches were essentially an exercise in misery during WWI. History explains that infantrymen could spend weeks on end in them. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front captures the ceaseless bleakness of it all: "Shells, gas clouds, flotillas of tanks — shattering, corroding, death. Dysentery, influenza, typhus — scalding, choking, death. Trenches, hospitals, the common grave — there are no other options." That overwhelming hopelessness wasn't unique to his experience. The BBC quotes British soldier Charles Bartram, who fought in the trench-heavy Battle of the Somme: "From that moment all my religion died, after that journey all my teaching and belief in God had left me — never to return."

Other first-person accounts from the trenches describe unspeakable violence. History highlights the recollections of Harlem Hellfighter Horace Pippin, who recalled getting shot in the shoulder and partially buried under the corpse of a French soldier. Pippin was forced to sleep underneath the body because he was too weak to move it. At times, the sheer torrent of artillery was so intense that "you would have thought the world was coming to an end," he says. Yet the suffering wrought by trench warfare had no end in sight.

You win some, you lose Somme

According to the Canadian War Museum, life in the trenches meant extended stretches of boredom punctuated by terror. Soldiers were sleep-deprived but ever anxious about taking a dirt nap. Their far-too-many waking hours were filled with massive rats that spread disease. A lousy situation was made worse by lice, and an unremitting dampness that caused a "frostbite-like infection" known as trench foot.

History writes that enemy trenches were separated by "no man's land." Soldiers who dared venture into that territory often lived to regret it. These skirmishes amassed casualties at a staggering rate. Trench warfare was never more lethal than at the Battle of the Somme. The five-month slog involved more than 3 million Allied and German troops, and more than a million were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The British suffered more than 19,000 fatalities and more than 57,000 casualties overall.

Per the BBC, eyewitness descriptions from the Battle of the Somme depict traumatic violence, moments of compassion, and even a comedic sequence between enemy soldiers. George Mayne remembered giving water to a dying German in no man's land. Tom Short recalled a German barreling in his direction with a bayonet only to slide between Short's legs and fire his rifle into the air instead of gutting him. There were soldiers who wounded themselves and others whose emotional wounds never healed.