Weird History

What It Was Really Like For Soldiers In The Trenches Of WWI  

Setareh Janda
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WWI was one of the most catastrophic events in human history. But soldiers at the front lines who spent life in the trenches lived through a particularly harrowing war experience. Their stories reveal an experience that was often bleak, but also movingly human.

As the conflict became deadlocked in 1914 and the front seemed immovable, both sides bunkered down. Trenches were a series of paths dug into the ground at the front line that gave soldiers cover and protection from enemy fire. British, French, German, Russian, and Ottoman forces alike used them, and men on the Western and Eastern fronts, as well as the Middle Eastern theater, were tucked away in muddy trenches. The empty space between opposing lines became known as "No Man's Land," a barbed-wire-laden expanse of land that was nearly impossible to cross. During battles like Verdun, soldiers crawled out of trenches in a bid to make it across No Man's Land and push back the enemy to gain a sliver of ground. 

What was it like in WWI trenches? Soldiers had routines and objects that contributed to a unique trench culture. The earth itself often shaped soldiers' experiences in the trenches, and they had to contend with wet, muddy conditions. Life in the trenches was also dangerous, and many soldiers' physical and mental health suffered. Those who survived the trenches were united in a shared experience. 

Illness Was Everywhere
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Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Though enhanced medical knowledge meant that doctors and surgeons were better equipped to manage the health of soldiers in WWI than they had been in previous conflicts, soldiers still got sick. The cold, damp, and unsanitary conditions in the trenches did little to fortify soldiers and made them even more prone to illness.

Pests like rodents and lice circulated in the trenches, too, and spread diseases like trench fever. The war even played a part in one of the deadliest outbreaks in history: the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gas Attacks Were As Terrifying As They Were Painful
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Photo: British Official Photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the most terrifying technologies was poison gas. Germans took chemical warfare to new levels, and a gas attack could kill or severely injure anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with it. Chlorine, for example, caused suffocation and mustard gas resulted in blisters

Gas wasn't a reliable weapon, however - it sometimes drifted back over the very lines that attempted to deploy it. Though gas was not a leading cause of deaths for soldiers - it killed an estimated 90,000 people - the fear of a gas attack loomed large in the lives of soldiers in the trenches. 

Soldiers Worked Hard And Played Hard
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Photo: BastienM/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Soldiers did not hunker down in trenches for months on end. Soldiers actually only spent about four days each in the trenches, in "close reserve," and at rest. This process limited the amount of time a solider spent in the bleak trenches and was incredibly important for managing their stress.

"Rest" could be a misnomer, though - if regiments were understaffed, soldiers were sometimes recruited to do work. On the other end of the spectrum, some soldiers also took advantage of their time away from the trenches by visiting brothels - by 1918, one million French soldiers had been treated for STIs. 

Life In The Trenches Was So Horrific That Many Soldiers Suffered From PTSD
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Photo: Official War Photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Living on the front lines had a psychological impact on the soldiers, who were forced to confront death and violence for days on end. Such a high-stress environment led to extreme anxiety, panic, and even bouts of shaking in some soldiers.

Though medical and military officials used terms like "shell shock" or "battle fatigue" to describe what was happening, experts now believe that soldiers were actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many soldiers who had PTSD were sent to convalescent homes to recuperate.