Mr. Isaac's Social Studies Site

The Trenches – What They Were Really Like

Paul Fussell, University of Pennsylvania

The first thing was it smelled bad. It smelled bad because there were open latrines everywhere. There were bodies rotting everywhere. Nothing could be done about them…It's hard to imagine people living for years in the middle of that smell. That's what they had to endure.


For the most part there were no bunks, no places to lie down when you weren't on duty; so you lay in the mud, in a hole cut in the side of the trench, or in a dugout if you were an officer.


The best time for attacking was the early morning; partly because you have the advantage of darkness in forming the troops up. You also have the advantage of a full day in which you can prosecute the development of the attack before it gets dark again…In the darkness as dawn was just about to open up, they would each stand on their firing steps in the trenches. You stood there with your loaded rifle waiting for an attack from the Germans. The Germans did the same.


When it was fully light, and it was clear that no attack was going to happen that morning, you stood down and had breakfast. Eating it on the firing trench, which was like a building bench in the trench you were occupying. Then there's nothing to do all day, except listen to the bangs as the shells went off everywhere.


The object of each side was to try to put mortar shells into the enemy trench and blow it up, or kill the people in it. So there's constant noise and bombardment all day long. Now one couldn't stay forever in the trenches. You stayed usually about a week. Then you were rotated back with another unit, and a fresh unit came up for its week of trench duty.


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