Conditions in the Trenches in the First World War

Conditions in the Trenches
in the First World War
K Hay
Conditions in the Trenches
Rats and Lice
Disease and Illness
Daily Routine
Death and Casualties
Weather and Mud
Mud was everywhere.
Mud penetrated
boots, mackintoshes
and overcoats. Noone could change
their clothes while
they were in front line
Uniforms became filthy!
Mud and the weather
were as much an enemy
as the Germans.
Men had to put up with
the most awful living
conditions. Most of
Northern France where
the trenches were
situated, was damp, lowlying countryside. The
front line troops were
seldom dry.
Millions of rats infested
trenches. There were two
main types, the brown and
the black rat. Both were
despised but the brown rat
was especially feared.
Rats swarmed everywhere.
They fed on leftover food and
rotting bodies. By eating all
the human remains (and
disfiguring them by eating
their eyes and liver) they
could grow to the size of a
Because the men were dirty they became
infested with body lice. Lice lived in warm
places on a soldier’s body. One soldier counted
103 lice crawling around his body and in the
seams of his vest and underpants.
They lived by sucking blood. Each louse laid five
eggs a day. The best way to kill a louse was by
squashing it between thumb and finger. Another
way to run a lighted candle up and down the
seams of clothes.
Disease and Illness
Soldiers suffered from a number of
diseases and illnesses: 
Trench Foot
Louse infestations
Trench Mouth
Shell Shock
Mud led to amputation!
It was almost impossible for
men to keep their feet dry in
the muddy trenches. The skin
quickly went wrinkly as it does
if you are in the bath too long.
But then it died and the flesh
went black and started to rot.
This was ‘trench foot’. In
extreme cases the flesh round
the toes merged into a stinking
pulp. Amputation was the only
It was impossible to keep
clean at the front and clothes
quickly became louse infested.
Soldiers were said to be
‘chatty’ and spent hours
‘chatting’ or ‘hunting’ lice and
lice eggs in their clothes. The
eggs were often found in the
seams. The kilt had a big
disadvantage here as lice loved
living in its folds.
The lice caused horrible itchy
sores especially around the
neck, wrists and ankles.
Soldiers who had not
brushed their teeth for
days on end might suffer
from trench mouth. The
symptoms were painful –
bleeding gums, ulcers of
the mouth and throat and
very bad breath.
Shell shock was caused
by fear of the never
ending artillery
bombardments, shells
whistling and screaming
in the air. Victims lost
control of their limbs.
Some foamed at the
mouth and became
incontinent. The effects
of shell shock were often
long lasting.
Drinking water was often
hard to get at the front
line and sometimes
contaminated water from
shell holes was drunk
causing cholera
epidemics. In the
Gallipoli campaign more
men died of disease than
bullet wounds!
Soldiers did not go
hungry unless enemy
action prevented
supplies getting
Each soldier had a
food ration.
A Typical Diet
Hard Biscuits
Plum and Apple Jam
Maconochie Stew
Bully Beef
Condensed Milk
“With us food is pretty
scarce and none too good
at that – turnips cut into
six pieces, unwashed
carrot tops – mouldy
potatoes. The chief
luxury is a thin rice soup
with little bits of beef, but
they are cut up so small
they are hard to find…”
Soldier on the Western Front
The condition of the food was not a priority!
To prepare his food each
soldier was issued with a
metal mess-tin.
Food was brought to the
front by ration parties. If
they came under attack
they and the food could
fall into shell holes full of
filthy water and rotting
What did the soldiers think about the food?
“Wrapping loose rations
such as tea, cheese and
meat was not considered
necessary, all being
tipped into a sandbag, a
ghastly mix-up resulting.
In wet weather their
condition was
George Coppard, Soldier on the Western
“Maconochie, a ‘dinner in
a tin’ was my favourite
and I could polish one off
with gusto, but the usual
share out was one tin for
four men…I don’t ever
recollect receiving an
apple or an orange as
part of my rations in
A soldier on the Western Front
Daily Routine
Posters always
showed men
ready and willing
to fight.
They never
showed the
boredom of the
trenches or
actual fighting
taking place.
What were soldiers doing when they were not fighting?
A register was called at dawn
Soldiers ate their breakfast
Officers’ inspection
Platoon sergeant gave out the duties
1/3 of men sent on sentry duty
1/3 of men sent back up the communication trenches
for supplies
1/3 worked in the trenches, repairing them
Day ends at dusk, when ration parties made their way
back with food, stores, parcels and letters
A lot of activity happened at night…
Night in the trenches was a time of silence and fear. It
was also a time of activity. Men stationed in listening
posts out in No-Man’s-Land gave early warning of enemy
activity, and passed it back to front line trenches, so that
the solders would be prepared.
Raiding parties went out at night to cut enemy wire
before big battles.
Snipers went out to kill enemy soldiers who raised their
heads above the parapet. They worked in pairs with
their faces blackened with coal and wore camouflaged
Death and Casualties
All the armies fighting
on the Western Front
were large; casualty
figures were
A lot of hospitals,
doctors and nurses
were needed to cope.
What happened to wounded soldiers?
At night, after a
battle, stretcher
parties searched NoMan’s-Land for
wounded men. The
stretcher parties
usually worked in the
dark, falling over
dead and rotting
Soldiers feared death…
All soldiers lived with
the sight, sound and
smell of the dead and
the dying. The fear
of death and of the
death of friends were
amongst the worst
things a soldier had to
put up with.
Total Number of Deaths
Britain lost 761,213
people in the war.
Most of these were
men who died in
trench warfare.
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