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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

Trenches

The First World War was characterised by trench warfare. The soldiers usually spent a few days in the trenches and then a few days away from the front line in billets or huts.

A rotation system was used because conditions were so unpleasant, and the noise of shells so constant, that sleep was very difficult in the trenches. Rest kept the soldiers alert and able to carry out their duties.

Trenches were dug and maintained by the soldiers, and varied in their level of effectiveness as well as in their level of comfort. The Allies' trenches and the German trenches were separated by No Man's Land, an area which quickly became barren and filled with barbed wire and bombs and which was in clear view of enemy fire. As land was gained or lost, each side took over the trenches of the enemy.

The battlefields of Belgium were in a region which is very flat and low lying, with poor drainage. This meant that when it rained, the trenches filled with water as it drained from the fields around.

Rees describes being 'issued with long rubber boots up to the hips & very useful they are as the water all along one part of the trench is well above the knees & if you are not careful & step into a hole, you go in up to the waist. Still we go splashing & whistling along & have a tremendous roar if some poor fool suddenly sits down in it'

Extract from Sergeant Barclay’s diary, 24 February 1917 (D/DLI 7/41/3) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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The conditions in the trenches got worse with the winter rains: Sergeant Barclay's diary for the end of February states 'Trenches get worse - waist deep in mud & water at places - going to dump'.

See a full transcript of Sergeant Barclay's diary from February 1917.

Cold weather was also a problem as Second Lieutenant Gamble's letters show: 'The water in the front line was everywhere a foot or more deep; it was intensely cold...If we had left [the mud] undisturbed, we should have been frozen in, and Bosche was rather active with his artillery'.

Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 20 November 1915, p.1 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 20 November 1915, p.2 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Bosche, or Boche, was a common nickname for the Germans amongst British officers, from the French caboche, meaning head.

See a full transcript of Second Lieutenant Gamble's letter, 20 November, 1915.

Gamble goes on to discuss 'various ways of using or abusing the liquid devil' which are quite inventive, although possibly not very practical!

The condition and height of trenches depended on how much time the soldiers had to dig and maintain them.

Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 October 1915 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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In Belgium, where the water table was too high or the ground too hard, sandbags were used to make a trench system above ground.

If the men of a battalion remained in one section for a length of time, then they could make it comparatively comfortable, as Gamble explained:

See a full transcript of Second Lieutenant Gamble's letter, 23 October, 1915.

Photograph of Shrapnel Corner near Ypres, Belgium, April 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10(316)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This photograph of the trench at Shrapnel Corner, near Ypres shows a trench which was very shallow.

The soldiers would consequently have spent much of their time crouched below the parapet - not a comfortable position to be in. The soldiers' uniforms are dirty (and probably full of lice) and the men look tired.

The section of trench is also crowded, with men packed in between the planks of wood which were used as bridges. As the soldiers could have a bath only when they visited a town, the smell must have been pretty strong.

Captain Mauchlen drew a sketch of the Flers Line (see map below) after it was captured from the Germans. This trench is much deeper than the one at Shrapnel Corner: the soldier shown is only just able to look over the parapet.

Sketch of ‘Flers Line (after capture)’ by Captain Mauchlen, 1916 (D/DLI 7/920/10(8)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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The sketch also shows what life was like in the trenches and shows the sheer amount of mud everywhere. Mauchlen has hinted that conditions will get even worse: the soldiers are wearing big trench coats and helmets to shelter from the rain which is pouring down.

The boots of a dead man can be seen on the top of the trench, and another wounded man is lying in the corner of the trench. A third man is peering out from his dugout at the scene around him.

Dugouts were protective holes dug out of the side of trenches. Some were used as mess rooms to eat in and others for sleeping in, although conditions varied according to the rank of the soldiers and the condition of the trench.

Sketch of a dug out by Second Lieutenant Stafford, 1917 (D/DLI 7/662/2/112) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Second Lieutenant George Brabazon Stafford kept a photograph album and sketch book of his experiences and drew an annotated (labelled) sketch of his dug out in Canada Trench, near Arras in France, September 1917.

It clearly shows how the dugout was constructed with a corrugated iron roof, wooden beams and sand bags, and how the officers tried to make it more comfortable, with a book shelf.

Stafford has also drawn another common feature of dugouts - rats!

Like trenches, dugouts could be made fairly comfortable. Lieutenant Rees described his dugout in a letter in December 1915: 'I am as warm as a pie in my dug out which I share with two others, there is only just room to creep in but it is not much used as we have not much time to sleep except during part of the day' and Lieutenant Catford even managed to hold a dinner party in his dugout, which included 'Turtle Soup, meat & two vegetables & Apricots & Cream washed down with Whiskey & Perrier Consumed from glasses'.

However dugouts were generally small, crowded, dirty and uncomfortable.

'My Little Dry Home in the West' is an anonymous poem which describes the conditions in the trenches; it truthfully but patriotically insists:

'so hurrah for the mud and the clay
That leads to 'Der Tag' that's the day
When we enter Berlin that city of sin
And make the fat Berliner pay'

See a full transcript of the 'My Little Dry Home' poem.

It is a parody of a song which was popular during the early years of the war called 'Little Grey Home in The West'. You can read the lyrics and listen to a recording made of this song in 1912 at the The First World War website. Please note this link will take you off the DRO website, to return to this page please use your browser 'Back' button.

There are several versions of this poem in existence, which suggests that it was probably sung in the trenches and that different men misremembered or added verses. Second Lieutenant Gamble included another version in a letter to his family on 20 November 1915.

Poem ‘My Little Dry Home in the West’, c.1915, p.1 (D/DLI 7/417/3) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Poem ‘My Little Dry Home in the West’, c.1915, p.2 (D/DLI 7/417/3) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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he paper on which this poem is written is very thin because there was a shortage of paper during the war. Bully beef, or corned beef, was a staple of the soldiers' diets. Learn more about food.

Another important feature of trench warfare were trench maps. Before the war the French did not have a system of accurate, large scale maps, so a priority was to map the war zone and mark on the position of the trenches.

These trench maps were issued to the soldiers for their local area and were regularly updated. Only trenches made by the enemy were drawn on the maps, in case the maps fell into enemy hands.

Trench map of Pys-le Sars- Ligny-Thilloy, The Somme, 16 October 1916 (D/DLI 2/9/244) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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The trenches were given interesting names, which were inspired by the surrounding countryside (e.g. Flers Line - see map below and Mauchlen's sketch above), the person who dug them (e.g. Butterworth Trench), the soldiers' home towns, or animals and birds. This map (left) has a Cat Alley, a Goose Alley and a Durham Trench, for example.