This week, the news broke that archaeologists have re-discovered a system of World War One trenches on the Isle of Sheppey, an island just off the coast of North Kent, that had been totally forgotten. What’s remarkable about these trenches is that they were dug in preparation for a German invasion. This makes them pretty unique as the only trenches built in England for fully defensive purposes on the home front, rather than for training new soldiers heading out to the battlefields.
There were, of course, many different types of trenches, making up a maze-like network for soldiers on the front line. But these front line trenches weren’t just fought in; they were lived in. So what, as archaeologists, can we learn from re-examining the trenches of WW1? We’ve put together ten of our favourite images that help us understand what life in the trenches was really like.
This aerial image of the trenches near Loos was taken in 1917 – two years after the main battle, during which the Royal Flying Corps of the British Army took over 19,000 aerial photographs. This image shows the network of trenches as they zig-zag across the landscape. Even though trenches were hard to see at eye level, they were easily visible from above, making them an easy target for air attacks.
Dogs were often brought into the trenches; their excellent senses of smell and hearing were used to detect the enemy. They were also used as messengers, for transportation of supplies and as mascots, but they weren’t the only animals. British soldiers were known to keep birds such as chickens which would produce fresh eggs for them to eat. Here we can see a makeshift chicken coop, as well as a British soldier holding a rabbit. In other cases, archaeologists excavating trenches in France have found skeletons of goats – presumably kept to provide the soldiers with fresh milk.
As if being a soldier fighting in the trenches was not stressful enough, trenches were often inundated with rats, bringing with them a range of bacteria and fleas, rats also nibbled holes into supplies and even wormed their way into food banks. One soldier recalled: ‘A battalion of Jerrys would have terrified me less than the rats did sometimes’. Cats, dogs and even men hired as rat hunters would be brought in to remove the pesky vermin. But that’s not all. A recent study took samples from the bodies of German soldiers Kilianstollen, Carspach, France found they were full of roundworm, tapeworm, whipworm and all sorts, and is now helping researchers investigate the spread of parasites among humans and rats… including the possibility that they were eaten.
Trenches were quick to fill with water during bad weather leading to conditions such as trench foot. Standing in water for days on end with limited time or provisions to change socks and shoes resulted in gangrenous conditions that could lead to amputation. Men were instructed to remove their boots at least once a day to increase blood circulation to the feet. Here a medical officer is examining the feet of the 12th battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment in a support trench near Roclincourt in 1918.
Trench warfare was long and slow, meaning men could remain in the trenches for weeks or even months at a time. With long periods at a standstill, ‘normal’ elements of life continued. Here we see an Italian soldier receiving a hair cut in a trench on the Albanian Front line in 1918.
World War One brought with it an entirely new style of warfare. Rather than hand to hand combat over a number of days, war went on for months, with guns and bombs as the weapons of choice. This meant that there were limited opportunities to bury or even remove the dead from the battlefield. This meant men were exposed to death and decomposing bodies on a daily basis. Here we see two Canadian soldiers examining a skull. Faced with death in such a constant and obvious manner, soldiers dealt with death in different ways.
Haircuts weren’t the only home comfort. Alcohol served various purposes in the life of the soldier. It would help the men relax, not only in a social context, but in order to deal with the effects of war and to induce sleep. It would be both distributed and withheld by generals to maintain a social order. Men would often be given rum before being sent over the front line to help ease their nerves. Here we also see a trench sign. Trenches would be fitted with often rather cheeky signs helping to maintain a sense of direction and location.
Soldiers would work in rotation, so that someone was always on guard, whether that was watching the enemy, in a listening trench or elsewhere. When off duty, men would sleep anywhere it was possible to get comfortable. Here we can count four sleeping soldiers whilst one keeps watch.
It wasn’t all just mud dug tunnels. Some trenches were really rather well built. Here German soldiers pose in their 300ft long trench located near Carspatch, France.
Wet, muddy conditions mean that trenches are often incredibly well preserved, like this one found by French archaeologists near Carspach. Bombed by the allies, the trench collapsed and 21 soldiers were buried alive. Along with the bodies, archaeologists have recovered personal effects, beds, newspapers, drinking cups, construction tools, heating devices, water pumps and lots more that reveals the reality of trench life.
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