Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare

Trench warfare is a type of land warfare using occupied fighting lines consisting largely of military trenches, in which troops are well-protected from the enemy’s small arms fire and artillery. Trench warfare has become synonymous with stalemates, attrition, and futility.

Trench warfare occurred because a revolution of weapon technology was not matched with advances in mobility, resulting in an arduous conflict in which the defender had the advantage. The area between opposing trench lines, known as No Man’s Land, was fully exposed to artillery fire and attacks often sustained severe casualties.

During the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties. In the Battle of Verdun, the French army suffered 380,000 casualties. This travesty is attributed to narrow-minded commanders who failed to adapt to the new conditions of weapons technology. World War I generals are often portrayed as callously persisting in repeated hopeless attacks against enemy trenches.

British soldiers in a trench in France make merry with paper hats from Christmas crackers while a sentry uses a mirror to keep watch on no man’s land, 1916. Buzzfeed
Indian soldiers digging trenches, 1915. Buzzfeed
Looking out across a battlefield from an Anzac pillbox near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders in 1917. When German forces met stiff resistance in northern France in 1914, a “race to the sea” developed as France and Germany tried to outflank each other, establishing battle lines that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Allies and Central Powers literally dug in, excavating thousands of miles of defensive trenches, and trying desperately to break through the other side for years, at an unspeakably huge cost in blood and treasure. [Editor’s note: Photographer James Francis Hurley was known to have produced a number of WWI images that were composites of pieces of several photos, and it is possible this image is a composite as well.] The Atlantic
Six German soldiers pose in a trench with a machine gun, a mere 40 meters from the British line, according to the caption provided. The machine gun appears to be a Maschinengewehr 08, or MG 08, capable of firing 450-500 rounds a minute. The large cylinder is a jacket around the barrel, filled with water to cool the metal during rapid fire. The soldier at right, with gas mask canister, slung over his shoulder, is peering into a periscope to get a view of enemy activity. The soldier at the rear, with a steel helmet, holds a “potato masher” model 24 grenade. The Atlantic
Cleaning up German trenches at St. Pierre Divion. In the foreground, a group of British soldiers is sorting through equipment abandoned in the trenches by the Germans when St Pierre Divion was captured. One soldier has three rifles slung on his shoulder, another has two. Others are looking at machine gun ammunition. The probable photographer, John Warwick Brooke, has achieved considerable depth of field as many other soldiers can be seen in the background far along the trenches. National Library of Scotland
Soldier’s comrades watch him as he sleeps, near Thievpal, France. Soldiers are standing in a very deep, narrow trench, the walls of which are entirely lined with sandbags. At the far end of the trench, a line of soldiers is squashed up looking over each other’s shoulders at the sleeping man. National Library of Scotland
“We can see a small group of soldiers coming out of a trench, over the protective sandbag wall. They have their bayonets fixed, ready for an attack. It is not clear whether this is a staged photo or not. The works of official photographer Charles Hilton DeWitt form an important record, [but] their documentary value must be assessed with caution. Girdwood’s was an explicitly propagandist role on behalf of the war effort in general and the India Office in particular.” – The British Library
A sentry of the 10th Gordons at the junction of two trenches. Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August. Trenches came into widespread use in 1914 as a way for soldiers to protect themselves against the firepower of modern weaponry. Over time, they developed into huge networks. As shown here, trenches were given names to help identify them. Sometimes these names related to familiar places from home. International War Museum
Colonel Philip R Robertson returning from a tour of his unit’s positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier 1915. Water and mud could be a problem in the trenches, particularly in the autumn and winter months. Wooden ‘duckboards’ were used to line the bottom of trenches and the sides were reinforced with sandbags. International War Museum
Dispatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters. Trench conditions varied across different fronts. In Gallipoli in Turkey, mud was less of a problem but rocky and mountainous terrain posed different challenges. Soldiers also suffered from the heat. International War Museum
Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Croix du Bac, near Armentieres. Hot food was not supplied to front-line soldiers until late 1915 and even then it wasn’t always a regular occurrence. Troops in the front line had a repetitive diet of tinned food, sometimes served cold. International War Museum
Soldiers of ‘A’ Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench. This photograph shows an infantryman on sentry duty, whilst some of his comrades snatch a few moments of sleep behind him. They are in what was previously a German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme, July 1916. International War Museum
Men resting in sleeping shelters dug into the side of a trench near Contalmaison. When able to rest, soldiers in front-line trenches would try and shelter from the elements in dugouts. These varied from deep underground shelters to small hollows in the side of trenches. International War Museum
Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval. Most activity in front-line trenches took place at night under cover of darkness. During daytime, soldiers would try to get some rest but were usually only able to sleep for a few hours at a time. International War Museum
Men of the 10th Brigade who had been in the front line trenches for several days have a foot inspection at Dragon Farm. Soldiers in wet and muddy trenches were at risk from trench foot, caused by continually wearing tight, cold and wet boots.  If untreated, trench foot could lead to gangrene, but it could be prevented by regular changes of socks and foot inspections. International War Museum
An officer of the 9th Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap during the spring battles of 1917. Life in the front line always carried an element of danger. The threat could be from snipers, shellfire or from taking part in a trench raid or a major offensive. This rare photograph shows the moment when the first men go over the top during a raid in spring 1917. International War Museum
A group of armed Indian soldiers in a trench, wearing gas masks. Buzzfeed
A New Zealand soldier in a trench examining his shirt for lice. International War Museum
An explosion near trenches dug into the grounds of Fort de la Pompelle, near Reims, France. San Diego Air and Space Museum
Barber in a French trench in 1916 or 1917. Archive photo, Imperial War Museum