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Trench Warfare

Trench Warfare

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Although best known for its role in the long slog of World War I, trench warfare actually got its start on the battlefields of the American Civil War. Find out how new weapons and technology played a part in both its development and destruction.

Trench Warfare in WWII

In response to the question: Why didn’t World War II descend into trench warfare?

Trench warfare was hardly eradicated by WWII. Sure trench warfare may not have been as relevant a factor in WWII as it was in WWI but it was still alive and well. Ever heard of Monte Casino? The Gustav Line? The Germans entrenched themselves in the hilly country of Italy just before Rome and held this line for 4 months against allied attacks. The difference with trench warfare of WWI was that in this instance when the allies finally did breakthrough the Casino defenses, the Germans faced the serious threat that the allies mobile forces would be able to outflank the rest of the Gustav Line and trap the Germans against the Adriatic coast. Fortunately for the Germans, the allied commander, Mark Clark, decided to march on Rome and take the glory, allowing the Germans to make their escape.

The same can be said of Russia. The battle of Kursk in 1943, the largest tank battle in world history was actually a massive trench warfare battle with the Germans fighting to breakthrough row after row of entrenched Soviet positions. Similarly, often we think of the major battles on the eastern front like Operation Blue which culminated in the battle of Stalingrad, but simultaneously what do you think was happening on other parts of the front? That’s right, both sides entrenched and faced eachother as they awaited the outcome in the south. The same was true in the battles through France. In North Africa, the battle of El Alamein was essentially trench warfare, with the British making their way across minefields to get at the axis forces in their trenches.

The difference was not that trenches had disappeared from the battlefield, the difference was that they did not have the primacy that they had had in WWI and new technology made it so that breakthroughs could be exploited in a way that wasn’t possible in WWI. Trenches were still effective tools and were the key to any defense but they were not necessarily the impenetrable barriers they had been.


[This section is included to offer possible prompts for post-lesson evaluation but it certainly doesn&rsquot exhaust the possible areas for evaluation]

1. How successful was the lesson in helping students understand both why trenches were so difficult to attack successfully and why the same methods of attack were used so often? What were the benefits of using this activity as against using other teaching techniques?

2. Which students benefitted most from this activity? What can you learn from this about the kinds of teaching that will most help them?

3. Were the class control issues the ones you expected or were they different? How will you adapt and develop this activity next time?

4. How successful was the lesson for prompting students to ask their own questions? Is this an important reason for undertaking this kind of activity?

Does Trench Warfare Still Exist?

The phrase “trench warfare” immediately conjures images of the mud and slaughter of the Western Front during World War I. Millions died in fruitless offensives that saw men “go over the top” into withering machine gun fire. Ultimately, inventions such as tanks and airplanes allowed troops to move through or over No Man’s Land, and new technologies and doctrines would usher in the mobile warfare that characterized World War II in Europe. The German blitzkrieg flew over and drove around the Maginot Line, perhaps the most formidable static defensive barrier ever constructed, and that would seem to have spelled the end of trench warfare.

For this reason, and because trench warfare is so closely associated with primitive black-and-white footage of men struggling to cross the pockmarked battlefields of Belgium and France, it is commonly assumed that this military strategy is a relic of a bygone age, as likely to reappear as catapults or cavalry charges. In fact, trench warfare remains arguably the most effective strategy for infantry where, for whatever reason, armor and air support are lacking. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), after initial gains by the Iraqi army, the fighting settled into years of trench warfare. Iran even engaged in World War I–style human wave attacks such offensives were as unsuccessful and bloody as they had been 70 years earlier. The Syrian Civil War (2011– ) recapitulated World War I in a different fashion, with Bashar al-Assad’s army assaulting opposition-held areas with chemical weapons. The lines in that war remained relatively static, with opposition groups using trench systems that exhibited varying degrees of permanence and sophistication, until Russian airpower dramatically shifted the balance in favor of the Syrian government. In eastern Ukraine, where a mixed force of Russian troops, mercenaries, and Russian-backed militants were engaging in a proxy war against the government in Kiev (2014– ), trench systems and hardened fortifications marked a front line some 250 miles long. Airpower was largely absent from the “contact line” in Ukraine, because of the presence of sophisticated Russian antiaircraft systems on the pro-Russian side (one such system was used in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17) and Russia’s desire to maintain plausible deniability of its direct involvement in the conflict. Drones may have replaced carrier pigeons in the skies above the battlefield, but the use of trenches has changed little since Verdun and the Somme.

Trench Warfare

In 9th Grade World history at Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts we have learning about World War 1and how it changes warfare. World War 1 was a major turning point in all types of warfare. One of the most important types of warfare, in all of World War 1 was, Trench Warfare. Trenches We a lot different from the Civil War, Revolutionary War, and Medieval wars. The Civil war was the act of lining up and shooting the enemy then charging, trench men took cover then shot when they saw an enemy. The revolutionary wasn’t as advance because they used inaccurate weapons like the musket the trench men had snipers that shot long ranged accurate bullets. The Medieval battles were all about close quarters combat, and hand wea pons. Trench men had machine guns, snipers, grenades, and knifes called bayonets on the tip of their gun. Trenches were much more complex, timely, and accurate.

Trench’s were an art during World War 1. These weren’t just 12 feet deep holes in the ground they were death traps, killing machines, homes, and hospitals. A trench was made in a zig-zag formation which is Greek Fret Work or wavy lines. In the non-fiction book Over There say why the trenches had a zig-zag formation, “Trenches were dug, or ought to have been dug, at least five feet deep in a pattern resembling Greek Fretwork or wavy lines. This limited damage of a direct hit or in case of an enemy attack, of an enemy machine gun firing down a trench.(110)”Each short section was called a “bay”. Trenches were very tight and rarely wide, because the narrower the trench the more protection. There was one thing that was mandatory about trenches. That is a trench needs to be wide enough so two soldiers can pass by each other. Normally a trench was 12 feet deep, the front and back walls were lined with sand bags 2-3 feet high, a ledge built into the lower part of the ditch, was known as the first step helping soldiers see where they were shooting. Lastly but most importantly a trench consisted of 3 or 4 trenches. The front trench or “fire line”, the support trench, and reserve trench. These trenches were all connected by communication trenches, allowing the movement of messages, troops, and supplies.

The life of a trench soldier was tiring, frightening, and boring. The life of a soldier in a trench wasn’t always fun, or full of action. The life of a trench soldier started at 00:00, when they woke up. From 04:00 to 06:00, was breakfast. The breakfast was very filling but more on the tasteless side. 06:00 to 09:00 was when the soldiers cleaned, and inspected there weapons. Chores took place from 09:00 to 19:00. 19:30 to 21:00 was ‘stand to’ also known as dinner. The day ended with night working parties and relief from 21:00 to 00:00. From all the artillery, grenades, and shooting, things needed to be repaired at night. The website http://www.bbc.com/ww1 said “In all, most battalions rarely spent more than five days a month in the line of fire.” Every night new barbed wired had to be laid and the old wire was repaired at night. Soldiers would fix the trench walls if it caved in from explosions. Surprisingly the least amount of time was spent in the front line the most time was spent outside of trenches. These soldiers endured a few challenges, to keep the trench healthy, and themselves.

Clearly life was challenging during World War 1. The food was filling and there was bedding for some people. Of every 5 men brought into casualty collection stations, 3 were unwounded but seriously ill. Two major sicknesses/disorders were “trench fever” and “trench foot”. “Trench Fever” was transmitted by body lice. Symptoms were fevers, and pain in joints, bones, and muscles. “Trench Foot” was a brutal disorder that resembled frost bite. This was caused by the trenches flooding with water, and producing a lot of mud. The feet of the soldiers would become very swollen, and sometimes turn black. The trenches of course had many rodents invading people’s space. The soldiers had to deal with poor living conditions, but ate well. In the book Voices from the Past… World War 1 a soldier said “Then, back in the trenches, they were, faced with misery of mud, slugs, frogs, rodents, lice, and often utter boredom (28). That’s just terrifying.

In conclusion, trenches changed warfare forever. During its time it was brand new and known as the “dangerous stage”. The Western Front Trenches came into existence because of a stagnant. A stagnant is a tie or draw. This whole trench idea was much more different than the Civil War, Revolutionary War, and Medieval Wars. During the civil war the troops would line up to fire. During the Revolutionary war the main gun was a musket that took a lot of time to reload. The Medieval Wars were close quarters combat. World War 1 trench fights had one side charge the other trench while they defended, then they would switch. The World War 1 guns were much more powerful and faster. The trenches had long ranger snipers in sniper nests, and very fast machine guns shooting multiple bullets a second, unlike the musket. Overall, Trench Warfare was one huge step in the growth of all warfare.

History Of Trench Warfare

If you check the history of trench warfare, you will realize that initially, there were no trenches. It all started out by digging up foxholes so that troops could entrench their tools. However, soon the troops realized that by digging deeper holes, they would be able to stand in them and protect themselves. So, this led to individual soldier digging deeper foxholes. Soon, these foxholes were connected to one another by means of crawl trenches. And, this led to the construction of more permanent trenches.

The soil that was dug out from the trenches was used to make elevated parapets on either side of the trenches. In addition, even firing positions were made, so that soldiers could fire and then duck down.

The first time trenches were used were in the 17th century when a military engineer from France named Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban developed a system of excavation to attack fortresses. Initially, these excavations were made to lay siege on the enemy and this continued until firepower technology improved and small arms and cannons were invented. It was during the American Civil War that a network of trenches were dug and used and gave rise to trench warfare.

However, it was during the First World War when trench warfare was used extensively. Some of the network of trenches used to run up to 1.6 kilometers, or 1 mile. There were up to 4 lines of trenches. These trenches were dug in a zigzag manner so that if an enemy soldier was standing at one end of the trench, he would not be able to fire for more than a couple of yards along the length of the trench. The network of trenches was used to deliver food, ammunition, mail, orders from the superiors and also supply fresh troops. The trenches housed command posts, supply dumps, first aid stations, latrines as well as kitchens. There was even place made in the trenches for putting machine guns and firing at the enemies. There were dugouts in the trenches that were used by many soldiers when they were faced by bombardment.

While trench warfare was used extensively during the First World War, it was also used by Japanese, North Koreans and Chinese during the Second World War. Then, in modern times, trench warfare has been used during the Iran Iraq War and also in the Persian Gulf War by Iraq, who not only built defensive trenches, but also berms and ditches.

When the Schlieffen Plan failed, it led to the development of trench warfare during the First World War. Germany was fighting the war on 2 fronts, the Eastern and Western fronts, and this meant that the small German army would have to be divided. This led Count von Schlieffen, who was the Chief of the General Staff in Germany, to come up with a plan to solve this problem. More..

9 thoughts on &ldquo History of Trench Warfare in World War I &rdquo

On a side-note, and most here probably already know this, but Veteran’s Day (today) used to be Armistice Day.

It morphed from being a day honoring a peace truce to a day honoring those who were willing to participate in unjust wars. One Eighty, for sure.

Thanks Angel, great repost that I originally missed.

People say, “Thank you military for defending our freedom”. Anybody sick to their stomachs yet?

Could be why so many vets are suiciding or suffering. They learned the truth. Gotta be a hard pill to swallow, especially when you thought you were doing the right thing.

Henry, Laura and I took that river boat ride months ago, the operator of the boat was a wannabe hotshot, before we started out, he says, “let’s all clap for our military and the great job they are doing protecting our freedom”, we just sat there, with our hands in our laps, Henry said something, forgot what it was. We were the only ones that didn’t respond.

Amazing Henry stayed as composed as he did. Grin. There could have been a “Man Overboard!!” issue. Grin again.

I will one day do that river boat ride. Then I can say I sailed on the same waters as Schumacher and Shivley’s.

Trench warfare re-emerged during the horrific 10 year Iraq-Iran conflict, a US/UK/French arms dealers effort to destroy Iran. The real horror of WWI was it could have ended sooner. The critically important areas of Briey and Thionville were left untouched despite the fact that the highest levels of the French military had plans to attack and capture them as a matter of utmost strategic urgency. The arms merchant of death Basil Zaharoff (ne Manel Sachar) the main Rothschild rep (for Vickers Arms, the Rothschilds being the primary owners of stock) demanded that Briey was to be left alone and the French government was persuaded ‘somehow’. German publications postwar stated the conflict would have ended in weeks if the French had attacked. French public hearings after the war went nowhere, as Zaharoff/Rothschild owned the newspapers and killed inquiries at the government level. Even French pilots returning from bombing missions during the war with unloaded ordinance who dropped a few bombs on Briey recognizing it as a valuable military target, while unaware of the corrupt political fix, were punished when they landed.

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June 2nd in Civil War History: the last surrender and the first use of trench warfare

Most people think of Appomattox when they think of the last surrender of the Civil War, but it wasn’t. The final surrender was in the Trans-Mississippi Theater on June 2, 1865. It was only the year before that General Lee devised the first Trench Warfare at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor where some 18,000 boys and men died. You can still see some of the trenches.

The Civil War was fought to free the slaves and for States’ Rights. Originally, it was allegedly only to preserve the Union, but it was clear that President Abraham Lincoln wanted the institution of slavery abolished by any means necessary.

There were an estimated 1.5 million casualties, with 620,000 killed, 476,000 wounded, and 400,000 captured and missing.

Most casualties and deaths in the Civil War were the result of non-combat-related diseases. For every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died of disease. The primitive nature of Civil War medicine, both in its intellectual underpinnings and in its practice in the armies, meant that many wounds and illnesses were unnecessarily fatal.

Our modern conception of casualties includes those who have been psychologically damaged by warfare. This distinction did not exist during the Civil War. Soldiers suffering from what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder were uncatalogued and uncared for.

One in four soldiers who went to war never returned. It is estimated that one in three Southern households lost at least one family member.


June 2, 1865, marks the last Confederate surrender in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

There were Federal operations against Indians in the vicinity of Crystal Palace Bluff, about Fort Rice, the Dakota Territory, as one man is reported dying from arrow wounds.

On May 26, 1865, Federal commanders accepted the surrender of the last major organized Confederate force still in the field.

Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith commanded the Trans-Mississippi District, in which the Army of the West was assigned to cover western Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Texas, and the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. The army had not been much of a fighting force since its failed Missouri incursion last fall, but Smith urged his men to continue resisting nonetheless:

“Show that you are worthy of your position in history. Prove to the world that your hearts have not failed in the hour of disaster and that at the last moment you will sustain the holy cause which has been so gloriously battled for by your brethren east of the Mississippi… The great resources of this department, its vast extent, the numbers, the discipline, and the efficiency of the army, will secure to our country terms that a proud people can accept, and may, under the Providence of God, be the means of checking the triumph of our enemy and securing the final success of our cause.”

In early May, Smith rejected a proposal from Major General John Pope, commanding the Federal Department of the Missouri, to surrender under the same terms that Ulysses S. Grant had given Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman had given Joseph E. Johnston and E.R.S. Canby had given Richard Taylor. Two days later, Smith reported that most of his 50,000 men had “dissolved all military organization and returned to their homes.”

Nevertheless, Smith continued holding out while other Confederate commanders gave in. Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, the “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy” who had harassed Federals in Missouri and Arkansas throughout the war, surrendered the remnants of his brigade at Chalk Bluff, Arkansas. Major General Samuel Jones surrendered his small command in Florida at Tallahassee. And notorious raider William C. Quantrill was mortally wounded in Spencer County, Kentucky, thereby ending most of the guerrilla warfare in the border states.

Finally realizing that Federal numbers might be too overwhelming, Smith called a conference with the exiled governors of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas at Marshall, Texas, on the 13th. Smith told the attendees that it was his duty to hold out “at least until President Davis reaches this department, or I receive some definite orders from him.” Smith was still unaware that Jefferson Davis had been captured.

The governors disagreed, considering it “useless..” However, Brigadier General Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby, one of Smith’s lieutenants, threatened to arrest his superior if he followed the governors’ advice and surrendered. The men ultimately decided to appoint Louisiana Governor Henry W. Allen to go to Washington to try negotiating a settlement.

Two days later, Smith refused a second overture from Pope to surrender. Pope’s messenger offered Smith a choice between unconditional surrender or “all the horrors of violent subjugation.”

Smith told the man that he could not “purchase a certain degree of immunity from devastation at the expense of the honor of its (the Confederacy’s) army.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan to destroy what remained of Smith’s army. Sheridan asked to stay in Washington to participate in the Grand Review, but Grant insisted that he leave immediately. Grant explained that not only would Sheridan be forcing Smith’s surrender, but he would also be discouraging France from colonizing Mexico in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Sheridan’s fearsome reputation for pillage and destruction would surely precede his arrival.

Smith soon received word both that Sheridan was coming and Jefferson Davis had been captured. With his army rapidly disbanding, he decided to finally negotiate.

He dispatched his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, to discuss peace, not with Pope at St. Louis but with Major General E.R.S. Canby at New Orleans. Smith did not expect Buckner to make that decision without consulting him on what terms he could expect.

Buckner and Canby began conferring on the 25th, and the next day Buckner made that decision without consulting Smith.

He surrendered the Confederate Army of the West to Canby’s chief of staff, Major General Peter J. Osterhaus, under the same terms Grant had given Lee. As fate would have it, Buckner had surrendered the first Confederate army at Fort Donelson in 1862, and now he surrendered the last.

Smith arrived in Houston on the 27th and learned that his army had been surrendered the day before.

He refused to endorse the agreement, and on the 30th he issued a final order to his few remaining men in the form of an admonition: “Soldiers! I am left a Commander without an army– a General without troops. You have made your choice. It was unwise and unpatriotic, but it is final. I pray you may not live to regret it.”

Smith finally relented and signed the articles of surrender on June 2, aboard the steamer Fort Jackson at Galveston. Those who refused to give up were paid in gold and mustered out, including Jo Shelby and others hoping to continue the fight from Mexico. Smith himself would join them later.

The surrender of E.K. Smith’s Trans-Mississippi District meant that the last significant Confederate fighting force was no more. Some commanders who led small, less organized units continued holding out, including General Stand Watie. Others just went home, ultimately accepting that the war was over at last.

The year before, the Cold Harbor battle was being fought in June as Lee tried to retake the battlefield.


The battlefield is said to be one of the creepiest places on earth. It is where trench warfare was first fought.

Lee wished to retake Old Cold Harbor and sent Major General Joseph Kershaw’s division to join Hoke in a morning assault. The effort was short and uncoordinated. Hoke failed to press the attack and Sheridan’s troopers, armed with Spencer repeating carbines, easily repulsed the assault.

Grant, encouraged by this success, ordered up reinforcements and planned his own attack for later the same day. If the Union frontal assault broke through the Confederate defenses, it would place the Union army between Lee and Richmond. After a hot and dusty night march, Major General Horatio Wright’s VI Corps arrived and relieved Sheridan’s cavalry, but Grant had to delay the attack Major General William Smith’s XVIII Corps, Army of the James, marching in the wrong direction under out-of-date orders, had to retrace its route and arrived late in the afternoon.

The Union attack finally began at 5 p.m. Finding a fifty yard gap between Hoke’s and Kershaw’s divisions, Wright’s veterans poured through, capturing part of the Confederate lines. A southern counterattack however, sealed off the break and ended the day’s fighting. Confederate infantry strengthened their lines that night and waited for the battle to begin next morning.

Disappointed by the failed attack Grant planned another advance for 5 a.m. on June 2. He ordered Major General Winfield Hancock’s II Corps to march to the left of the VI Corps.

Exhausted by a brutal night march over narrow, dusty roads, the II Corps did not arrive until 6:30 a.m. Grant postponed the attack until 5 p.m.

Later that day, he approved a postponement until 4:30 a.m. of June 3 because of the spent condition of Hancock’s men.

The Union delays gave Lee precious hours, time he used to strengthen his defenses. The Confederates had built simple trenches by daybreak of June 2. Under Lee’s personal supervision, these works were expanded and strengthened throughout the day. By nightfall the Confederates occupied an interlocking series of trenches with overlapping fields of fire. Reinforcements under Major General John Breckinridge and Lieutenant General Ambrose Hill arrived and fortified the Confederate right. Lee was ready.

At 4:30 on the morning of June 3 almost 50,000 Federal troops in the II, VI and XVIII Corps launched a massive assault.

The Confederate position, now well entrenched, proved too strong for the Union troops. In less than an hour, thousands of Federal soldiers lay dead and dying between the lines.

Pinned down by a tremendous volume of Confederate infantry and artillery fire, Grant’s men could neither advance nor retreat. With cups, plates, and bayonets, they dug makeshift trenches. Later, when darkness fell, these trenches were joined and improved.

JUNE 4-12
The great attack at Cold Harbor was over. Hundreds of wounded Federal soldiers remained on the battlefield for four days as Grant and Lee negotiated a cease-fire. Few survived the ordeal.

From June 4 to June 12 both armies fortified their positions and settled into siege warfare. The days were filled with minor attacks, artillery duels and sniping. With the Union defeat at Cold Harbor, Grant changed his overall strategy and abandoned further direct moves against Richmond.

On the night of June 12 Union forces withdrew and marched south towards the James River. During the two week period along the Totopotomoy and at Cold Harbor, the Federal army lost 12,000 killed, wounded, missing, and captured while the Confederates suffered almost 4,000 casualties.

Grant’s next target was Petersburg and the railroads that provided needed supplies to the Confederate army. Cold Harbor proved to be Lee’s last major field victory and changed the course of the war from one of maneuver to one of entrenchment.

Advances in Trench Building

At this stage, neither was equipped for trench warfare. Early trenches were often shallow and ill-suited to long-term habitation. British commander Sir John French was fond of saying that in these conditions, ‘a spade was as useful as a rifle.’

Individual trenches were slowly expanded into gargantuan trench networks with underground barracks and supply stores.

Soldiers complained that this kind of warfare was more strenuous than earlier mobile battles. A battle in the open would generally only last for a day or so, trench battles went on for several days inflicting relentless stress and fatigue.

The swift turnarounds of victory and defeat, typical of the early battles of movement, were over.

War of Words – ‘trench warfare’

Combat on the Western Front during World War One is justly infamous for its grim lethality. Soldiers on both sides dug deep trenches in the earth to escape murderous enemy fire.

With a reported first appearance as a term in 1887, ‘trench warfare’ was being used to describe Western Front fighting before 1914 was out. ‘This trench warfare in which we are now engaged,’ observed one British general that December, ‘is causing a demand for all sorts of things which are not recognised by regulation.’

Because of the unrelenting ferocity of trench warfare, the term has also come to mean a fierce, grinding contest of a non-military nature. ‘This … law was … struck down after years of expensive trench warfare in the courts,’ went one recent example.

Related phrases such as ‘in the trenches’, or simply ‘the trenches’, are also used to convey this latter sense of hard struggle.

Trenches had been seen long before the Great War, being employed during the American Civil War, by the army of Louis XIV, that of Rome, as well as a myriad of others. Today, however, they are most closely associated with the Western Front.

Protected by barbed wire and sandbags, trenches were an effective form of defence. An assaulting force would likely be cut to ribbons while moving over ground – No Man’s Land – lashed by machine-gun fire and pummelled by artillery shells.

Forward movement came to a halt and bloody stalemate ensued. Millions of Allied and German soldiers huddled in sinuous, squalid, and mud-clogged trenches that extended from the Franco- Swiss border to the North Sea.

Ghastly weapons were introduced to break the deadlock, including the flame thrower and poison gas, but these achieved negligible success. Repeated, ineffectual attacks on enemy trench systems resulted in appalling casualties for all participants.

Marc DeSantis

This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

Watch the video: Trench Warfare in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special (June 2022).


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