World History 2 179 - 11.3.3 Life in the Trenches, the Mountains, and the Desert

The trenches of the western front, born of the stalemate in which the Allies and Central powers found themselves in the fall of 1914, became synonymous with the war. The horror of unrelenting artillery fire coupled with unending mud made this arena of fighting unique. Troops literally dug in for protection from enemy artillery barrages and then found themselves stranded in these locations. From the beginning, the German troops dug deeper and more elaborate trenches, as if planning to stay for a long time. The early Allied trenches were more rudimentary but became more highly developed over the years.

At its height, the trench system traversed nearly five hundred miles. At the front were soldiers who generally stayed in position for several days before being moved back to the second-line support trenches and the third-line reserve trenches. Farther back was the long-range artillery. Behind the trench system lay field hospitals and villages across the French and Belgian countryside.

Soldiers found life in the trenches tedious. There was little to do but always the prospect of death just above the parapet. It rained regularly, and the trenches became filled with mud. Soldiers put down wooden planks to help, but it was hard to avoid some measure of hypothermia. Constant moisture on feet and legs caused trench foot when the skin could not dry and began to split and come off. It was intensely painful but hard to avoid. Trenches also became strewn with debris and trash, and disease easily spread in these close quarters.

The proximity of the two armies could lead to rare exchanges, however. In one example, at Christmas the first year of the war in 1914, German and British soldiers faced one another from their respective trenches, and some began calling out across the no-man’s land between them. First one side and then the other sang Christmas carols. Finally, soldiers from both sides cautiously began climbing out of their trenches and ended up meeting in the no-man’s land between them, where they exchanged cigarettes, candy, and souvenirs. Many soldiers reported similar experiences. The Christmas truce displays the humanity that could still be seen in the war, but it also angered those at headquarters. Such camaraderie was not allowed to occur again.

Link to Learning

Read and listen to accounts of the unofficial Christmas truce between British and German soldiers in the trenches on the western front in 1914, presented by the Imperial War Museums.

In other combat regions, the armies were more mobile, but the fighting came with its own set of problems. For example, battles between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces ranged over the Italian Alps, forcing soldiers to fight at high altitude with few opportunities to resupply. Besides the need to live in caves or scale mountain heights, troops also faced regular snowfall and subfreezing temperatures. The threat from frostbite and avalanches was real, and the poor conditions accounted for more than half the casualties suffered during this mountainous fighting. The narrow passes of the Alps also offered little chance to retreat.

Fighting in the Caucasus between the Russians and the Ottomans began in 1914. The front was isolated, and the Ottomans did not have the rail lines to supply operations far from the front. The snow was many feet deep, and temperatures plunged below zero as the troops fought. The Ottoman troops were unable to continue given their lack of supplies, and they suffered tens of thousands of casualties. In arid climates around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, armies had to ensure adequate water supplies in the desert. It was difficult to find enough feed for horses, so particularly in the Middle East, troops became more reliant on camels as a means of carrying supplies and even people.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax