For the common soldier, the defining experience of World War I was trench warfare. After the French and British stopped the Germans at the Battle of the Marne, the opposing armies raced to the sea trying to outflank each other, creating a long line of trenches along the way, from Switzerland to the English Channel. The conflict all along the Western Front then settled into four years of gruesome stalemate. Armies dug hundreds of miles of complicated trenches zigzagging in all directions, with typically 5,000 men per mile on each side. The front trench would be on average at least 6 foot deep and wide, then there was a second support trench a mile or so back behind. Finally, there was a third line of reserves, ready to advance when needed.
The conditions in the trenches were agonizing. Armies had not planned to make so many miles of trenches, and they were woefully unprepared to sustain millions of people in them for years. Soldiers reported that the food was barely edible, healthy hygiene impossible, and basic sanitation nonexistent. These poor conditions combined with the wet and cold, lice and rats, led to diseases such as trench foot—which if left untreated could lead to amputation—and pneumonia. Days of tedium were then suddenly interrupted by moments of sheer terror when officers ordered their soldiers “over the top” of the trench to race head on into machine gun fire, barbed wire, and artillery barrages.
Fritz Meese, a Germany soldier, described the dreadful conditions of the trenches on the Western Front. He was killed in 1915.
“For the last week in a trench which is a mere ruin through which water flows in wet weather—stiff with clay and filth, and thereby supposed to protect us from the awful shell-fire. A feeble human defence against powerful forces. I am still alive and unwounded though my pack and my clothes are torn to rags by bullets. I can’t say that I am enjoying myself, but I have not lost my sense humor. Pray for fine weather and food for me, for wet and hunger are the worst enemies. You simply can have no idea what it is like, to be in the trenches for days and weeks on end under enemy fire. . . Life here isn’t worth a damn, one thinks nothing of losing it. To-day, for instance, I walked for half an hour through violent rifle-fire just to have a wash and because I hoped to get one or two cigarettes” (Lewis 65)
A French soldier, Alan Seeger, described the tormenting experience of modern trench warfare for the vulnerable soldier. He was later killed at the battle of the Somme in 1916:
“This style of trench warfare is extremely modern and for the artillerymen is doubtless very interesting, but for the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His role is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of war, but none of its enthusiasms or splendid elan, he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over this head and take their little daily toll from his comrades . . . His feet are numb, his canteen frozen, but he is not allowed to make a fire . . . he is not even permitted to light a candle, but must fold himself in his blanket and lie down cramped in the dirty straw to sleep as best he may. How different from the popular notion of the evening campfire, the songs and good cheer” (Lewis 63).