Partnership Trust | NY State Education Department | Office of Cultural Education | Online Catalog | Search | NY State Archives Home

WWI - In the Trenches

A common misconception about World War I is that it premiered what came to be known as trench warfare. However, trench warfare had been used long before war erupted in 1914. The long history of trench warfare even includes the later stages of the U.S. Civil War. Although trench warfare did not originate with World War I, it may certainly be said that the practice reached its peak during this time.

Life in the trenches was strenuous and burdensome. During the day, the trenches were mostly quiet, as snipers made movement perilous. Trenches were busiest at night, as soldiers moved to maintain their trenches and other positions. Many troops rotated duty at night, while others maintained the long strands of razor-sharp barbed wire in “No Man’s Land” between opposing trenches. Constant vigilance was a necessity for any soldier in the trenches in Western Europe.

As more effective rifles and machine guns became commonplace, combatants were capable of attacking from longer ranges. The proliferation of long-range weapons made it easier for troops to attack from concealed locations. Frontal assaults proved to be disastrous, and horse-mounted cavalry units became obsolete. Advancements in long-range artillery meant that even soldiers hidden within trenches could still be hit from above by a variety of shells, including explosives and gas. During World War I the airplane made its military debut, adding the threat of aerial bombing, strafing (fly-by gunfire), and aerial reconnaissance (the ability to make detailed observations of troop movements from above) to the long list of a soldier’s worries. While the airplane was still in its infancy, tanks were well received by all armies. Although soldiers would seldom dare expose themselves from a trench, the protection of an armored tank allowed the soldiers (tankers) inside to wreak havoc on enemy positions from relative safety.