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

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

Jacob Miller - November 3, 2017

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.

Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Indian soldiers digging trenches, 1915. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
“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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
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
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
A group of armed Indian soldiers in a trench, wearing gas masks. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
A New Zealand soldier in a trench examining his shirt for lice. International War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
An explosion near trenches dug into the grounds of Fort de la Pompelle, near Reims, France. San Diego Air and Space Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Barber in a French trench in 1916 or 1917. Archive photo, Imperial War Museum

Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Canadian Corps. infantrymen clean up and prepare food in a trench that shows signs of heavy fighting. Saskatchewan Military Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
French soldiers wearing gas masks in a trench, 1917. gas mask technology varied widely during the war, eventually developing into an effective defense, limiting the value of gas attacks in later years. Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
French troops throw rocks at advancing German troops from their hillside trench in the Vosges, 1916. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first Battle of the Somme. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
German troops wearing gas masks and throwing hand grenades, 23 April 1916. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
In this 1915 file photo, a Turkish soldier takes aim at British troops, while another watches carefully, from a trench in Gallipoli, Turkey. Archive photo, The Associated Press
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Men of the 3rd Batallion, Royal Fusiliers manning a trench in Salonika. International War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Officers of 12th Royal Irish Rifles wading through mud in a trench at Essigny, France. International War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Officers of the Royal Engineers in a communication trench. International War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Shrapnel bursts over a reserve trench in Canadian lines during the Battle of the Somme. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Soldiers in trenches during write letters home. Life in the trenches was summed up by the phrase which later became well-known- Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror. The Atlantic
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
The wounded are dressed in a trench during the Courcelette operation of the Battle of the Somme, France, on 15 September 1916. Buzzfeed
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Infantry from the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Regiment, New Zealand Division in the Switch Line near Flers, taken some time in September 1916, after the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Archive photo, The Imperial War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
In this 1916 photo, German troops man a machine gun post from a trench at the Vistula River in Russia during the First World War. Archive photo, The Associated Press
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division). The Imperial War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Russian trenches in the forests of Sarikamish. Archive photo, The Imperial War Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Captain Leslie Morshead in a trench at Lone Pine after the battle, looking at Australian and Ottoman dead on the parapet. Archive photo, Australia War Memorial
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Guy Drummond with his comrades in the trenches at Passchendaele in 1914. Archive photo, McCord Museum
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Draining Trenches. 22nd Infantry Battalion (French Canadian). July 1916. Dept. of National Defence, Library, and Archives Canada
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Jean de Bloch was a Polish financier and pacifist during the First World War era who wrote that trench warfare and weapons development had skewed military conflict in favor of the defensive side, and that it would cause conflicts to drag on and cost more in lives and financial losses. Fox Photos, Getty Images
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
French artillery officers relay instructions to adjust cannon fire in a trench on the front line, at an unknown location in France. Telegraph
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
A French soldier aiming an anti-aircraft machine gun from a trench at Perthes les Hurlus, eastern France. Telegraph
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
French officers inspecting trenches on the Argonne front, eastern France May 1916. Telegraph
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Australian ambulance workers near Bernafay, transporting men suffering from trench foot to hospital. Australian War Memorial
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Stretcher bearers in the mud, Passchendaele, August 1917. Wikipedia
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Aerial view: the location and timing of this view are unknown but it shows something of the scale of trench systems which were used by both the Allies and the Germans. There is very little evidence of shell damage, suggesting that these are newly entrenched areas – which could either by the start of the war or more likely towards the very end when the movement had resumed. They could also be training trenches, although their scale makes that unlikely. On the left of the picture, the trenches have a regular pattern but angular sections jutting out. This was intended to allow for sniper fire to protect against an incursion from no man’s land. Across the top of the picture is a lengthy communications trench, which zig-zags to make sniper fire more difficult, and also to make it more difficult for artillery fire to rake it. It connects to other what are more likely to be front line trenches, which are in two rows running from top to bottom of the picture. Dailymail
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Damage: This photograph shows how the countryside was covered in shell craters from the aerial bombardment campaign carried out by both sides. The picture is one of the few which has information on it, dated 24 June 1917 top right corner. The date is shortly after the Battle of Messines had been launched. it is not known if this is in that area, but the scale of damage suggests a heavy bombardment. The remains of the roads which covered the area can still be seen. Dailymail

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