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Interpreting the Evidence

Soldier Poses in a Trench

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Soldier Poses in a Trench, World War I, c. 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
World War I soldier in a trench poses for the camera, c. 1917.
Historical Context
Although trench warfare was not a new method of fighting, soldiers fighting in World War I were the first to use this method exclusively as an elaborate system of interconnected ditches and dugouts. A series of trenches served as protection from enemy fire and allowed soldiers to prepare for battle. The area between the opposing forces’ trenches was known as “No Man’s Land.” The area behind the trenches belonged to the side that had advanced over it. The goal was to maintain your ground and advance on the enemy to gain new ground, upon which you would take over the enemy trenches. Trenches were protected by a complex system of barbed wire and mines that covered No Man’s Land. Unfortunately for the soldiers of the First World War, trench warfare resulted in a stalemate, in which neither side advanced for nearly 2 ½  years.

Life in the trenches was difficult and came with many hazards and discomforts. Trench foot, a fungal infection, caused a soldier’s feet to swell, numb, and turn red or blue. During the early years of the war, thousands of soldiers needed toes or feet amputated and some even died from gangrene infections. The prevention of trench foot became a priority for all armies and involved changing socks several times a day and developing waterproof footwear. In addition to trench foot, soldiers living in the trenches had to deal with cramped living conditions and constant efforts to prevent unsanitary conditions. The latrine, or bathroom, was located within the trench system and required proper use and placement. Soldiers ate, slept, and worked in the same trench for days at a time. The floors had to be kept clear to make future digging easier. Life in the trenches of World War I became a symbol of soldier life and the stalemate that dominated the war effort.
Essential Question
How does war impact soldiers?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the situations under which a soldier must adapt during war.
Historical Challenges
In modern wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, what type of warfare is most often used? Explain with some level of detail how soldiers conduct the type of warfare you have identified in the previous question. How effective is this type of warfare? Do you think modern methods of war result in more or less casualties than trench warfare? Explain your answer.
Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Imagine you are the soldier in the photograph. Write a letter home to your family describing life in the trench.
Art: Find a description of a World War I trench. Draw a picture of a trench system as it may have looked from the air.