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Interpreting the Evidence

Soldier in 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:

    Global History and Geography
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

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

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
A World War I soldier poses in a trench, c. 1917.
Historical Context
At the onset of World War I, for those who enlisted, life in trenches was not an expected aspect of what they were anticipating to encounter.  Originally expected to be a rather short war, World War I was characterized by stalemate and 4 years of trench warfare.  Sniper bullets, shellfire, and disease were common causes for daily deaths in the trenches, and with disease came rat infestation.  Thousands of large rats thrived on dead bodies; contaminating food and spreading disease.  In addition, lice, frogs, and nits all added to the beyond uncomfortable conditions in the trenches, aiding in the spread of disease and infection.  Particularly appalling was the odor that the trenches gave off; the rotting carcasses of surrounding dead bodies, foot infection, the lingering odor of poison gas, and overflowing latrines all added to the pungent stench that came from the trenches.

Men in the trenches also were at risk for shell shock.  Between 1914 and 1918 it was estimated that over 80,000 men suffered from shell shock, most of whom eventually had mental breakdowns preventing them to remain in the trenches.  For the soldiers in the trenches the risk of death was everywhere; possibilities of casualties were nearly endless: snipers, shelling, disease and infection, and poison gas. 
The area between the trenches was known as No Mans Land; an area riddled by shell fire and during wet weather was almost impossible to cross.  Various soldiers were randomly assigned to patrol No Mans Land where they would be asked to mend barbed wire, or assigned to listening posts to pick up information about the enemy lines.  Regardless of the task at hand, crossing into No Man's Land was extremely dangerous in that machine gun fire from enemy lines was always a possibility. 
Soldiers in the trenches could only hope for an end to come soon - for years the end of war was simply a rumor.  From 1914 to 1918 soldiers endured unsanitary, harsh, and deadly conditions that would define the war itself. 
Essential Question
How does war impact soldiers?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain how soldiers must adapt in times of war.
Historical Challenges
Compare conditions for soldiers during World War I to conditions soldiers face today for the war on terrorism. What is different? Is anything the same?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Science: What chemicals can be used to prevent disease and infection? Research and name what substances could have been used for sanitary purposes in the trenches if they were to be made available to soldiers.
ELA: Take the role of a soldier. Write a letter home describing life in the trenches.