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Interpreting the Evidence

Soldiers Relax 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 World War I Soldiers Relax in a Trench, c. 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
World War I soldiers relax in a trench from the World War I veterans' service data and photographs, 1917-1938.
Historical Context
Trench warfare was a defining characteristic of World War I.  Both the Allied and Central Powers dug thousands of miles of trenches in which soldiers would spend their days and nights.  The first major trenches were constructed by November 1914, but many more miles would be dug throughout the war years. It is estimated that each side built over 12,000 miles of trenches. The Allies used four different types of trenches.  Front line trenches were located 50 yards to a mile away from the German lines.  A few hundred yards behind these trenches, the support trenches were located, set up to help aid those on the front lines. Reserve trenches were located behind these support trenches and contained the men and supplies that would be needed if the front lines were in trouble.  Finally, communication trenches allowed the movement of messages between the other trenches.  German trenches were  more sophisticated than Allied trenches. Some living quarters were 50 feet underground and were equipped with electricity, toilets, and other “luxuries” of regular life.

The trenches provided protection from the enemy, although death in the trenches was very common.  Soldiers who peered over the side of the trench facing the enemy stationed across the area between the trenches, No Man’s Land, could be picked off by a sniper. Even if the soldiers were within the trench, it did not mean they would be completely protected from heavy shellfire from the enemy.  Both sides soon realized that attacks against the enemy were pointless if carried out during daylight hours, so most attacks would take place right around dawn. This is also the time that poison gas would be released as the colder air and lack of wind caused the gasses to stay closer to the ground. No Man’s Land was filled with huge craters and no vegetation because of the heavy shelling, and barbed wire combined with machine gun attacks helped cut down on enemy advances. Besides worrying about shellfire, snipers, or poison gas, soldiers also had to deal with disease, horrible living conditions, and much more. Millions of rats infested the trenches.  Brown and black rats were common, but the brown rat was feared the most as it would eat the dead soldiers in the trenches allowing it to grow to the size of a cat. Soldiers also faced lice infestation (which could cause trench fever complete with a recovery time of 12 weeks), frogs, slugs, and beetles covering the sides and bottoms of the trenches, and trench foot, a fungal condition caused by the damp living conditions within the trenches.  If a soldier got trench foot, gangrene could set in resulting in eventual amputation.  Needless to say, morale for soldiers stationed in trenches was often quite low, creating the need for a rotating trench schedule.
Essential Question
How must soldiers adapt during times of war?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the situations in which soldiers must adapt during times of war.
Historical Challenges
What were the main differences between German and British trenches?
Interdisciplinary Connections
English: Read All Quiet on the Western Front to get a German soldier’s perspective of WWI.
Physical Education: Research the story of Christmas in the trenches in 1914 to learn about a spontaneous truce that took place between the British and the Germans as they played “football” together.