‘Hell Is Mud’: Inside The Trenches Of World War I

Published June 6, 2023

Stretching hundreds of miles across the Western Front, millions of soldiers fought in trenches during World War I — with horrific physical and mental consequences.

Trench warfare effectively defined World War I. Though this military tactic can be traced back centuries, the large-scale use of trenches in World War I resulted in some of history’s most hellish battles.

Historically, trenches had been used as a defense strategy against invaders — think of a moat surrounding a castle — but the advent of modern weaponry during World War I meant that trenches now needed to protect soldiers against machine-gun fire and artillery attacks. Troops on both sides of the conflict dug these long, narrow ditches and occupied them for weeks at a time while facing an onslaught of bullets, gas, and mortar shells.

Indeed, life inside the trenches was brutal. Gas attacks and flamethrowers often led to painful, agonizing deaths for soldiers, whose bodies were left to pile up in the trenches-turned-graves that they had helped build.

See some of the most horrific images of World War I trenches in the gallery below, then learn more about the history behind this catastrophic warfare.

Evening In The Reserve Trenches During World War I
French Soldiers Capturing Germans In World War I Trenches
Front Line Around The Aisne
American Nurse Wearing A Gas Mask In A World War I Trench
‘Hell Is Mud’: Inside The Trenches Of World War I
View Gallery

How World War I Trenches Became A Cesspool Of Disease And Devastation

When fighting first began on the Western Front — a region of northern France and Belgium that primarily saw fighting between Allied troops and Germans — it started as a steady forward movement. However, with little protection in the open fields, soldiers on both sides were forced to begin digging trenches as a way to shield themselves from machine-gun fire.

Gradually, the fighting slowed, with both sides now occupying trenches for weeks, establishing not just defensive measures but also makeshift shelters within them. The trenches afforded troops extra time to prepare their defensive measures, but they also came with their own share of problems.

According to The National WWI Museum and Memorial, any protection provided by the trenches was often countered by the unsanitary, tightly-packed conditions inside. Despite troops laying down wooden duckboards and sandbags to prevent water from flowing into the trenches, water still found its way in, meaning soldiers were often covered in damp mud.

"The mud in Belgium varies in consistency from water to about the thickness of dough ready for the oven," wrote one British soldier.

WW1 Trenches

Robert Hunt/Windmill Books/Universal Images Group via Getty ImagesA shell bursting near German troops manning a trench along the Western Front.

The constant dampness led to a condition known as "trench foot," which caused dead tissue to spread across the foot and could require amputation if left untreated — otherwise, the afflicted soldier could die of infection.

Then, there was the spread of disease and other illnesses like dysentery, typhoid fever, and a condition known as "trench mouth," a type of gum infection. The filthy state of makeshift kitchens and overflowing toilets in the trenches only hastened the spread of illness among the troops.

Trenches took a mental toll on many soldiers as well. Because troops were living under the threat of bombardment, and fighting in such close proximity, many World War I veterans suffered from "shell shock," an outdated term for what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

And while disease had been common during past wars — often killing more soldiers than combat — World War I also marked the first conflict in history to have more deaths caused by combat than any other factor.

Why Trench Warfare Led To So Many Casualties

During World War I, the term "no man's land" referred to the area between established strategic fronts for opposing armies. This region, which belonged to no one side in particular, is where much of the actual fighting took place.

Unsurprisingly, no man's land was a hellish, desolate landscape.

The land was riddled with shrapnel, shells, tree stumps, and barbed wire. Early on in the war, soldiers initially employed a strategy of mounting attacks from the trenches, climbing up over the tops of the trenches and charging forward into no man's land against an onslaught of bullets and gas.

According to HISTORY, this strategy proved ineffective, and so forces later began mounting surprise attacks from the trenches at night.

German Tank In A Trench

Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty ImagesA German Mark IV tank known as "Hyacinth" stuck in a trench.

The Germans were especially successful at this, regularly attacking opposing forces' trenches at weak points in the dark. Sometimes, German soldiers also circled around to attack their enemy troops at the rear.

Most infamously, the brutality of trench warfare resulted in one of the deadliest battles of World War I, the Battle of the Somme in France, where 60,000 British soldiers suffered casualties on just the first day of fighting.

But even early on, it was clear that this was a war unlike any the world had seen before. And the trenches often hurt more than they helped.

Though the ditches offered troops some protection from bullets, the narrow passageways and grisly conditions of the trenches often added to the suffering of soldiers who were already wounded or ill. These defensive shelters became garbage dumps and mass graves as the war raged on, and sometimes even traps as artillery fire rained down or deadly gas spread.

In the end, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I exceeded 40 million, with more than 20 million dead and 20 million wounded. And many soldiers met their ends in the trenches.


After learning about World War I trenches, see more haunting photos from World War I. Then, learn the true story of the World War I Christmas Truce.

author
Austin Harvey
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
editor
Jaclyn Anglis
editor
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.