Subterranean Life

Trenches were crowded, narrow cities replete with bunks, benches, and sewage systems.

Modern trench warfare, first used in the American Civil War, brought a stalemate along the western front in Europe. (ADOC/Corbis)

We have … a labyrinth of winding narrow lanes, forming a whole city, half underground, swarming with life, but singularly silent.

In these muddy holes the soldiers live, perforce, day and night, with no chance to emerge. To protect themselves from rain or cold, they lose no time in digging themselves dwellings in the sides of the trenches. These are sometimes mere niches, hollowed out of the earth, or, again, deeper cavities, the ceilings of which are reinforced by timbers or by iron beams. These are the dugouts, constructed below the level of the trenches, to which one gains access by a rude stairway. Rough bunks are found in them, as well as benches and tables, especially in the rear lines. The soldiers crowd into these to sleep; sometimes it is possible for them to light a fire. These are the barracks, or rather, the houses, of the subterranean city.

As the life in this city is extremely crowded, great care must be taken with the sewage system. Gutters must be dug to carry off the surface water, and a sort of pavement made of thin strips of wood must be laid. These precautions do not prevent the trenches … from being constantly flooded with mud in which the unfortunate men who lead this underground life often sink up to their knees, sometimes even disappearing completely, as though swallowed up by a quicksand.

Originally titled “Tactics and Armament: An Evolution”