Trench Warfare

Canadians in the trench enjoying some rest and refreshment.

What is a trench?

  • Interconnected lines of defensive earthworks that are dug into the ground that offer infantry a place of protection from bullets, artillery, and shrapnel.
  • Trenches are dug in a zig-zag or toothed layout so that an enemy cannot shoot down the entire length of an invaded trench (enfilade).
  • The landscape between enemy trenches was called “No Man’s Land” and often had barbed wire that acted not only as another barrier for attacking infantry, but also directed attackers into areas covered by machine gunners.


Trench layout and features (Courtesy of JBulera8271).
German trenches on the Aisne River, France.
  • “Saps” extended into No man’s land from the front trench; they functioned as listening posts and jumping off points for attacks.
  • Trenches became elaborate, with some defences having a front trench, multiple support trenches, and reserve trenches. Some also had deep dugouts that allowed troops to rest or shelter from heavy artillery attacks.
  • Mines were also dug deep under enemy trenches, then filled with explosives and set off in order to break through defenses.
  • Nasty conditions in the trench included wet and unsanitary surfaces, sniper fire, trench raids, huge populations of rats, cave-ins, et cetera.
“They were twelve days in which world history wavered between two courses and the Germans came so close to victory that they reached out and touched it between the Aisne and the Marne.”
Barbara Tuchman
Author, historian (1938-1988)

To play an online game that is a realistic illustration of life in the trenches, please click here: Over the Top

Canada's Early Contributions

10th Alberta Battalion training on the Salisbury Plain in Britain (aside Stonehenge).
  • The first Canadian troops arrived in Europe within the first few months of the war and trained for weeks on Britain’s Salisbury Plains (of Stonehenge fame).
  • Canada’s first troops to experience battle were the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (P.P.C.L.I.) who fought alongside the British at the 1st battle of Ypres in December 1914.
  • The remainder of the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) did not arrive to the front from Britain until the winter/spring of 1915.
  • First major battle for Canada; aim was to protect the French and Belgian seaports along the English Channel.
  • On 22 April the Germans use gas for the first time- chlorine, which attacks the lungs and effectively smothers someone who takes repeated breaths.
  • Troops urinated on handkerchiefs and held them over their mouths to neutralize the gas.
  • Having been spared the brunt of the first attack, the Canadians then fought valiantly to hold the line, but suffer 6 000 casualties over 4 days.
  • The death of Alexis Helmer at Ypres, the close friend of Doctor John McCrae, was what inspired the poem we all know so well: “In Flanders Fields”

2nd Battle of Ypres

22 Apr - 25 May, 1915

Battle lines: Second Ypres, 22 Apr - 25 May, 1914.

View a short video about Calgary's heroic Russell Boyle at Ypres.

“The whole army realized that it was only the gallant actions of the Canadians that saved Ypres: otherwise one of the greatest disasters in the history of the British Army might have occurred."
General Smith Dorrien
British WWI General (1858-1930)
The Western Front in 1915 and 1916 with Ypres and Somme labelled.


Battle of the Somme

1 Jul - 18 Nov, 1916

Somme River battlefront 1916, Beaumont-Hamel shown. Note: Blue= French/British; Red= German.
  • Introduction of the TANK- an armoured personnel carrier, but it had minimal impact until later in the war. During its top-secret development, it was described as a "water carrying device" in order to hide its purpose from enemy spies.
  • Due to the Germans pounding on Verdun to the southeast, the allied leaders decided to attack at the Somme in the hopes that the Germans would move troops from Verdun to the Somme.
  • In 5 months, over 1.2 million soldiers were killed or injured, over 24 000 were Canadian. (25% of Can’s force)
  • On the Somme’s first day the Royal Newfoundland Regiment attacked at Beaumont-Hamel. Most were mowed down by machine gun; they lost 720 of 800 men! (60 000 fighters from both sides were out of action after the first day of the Somme)
  • Newfoundland commemorates July 1st as Memorial Day, to pay tribute to their fallen at the Somme. (NL wasn't a part of Canada until 1949)
“We were walking on dead soldiers…”
Frank Maheux
Canadian Infantryman, at the Somme (1882-1952)

The War in the Air

  • Initially, airplanes were slow, delicate vehicles and were used for spying and reconnaissance.
  • Pilots began carrying a firearm, hand grenades, rocks, ropes, or other items to bring down enemy pilots.
  • Many pilots received less than 5 hours training; their average lifespan was less than 2 weeks.
  • British pilots were not allowed to have parachutes because their use was seen as cowardly.
  • In mid 1915 Fokker created a timed machine gun to allow bullets to be fired between the prop blades.
  • Germans also employed hydrogen filled airships called Zeppelins.
  • Flight technology gradually became more reliable, but communicating with the ground remained difficult.
  • By the end of the war, aircraft were very maneuverable and were used in air-to-air combat, bombing runs, ground machine gunning, reconnaissance, and were an important cog in a fighting force.
  • Canadian pilots were among the most decorated of the Entente forces.
  • 3 of the top 10 First World War airmen were Canadian! (Ranked # 1 was the Red Baron of Germany)

Top Canadian Pilots

Click on name for info.

Background photo: Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop V.C. with his Nieuport 17 Scout in France.

Unit Home

The Great War Begins. Dominion of Canada. Canada's demographics. Sam Hughes.

Great War Begins Quiz

Assassination. Causes of the War. Attrition. Wop May. Quiz.

The Road to Vimy Ridge

Introduction Homepage

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