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Translated Jeff Matthews

This is an excavated ditch in the terrain meant to serve as a passageway as well as a permanent structure. In the siege of bastioned fortifications, the approach trench was the dugout walkway from the contravallation line to the stronghold under siege. Sébastian Le Prestre, Seigneur of Vauban (1633-1707), observes that a stronghold attack depends on the pickaxe-shovel combination for the excavation. The word “excavation” (sape) refers to the head of a trench that is extended and made deeper, little by little, by day and by night, thus allowing men, equipment and artillery to get closer to the place to be besieged and limiting losses. In the chapter entitled “De la sape” (“Excavation”), Vauban thus explains the above-mentioned concept “Nous entendons par la sape la tête d’une tranchée poussée pied a pied, qui va jour et nuit également”. (Vauban Le Prestre S. -marechal de-, Traité de l’attaque et la défense des places, Nouvelle Edition, 1747, reprints, Groupe Lavauzelle, 2006, p. 67).

In the US Civil War (1861-1865) and in the English-Boer War trenches proved themselves important in that they allowed soldiers to escape from withering enemy fire of weapons with rifled bores. In the First World War (1914-18), after an initial stage characterized typically by maneuvering tactics, the front solidified into so-called “trench warfare”.

A typical Great War trench has the following primary elements:
- parapet, a wall facing the enemy;
- a platform for the shooters, elevated in respect of the area occupied by infantry.
- a walkway in the deeper part of the trench.

The walls of a trench may be protected by sacks filled with earth and reenforced with wooden cross-beams, or even covered with stones, boards, grating or panels of shhet metal, as in British trenches.

There are also examples of reenforcing with containers of cane or metal. A channel is generally dug in the bottom to drain water away, and the entire bottom may be a raised board walkway.

The path of the trench is parallel to the front, but is not a straight line, but broken up evenly into sections like the teeth on gears. Sections may be parallel to one another and those sections are, themselves, interconnected by other trenches. The trenches are protected by fences of coils of barbed wire and, with the passage of time, other obstacles, such as minefields.

Along the flanks of the trenches there were shelters for troops and officers. Such shelters might have been spacious and of reenforced concrete, but were more often simple holes dug in the ground that offered no real guarantee of safety if struck by artillery fire. Trenches in the mountains were often cut right out of the rock and equipped, where possible, with shelters.

The use of trenches did not cease in 1918 with the end of hostilities, but have continued to be used, though modified, to the present day, in these constant wars that persist because we don't seem to have learned anything abut how to apply the lessons of peace.


Padovan Gianluca (ed. ), Archaeology of the Subsoil. Lectures and studies of artificial cavities. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1416, Oxford 2005.

Basilico Roberto et alii, Italian Cadastre of Artificial Cavities. Part 1. (Including introductory comments and a classification), B.A.R. International Series 1599, Oxford 2007.

Gianluca Padovan (Associazione S.C.A.M. – Federazione Nazionale Cavità Artificiali)

Click on images to enlarge

Cernigoi E., I tracciati delle trincee della Grande Guerra

Il fango, altro implacabile nemico in trincea (Tratta da Barrozzino)

Servizio di toletta in trincea (Tratta da Barrozzino)

Trincee di fine Ottocento (Borgatti M., La fortificazione permanente, II)

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17 January 2019

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