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Understanding Trench Warfare


This activity was designed by Megan Underwood to help her Year 9 classes understand why it was difficult for armies in World War One to break through trench defences. The activity does this very well but new teachers can learn a lot from this about teaching techniques in general as well as about teaching about trench warfare. As Megan explains below, it’s a risky activity requiring good class control but she demonstrates how to handle such an activity by breaking it up into short segments. The regular use of verbal questions to the class in the midst of the activity keeps the teacher as the focus of activity, controlling pace and progress. Without the different kinds of questioning techniques there’s a much greater danger of the activity snowballing out of control – so this is a good example to new teachers of the value of planning a lesson down to the last details.

What follows is Megan’s description of the activity, linked to the resources she has provided, with occasional editorial comments in square brackets.

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This activity is based on the ’Simulation’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


This lesson is designed to show Year 9 classes some of the key features of trench warfare through re-enactment and particularly why trenches were so successful defensively. It requires total control of the class and there are some health and safety issues which need to be clearly explained to the students. Firm ground rules must be laid regarding behaviour and consequences. Having said that, this is the lesson they will still be talking about in year 11! It shows clearly the reason for the great loss of life, demonstrates how almost every family and certainly most communities in the UK were affected by this type of warfare.


  1. Powerpoint (5 slides) [download]
  2. 3 (thick) broadsheet newspapers: colour inserts and any staples removed
  3. Trench warfare table for students to complete for homework [download]
  4. A largish space – ordinary sized classrooms are fine
  5. Bin bags or big recycling bin (for collecting missiles at the end)
  6. A whistle (for ordering an attack)

Setting Up

1. All chairs need to be stacked well out of the way, student bags also.

2. Tables need to be arranged as shown in the plan. Tables create 2 opposing lines of “trenches” with as big a space as possible between the 2 lines creating a “no man’s land”. Each “trench” comprises 2 rows of tables with a narrow gap between in which, and from which, the students take part in the activity. If possible, do this before the students arrive.

3. Students need to be allocated to an “army” once the tables are in place and they can sit on the tables of their respective sides. I usually call these armies “Army A” and “Army B” as experience has shown that nobody wants to be the Germans! – but it would be better if they could be more interestingly named!

The Activity

[Note that Megan’s classes last 60 minutes so adjustments may be needed.]

Stage 1 – what was so different about World War One?

a. The lesson begins with the students focussing on the map on the board (PowerPoint slide 2). The teacher takes a board pen and draws the line of trenches on the map roughly showing where they were during WW1 and demonstrates that during the 4 years of WW1 the trenches did not move more than about 50 miles.

b. The teacher then, using the map to demonstrate, could compare this static warfare with the rapid movement of other wars (e.g. the rapid movement of Allied armies in 1944) – thus showing the unusually static nature of fighting in World War One because of the dominance of trench warfare. Teacher to take ideas from the class about why trenches led to static warfare and write them on the board. Of course the equipment and numbers of soldiers were different for other wars, but hopefully through this lesson the students will understand some of the reasons why trench warfare was such a good means of defence but led to warfare becoming bogged down, why so little land was gained and so many lives were lost.

Stage 2 – arming the forces and setting out the rules

a. Students will be re-enacting trench warfare using balls of newspaper as ammunition. The next step is for them to arm themselves! Teacher to demonstrate tearing a broadsheet page in half, and screwing it up in a tight ball to make it an effective missile. Do not let them make them too small – ½ of a double page of a broadsheet makes a good handful of balled paper unlikely to do any damage. Student armies are then given their share of the newspapers and told to make their own weapons. This takes about 3 minutes of mad activity as they all try to have as many missiles as possible. [Give them a time-limit for this and count it down.] Emphasise here that they are building a team arsenal not an individual cache of weaponry.

b. Now is the time for Health and Safety Rules to be laid down and consequences stated. Problems are: leaping over the desks, firing at too close range with small bits of balled up paper, and throwing themselves around near solid objects such as corners of tables etc. Having said that, I have done this lesson a dozen times and I have had absolutely no problems of any damage done – they have all seemed innately good at spatial awareness.

Stage 3 – The re-enactment

This is where they begin to re-enact the steps of trench warfare and they do it one army attacking and one defending. Army A will attack first.

The 4 steps they undertake are:

  1. a massive bombardment,
  2. stopping the bombardment,
  3. climbing out of the trench,
  4. walking towards the enemy.

Step 1: The Bombardment. Army A is to use roughly 1/3 of its weaponry to bombard Army B. To demonstrate the inaccuracy and ineffectiveness of shelling in WW1 however, soldiers in Army A do this with their backs to Army B and throwing over their heads towards the enemy. Having explained what is about to happen, Teacher asks Army B what they will do – inevitably a student will answer “hide” – this is quite correct. Therefore whilst bombardment in action, Army B hides under the tables in their “dugouts”. If they are hit by a missile they are dead but few are. Now’s the time to begin - Armies get ready, 3, 2, 1, Go. The Consequence of this is that Army B’s trenches are not destroyed and Army B is still intact.

Step 2: Bombardment stops. Ask Army B what they are going to do? Come out of their trenches and man their machine guns, because Army A is on its way!

Step 3: Army A advances. They advance to the order of a whistle. When you blow the whistle, they climb out of their “trench” and advance towards the enemy. [For additional class control, order Army A to emerge from their trenches and line up – then, on the second blast of the whistle, they move off. This forming up into line before advancing also fits the reality of some attacks.]

Step 4: Army A walks slowly forwards using its remaining weaponry, Army B defends itself with its own paper balls. [To make the point about walking, not running, across No Man’s Land (and to help maintain control) you could have Army A walking in super-slow motion.]

Before or after each of steps 1-4, the teacher should ask students to give their ideas on the problems of the steps e.g. Defending army hiding and therefore not destroyed by bombardment, all weapons still intact, bombardment inaccurate, stopping bombardment meant defending army knew attack was coming, blowing whistle could be heard by defenders, walking made attackers easy target, defenders well defended in trenches whilst attackers very exposed. Given the likely excitement of students conduct this questioning through ‘hands down’ questioning (i.e. choose students to answer rather than waiting for volunteers to answer) to check people are listening and to ensure their attention.

The overriding rule of this activity is: IF YOU ARE HIT, YOU ARE DEAD. Therefore at the end of Step 4 you should have a lot of “dead” people in “no man’s land”. It is at this point that the students should be able to see just how impossible it was for the attacking army to actually “take” the defending army trench. Some students will get through, but it’s rare that they have got through and not been hit.

At Step 4 you will find that invariably some students will not leave their “trench” to advance. If you have done a lesson on “Shot at Dawn” this is a good point to get the students to remember just what will happen to that “soldier”.

Stage 4 – repeating the re-enactment

The students now gather up the by now rather tatty newspaper balls as it’s Army B’s go.

Repeat steps 1-4, not just to give the other team a go but to ask a different set of important questions about trench warfare, introducing discussion on WHY each step may have been done in the way it was. The Generals were not monsters, they wanted to win the war, why then did they attack heavily defended trenches in this way? Some of the points you can build in are - they were not responsible for the inaccuracy and failure of the artillery they were given, if they had not stopped the bombardment they would have bombed their own troops, the whistle ensured that everybody went at the same time, and walking meant that inexperienced troops kept in contact with their comrades and officers.

I find that each “Army” can have at least 2 goes each in about 30 minutes of the lesson (or more if you want to set the table filling in exercise for homework). This is fun for the students but the idea behind the lesson should not be lost and it does take some control and patience to remind students (or get them to remind you) of the failings of each step of trench warfare as they go.

[Trainees and NQTs will probably use only one ‘turn’ for each Army to avoid class control problems and to maintain focus on the objectives – always think about what time of day the lesson is, the likely mood of the class, what they’ve done in the previous lesson etc etc.]


After the re-enactments tidy up and put the desks back where they should normally be.

When I first did this lesson I thought that I would never get them to re-settle and do some work afterwards but they were so exhausted by the end that this was not a problem at all.

At this point you have a choice. There is a table to be filled in recording reasons for the different stages of an attack on a trench, failures and an opportunity for them to suggest any improvements they think would have been possible. This table can either be completed for homework after some detailed class discussion and questioning of ideas or can be done in the remainder of the lesson. The inability of students to suggest realistic solutions to these problems also highlights how few options generals had to improve their fighting tactics.

The final aspect of this lesson is showing the students the effect of trench warfare on the geography of the area and the people in the battle. This usually takes no longer than 5 minutes. Firstly, using the 2 aerial photographs of Passchendaele (PowerPoint slides 3 and 4) – the teacher shows the first and identifies buildings, roads etc that can be seen and then shows the same town after the battle. Students are usually shocked by the comparison.

Secondly, to demonstrate the number of deaths and how they must have affected nearly every family and community in the UK I show them some research I have done into the family names of their class. The final PowerPoint slide shows the number of deaths of army soldiers during WW1 with the surnames of children in the class. The students are always fascinated by this and many write down the website to do further research. Of course this works more effectively when all the surnames have a figure attached to them and this largely depends on the demographic of your class. This exercise does take some preparation, taking about ½ an hour per class to research using but is well worth it as the students can really see a link between themselves and WW1. You can also put your name on this if possible. If you are “lucky” you may even have a student who knows of one of their relatives who died and you can look it up directly in front of the class. This can be quite moving.

This is a great lesson that the students will always remember. It does take both control and patience. They are year 9, they are not going to snap to attention the minute you say they must stop, but you must keep pushing for pauses between the steps to clearly demonstrate their failings.

Timing is an issue in this lesson because of re-placing tables and tidying up. However, in an hour-long lesson I have never failed to get to the list of their names at the end. Be firm that they are sitting back at their desks after 35 minutes of the lesson and the rest will be fine, but you do have the option of setting the table to be filled in as homework to allow plenty of time for discussion and the final slides. I have had very little trouble getting them to work afterwards and they are usually quiet and well focussed.

The re-enactment is an ideal way to demonstrate just why WW1 cost so many lives, lasted so long with so little land gained and just how evenly matched the two sides were.

It also involves several different types of learning and generally every student gets what they need from the lesson because of this. They do end up with a clear understanding of the costs of this type of war both to human life and the landscape. Hopefully it personalises it for them as well.

Notes & Variations

1. For best effect, it is worth having done a lesson on “Shot at Dawn” and the conditions in the trenches before you attempt this lesson. It brings home to students that there really was very little “upside” to this war and hopefully may knock down the “glorious war” idea some of them have about this and other conflicts.

2. One real practical difficulty is the absence of barbed wire from the re-enactment – stringing lines of wool across the room creates an unnecessary hazard but the wire was an important part of the defensive structure of the trenches and had a major psychological effect on soldiers who had nightmares about being caught on the wire. One way to simulate the effects of the wire is to place a line of chairs in front of the trenches – but with gaps in through which any soldiers who reach the opposing trench have to pass. These ‘funnels’ therefore slow down the final part of the advance and provide an obvious target for defenders. [I.D.]

3. The follow-up question to this activity is ‘Why were they finally able to break through the trenches?’ which takes you onto changes in warfare in 1917-18 and the reasons for the end of the war. Hopefully students can be guided to asking their own versions of this question as a result of this activity. [I.D.]


[This section is included to offer possible prompts for post-lesson evaluation but it certainly doesn’t exhaust the possible areas for evaluation]

1. How successful was the lesson in helping students understand both why trenches were so difficult to attack successfully and why the same methods of attack were used so often? What were the benefits of using this activity as against using other teaching techniques?

2. Which students benefitted most from this activity? What can you learn from this about the kinds of teaching that will most help them?

3. Were the class control issues the ones you expected or were they different? How will you adapt and develop this activity next time?

4. How successful was the lesson for prompting students to ask their own questions? Is this an important reason for undertaking this kind of activity?

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

The Activity


Notes & Variations