Men's roles on the front line

Infantry soldier

Infantry soldier

Most soldiers in the Army were in the infantry. They were foot soldiers, trained to march and carry all their kit, including a rifle.

They dug long, narrow ditches called trenches for protection from enemy gunfire. Soldiers lived in their trenches for up to weeks at a time. Awake or asleep, a soldier always had to be dressed, with his rifle loaded and ready to fire.

When an attack was ordered, lines of infantry soldiers clambered out of the trenches and marched towards the enemy. This was normally done after artillery barrages and was called 'going over the top'.

Artillery Soldier

Artillery soldier

In World War One both sides used very big guns, which fired explosive shells huge distances. The famous German Paris gun could fire shells as far as 70 miles (113 km). The soldiers who fired these guns were known as 'gunners' and belonged to the artillery.

The biggest guns weighed several tons and were hard to move, even with horses and motor tractors. Several guns firing together were known as a 'battery'. An artillery officer gave orders to the gun teams to aim and fire at targets.

Before a big attack, hundreds of artillery guns fired thousands of shells to flatten enemy defences before the infantry ran forward. This was known as a barrage.

Sappers and Miners

Tunnel tales

Sappers and miners dig tunnels
  • In July 1917 miners blew up 19 mines at once along the Messines Ridge in Belgium, creating an explosion so loud it could be heard over 150 miles away in London.
  • Because of their job tunnelling miners were sometimes called 'moles'.
  • A sapper's job was very dangerous because the tunnels could collapse or the mines they were carrying could explode.

Sappers were engineer soldiers who planned where trenches and tunnels should be dug. They also burrowed beneath the enemy trenches to find 'mines' and disable them (stop them working).

Miners were soldiers who dug the tunnels. Many had been coal miners or had dug sewers or train tunnels before the war and so were used to working underground.

On the Western Front, sappers dug miles of trenches, to protect soldiers from gunfire. From these trenches, miners dug tunnels underneath the battlefield.

Sometimes British and German tunnels criss-crossed and even collided. When enemy miners met, there were sometimes fights underground.

In the British Army, engineer soldiers are still known as 'sappers'.

Boy soldier

Boy soldier

Excited by stories of battles in magazines such as 'The Boy's Own Paper', many under-age boys tried to join the Army. The minimum age for recruits was 18 years of age and to fight in France a soldier had to be 19. However boys as young as 12 or 13 lied about their age and joined the Army without telling their parents. It was easier for a tall boy to join up: if he was over five feet three inches (1.6 metres) in height - that was how tall a soldier had to be in 1914 - he might just get away with his lie. If under-age boys were found out they were sent home, but some were sent to France and fought in battles. Some were even killed in battle.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at men's roles on the front line during World War One.

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