German WWI trenches designed with perfect 90 degree corners? Did it offer Shrapnel protection?

Mythbusters covered this just last night. But they focused on the concussive shockwave. They proved that sharp right hand corners inside the trenches did shield men from the shockwave. The shockwave would run the length of the trench and didn’t turn the corner. Oddly enough, sloppy rounded corners weren’t as effective in the MB’s tests.

I had always heard the interior corners were for Shrapnel protection. If you are around the corner then the Shrapnel is less likely to hit you. Mythbusters never even mentioned shrapnel. :smack:

I can’t find any cites on trench design. Were these interior corners effective?

Another reason for the corners is so that if a section of the trench were occupied by the enemy, they couldn’t simply shoot straight and hit everyone along the trench.

Shrapnel shells weren’t very effective against entrenched troops, hence the move to high explosive (and gas) shells.

I’d always understood the ‘bay’ system was to prevent any attackers who made it into the trench from enfilading down the whole length of the trench, instead of the 20-30 meters of each bay. Added protection against the blast effects of HE shells seems to have been another plus.

You can see an aerial photo hereof how complicated trench systems were by the Battle of the Somme.

The extra effort the Germans took with their trenches *might *have been a reflection of their strategic priorities, trying to hold their gains in the West and thus putting a lot of effort into making elaborate defences whereas the British and French were trying to expel the invader.

I would think that two crisp 90 degree turns would give you near total protection from anything.

I thought the main reason was to expose an attacker to crossfire.

The indentations aren’t really deep enough for that. Look at the photo I linked to above, you’d only get a crossfire for the last 10-15 metres of the attacker’s advance. And you’re fellow defenders across the bay would be in your line of fire.

Mythbusters said this was a German trench design. What did the Brits and French do with their trenches?

Broadly speaking the same thing, although the British and French trenches weren’t as elaborately constructed (dug outs less deep, not as much concrete and timber used).

Except chemical weapons, perhaps.

I read once that one reason the Germans had a better trench system was because they were fighting on foreign ground. They had no emotional attachment to the territory they were holding. They would build up a tight defensive trench system a mile or so behind the front line (taking advantage of natural defensive terrain where available) and then withdraw back to it when it was ready. The French didn’t want to surrender any French territory so they would build their defenses right at the front line and as a result their trenches were being build under fire and were more haphazardly constructed.

Most of the dangerous shrapnel came from air burst artillery which would rain shrapnel down from above. Armies prior to the war did not use helmets much, the Germans used a Picklehauser(sp?) that was made of leather and the British and French wore soft caps - a steel helmet won’t stop a rifle round, so what was the point? As the war started they all quickly adopted steel helmets because huge numbers of soldiers were getting hit in the head by airburst shrapnel. Note the design of the British Brodie helmet.

It is relatively easy to provide overhead cover from air burst shrapnel in a trench, since the shrapnel usually wasn’t heavy/massive enough to penetrate much. In the army we put up simple sheets of corrugated steel with some dirt on top.

That’s the main reason. It was learned at places like “the Bloody Lane” at Antietam, where Confederates in a straight but trench-like sunken road held off Union attackers until they got flanked – at which point the Union fire poured straight down the lane and killed large numbers of men quickly. The survivors “misinterpreted an order to about face” and “fell back,” military-speak for “ran like hell,” or everyone would have been killed in short order.

By the middle of the US Civil War, Confederate General Longstreet had introduced zig-zag trenches to address this specific threat, and by WWI, the practice was universal.


Personally, I’d be tempted to ascribe “precise 90-degree corners” in German trenches simply to the generally orderly and precise approach the Germans tend to take to everything, before looking to explanations like the Allied trenches being under fire.

The Mythbusters really blew this one. Here’s the table of air pressure results. Notice anything really, really strange? The numbers for the straight trench are huge. Wouldn’t the pressure for all 3 of the trenches been at least the same order of magnitude before the turns?

Something went very wrong with that test.

So I have no faith in their results.

As to the shrapnel question. Shrapnel doesn’t bounce well off dirt, wood and sandbags. If you are not in direct line of sight of the explosion, there’s less shrapnel coming at you and it’s moving much slower. The sharpness of turns isn’t the major factor, it’s having a turn at all.

The Germans had excellent trench systems. Multilevel systems, large shelters to wait out shellings, drainage, the whole bit. The French and English didn’t. The Germans cared, the French and English just plain didn’t. They viewed their troops as working class cannon fodder and wasted them.

Being at work and without cable I did not see the episode. What was their main thrust with the myth? Was it that the angle in the trench had to be sharp and neat? Or was it that it had to be precisely 90 degrees and not acute or obtuse? Just curious if you remember at all. Thanks.


My granddad envied the German trenches but not the paper bandages the Germans had. He particularly wanted a proper latrine rather than the bully beef tins he had to use.

The Germans built more detailed fortifications because on the Western front they spent a lot of their time on the defensive, while the allies were focusing their efforts on the offensive, you know, to force the Germans out of the French territory they were occupying. The Germans were fighting another war in the East.

There was more to it than this. The Germans were able, strangely, to pick the location of their defenses. When they saw that they were not going to take Paris, they held their positions while they surveyed the conquered territory for the best defensive positions. Then they built elaborate defenses before pulling back to them. For example, the Germans pulled back to the eastern side of the Somme valley because it was higher than the western side. This gave them better observation for artillery while reducing the British observation to aerial recon only. And made the British attacks nearly suicidal.

The German doctrine for long-term defensive positions was that they should be as comfortable as possible. War is hard and any comfort you can give the men will improve their fighting spirit and help them hold out longer. And the Germans were indeed thinking long term. Their updated strategy was to hold out on the western front until Russia was beaten and Then go on the attack.

The allies were on the attack to drive out the invaders, and optimistically felt that their trenches did not need to be so elaborate because they wouldn’t be in them for long. What was the point of digging elaborate defensive works if you’re going to be advancing every few days? Some British general staff felt that there was also no point in “coddling” the men. Living in a “Goddam hotel” would make the men soft and uneager to attack. I don’t know how widely this attitude exisited in the allies, though.

Seems a little late. Almost all siege trenches were zig-zag because digging straight towards the enemy fortification was a bad idea.

Trenches in WW1 were kept at angles for many defensive & terrain reasons. both sides did it but the Germans were much more meticulous about it - with the 90 degree corners and all.

Not sure about the French, but Americans were dead-against trenches at all. Hated them and did NOT want to be in them.


Actually, I believe General Grant (or more likely one of his staff) developed them for the Siege of Vicksburg.

Engineers used them in the Rennaisance when investing enemy fortresses. As mentioned above, you didn’t want to dig directly towards the fortress. It would give the defenders enfilade fire into your trench. So as they progressed, the attacking engineers put kinks in the approach trench.