Fighting in the Trenches – A History Lab

No fifth graders were actually harmed during this simulation 🙂

The goal:

  1. Show my students how trench fighting had waged for years without really gaining significant territory for either side
  2. Help them understand how the U.S. entry into the war tipped the balance of power.

The Set-Up/Materials

  • Two boxes of “ammunition” (50 sheets of balled up black construction paper, 50 sheets of balled up brown construction paper – artillery)
  •  2 balled up sheets of  yellow construction paper (mustard gas)
  • Desks set up in opposing rows, with a “no man’s land” in the center.
  • Trench Warfare Powerpoint
  • Trench Warfare Animation
  • Teacher Costume (optional)


  • Meet students at door in costume. I took on the persona of a trainer giving new troops a primer on trench warfare before being shipped “over there”.
  • I divided them into two teams by counting them off, they “stowed their gear” in the back and took up positions in the trenches.
  • I showed the first part of the Trench Warfare Powerpoint, then explained the rules of the “training exercise”.


  • Recruits are to begin firing as soon as they hear battle sounds and stop when the sounds stop. (Roughly a 1 minute to 2 minutes)
  • There will be two rounds of fighting so ration your ammunition.
  • Artillery only the first round. You may use only your ammunition.
  • If you get hit at all, you’re dead, and you must fall where you are.

Firing commences. (I liked using the sounds from the Trench Warfare Animation) After enough time passes, I cut the sound.

  • Casualty count from each side. Short debrief – how did it feel to be under fire? To “lose” a fellow soldier?
  • Short talk on conditions in the trenches, with or without more slides from the powerpoint. The rat quotes and trenchfoot pictures were a tad intense I felt for my fifth graders – so I just told the edited stories and read a few actual letters from soldiers.
  • I move the “casualties” to the back row for the next round.

Round 2

  • The only new ammunition is the “mustard gas”. I explain that if that gets into your trench it is “game over”.
  • Students play another round when the noise starts.


  • What will happen is that with equal ammunition and equal numbers, most of the “soldiers” will die on both sides, with no side “winning”.
  • This segues into a “what if” – what if you had twice as many soldiers and ammunition? Would there be a winner then?
  • Short talk about how America’s entry into the war gave the Allies superior numbers and led to the Central Powers surrender.

Students then wrote a letter home from the trenches describing their experience while the sound effects blared away in the background. It was a great day in class, and their letters were terrific.

The lesson was based on an idea I had read about in Bring History Alive, and this handout

Special thanks to Mr. Berlin, for his Trench Warfare Powerpoint.

Also invaluable is the Trench Warfare Animation from Class Zone.

4 comments so far

  1. Soldier's Mail on

    What an outstanding exercise! The students may also be interested in reading Soldiers Mail featuring the writings home of U.S. Sgt Sam Avery while on the front lines during the Great War. Letters are posted on the same date they were written more than 90 years ago and create a fascinating eyewitness narrative from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse.

  2. Kate on

    I’m doing something very similar and have been searching for some great sounds. Thanks so much for the wonderful tip!

  3. Adam Berlin on

    “Special thanks to Mr. Berlin, for his Trench Warfare Powerpoint.”

    You are quite welcome!

  4. Analiese on

    I did a similar lesson with high school kids. We used bubbles for hand guns, nerf balls for machine guns, air freshener for mustard gas (we did the activity out side) and crepe paper for barbed wire. At the end I introduced a few boxes for rudimentary tanks that were used towards the end of the war. I had never done sound effects before so that will be added for sure!

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