Analysis of large deformation of geomaterials subjected to time-varying load poses a very difficult problem for the geotechnical profession. Conventional finite element schemes using the updated Lagrangian formulation may suffer from serious numerical difficulties when the deformation of geomaterials is significantly large such that the discretized elements are severely distorted. In this paper, an operator-split arbitrary Lagrangian–Eulerian (ALE) finite element model is proposed for large deformation analysis of a soil mass subjected to either static or dynamic loading, where the soil is modelled as a saturated porous material with solid–fluid coupling and strong material non-linearity. Each time step of the operator-split ALE algorithm consists of a Lagrangian step and an Eulerian step. In the Lagrangian step, the equilibrium equation and continuity equation of the saturated soil are solved by the updated Lagrangian method. In the Eulerian step, mesh smoothing is performed for the deformed body and the state variables obtained in the updated Lagrangian step are then transferred to the new mesh system. The accuracy and efficiency of the proposed ALE method are verified by comparison of its results with the results produced by an analytical solution for one-dimensional finite elastic consolidation of a soil column and with the results from the small strain finite element analysis and the updated Lagrangian analysis. Its performance is further illustrated by simulation of a complex problem involving the transient response of an embankment subjected to earthquake loading. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.