By late 1914 the war on the Western Front had become deadlocked.
Neither side had achieved victory in northern France and Belgium. They now dug trenches to protect themselves from each other’s murderous fire. Soon, vast trench networks snaked from the English Channel to Switzerland.
The German Army had to defend the rich, industrial regions it had seized. Trenches were easier to defend than attack, so the Germans hoped to wear down their enemies by sitting tight.
The British and French had to drive the Germans out. They searched desperately for new weapons and new ideas to do just that.
Every British infantryman carried an entrenching tool to dig a shallow scrape in the ground as protection from bullets. But that still left him vulnerable to shrapnel, and from 1914 he had to dig deeper trenches. A 230-metre section of front line trench took 450 men around six hours to construct. Trenches needed constant repair to fix damage caused by enemy shelling and by bad weather.
Screw picket, barbed wire and gloves
This British screw picket was used to support barbed wire, which was laid in entanglements at least ten metres deep in front of trenches to deter enemy attacks. Pickets could be silently screwed silently into the ground rather than hammered in. This meant that wiring parties using them were less likely to attract the attention of enemy patrols. British soldiers laid or repaired barbed wire wearing special gloves to protect their hands.
A sentry of the 10th Gordon Highlanders keep watch
Digging, digging, digging
Digging, digging, digging. Always bloody well digging.
Soldiers’ song, 1915
Trenches saved lives. They protected soldiers in them from shrapnel and bullets. But trench warfare meant deadlock.
Trenches evolved from simple ditches into complex networks of fortifications. They cut through Belgium and France for over 250 miles, through sand dunes, muddy fields, wooded hills and villages.
The Germans had taken the higher ground. That meant they could better observe and repel any attack. To drive them out, British and French soldiers had to attack across no man’s land, the strip of terrain between the two sides.
There had been trench warfare before, but never on this scale.
Trench signs helped soldiers to navigate their way around the maze of trenches. Troops coming up to the front line were usually led by an experienced guide. But signboards were still needed. Some trenches were named after places which reminded soldiers of home. Others acted as warnings, alerting soldiers to places regularly targeted by German artillery or snipers.
By 1915 commanders on the Western Front were frustrated by the lack of progress and worried about soldiers’ morale. British troops were ordered to launch regular trench raids to, as one officer wrote, ‘worry the enemy to death and maintain … fine fighting spirit’.
Raids, officially known as ‘minor enterprises’, were a chance for soldiers with clubs, knives and grenades to attack the enemy rather than just endure the trenches.
The club was used on trench raids and patrols to kill silently. The clubs above are German, those below and right British. They were made in army workshops or improvised by the soldiers who carried them.
Homemade trench club
This British trench club was used by Private Harold Startin of the 1st Leicestershire Regiment. Startin was a bomber, whose job was to lob grenades into enemy trenches. He carried the club for self-defence. He made it by fitting an entrenching tool handle with a lead head formed in a clay mould. Its first victim was a German sergeant, killed by Startin in July 1915.
Before developing an official-issue fighting knife, the French Army purchased all sorts of knives from private firms, such as this butcher’s knife. 200,000 of them were ordered in September 1915. Many were used by teams of ‘trench cleaners’, who went in after an attack to make sure no German remained alive.
One trench cleaner, Louis Corti, wrote, ‘We were armed with a dagger, a revolver or rifle and a bag of grenades...the watchword was “No Mercy”.
The British Mills bomb grenade was introduced in 1915. With the pin removed and lever released, it would explode after five seconds, hurling fragments which would strike any soldier within ten metres and often twice as far away.
Crucially, it was far less likely to go off in the thrower’s hand than many earlier types of grenade. It has been estimated that 70 million Mills bombs were thrown by British and Empire soldiers during the war. Knives
The knives above are German, those in the middle French, while the two lowest in the case are British. They were used by soldiers to stab their enemies in self-defence or while hunting down enemy survivors in captured trenches. The French and Germans issued knives to their soldiers. The British Army preferred bayonets. It saw knives as something 'foreign’. That did not stop soldiers from buying them.
The Stokes mortar was invented by engineer Wilfred Stokes. The Stokes was cheap, mobile and threw bombs high in the air to drop into enemy trenches.
Mortar fire usually drew swift retaliation from the enemy. British officer Edward Beddington Behrens described mortar crews as ‘the Suicide Club… desperate men, brave as anything – rather nervy though’.
The hand grenades on the left are German, those on the right British. Until 1915 British soldiers had too few of these ‘bombs’. They relied on a variety of improvised grenades often made from old food tins packed with nails. The ‘Double Cylinder Hand Grenade’ shown here was an official version of these ‘jam tin’ bombs.
The Leach catapult
The British Leach catapult or ‘Bomb Engine’ saw a return to an ancient weapon of siege warfare. These wooden catapults were first issued in March 1915. They were made by Gamage’s, a London department store.
Leach catapults lobbed grenades into German trenches. Although silent, which meant they did not give away the weapon’s position, catapults were difficult to aim and their range was short.