Trench Warfare on the Western Front
For the generations that grew up in the aftermath of WWI and for many people still today, the terrible realities of trench warfare on the Western Front are synonymous with the First World War as a whole. Our collective memory of trench warfare is largely our collective memory of The Great War, even though in many places, such as the Russian (or Eastern) Front, Gallipoli, Africa, and elsewhere, WWI was not fought in the trenches at all. Nevertheless, the realities of trench warfare do seem to capture an essential truth about the war. Trench warfare is a vivid symbol of how this industrial war stripped soldiers of a sense of agency or humanity and instead mocked any concept of individual heroism or individuality.
As German military planners watched the German Wehrmacht (German for army) speed through Belgium and into France in August of 1914, they expected to quickly capture Paris and force a French surrender. Both sides expected a quick war of movement with glorious charges, as many remembered from the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, which lasted only nine months. Instead, as the French and British lines held at the Marne River, some fifty miles outside of the French capital, the shallow dugouts built hastily by soldiers on both sides were soon replaced by ever more elaborate earthworks and fortifications. The Western Front froze into a stalemate under which neither side could break through enemy lines. The war on the Western Front soon degenerated into a new type of war--trench warfare—consisting of a horrific slaughter resulting from repeated, futile attempts to break through enemy lines.
By the winter of 1914-1915, the Western Front stretched almost 500 miles from the Swiss Alps all the way through France to the English Channel. It took the form of parallel lines: the French and British lines to the west and the German lines to the east. Typically trenches were built not in straight lines but rather in a zig zag pattern. This was done so that if enemy soldiers got into your trench, they couldn’t simply fire directly down a long straight trench and wipe out everyone along that line. Instead they would have to fight their way around each corner of the zig zag, where your troops would be waiting to fire on them. The trench lines were punctuated by concrete pillboxes, which housed machine gun emplacements, snipers, or mortar batteries (from which mortars could be launched). As the trenches grew ever more elaborate, underground wooden or concrete bunkers were added to provide soldiers a place to rest, eat and plan strategy at least partially protected from enemy artillery shells.
Enemy trenches on average were about 200 meters (about two football fields) apart but in some cases were as close as just 50 meters apart. In between the trenches was a zone called “No Man’s Land”, which, as the name implies, was territory controlled by neither side which was entered by soldiers from either side only at grave risk. No man’s land was crisscrossed with multiple lines of barbed wire and pockmarked with impact craters from exploded shells and the remains of trenches that had been blown apart and abandoned. No Man’s Land was eventually also strewn with the remains of the dead bodies and body parts of soldiers from both sides shot or blown apart during assaults on the enemy lines. Since machine gun placements and snipers constantly watched over the area between the opposing trenches, these bodies could not be recovered or buried and instead simply lay rotting where they fell until artillery shells would blow them apart over and over again.
Wooden boards, if available, were placed at the bottom of the trenches to provide some comfort and security from the wet conditions. Because of poor drainage and the wet soils and climate on the Western Front, water would constantly gather the bottom of the trenches. Cold, wet conditions created a perfect breeding ground for rats and vermin (worms and insects, especially lice) and the diseases they carried which came to be known collectively as “Trench Fever” which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Soldiers’ feet suffered especially in these cold and wet conditions. Thousands suffered from “Trench Foot”, a form a frostbite often accompanied by infections that required amputation and often led to death. Each trench would also have a so called “fire step”, a board on which a soldier could stand to observe or shoot at the enemy from the relative safety of the trenches.
Smaller trenches were continuously being dug by both armies at ninety degree angles to the front trenches into No Man’s Land. These smaller “advance trenches” were used to position snipers closer to enemy lines, allow scouts to draw closer to the enemy’s trenches and observe the enemy, or as a kind of channel from which to launch attacks, allowing soldiers to get closer to the enemy’s trenches before having to come out into No Man’s Land and expose themselves to enemy fire. (called “going over the top”).
Behind the front line trenches were built two or three reserve or support trenches, each built in the typical zig zag pattern, each more or less parallel to the front line trench. Each of these rear trenches was connected to the front line trenches and to each other so that reinforcements could be moved up in case of an attack. Front line soldiers could also as a last resort use these connecting trenches to fall back to one of the rear trenches if necessary. There they could take up new positions to defend this support trench, now the new front line. In addition, fake dead end trenches were built coming off of both the front line trench and the reserve trenches to confuse and slow down the enemy in the event of a successful attack. The resulting maze of interconnected trenches often became so complex that soldiers would need maps or trained guides to navigate them.
Even farther back, behind the reserve trenches, concrete bunkers were built in which twelve to fifteen soldiers at a time could rest without fear of being blown up by enemy artillery. In reality, a direct hit from enemy artillery could kill men even in these reinforced fortifications. Further still behind these bunkers were the heavy artillery placements used to bombard enemy trenches as well as the enemy’s own artillery placements in what amounted to artillery duels.
It should be obvious by now that the daily experience of the men in these trenches was truly horrific. These soldiers were continuously exposed to the weather: searing heat in summer and bitter cold and snow in the winter. In the spring and fall, mud would make it even more difficult than usual to move across the landscape. Soldiers shared their unhealthy, unsanitary trenches with rats and vermin, which only added to the horrors of their daily existence.
Many soldiers suffered from shell shock, a psychological condition in which the mind and body of the soldier shut down in response to the constant strain of combat and shelling and the ever present fear that any moment might bring one’s own violent death or that of the soldier next to you. Some soldiers who were removed from the battlefield after freezing up from shell shock were later executed as deserters when they did not “snap out of it” and return to the front lines.
The daily routine of the trenches had its own rhythm. Soldiers would awake groggy from whatever little sleep they had gotten and “stand to”, meaning that they would prepare for a possible enemy attack, which usually came, if it came, at first light. If the attack did not come, the day would take its ordinary round, which included breakfast, inspections, sentry duty, and the never ending tasks of cleaning weapons and repairing trenches and bunkers. Nightfall would also bring the possibility of attack, insuring that a chronic lack of sleep was a permanent feature of life in the trenches. Soldiers who survived the war described their life in the trenches as consisting of long stretches of boredom (soldiers even published “trench newspapers” and put on “trench plays” to pass the time) punctuated by intense moments of terror and horror, an existence they often summed up as more of an animal than a human existence.
The experience for soldiers in the trenches was so horrible that rotations systems were created by which soldiers were moved into trench duty and then, if they had survived, would be moved out. Typically a soldier would spend one week out of each month in the front lines and then after the intense horror of that experience one week further back in the reserve trenches and then two weeks in rear areas or, if one was especially lucky, on leave at home.
The soldiers trapped in this horrible, unbearable, surreal existence reported later that they felt their very status as human beings slip away. Many recorded that they felt increasingly anonymous, as if they had become interchangeable parts in a vast war machine with no value as individuals. Individual heroism seemed obsolete, even ridiculous, in the context of an industrial war in which artillery shells, machine guns and even barbed wire mattered much more than an individual’s courage, skill, or motivation. The phrase “a farewell to chivalry” was used to describe how far this dehumanizing, industrial war was from the illusions of glory drawn from the experience of past wars. Over time, soldiers gave up any notion of heroism or duty or protecting the fatherland and instead spoke only of the everyday struggle to survive and their obligation to their comrades in the trenches.
The key fact of this new warfare was the strength of the defensive side. This phenomenon, which came to known as “the primacy of the defensive” was based on the slow realization as WWI dragged on that the new technology of war meant that the soldiers in the trenches warding off an attack would always be stronger than the soldiers attacking. One reason it took so long for military commanders to come to grips with this new military reality was that it completely contradicted what they had been taught, namely that the more motivated and courageous attackers would always overwhelm the more cowardly defenders on the battlefield, a concept known as “the cult of the offensive”.
Generals and war planners only slowly came to understand the defensive nature of the new industrial war and the key dynamic of the superiority of the defensive weapons. In one way or another, almost all the new weapons used as part of trench warfare—artillery, machine guns, flame throwers, mortars, barbed wire—favored the defenders over the attackers. Even offensive weapons such as poison gas and tanks, developed as a way of punching a hole in enemy lines, yielded little if any territorial gain (takeover of land held by the enemy).
A typical attack began with a massive artillery barrage on enemy lines with the purpose of destroying as much of the barbed wire in the No Man’s Land as possible, forcing enemy machine gunners and snipers into their bunkers, and, in theory, leaving the enemy in a state of shock in which they could be more easily overrun by the attacking side.. These pre-attack artillery barrages, which often killed thousands of enemy soldiers, and drove many thousands more insane, were called “softening up the enemy.” The development of “recoilless” artillery marked an important advance in artillery technology. Before WWI, cannons and other artillery would be jolted from their placement with every shell fired and have to be repositioned and retargeted with every firing, slowing down how often and how accurately they could be fired. Recoilless artillery absorbed the force of the firing of each shell and would not have to be repositioned and recalibrated before firing again. These advances made artillery deadly during WWI. Some 85% of all wounds during WWI were caused by shrapnel from exploding artillery shells.
In practice, these artillery barrages in advance of attacks were often counterproductive and ended up helping the defenders as much or more than the attackers. For one thing, they ended up not so much destroying the barbed wire fences in the no man’s land so much as tangling it up, making it even harder to cut away or climb over. If the enemy trenches were deep enough, the artillery shells would also not kill many of the enemy soldiers. In any case, enemy machine gunners and snipers could quickly retake their positions once the shelling was over. These artillery barrages also left No Man’s Land torn up and full of smoke, making it harder for the attacking soldiers to advance than it might have otherwise been. They also had the effect of signaling to the enemy that an attack was imminent (just about to start) and told them exactly where that attack would occur, so that the defenders would know exactly when and where to set up their machine guns to mow down the lines of attackers. It also told the enemy exactly where to send up reinforcements and supplies from the support areas behind the front lines.
Attacking troops would then go “over the top”, often led by their officers, into the hell of No Man’s Land where they would have to work their way through remaining barbed wire while enemy snipers and machine guns rained down upon them. Perhaps no weapon epitomized this new age of industrial war more than the machine gun, whose very name symbolizes the new ability of technology to produce mass death. Machine guns in WWI had a typical range of 1000 meters and could fire 600 rounds per minute (the best trained marksmen of the day could only fire 30 rounds a minute). One machine gun crew could hold off (kill) many hundreds of attackers. So terrible was this weapon that Europeans who used it to dominate the “uncivilized” peoples of Africa and Asia assumed it would never be used against the “civilized” peoples of Europe, an assumption that quickly proved wrong from the very first days of WWI.
Even if an attack broke through the defender’s trenches, the defender almost always would have already moved up reserves to wage a counterattack. Furthermore, the defender could move its reinforcements by road and by railroad to repel the attackers while reserves brought up by the attacker would once again have to cross over the broken, barbed wire landscape of the No Man’s Land. So even when an attacker punched a hole in the defender’s lines, the defender was almost always able to quickly close the hole back up and create a new stalemate.
Poison gas, developed and used first by the Germans, and tanks, developed and used first by the British, were attempts to create offensive weapons to overcome the sheer defensive firepower of the machine gun and punch holes through enemy lines. German troops first used chlorine gas against British troops on April 22, 1915 during the battle of Ypres. The gas killed thousands of British soldiers (who had not yet been issued gas masks) and the Germans were able to punch a four mile gap in the British lines, but for reasons described above, the British were able to send their reinforcements to close the gap more quickly than the Germans could send in their reinforcements to take advantage of it.
Within months, the British were using mustard gas against the Germans in response. Poison gas ultimately proved ineffective because gas masks protected soldiers from some types of gas and because soldiers got good at seeking high ground to avoid the gas, which settled in the lowest parts of the battlefield. In addition, unpredictable winds meant that armies firing poison gas shells at their enemies often found that gas blowing back over their own soldiers. Furthermore, gas masks were cumbersome and further slowed down the attacking side so that the use of poison gas, which had been intended to aid the attacking side, ended up slowing it down and contributing to the defensive stalemate.
Still, poison gas killed almost 100,000 soldiers during WWI (60% of gas deaths were Russians on the Eastern Front) and was perhaps the most feared and despised weapon used during the war because of the suffering that accompanied death by poison gas. As chlorine gas is inhaled, the victim’s lungs fill up with fluid and he literally drowns to death. Mustard gas blisters the skin, throat, and lungs and also leads to a slow, gruesome death.
The first tanks, developed by the British, were a sort of armed tractors. They were slow (2-4 mph), heavy, unreliable, and often were useless on the muddy battlefields of France. During the battle of Cambrai in November of 1917, the British were able to break a five mile gap in German lines using some thirty tanks, but just as with the Germans at Ypres, they were unable to bring up reinforcements quickly enough to take advantage of the breakthrough.
Sadly, the generals’ response to the advantage of defensive weapons in trench warfare was to send ever larger numbers of soldiers into offensive attacks preceded by ever bigger artillery barrages in a futile attempt to overcome the enemy’s defenses. They held on to the dream of breaking through the enemy lines and opening up sweeping, rapid movements behind enemy lines. Instead, these ever larger frontal attacks resulted not in any breakthroughs or even gains in territory but instead in appalling casualties on both sides. By war’s end, 20 million men had lost their lives to the horrors of trench warfare.