Trench warfare is a form of war in which both opposing armies have static lines of fortifications dug into the ground, facing each other. Trench warfare arose when there was a revolution in firepower without similar advances in mobility and communications. Whilst periods of trench warfare occurred during the American Civil War (1860s) and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, it reached a peak of brutality and bloodshed on the Western Front in the First World War.
Fortification is almost as old as warfare itself; however, because of the relative smallness of the armies and the lack of range of the weapons, it was traditionally not possible to defend more than a short defensive line or an isolated strongpoint. The very long fortifications of the ancient world, such as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall, were exceptions to the general rule and were in any case not designed to completely prevent entry of enemy troops, but simply to make it difficult for the invader to mount a penetration in strength. The Great Wall of China, for example, was not intended to keep raiders out, but merely to prevent them from bringing their horses.
Although both the art of fortification and the art of weaponry advanced a great deal in the second half of the second millennium, the advent of the longbow, the muzzle-loading musket, and even of artillery did not substantially change the traditional rule that a fortification required a large body of troops to defend it. Small numbers of troops simply could not maintain a volume of fire sufficient to repel a determined attack.
The first development which was critical for trench warfare was the introduction of large mass conscripted armies during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Previous to this, armies still consisted of small numbers of troops which were unable to defend a large territory for very long—battles were either brief or degenerated into siege warfare. Large armies made it much more difficult for one army to outflank another, but it was still possible with cavalry and infantry charges for one army to break another by a direct assault.
What made this tactic increasingly suicidal was the development of improved firearm technology in the mid-19th century. When the American Civil War opened in 1861, it was fought with much the same weapons and much the same tactics that had been used in the era of Napoleon and indeed for several centuries. By the time the war drew to a bloody close in 1865, it had become a preview of the First World War: complete with trenches, machine guns, field fortifications, and massive casualties. The Battle of Petersburg near the end of the war with its trenches and static formations, contrasts sharply with the early battles such as the First Battle of Bull Run where maneuver was still possible, and famous charges such as Pickett's Charge at the Battle of *****sburg, revealed the military futility of a direct assault on an opposing line.
Two main factors were responsible for the change. First, the new breech-loading firearms—which were curiously ignored by both sides until mid-way through the conflict—made it possible for a small number of troops to maintain a heavy volume of fire. A handful of defenders sheltering in a trench or behind an improvised obstacle could hold off a large body of attackers indefinitely. Second came the machine gun, which multiplied the power of the defender still further and yet did little for an attacker (provided that only the defenders could take cover).
Two less-significant but still major factors played a part. The first was the development of barbed wire, which in itself did little harm to anyone but—crucially—could slow the progress of an attacking force, and thus allow emplaced machinegunners and riflemen time to inflict unacceptable losses.
The second came after the end of the American Civil War with the invention of modern high-velocity breech-loading artillery. Artillery in one form or another had been a part of warfare since classical times, and from the rise of gunpowder until the development of trench warfare in the 1860s had been a major killing force. With the development of modern artillery by Krupp, however, artillery regained much of its former killing power (as was graphically demonstrated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871). Artillery would reach its peak during the First World War where it became the most decisive weapon on the battlefield.
Although firearms technology and the conscript army dramatically changed the nature of warfare, most armies were completely unaware of the implications of these changes and unprepared for their consequences. At the start of World War I, most armies prepared for a short brief war whose strategy and tactics would have been familiar to Napoleon.
However as war broke out, German and Allied (mostly French and British) forces soon learned that with modern weapons even a shallow scrape in the soil could be defended by a handful of infantry. To attack frontally was to court crippling losses, so an outflanking operation was essential. After the Battle of the Aisne in September, 1914, an extended series of attempted outflankings, and matching extensions to the fortified defensive lines, soon saw the celebrated "race to the sea"—the German and Allied armies dug what was essentially a single pair of trenches from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea coast of Belgium. Trench warfare prevailed on the Western Front from September 16, 1914 until the Germans launched their "Spring Offensive", Operation Michael, on March 21, 1918.
On the Western Front, the small, improvised trenches of the first few months rapidly grew deeper and more complex, gradually becoming vast areas of interlocking defensive works. The space between the opposing trenches was referred to as "no man's land" and varied in distance depending on the battlefield. On the Western Front it was typically between 100 and 300 yards, though only 30 yards on Vimy Ridge. After the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in March 1917 it stretched to over a kilometre in places. At the infamous "Quinn's Post" in the cramped confines of the Anzac battlefield at Gallipoli, the opposing trenches were only 15 metres apart and a bombing war was waged there incessantly. On the Eastern Front and in the Middle-East, the areas to be covered were so vast, and the distances from the factories that supplied shells, bullets, concrete and barbed wire so great, that trench warfare in the European style often did not eventuate.
Early in the war the British defensive doctrine suggested a main trench system of three parallel lines with each line connected by communications trenches. The point at which a communications trench intersected the front trench was of critical importance and was usually heavily fortified. The front trench was lightly garrisoned and typically only occupied in force during "stand to" at dawn and dusk. Between 70 and 100 yards behind the front trench was located the support (or "travel") trench to which the garrison would retreat when the front trench was bombarded. Between 300 and 500 yards further to the rear was located the third reserve trench where the reserve troops could amass for a counter-attack if the front trenches were captured. This defensive layout was soon rendered obsolete as the power of the artillery grew; however in certain sectors of the front, the support trench was maintained as a decoy to attract the enemy bombardment away from the front and reserve lines. Fires were lit in the support line to make it appear inhabited and any damage due to shellfire was immediately repaired.
Temporary trenches were also built. When a major attack was planned, assembly trenches would be dug near the front trench. These were used to provide a sheltered place for the waves of attacking troops who would follow the first waves leaving from the front trench. "Saps" were temporary, unmanned, often dead-end, utility trenches dug out into no man's land. They fulfilled a variety of purposes such as connecting the front trench to a listening post close to the enemy wire or providing an advanced "jumping-off" line for a surprise attack.
When one side's front line bulged towards the opposition, a "salient" was formed. The concave trench line facing the salient was called a "re-entrant". Large salients were perilous for their occupants because they could be assailed from three sides.
Behind the front system of trenches there were usually at least two more partially prepared trench systems, kilometres to the rear, ready to be occupied in the event of a retreat. The Germans often prepared multiple redundant trench systems; in 1916 their Somme front featured two complete trench systems, one kilometre apart, with a third partially complete system a further kilometre behind. This duplication made a decisive break-through virtually impossible. In the event that a section of the first trench system was captured, a "switch" trench would be dug to connect the second trench system to the still-held section of the first.
The Germans made something of a science out of designing and constructing defensive works. They used reinforced concrete to construct deep, shell-proof, ventilated dugouts as well as strategic strongpoints. They were more willing than their opponents to make a strategic withdrawal to a superior, prepared defensive position. They were also the first to apply the concept "defence in depth" where the front line zone was hundreds of yards deep and contained a series of redoubts rather than a continuous trench. Each redoubt could provide supporting fire to its neighbours and while the attackers had freedom of movement between the redoubts they would be subjected to withering enfilade fire. The British eventually adopted a similar approach but it was incompletely implemented when the Germans launched the 1918 "Spring Offensive" and proved disastrously ineffective.
Trenches were never straight but were dug in a square-toothed pattern that broke the line into bays connected by traverses. This meant that a soldier could never see more than 10 metres or so along the trench, consequently the entire trench could not be enfiladed if the enemy gained access at one point or if a bomb or shell landed in the trench, the shrapnel could not travel far. The side of the trench facing the enemy was called the "parapet" and had a "fire step". The rear of the trench was called the "parados". The "parados" protected the soldier's back from shrapnel from shells falling behind the trench. If the enemy captured the trench then the "parados" would become their "parapet". The sides of the trench were revetted with sandbags, wooden frames and wire mesh. The floor of the trench was usually covered by wooden "duckboards". Dugouts of varying degrees of luxury would be built in the rear of the support trench. British dugouts were usually 8 to 16 feet deep, whereas German dugouts were typically much deeper, usually a minimum of 12 feet deep and sometimes dug 3 stories down with concrete staircases to reach the upper levels.
The guidelines for British trench construction stated that it would take 450 men 6 hours (at night) to complete 250 metres of a front line trench system. Thereafter the trench would require constant maintenance to prevent deterioration caused by weather or shelling.
The battlefield of Flanders, which saw some of the worst fighting, presented numerous problems for the practice of trench warfare, especially for the British, who were often compelled to occupy the low ground. In most places, the water table was only a metre or so below the surface, meaning that any trench dug in the ground would quickly flood. Consequently, many "trenches" in Flanders were actually above ground and contructed from massive breastworks of sandbags (actually filled with clay). Initially, both the parapet and parados of the trench were built in this way, but a later technique was to dispense with the parados for much of the trench line, thus exposing the rear of the trench to fire from the reserve line in case the front was breached.
The confined, static and subterranean nature of trench warfare resulted in it developing its own peculiar form of geography. In the forward zone, the conventional transport infrastructure of roads and rail were replaced by the network of trenches and light tramways. The critical advantage that could be gained by holding the high ground meant that minor hills and ridges gained enormous significance. Many slight hills and valleys were so subtle as to have been nameless until the front line encroached upon them. Some hills were named for their height, such as Hill 60. A farmhouse, windmill, quarry or copse of trees would become the focus of a determined struggle simply because it was the largest identifiable feature. However, it would not take the artillery long to obliterate it, so that thereafter it became just a name on a map.
Battlefield features could be given a descriptive name ("Polygon Wood" near Ypres or "Lone Pine"), a whimsical name ("Sausage Valley" and "Mash Valley" on the Somme), a unit name ("Inniskilling Inch" at Helles named for the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) or the name of a soldier ("Monash Valley" at Anzac named after General John Monash). Prefixing a feature with "Dead Man's" was also popular for obvious reasons, such as "Dead Man's Road" leading in to Pozières or "Dead Man's Ridge" at Anzac. There were numerous trench networks named "The Chessboard" or "The Gridiron" due to the pattern they described. For the Australians at Mouquet Farm, the advances were so short and the terrain so featureless that they were reduced to naming their objectives as "points" on the map, such as "Point 81" and "Point 55".
The trenches of the enemy, which would become objectives in an attack, needed to be named as well. Many were named for some observed event such as "German Officers' Trench" at Anzac (where a couple of German officers were sighted) or "Ration Trench" on the Somme (where German ration-carrying parties were sighted). The British gave an alcoholic flavour to the German trenches in front of Ginchy; "Beer Trench", "Bitter Trench", "Hop Trench", "Ale Alley" and "Pilsen Trench". Other objectives were named according to their role in the trench system such as the "Switch Trench" and "Intermediate Trench" on the Somme.
Some sections of the British trench system read like a Monopoly board, with names such as "Park Lane" and "Bond Street". British regular divisions habitually named their trenches after units, which resulted in names such as "Munster Alley" (Royal Munster Fusiliers), "Black Watch Alley" (Black Watch Regiment) and "Border Barricade" (Border Regiment). The Anzacs tended to name features after soldiers ("Plugge's Plateau", "Walker's Ridge", "Quinn's Post", "Johnston's Jolly", "Russell's Top", "Brind's Road" and so forth).
Life in the trenches
An individual soldier's time in the front line trench was usually brief; from as little as one day to as much as two weeks at a time before being relieved. The Australian 31st Battalion once spent 53 days in the line at Villers Bretonneux but such a duration was a rare exception. A typical British soldier's year could be divided as follows:
15% front line
10% support line
30% reserve line
25% other (hospital, travelling, leave, training courses, etc.)
Even when in the front line, the typical soldier would only be called upon to engage in fighting a handful of times a year — making an attack, defending against an attack or participating in a raid. The frequency of combat would increase for the men of the "elite" fighting divisions — on the Allied side; the British regular divisions, the Canadian Corps, the French XX Corps and the Anzacs.
Some sectors of the front saw little activity throughout the war, making life in the trenches comparatively easy. When the I Anzac Corps first arrived in France in April, 1916, after the evacuation of Gallipoli, they were sent to a relatively peaceful sector south of Armentières to "acclimatise". Other sectors were in a perpetual state of violent activity. On the Western Front, Ypres was invariably hellish, especially for the British in the exposed, overlooked salient. However, quiet sectors still amassed daily casualties through sniper fire, artillery and gas. In the first six months of 1916, before the launch of the Somme Offensive, the British did not engage in any significant battles on their sector of the Western Front and yet suffered 107,776 casualties.
A sector of the front would be allocated to an army corps, usually containing three divisions. Of these two would occupy adjacent sections of the front and the third would be in rest to the rear. This break down of duty would continue down through the army structure so that within each front line division, typically containing three infantry brigades, two brigades would occupy the front and the third would be in reserve. Within each front line brigade, typically containing four battalions (regiments for the Germans), two battalions would occupy the front with two in reserve. And so on for companies and platoons. The lower down the structure this division of duty proceeded, the more frequently the units would rotate from front line duty to support or reserve.
During the day, snipers and artillery observers in balloons made movement perilous so the trenches were mostly quiet. Consequently, the trenches were busiest at night when cover of darkness allowed the movement of troops and supplies, the maintenance and expansion of the barbed wire and trench system, and reconnaissance of the enemy's defences. Sentries in listening posts out in no man's land would try to detect enemy patrols and working parties or indications that an attack was being prepared.
Raids were carried out in order to capture prisoners and "booty" — letters and other documents that provide intelligence about the unit occupying the opposing trenches. As the war progressed, raiding became part of the general British policy, the intention being to maintain the fighting spirit of the troops and to deny no man's land from the Germans. Such dominance was achieved at a high cost and a post-war British analysis concluded that the benefits were probably not worth the price.
Early in the war, surprise raids would be mounted, particularly by the Canadians, but increased vigilance made achieving surprise difficult as the war progressed. By 1916, raids were carefully planned exercises in combined arms and involved close cooperation of infantry and artillery. A raid would begin with an intense artillery bombardment designed to drive off or kill the front trench garrison and cut the barbed wire. Then the bombardment would shift to form a "box", or cordon, around a section of the front line to prevent a counter-attack intercepting the raid.
Death in the trenches
The intensity of World War I trench warfare meant that about 10% of the fighting soldiers were killed. This compared to 5% killed during the Boer War and 4.5% killed during World War II. For British and dominion troops serving on the Western Front, the proportion of killed was 12% while the total proportion of troops who became casualties (killed or wounded) was 56%. Considering that for every front-line infantryman there were about 3 soldiers in support (artillery, supply, medical, etc.) it was highly unlikely for a fighting soldier to survive the war without sustaining some form of injury. Indeed many soldiers were injured more than once during the course of their service.
Medicine and medical services were primitive. Relatively minor injuries could prove fatal through the onset of infection and gas gangrene. The Germans recorded that 12% of leg wounds and 23% of arm wounds resulted in death, mainly through infection. The Americans recorded that 44% of casualties that developed gangrene died. Half of those who were wounded in the head died and only 1% of those wounded in the abdomen survived.
Three quarters of the wounds inflicted during the war came from shell fire. The wound resulting from a shell fragment was usually more traumatic than a gunshot wound. A shell fragment would often introduce debris making it more likely that the wound would become infected. These factors meant that a soldier was three times more likely to die from a shell wound to the chest than from a gunshot wound. The blast from shell explosions could also kill by concussion. In addition to the physical effects of shell fire there was the psychological damage. Men who had to endure a prolonged bombardment would often suffer debilitating shell shock, a condition that was not well understood at the time.
As in many other wars, World War I's greatest killer was disease. Sanitary conditions in the trenches were quite poor, and common infections included dysentery, typhus, and cholera. Many soldiers suffered from parasites and related infections. Another common killer was exposure, since the temperature within a trench in the winter could easily fall below zero degrees celsius.
Burial of the dead was usually a luxury that neither side could easily afford. The bodies would lie in no man's land until the front line moved, by which time the bodies were often unidentifiable. On some battlefields, such as at the Nek in Gallipoli, the bodies were not buried until after the war. On the Western Front, bodies continue to be found as fields are ploughed and building foundations dug.
At various times during the war—particularly early on—official truces were organised so that the wounded could be recovered from no man's land and the dead could be buried. Generally though, the higher commands disapproved of any slackening of the offensive for humanitarian reasons and so ordered their troops not to permit enemy stretcher bearers to operate in no man's land. However, this order was almost invariably ignored by the soldiers in the trenches, who knew that it was to the mutual benefit of the fighting men of both sides to allow the wounded to be retrieved. So, as soon as hostilities ceased, parties of stretcher bearers, marked with red cross flags, would go out to recover the wounded, sometimes swapping enemy wounded for their own. There were occasions when this unofficial cease fire was exploited to conduct a reconnaissance or to reinforce or relieve a garrison.
Weapons of trench warfare
The common infantry soldier had three weapons at his disposal in the trenches: the rifle, bayonet, and grenade.
The standard British rifle was the .303 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, which was originally developed as a cavalry carbine and had an effective range of 1400 yards, though in the hands of the average soldier, 200 yards was about the limit of accurate fire. British infantry training emphasised rapid fire rifle shooting rather than accuracy. Early in the war, the British were able to defeat German attacks at Mons and the First Battle of Ypres using massed rifle fire, but as trench warfare developed, opportunities to assemble a line of riflemen became rare.
The British soldier was equipped with a 21-inch sword bayonet, which was too long and unwieldy to be particularly effective in close quarters combat. However, bayonet use was safer than firing the rifle which, in a melee, might strike an ally instead of an enemy. British figures recorded that only 0.3% of wounds were caused by bayonets, however, a strike from a bayonet was highly likely to result in death. A bayonet charge could be effective at inducing terror in an opponent, encouraging them to flee or surrender. The bayonet was used to finish off wounded enemy during an advance, saving ammunition while reducing the possibility of being attacked from the rear.
Many soldiers preferred a short handled spade or entrenching tool over a bayonet. They would sharpen the blade to a knife edge so it was just as effective as a bayonet and the shorter length made them handier to use in the confined quarters of the trenches. These tools could then be used to "dig in" after they had taken a trench.
The grenade came to be the primary infantry weapon of trench warfare. Both sides were quick to raise specialist bombing squads. The grenade enabled a soldier to engage the enemy indirectly (without exposing himself to fire) and it did not require the precise accuracy of rifle fire in order to kill or maim. The Germans and Turks were well equipped with grenades from the start of the war, but the British, who had ceased using grenadiers in the 1870s, entered the war with virtually none, such that soldiers had to improvise bombs with whatever was available. By late 1915, the British Mills bomb had entered wide circulation, and by the end of the war 75 million of them had been used.
The machine gun is perhaps the signature weapon of trench warfare, with the image of ranks of advancing infantry being scythed down by the withering hail of bullets. The Germans embraced the machine gun from the outset -- in 1904, every regiment was equipped with one machine gun -- and the machine gun crews were the elite infantry units. At Gallipoli and in Palestine the Turks provided the infantry, but it was usually Germans who manned the machine guns.
The British high command were less enthusiastic about machine gun technology, considering the weapon "unsporting", and they always lagged behind the Germans in adopting the weapon. However, by 1917, every company in the British forces was equipped with four Lewis guns, which significantly enhanced their firepower.
Vickers machine gun
The heavy machine gun was a specialist weapon, and in a static trench system was employed in a scientific manner, with carefully calculated fields of fire, so that at a moment's notice an accurate burst could be laid upon the enemy's parapet or at a break in the wire. The British water-cooled Vickers machine gun required a 16 man crew and cost £30 a minute to operate. Each belt of ammunition had to be hand loaded with 250 rounds and the barrel of the gun had to be changed after two belts were fired. It was a fragile and difficult weapon to maintain and operate, but was very effective.
Mortars, which lobbed a shell a relatively short distance, were widely used in trench fighting for harassing the forward trenches and for cutting wire in preparation for a raid or attack. In 1914, the British fired a total of 545 mortar shells. In 1916, they fired over 6,500,000 shells.
The main British mortar was the Stokes mortar, which was the precursor of the modern mortar. It was a light mortar, but was easy to use, and capable of a rapid rate of fire by virtue of the propellant cartridge being attached to the shell. To fire the Stokes mortar, the round was simply dropped into the tube, where the cartridge was ignited automatically when it struck the firing pin at the bottom.
The Germans used a range of mortars. The smallest were grenade-throwers (granatenwerfer) which fired "pineapple" bombs. Their medium trench-mortars were called mine-throwers (minenwerfer), dubbed "minnies" by the British. The heavy mortar was called the ladungswerfer which threw "aerial torpedoes", containing a 200 lb (90 kg) charge, over 1000 yards. The flight of the missile was so slow and leisurely that the men on the receiving end could make some attempt to seek shelter.
Artillery dominated the battlefield of trench warfare in the same way the air power dominates the modern battlefield. An infantry attack was rarely successful if it advanced beyond the range of its supporting artillery. In addition to bombarding the enemy infantry in the trenches, the artillery would engage in counter-battery duels to try to destroy the enemy's guns.
Artillery mainly fired shrapnel, high explosives or, later in the war, gas shells. The British experimented with firing incendiary "thermite" shells to set trees and ruins alight.
Loading a 15-in howitzer
Artillery pieces were of two types; guns and howitzers. Guns fired high velocity shells over a flat trajectory and were often used to deliver shrapnel and to cut barbed wire. Howitzers lofted the shell over a high trajectory such that it plunged into the ground. The biggest artillery were usually howitzers. The German 420 howitzer weighed 20 tons and could fire a one ton shell over six miles.
A critical feature of modern artillery pieces was the hydraulic recoil mechanism which meant that the gun did not need to be re-aimed after each shell was fired. Initially each gun would need to register its aim on a known target, in view of an observer, in order to fire with precision during a battle. The process of gun registration would often alert the enemy that an attack was being planned. Towards the end of 1917, artillery techniques were developed enabling guns to be aimed accurately without the need for registration.
Germany was the main innovator of gas warfare. Tear gas was first employed in January 1915 but this could only disable the enemy. In April 1915, chlorine was first used. A large enough dose could kill but the gas was easy to detect by scent and sight. Those that were not killed on exposure could suffer permanent lung damage.
Phosgene, first used in December 1915, was the ultimate killing gas of World War I -- it was 18 times more powerful than chlorine and much more difficult to detect. However, the most effective gas was mustard gas, introduced in July 1917. Mustard gas was not as fatal as phosgene but it was hard to detect and lingered on the surface of the battlefield and so could inflict casualties over a long period. The burns it produced were so horrific that a casualty resulting from mustard gas exposure was unlikely to be fit to fight again. Only 2% of mustard gas casualties died, mainly from secondary infections.
The first method of employing gas was by releasing it from a cylinder when the wind was favourable. Such an approach was obviously ****e to miscarry if the direction of the wind was misjudged. Also the cylinders needed to be positioned in the front trenches where they were liable to be ruptured during a bombardment. Later in the war, gas was delivered by artillery or mortar shell.
Periscope rifle, Gallipoli 1915
In the Anzac trenches at Gallipoli, where the Turks held the high ground, the periscope rifle was developed to enable the Australians and New Zealanders to snipe at the enemy without exposing themselves over the parapet.
The fundamental purpose of the aircraft in trench warfare was reconnaissance and artillery observation. The role of the fighter was to protect his own reconnaissance aircraft and to destroy those of the enemy, or at least deny them the freedom of his airspace. This involved achieving air superiority over the battlefield by destroying the enemy's fighters as well. Spotter aircraft would monitor the fall of shells during registration of the artillery. Reconnaissance aircraft would photograph trench lines, monitor enemy troop movements, and locate enemy artillery batteries so that they could be destroyed with counter-battery fire.
The Germans employed flame throwers (flammenwerfer) during the war but the technology was not mature so they were more effective at inducing terror than inflicting casualties.
All sides would engage in vigorous mining and counter-mining duels. The dry chalk of the Somme was especially suited to mining but with the aid of pumps it was also possible to mine in the sodden clay of Flanders. Specialist tunnelling companies, usually made up of men who had been coal miners in civilian life, would dig tunnels under no man's land and beneath the enemy's trenches. These mines would then be packed with explosives and detonated, producing a large crater. The crater served two purposes; it could destroy or breach the enemy's trench and, by virtue of the raised lip that they produced, could provide a ready-made "trench" closer to the enemy's line. When a mine was detonated, both sides would race to occupy and fortify the crater.
If the miners detected an enemy tunnel in progress, they would often drive a counter-tunnel, called a camouflet, which would be detonated in an attempt to destroy the other tunnel prematurely. Night raids were also conducted with the sole purpose of destroying the enemy's mine workings.
The British detonated a number of mines on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The largest mines—the Y Sap Mine and the Lochnager Mine—each containing 24 tons of explosives, were blown near La Boiselle, throwing earth 4,000 feet into the air.
At 5.10 am on June 7, 1917, 19 mines were detonated by the British to launch the Battle of Messines. The average mine contained 21 tons of explosive and the largest, 125 feet beneath St. Eloi, was twice the average at 42 tons. The combined force of the explosions was supposedly felt in England. As the Chief of Staff of the British Second Army, General Sir Charles Harrington, commented on the eve of the battle:
I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography.
The craters from these and many other mines on the Western Front are still visible today. Three further mines were laid for Messines but were not detonated as the tactical situation had since changed. One blew during a thunderstorm in 1955, the other two remain to this day.
The fundamental strategy of trench warfare was attrition; the process of progressively grinding down the opposition's resources until, ultimately, they are no longer able to wage war. This did not prevent the ambitious commander from pursuing the strategy of annihilation—the ideal of an offensive battle which produces victory in one decisive engagement. The British commander, General Douglas Haig, was constantly seeking a "breakthrough" which he could exploit with his cavalry divisions. His major trench offensives—the Somme in 1916 and Flanders in 1917—were conceived as breakthrough battles but both degenerated into costly attrition. The Germans actively pursued a strategy of attrition in the Battle of Verdun, the sole purpose of which was to "bleed the French Army white".
The popular image of an trench warfare infantry assault is of a wave of soldiers, bayonets fixed, going "over the top" and marching in a line across no man's land into a hail of enemy fire. This indeed was the standard method early in the war and successful examples are few. The more common tactic was to attack at night from an advanced post in no man's land, having cut the barbed wire entanglements beforehand.
In 1917, the Germans innovated with the "infiltration" tactic where small groups of highly trained and well equipped troops would attack vulnerable points and bypass strong points, driving deep into the rear areas. The distance they could advance was still limited by their ability to supply and communicate.
Passchendaele village, before and after the 3rd Battle of Ypres
The role of artillery in an infantry attack was twofold; firstly in preparation by killing or driving off the enemy garrison and destroying his defences, and secondly in protecting the attacking infantry by providing an impenetrable "barrage" or curtain of shells to prevent an enemy counter-attack. The first attempt at sophistication was the "lifting barrage" where the first objective of an attack was intensely bombarded for a period before the entire barrage "lifted" to fall on a second objective further back. However, this usually expected too much of the infantry and the usual outcome was that the barrage would outpace the attackers, leaving them without protection. This resulted in the use of the "creeping barrage" which would lift more frequently but in smaller steps, sweeping the ground ahead and moving so slowly that the attackers could usually follow closely behind it.
Capturing the objective was half the successful battle—the battle was only won if the objective was held. The attacking force would have to advance with not only the weapons required to capture a trench but also the tools—sandbags, picks & shovels, barbed wire— to fortify and defend from counter-attack. The Germans placed great emphasis on immediately counter-attacking to regain lost ground. This strategy cost them dearly in 1917 when the British started to limit their advances so as to be able to meet the anticipated counter-attack from a position of strength.
The main difficulty faced by an attacking force in a trench battle was reliable communications. Wireless communications were still in their infancy so the available methods were telephone, semaphore, signal lamps, carrier pigeons and runners, none of which were particularly reliable. Telephone was the most effective but the lines were extremely vulnerable to shell fire so would usually be cut early in a battle. In an attempt to counter this, telephone lines would be laid in a ladder pattern to provide multiple redundant paths. Flares and rockets were used to signal an objective was reached or to call for pre-arranged artillery support.
It was not unusual for a battalion or brigade commander to wait 2 or 3 hours for word on the progress of an attack, by which time any decision made based on the message would probably be long out of date. A similar period would pass when transferring the news to the division, corps and army headquarters. Consequently the outcome of many trench battles were decided by the company and platoon commanders in the thick of the fighting.
The new tactic of trench warfare had come about as a response to the new technologies of rapid-fire weapons and mass-produced barbed wire. In consequence it is often thought that the end of trench warfare was itself brought about by new technologies, in particular the tank. Tanks were certainly a significant factor; however until quite late in the war they were available in only small numbers, and were often mis-employed by generals who had (of course) not yet gained experience with them. Soon after the war, analysts on both sides were highly motivated to exaggerate the role of the tank in ending trench warfare. For the Germans, it provided a ready explanation for their loss of the war; for ambitious Allied soldiers keen to see a large and independent tank corps (notably J.F.C. Fuller), stressing the importance of the tank was a way to achieve political goals; and for analysts in general, the tank provided a ready technological explanation where none of the other contemporary changes in military hardware seemed to fit—aircraft, gas, vastly more powerful artillery, and improved communications could not easily be understood to have made the difference.
In fact, the tank was only a partial explanation for the demise of trench warfare. Many Allied victories from 1917 on were achieved without tanks, or with very few of them, and the Germans too made large gains in early 1918 despite having hardly any tanks at all. The key lesson—which German tacticians learned all too well, and taught to their Allied pupils in the Blitzkrieg of 1940—was not technological but tactical. The keys to breaking the stalemate of trench warfare were to achieve tactical surprise, to attack the weakest parts of an enemy's line and bypass his strongpoints, and to abandon the futile attempt to have a grand and detailed plan of operations and control it from afar, instead relying on small, autonomous combined arms groups of well-trained soldiers, known as stormtroopers where the junior leaders on the spot could exercise initiative.
The tank made it more difficult to defend a trench line. Combined arms warfare, where infantry, light artillery, and (if possible) tanks and aircraft operated in close cooperation made trench warfare obsolete. However, its obsolescence was not completely recognized by many armies, and at the start some armies such as the those of France who had spent considerable effort at defensive works including the Maginot Line which was quickly outflanked in the early stages of World War II.
Although World War II was to be a much more mobile war than World War I, one of the legacies of trench warfare was the large amount of firepower available across a continuous, now mobile front. This development tremendously increased the destructiveness of war in the 20th century as compared with the 18th or 19th. In addition the tactical advances that made trench war obsolete has also greatly influenced warfare. The basis of modern land warfare remains based in semi-autonomous small teams such as the fire team and still places a large emphasis on rapid communication and allowing smaller units to exercise initiative.
Recent trench warfare
Trench warfare has been very infrequent since the end of World War I. When two large armored armies meet, the result has generally been the type of mobile warfare found in World War II. When one side has an overwhelming conventional military advantage, the result has generally been guerrilla warfare.
The most cited example of trench warfare after World War I was the Iran-Iraq War in which both armies had large infantry with modern small arms, but very little armor, aircraft or training in combined weapons. The result was very similar to World War I with trenches and chemical warfare used. The technological obsolescence of this form of warfare was shown in the First Gulf War in 1991 when Iraq attempted to use static trench warfare tactics against the American army, resulting in a massive military defeat. In the First Gulf War, the American army was able to penetrate most of the Iraqi static lines through the use of air power using the doctrine of air land warfare.
movie called "the lost battalion". if youre a WW1 buff you'll like it. its about a bn of the 77th inf in the argonne forest.
I have seen the movie. The passing of time has erased the memory ofOriginally Posted by crazyman
what the combatants of World War I experienced. Here is a link to the
type of knife troops carried for close combat. The blade is double edged.
It's wider near the top to cause more damage. The brass knuckles have
a 1/16 " spikes to maximize damage, and the handle has a brass spike
to use as a bludgeon. Obviously a weapon which reflects the brutality of
fighting in the trenches.
hist2004, out of curiosity where did you go to school?
im finishing up studies in mil history and have really appreciated your last few posts
i hope your knowledge and insight is paying off, and if not- that youre still writing and researching anyway
The lost Battalion ?! Dudes just watch all quiet on west front and you will have seen everything about WW1.
Thank God I was not an infantryman going over the top.
A great movie, but the book is more brutalOriginally Posted by n.ignomo
University of Massachusetts. I’m in the IT field, so this is just a hobby. I wishOriginally Posted by scott
I had majored in history and continued my education in order to teach it,
Unfortunately when I graduated, the prospects for a teaching job were slim,
so life took me down a different path.
Yeah.. A&E pumps out some fantasic under-recognized movies.Originally Posted by crazyman
Did either side use tanks to help the Infantry advance, like using the tanks as cover? were the tanks able survive machine gun fire? Because I heard that the machine guns could hurt the tank crews.
No one individual was responsible for the development of the tank. Its design can be drawn back to the eighteenth century.Originally Posted by MKtexan
Rather, a number of gradual technological developments brought the development of the tank as we know it closer until its eventual form was unveiled out of necessity by the British army - or rather, navy, since its initial deployment in World War One was, perhaps surprisingly, overseen by the Royal Navy.
Evolution of the Tank
A (brief) history lesson is in order. The caterpillar track, upon which the tank travelled, was designed in its crudest form in 1770 by Richard Edgeworth. The Crimean War saw a relatively small number of steam powered tractors developed using the caterpillar track to manoeuvre around the battlefield's muddy terrain. Thus even in the 1850s the development of the tank seemed tantalisingly close - except that its development dimmed until the turn of the century.
With the 1885 development of the internal combustion engine (by Nikolaus August Otto) a tractor was constructed in the U.S. by the Holt Company which utilised Edgeworth's caterpillar tracks, again to facilitate movement over muddy terrain. It was even suggested at the time that Holt's machine be adapted for military purposes, but the suggestion was never acted upon.
Next up was Frederick Simms. In 1899 he designed what he termed a 'motor-war car'. It boasted an engine by Daimler, a bullet-proof casing and armed with two revolving machine guns developed by Hiram Maxim. Offered to the British army it was - as had the machine gun before it - dismissed as of little use. Lord Kitchener, later Britain's War Minister, regarded it damningly as "a pretty mechanical toy".
Development in related areas continued despite the British War Office's apparent lack of interest in the machine's potential.
A company, Hornsby & Sons, produced the Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor. The caterpillar track this time was comprised exclusively of a chain of steel links meshed together with steel pins.
A British army officer, Colonel Ernest Swinton, and the Secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence, Maurice Hankey, remained enthusiastic about what they believed to be the enormous potential of the tank, not least in breaking through enemy trench defences.
While Hankey produced the first official memo concerning the tank (in a memorandum on 'special devices') on 26 December 1914, it was Swinton who organised a demonstration of the Killen-Strait vehicle to senior politicians in June 1915 - almost a year after the war was underway.
Sponsored by Winston Churchill
In attendance at the demonstration of the Killen-Strait tractor were two future British Prime Ministers: David Lloyd George (who achieved the highest office by the end of the year) and the current First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (who had to wait another 25 years before he finally became Prime Minister, in the next world war).
During the demonstration the tractor successfully demonstrated its ability to cut through a barbed wire entanglement. Both Churchill and Lloyd George came away impressed by its potential.
It was Churchill who, on Colonel Swinton's urging (and backed by Hankey), sponsored the establishment of the Landships Committee to investigate the potential of constructing what amounted to a new military weapon. The name of the committee was derived from the fact that, at least initially, the tank was seen an extension of sea-going warships - hence, a landship.
The Birth of the Landship - or Tank
Together the Landships Committee and the Inventions Committee, working with Colonel Swinton, agreed to go ahead with the design of the new weapon, which at that time remained nameless.
They therefore commissioned Lieutenant Walter Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co., based in Lincoln, to produce the first landship in secrecy. Its codename, given because the shape of the shell resembled water carriers, was 'tank'; the name, assigned in December 1915, stuck.
Swinton laid down certain key criteria that he argued must be part of the finished design. The tank must boast a minimum speed of four miles per hour, be able to climb a five foot high obstacle, successfully span a five foot trench, and - critically - be immune to the effects of small-arms fire. Furthermore, it should possess two machine guns, have a range of twenty miles and be maintained by a crew of ten men.
This first tank was given the nickname 'Little Willie' (soon followed by 'Big Willie') and, as with its predecessors, possessed a Daimler engine. Weighing some 14 tons and bearing 12 feet long track frames, the tank could carry three people in cramped conditions. In the event its top speed was three miles per hour on level ground, two miles per hour on rough terrain (actual battlefield conditions in fact).
The 'Little Willie' was notably restricted in that it was unable to cross trenches. This handicap was however soon remedied under the energetic enthusiasm of Colonel Swinton.
The Role of the Royal Navy
The tank was in many ways merely an extension of the principle of the armoured car. Armoured cars were popular on the Western Front at the start of the war, since at that stage it was very much a war of movement. Their use only dwindled with the onset of static trench warfare, when their utility was questionable.
The Royal Navy's role in tank development may seem incongruous but was in fact merely an extension of the role they had played thus far in the use of armoured cars. The navy had deployed squadrons of armoured cars to protect Allied airstrips in Belgium against enemy attack. It was this experience that Churchill drew upon when offering his department's support for the 'landship'.
Production of the Tank
The first combat tank was ready by January 1916 and was demonstrated to a high-powered audience. Convinced, Lloyd George - the Minister of Munitions - ordered production of the heavy Mark I model to begin (the lighter renowned 'Whippets' entered service the following year).
Meanwhile the French, who were aware of British tank experimentation, proceeded with their own independent designs, although they remained somewhat sceptical as to its potential; their focus at the time was firmly on the production of ever more battlefield artillery.
Nevertheless the French had their own Colonel Swinton, a man named Colonel Estienne.
He managed to persuade the French Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, of the battlefield potential of the tank as an aid to the infantry.
Joffre, ever a champion of the 'offensive spirit', agreed with the result that an initial order for 400 French Schneider (their first tank, named after the factory which produced them) and 400 St. Chaumond tanks was placed, although they were not used until April 1917.
Five months after its combat demonstration to the British, in June 1916 the first production line tanks were ready, albeit too late for use at the start of that year's 'big push' - the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916.
Early Use of the Tank
Initially the Royal Navy supplied the crews for the tank. History was made on 15 September 1916 when Captain H. W. Mortimore guided a D1 tank into action at the notorious Delville Wood.
Shortly afterwards thirty-six tanks led the way in an attack at Flers. Although the attack was itself successful - the sudden appearance of the new weapon stunned their German opponents - these early tanks proved notoriously unreliable.
In part this was because the British, under Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig, deployed them before they were truly battle ready in an attempt to break the trench stalemate. They often broke down and became ditched - i.e. stuck in a muddy trench - more often than anticipated.
Conditions for the tank crews were also far from ideal. The heat generated inside the tank was tremendous and fumes often nearly choked the men inside. Nevertheless the first tank operators proved their mettle by operating under what amounted to appalling conditions.
The first battle honour awarded to a tank operator went to Private A. Smith, awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Delville Wood on 15 September 1916.
In April 1917 the French deployed 128 tanks in their Aisne Offensive along the Chemin-des-Dames; unfortunately however they did not distinguish themselves in this battle, once again proving highly unreliable (more so than the early British models). Similarly, at Bullecourt in April/May 1917 the Australians ****ounced great dissatisfaction with the tank's performance.
Tanks were even deployed during the notorious, almost swampy, conditions of the Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly known as 'Passchendaele'). They promptly sank in the mire and were entirely without benefit.
In what many regard as the first truly successful demonstration of the potential of the tank, the entire British Tank Corps (consisting of 474 tanks) saw action at the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917 (although the French can lay claim to its earlier successful use at Malmaison).
In a sweepingly successful start to the battle twelve miles of the German front was breached, with the capture of 10,000 German prisoners, 123 guns and 281 machine guns.
Unfortunately for the British this enormous initial success was effectively cancelled out in German counter-attacks because the British did not possess sufficient infantry troops to exploit the breach they had created.
Nevertheless the successful use of tanks at Cambrai restored dwindling faith in tank development. The U.S. army took note and undertook development of its own tank series.
It also acted as a stimulus to the curiously hesitant German army, who had expressed continuing doubts as to the battlefield value of the tank.
They too began to hasten production of their own models, although they never pretended enthusiasm for their cause.
The U.S. Tank Corps adopted the use of French Renault tanks, light six-ton vehicles designed for close infantry support. Around 200 of these were used in action at St. Mihiel and again at the Battle of Meuse-Argonne during late September/early October (although losses were high in the latter action).
Tank Versus Tank
The first successful display of German tanks came on 24 April 1918, when thirteen German models, chiefly A7V's, engaged British and Australian infantry at Villers Bretonneux.
Successful in driving back the British and Australians this encounter was to become famous as the site of the first tank versus tank engagement. Three British Mark IVs fought three German A7Vs south of Villers Bretonneux, the British succeeding in driving off the German tanks. (Click here for a memoir of that encounter.)
An Aid to the Infantry
On 4 July 1918 the tank was used in a manner that helped to fashion the method in which it was deployed in future battles. General John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, launched an attack at Le Hamel by unleashing a co-ordinated barrage of tanks, artillery and warplanes, all designed to clear a path for advancing infantry.
Monash saw no point in attempting to gain ground by using infantry to storm enemy machine gun positions. Rather he believed in using technology to facilitate a relatively uneventful infantry advance, with tanks at their head.
His view vindicated, Monash achieved victory at Le Hamel in just 93 minutes. Other commanders took note.
Tanks were increasingly used during the Allied advance of summer 1918.
During the French attack at Soissons from 18-26 July no fewer than 336 Schneiders, St Chamonds and Renaults were deployed to support combined French and American infantry.
However tank deployment on the grand scale was reached on 8 August 1918, when 604 Allied tanks assisted an Allied 20 mile advance on the Western Front.
By the time the war drew to a close the British, the first to use them, had produced some 2,636 tanks. The French produced rather more, 3,870. The Germans, never convinced of its merits, and despite their record for technological innovation, produced just 20.
With the French tanks proving more serviceable than their British equivalents they continued to be used beyond wartime.
The French Renault F.T. tank continued to grow in popularity as the concept of the tank as a close aid to advancing infantry prospered.
Both the U.S. and Italy produced their own tank designs which were based on the French Renault model, a testament to its design strengths. The Italians produced the Fiat 3000 and the U.S. the M1917.
Tank design continued to improve beyond the war and the tank, which helped to make trench warfare redundant, restored movement to the battlefield. Its widespread use continues to the present day.
Tank Production 1916-18
Year UK France Germany Italy USA
1916 150 - - - -
1917 1,277 800 - - -
1918 1,391 4,000 20 6 84
I know the British used tanks to help infantry advance since they created tanks to help get through the trenchs. Before the tank was introduced infantry would have to rush through enemy rifle and machine gun fire. Machine guns could send small pieces of sharapnel at the crews of the tanks but I don't think it was enough to badly kill or injure them. Some hand grenades could disable tanks by destroying their treads or by throwing them on the roof of the tank. To answer your question yes tanks could survive machine gun fire and the reason is because they needed to be able to get past enemy machine gun nests.Did either side use tanks to help the Infantry advance, like using the tanks as cover? were the tanks able survive machine gun fire? Because I heard that the machine guns could hurt the tank crews.
yeah, Erik Maria Remarque (hope that's right) really got it right, but he did fight on the western front so he should know.Originally Posted by Saranof
Anyone remember his real name? I know i read it somewhere, but i can't remember it.
About half of the 120 odd thousand U.S. soldiers who died during the war were victims of influenza.As in many other wars, World War I's greatest killer was disease. Sanitary conditions in the trenches were quite poor, and common infections included dysentery, typhus, and cholera. Many soldiers suffered from parasites and related infections. Another common killer was exposure, since the temperature within a trench in the winter could easily fall below zero degrees celsius.