WHAT WAS TRENCH WARFARE?
To understand what was trench warfare and why the Great War devolved into one of the vilest forms of fighting one needs to take a look at how the opening of the war evolved in August of 1914 [see my previous blog “How and Why Did WWI Begin?”]
What was trench warfare? Simply put, as the Schlieffen Plan was implemented by Germany when attacking France via Belgium, the Germans were outflanking the French on the left as seen below. Once the French realized that they were being outflanked, they tried to outflank the Germans right flank. Each time both sides realized they might be outflanked, they tried to outflank the enemy. These two armies would eventually run out of land to outflank each other when they came to the English Channel. This became known in history as the Race to the Sea (see map below).
The largest battle was the last battle, known as the 1st Battle of Ypres. It was here that the British, along with other forces, repelled the German forces and ended the “open warfare” that had been the norm. From now on the war would slowly evolve into defensive positions, especially trenches, to escape the artillery shells that were constantly raining down on both sides.
Like a fox hole for 1 or 2 men, a trench afforded protection for large groups of soldiers as the artillery shell would have to be a direct hit in order to kill many men. Otherwise, the shrapnel would simply fly over the heads of the soldiers in the trench.
Eventually both sides would make improvements to their trenches, and a whole new way of fighting began to take place: Trench warfare.
To begin, it is important to realize what was trench ware is that both sides ended up with 3 lines of trenches:
- The front-line trench: Usually 50 yards to 1 mile from the enemy, and protected with massive amounts of barbed wire.
- The support trench: Located about 250 yards behind the front-line trench.
- The reserve trench: Normally located 250 yards behind the support trench
These 3 lines of defense were connected by a network of communication trenches so food, fresh troops and messages could be moved about without detection by the enemy. Also, the trenches were built in a zig-zag shape so that the enemy, if they breached the trench, couldn’t just fire down a straight-line. Too, exploding artillery shells would not travel down the trench but would be stopped by the periodic “zig-zag” of the trench (see map below).
The trenches were 8-12 feet in depth and had a “firing step” carved into the forward side so that the soldiers could see over the parapet, or top, of the trench in case of an attack. In a matter of only several months the trench lines on both sides of the Western Front would stretch from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps—approximately 440 miles long.
The area between the opposing enemy trenches was known as No Man’s Land. Before long, it was a barren, desolate area with downed trees, twisted metal and shell holes—which would fill up with rain water. This will come in as another defensive weapon, although neither side creatively nor militarily created it on purpose.
THE FRONTAL ASSAULT
The large-scale battles that you read about or study in school/college usually happened during the spring through late summer or fall, as these armies wanted favorable weather on their side. These huge, well-planned attacks, or offensives, were called frontal assaults.
It was accepted by both sides on the Western Front that most activities would cease during the cold, winter months. The living conditions were beyond one’s horrid imagination [these will be talked about in my next blog, “Trench Life.”]
However, every spring each side would have its own plans for breaking the stalemate that existed on the Western Front, by capturing the enemy’s trenches and forcing them to retreat. Thus, creating a moving war once again.
To begin, for weeks before the attack, soldiers were brought up to the three lines of trenches under the cover of darkness, as airplanes would spot them during the day. All logistics would have to be managed: Food, medical, weapons and battle plans.
Then, for days and up to a week before the actual attack, the artillery barrage would begin. These huge cannons would hopefully put holes into the enemy’s barbed wire and knock out the concrete bunkers; and further, psychologically demoralize the enemy under the constant bombardment.
For example, during the Battle of the Somme the British fired 1.5 million shells in just four days leading up to the July 1st attack across No Man’s Land, which was called “going over the top.” If the advancing soldiers were not cut-down by enemy machine guns, artillery fire, or exposed to poison gas, any surviving attacking soldiers would jump into the enemy trench and the most brutal type of fighting would ensue: Hand-to-hand combat.
To get a sense of the size of this major battle, which began on the morning of July 1st, 1916 and lasted till mid-November 1916, one only has to look at the numbers:
• On just the first day of the battle the British army would suffer 19,240 deaths, and 38,000 wounded!
• 3 million Germans, French and British would eventually take part in this tremendous struggle.
• 1 million casualties would result from the 4 ½ months of fighting.
• The result: The British and French forces pushed the Germans back 6 miles along a 20 miles front. But the objectives were not met, even with the introduction by the British of a new technological weapon: The tank.
• July 1, 1916 goes down as “the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.”
A British soldier carries a comrade back to the safety of a trench. What was trench warfare? It was said that in WWI trench fighting that a wounded man died within 30 minutes after the photo was taken. This photo is one of the most famous from the Battle of the Somme.