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Trench Warfare - Why Do This? 1916

Updated on January 15, 2016

British Front Line, the Somme

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August 1914 to November 1918

World War I was the first large scale mechanized war known to man. Europe was intersected by a series of treaties that protected colonies and spheres of influence. Each power was concerned with building their own colonies, their own spheres, and their own power. Simplified, Europe was balanced by a system of I have your back and you have mine.

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist while visiting Sarajevo. This was the spark that erupted the world into an abominable war. Alone, the assassination of the Archduke was a localized incident that meant a high price to Bosnia. However, to a world waiting for an excuse to seize lands and power there was no such thing as an isolated incident. The network of treaties and agreements came into play.

Germany plans a pre-emptive strike against France. Germany demands from Belgium to be allowed to move unhindered through the country. Belgium says no. Britain has signed a treaty with Belgium to aid their defense. Germany declares war on Belgium and its armies invade.

So begins a war that politicians everywhere stated would be over by Christmas.

Before armistice on November 11, 1918, over 9 million soldiers died in the war. The soldiers came from Germany, Austria-Hungry, Turkey as the Axis powers. Russia, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, the United States and British colonies such as India for the allies. The United States did not enter the war until April 6, 1916.

The war was born along the River Marne when the Allies stopped the German advance. The German Army dug in on the north of the river. While the Allies dug in on the south side. Trench warfare became the paralyzing tactic of WWI. Fighting from the trenches led to stagnation, stalemate and slaughter.


Verdun, 1916

Source

The Trench System - On the Wire

The trench system stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel. All trenches on both sides had some common characteristics. The trench was deep enough to eliminate the danger from shrapnel. The floor was covered by wooden duckboards. A fire step brought the soldier to ground level.

Allowing for these necessities, the trenches varied from army to army. The British trenches were regular. The first line of trenches facing the enemy was a zigzag fire trench. The zigzag pattern prevented deadly fire from the flank to sweep the entire line. Behind the fire trench was a support trench connected by communication and supply trenches.

The French trenches were more irregular. Deeper trenches were dug beneath the support trenches which were not backed up by reserve trenches.

The German trench system was more elaborate and well built. The German's built a labyrinth of trenches and underground tunnels that allowed the soldiers to hide in relative safety during artillery bombardments and then emerge to fight the advancing foot soldiers.

The enemy lines faced each other across no-mans-land in defensive positions that could not be over-run. For this reason thousands of men would lose their lives in a single battle without gaining any ground.

Verdun is the exception to the trench system. At Verdun the trenches were an irregular net connected with block fortifications built by the French. The battle of Verdun lasted ten months with 650,000 soldiers from both sides left on the battle field. To hold Verdun turned into a symbol of the will of the entire French nation. The French held Verdun.

Between the enemy trenches, sometimes as close as fifty feet, lay no-mans-land. No-mans-land was defined by thick lines of barbed wire. The Germans erected a chain of machine-gun emplacements protected by concrete. Crossing no-mans-land was suicide.

The barbed wire that defined no-mans-land became the symbol of futile and grisly battle and death. Men were caught in the barbed wire and shot. A WWI song, The Old Barbed Wire, stated the fear and the reality of being ordered over the top.

On occasion, the soldiers facing each other would make agreements in order to make life possible. They agreed not to hit the latrines and not to fire during breakfast. One famous truce involved Christmas Day, 1914, where the soldiers agreed to allow each other Christmas services. This fraternization was the exception and could end in a single sniper shot.

Because this warfare was essentially defensive with both sides holding their ground and neither side gaining any decisive victory, the war turned to stalemate and slaughter. After two years of stalemate that neither side could tolerate, two events happened that changed the course of the war.

March 15, 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicates the Russian throne. Though the eastern front fighting between Germany and Russia was fluid, the result was a German army forced to fight on two fronts.

With the abdication of the Czar and the resulting revolution and civil war in Russia, the Russian army made a separate peace with Germany and the Axis powers. This provided Germany with the ability to focus on the east.

However, in April, 1916 the United States entered the war. By 1917, the influx of American equipment, food, and men could not be overcome. For Germany the war was lost when the Allies push the German Army back from Paris.



Boredom in the Trenches

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Life in the Trenches.

Eight days was the longest single stretch of time that a soldier could tolerate the trenches. All armies devised a system of rotation for their men.

Not least among the list of insufferable conditions was boredom. The soldiers wrote letters home. They devised ways to stay above the squalor. They learned to walk hunched over as life depended on keeping their heads down.

Days of boredom spent in de-lousing and housekeeping were separated by brief periods of bloody battle. The men suffered the cold of winter and the heat of summer and, perhaps the worst, the rain. The men lived with the dead. The wounded drowned as water surged through the trenches. Having dry boots was a priceless possession.

Wounds became infected. Disease spread rapidly through the trenches. Stretcher parties could not remove the dead as removing the wounded took all resources.

Perhaps a single benefit of this aberration of trench warfare was the knowledge gained by the world of medicine. The unknown and disastrous conditions of trench-foot and shell shock were given diagnosis and respect. The unprecedented numbers of lost limbs and amputees led to surgical advances that saved lives. For the first time, the rear hospitals learned to use antiseptic, antibiotic, and anesthetic.

Contagious diseases sometimes depleted the lines as much as the enemy. Body lice carried typhus and trench fever. Containing contagious disease was a death-defying challenge until wars end. Transfusions and X-ray became common practice. The controversial deployment of trained women nurses and ambulance drivers became acceptable practice.

All of these advances could have been gained without the sacrifice of millions of young men. More than the physical deprivation and suffering was the impact on the heart of every young man who fought in the trenches.


The Old Barbed Wire

If you want to find the old battalion,

I know where they,

I know where they are,

If you want to find the old battalion,

I know where they are, hanging on the old barbed wire.

I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em,

Hanging on the old barbed wire,

I've seen 'em,

Hanging on the old barbed wire.


Waterlogged Landscape

Canadian troops at Passchendaele
Canadian troops at Passchendaele | Source

The Lost Generation

The young men who came of age in 1914 through 1918 are referred to as the lost generation. Along with the more than 9 million who died, many more were maimed and all were damaged. The world lost this generation of artist, scientist, farmers, and husbands.

The War to End All Wars did not end wars. Rather WWI planted the seeds that would erupt into WWII twenty years later. The armistice was harsh for Germany. The war was cataclysmic for Russia.

The war changed the political landscape of Europe. The autocratic ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm, of Germany was replaced with an attempt at less brutal government. Austria-Hungary ceased to exist as a nation. Russia became the Bolshevik led communist country.

The war to end all wars did end the futile and horrendous use of trench warfare as a military tactic.

Infantry Weaponry

all units
smallbore high-velocity bolt-action repeating rifle
 
British
12kg (27lb) 47-shot Lewis gun
 
Germans
18kg (40lb) 8/15 Maxim
 
all units
gas warfare
 
source: The Experience of World War I. J.M. Walker

Trenches Near Verdun

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    • Donna Nitz Muller profile image
      Author

      Donna Nitz Muller 3 years ago from 509 Pluto Court

      Thank you. A hundred years ago since this insanity.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Never was there a more wasteful sacrifice of humanity. At least in WWII the soldiers knew they were fighting for a righteous cause. Thanks for this superb description of the trench system. Outstanding hub!