Trench warfare is what we think about when mentioning WWI. Though trench warfare wasn’t new at the beginning of the 1900s, it is indeed characteristic of the Great War. It defined the life of millions of men in that war. It was also its great failure, the reason why armies came to a stalemate, turning a war that was supposed to last a few months into a four-year-long terrible butchery.
Although we often think of WWI when we talk about trench warfare, this was not new at the time. Trench warfare had been adopted in the previous century, notably in the Crimean War (1854-56) and the last part of the American Civil War (1861-65).
The opposing armies would dig trenches one in front of the other, separated by a slim stretch of terrain. Defenders would use cannons and muskets fire to bar the assault of the attackers, but at the time, weapons needed time to be reloaded. In that pause, the attackers went over the top of their trenches and ran across the terrain, which took only a handful of minutes.
In this way, trench warfare was actually workable.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution progressed and fast. It was not long before the military started to harness some of the innovations. Not only the production of weapons became larger and faster, it also became more deadly. More reliable – and therefore effective – guns were produced. A bullet was 30 times more likely to strike its target. Artillery could be reloaded a lot faster and could fire further away. Machine guns were perfected.
Trench warfare in the Great War
This technological advancement had already taken place and even had time to consolidate by the outbreak of the Great War. But since there had been no major wars in the last several decades, war tactics had not advanced abreast and by 1914 were dramatically outdated.
On the Western Front, in northern France and Belgium, long, narrow trenches and machine-gun placements were dug by the infantry soldiers along the front line. These would allow protecting soldiers from machine-gun fire and artillery attacks from above and allow them to fire back at the enemy without exposing themselves.
When it was time for an attack, men would ‘go over the top’ of their trenches, carrying their weapons and heavy equipment, and move through the enemy ‘field of fire’, bending on the ground for protection. They would reach the enemy in their trenches and use rifles or bayonets to attack them directly.
This was the theory. But it was devised by leaders trained in the tactics of cavalry and cannon warfare of the previous century. Technology didn’t care for it.
Artillery could now fire without pause. Machine guns fired eight hundred rounds per minutes at knee height. And no man’s land was covered in barbed wire, used to slow down advancing troops and make the protection of artillery and machine-gun fire even more effective.
Most of the war on the Western Front consisted of desperate human-wave attacks by the French and British armies against the waiting German lines, which only led them to be hung up in the barbed wire and mowed down en mass by German machine guns.
Casualties were huge. Ten percent of the soldiers who fought in WWI was killed. That’s more than twice the rate of those killed in WWII.
In most cases, it was akin to suicide. So why soldiers kept fighting?
It has been speculated that they were initially inspired by ideals of patriotism, nations and duty to their King or Emperor. But once they were under fire, men must have needed more than that.
Some of them – French and Serbians, for example – were defending their homelands against invasion. Yet, other causes were also at play.
Effective training made soldiers familiar with the chaos and fear of the battlefield, making action in battle second nature. Discipline was strict, punishment merciless. Men who were convicted of ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’ or desertion could receive a death sentence.
But there’s another factor not to be underestimated: comradeship.
Most soldiers fought alongside friends and companions. Entire battalions were made up of young people from the same place – the same university, the same village, the same town – who arrived at the front with an emotional bond already in place and would do a lot to help each other.
It was a cruel war. An inhuman war. And still, it allowed so much humanity to come to the surface.Trenches (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Trench warfare defined the life of millions of men in the Great War. It was also its great failure #WWI #historymatters Click To Tweet
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