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Trenches (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021)

T (AtoZ Challenge 2021)

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had been no major wars in the last several decades, war tactics had not advanced abreast and by 1914 were dramatically outdated.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. 

The Great War - Trenches - Trench life 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.

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 Share on X

RESOURCES

The Week – The Legacy of World War I
SGR – The industrialisation of war: lessons from World War I
Facing History and Ourselves – The brutal realities of World War I
British Library – The daily life of soldiers
British Library – Sensuous Life in the Trenches
British Library – Combat and the soldier’s experience in the First World War
Canadian War Museum – Rats, lice, and exhaustion
History – Life in the Trenches of World War I
NetGain – Life in the trenches: A cautionary tale of leadership
National GEographic – How archaeology is unraveling the secrets of WWI trench warfare
Smithsonian Magazine – The Legend of What Actually Lived in the “No Man’s Land” Between World War I’s Trenches


LIVING THE TWENTIES by Sarah Zama - The Great War created a new world. This is that world.

16 Comments

  • Yamini MacLean
    Posted April 23, 2021 at 02:10

    Hari Om
    Indeed, in Britain, the recruiting offices worked on promoting the “Pals Battalions”, suggesting that all local men could fight together. Didn’t always work that way of course… YAM xx

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 09:15

      True. It looks like groups of men coming from the same place, be that a villange or a university, were promoted heavily. Whcih is what destoryes entire communities.
      Sadness into the sadness, as I see it.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 23, 2021 at 04:24

    What an excellent post and I am shocked that not more men did not go insane having to live like this. It is beyond my thinking even when watching the videos and reading what you wrote. I had no idea the Germans were better prepared for trench life either.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 09:16

      That’s why I wanted to include so many videos. It is hard to imagine for us, one hundred years later. And still, seeing it explans so much more about WWI than jsut talking about it.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 23, 2021 at 16:46

    Trench warfare sounds terrifying, particularly with more modern, deadlier weapons. It must’ve been difficult to do anything but constantly worry about the next attack.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 09:18

      Very true, very true. Which is why fear was the close companion of soldiers in WWI. Imagine living in constant fear. Fear of everything. I can hardly imagine it.

  • Jayashree Srivatsan
    Posted April 23, 2021 at 16:59

    I have read some books around the World war I era … it gives a glimpse into what life must have been in the trenches … the Skylarks war is one such….hits you hard
    http://pagesfromjayashree.blogspot.com/2021/04/t-for-thestral.html

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 09:19

      I read and listened to some primary resources for this challenge, but I want to read a lot more. First-hand testimonies are so illuminating and poignant.

  • Iain Kelly
    Posted April 23, 2021 at 20:55

    Hard to imagine what life in the trenches was like, both mentally and physically it must have been torture – and the thought of then going over the top…
    https://iainkellywriting.com/2021/04/23/the-state-trilogy-a-z-guide-t/

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 09:22

      I agree. Even with all the footage, the oral history, the letters and diaries of the soldiers, the literature coming out of WWI, I can still hardly imagine.

  • Unishta
    Posted April 24, 2021 at 13:59

    Warfare has never been pretty and even now though there are drones, and unmanned weapons that hit straight on target, the devastation is no less horrific. Perhaps human loss is mitigated by these modern weapons, but the horrors of war can never make up for the camaraderie. With more and more people aware of things, I think very people will join in a war unless they are truly convinced. By and large, it will be the fulfillment of a family legacy, the promise of a fixed income and possibly a skill to use later on that will make people join the army.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 09:25

      I wouldn’t know. There are wars around the world even today, and some have gone on for years. I afraid we’ll jsut never learn.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted May 2, 2021 at 08:24

    That last part…
    The sheer amount of stupidity. That no one considered the tactics did not fit the technology, but ordered the soldiers to fight that way anyway…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 2, 2021 at 09:12

      I think there was a great amount of desperation too. They could not see any other way (for a long time, that was the case) so they repeated what they knew it worked in the past over and over again.
      Even today I see this happens.

  • gun center
    Posted April 19, 2022 at 16:24

    very good information. Lucky me i came accross your site. Which is why fear was the close companion of soldiers in WWI. Imagine living in constant fear. Fear of everything. I can hardly imagine it.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 20, 2022 at 22:01

      True, eh? I can hardly imagine myself. And the constant presence of death.
      It must have change those people forever.

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