The Effectiveness of Trench Warfare during World War I
Kenneth W. Cooper
Professor Scotty Le Edler16 June 2018
“I was by myself, at the far end of our little stretch of trench, crouched in a little hole, when a big shell landed like a thunderbolt just three or four meters in front of me. I had the sense of being knocked flat, I couldn’t get my breath. I had just felt the death wind.”1 So recorded French soldier Louis Barthas in his journal while fighting from a trench on the Western Front. Muddied and disheveled soldiers, holding their weapons and standing in a deep trench is one of the most widely recognized images of the global conflict called World War I. The conduct of battle from within protective trenches was termed “trench warfare” and was used by the Allies and Germans during World War I. Even the phrase “trench warfare,” has become synonymous with a conflict marked by a painfully slow wearing down of the opposition, with only piecemeal gains, achieved at a very heavy cost. As weapons technology and war fighting practices advanced during the war, trench warfare became ineffective for both defensive and offensive battle strategies.
Trenches are a form of military field works which have been used since the beginning of warfare to serve as defensive structures, to provide cover, or to slow an enemy advance. The nineteenth century saw widespread use of trenches in both the Crimean and American Civil Wars. In the siege of Vicksburg, Confederate soldiers used trenches as temporary defensive measures against the withering fire generated by the Union’s rapid fire Gatling guns.
By 1914 improvements in weapons technology had significantly changed the potential
destructiveness of warfare. The German and French armies adopted radically different
1 Louis Barthas, Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, trans Edward M. Strauss, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015) 110 https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vkt3c accessed April 6, 2018
tactical strategies. The Germans focused their strategies on firepower; the use of long range artillery and made heavy investments in rapid fire small arms, the machine gun, for use on the battlefield. Alternatively, the French focused their strategy on battlefield attacks that featured speed and the element of surprise.2
With the start of the war in Western Europe a massive number of troops occupied the German, French and Belgian boarders. As soldiers maneuvered across open battlefields they fell victim to dramatically improved small arms fire power. Enhancements in accuracy and the sheer volume of bullets made the survival of a soldier on open ground nearly impossible. The only means of survival in this environment was to dig into the earth to create a protected position. As 1914 drew to a close, the Western Front became two, approximately parallel lines, of foxholes and shallow trenches from the Swiss border to the North Sea.3 These trenches served a defensive role, preventing the advance of large numbers of enemy troops.
Organization and Strategy:
“The whole earth is ploughed by the exploding shells and the holes are filled with water, and if you do not get killed by the shells you may drown in the craters. Everybody is rushing, running, trying to escape almost certain death in this hail of enemy shells.”4 Trench warfare began as a series of hastily dug defensive positions to protect soldiers from highly accurate rifles and rapid fire machine guns. As 1915 opened, with troop concentrations approaching 5,000 men per mile near the front line, opposing generals used this manpower to construct complex
2 Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, Fire-Power, British Army Weapons and Theories of War 1904-1945, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982) 14-19
3 David Zabecki, Military Developments of World War I, International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 6/22 https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/military_developments_of_world_war_i accessed April 6, 2018
4 Rudolf Binding, Letter to his Family, October 1914, Europeana Collections 1914-1918, Letters from World War I, 2018 https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/contributions_9866.html?q=letters accessed April 7, 2018
defensive earthen works, extending for miles behind the front line. In his book; A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, G.J. Meyer explains the organization of these structures:
“First came the true front line, a trench six or more feet deep and about that wide, generally heavily manned. A mile or so to the rear was a support trench with a second concentration of troops. Farther back still, beyond the range of all but the biggest enemy artillery, was a third line for the reserves. All but the lightest guns were behind this reserve line, unreachable except by the most successful offensives. The trenches were connected by perpendicular communications trenches, shielded by fields of barbed wire as much as thirty feet deep and studded with machine gun nests.”5
Between the trenches of the opposing armies lay a region called “No Man’s Land”. This region may have been as thin as a few yards or reached more than one-half mile wide.
“The land was shattered by shell holes, packed with barbed wire, and littered with dead bodies. Entering into No Man’s Land during the day meant instant death, but it came to life at night. Raiding parties captured prisoners for interrogation, spied on the enemy, or made quick kills.”6
Initially, opposing forces deployed a strategy of blood, muscle and bayonets to attempt to displace enemy forces from their entrenched fortifications; with disastrous results. On the first
5 G. J. Meyer, A World Undone: The story of the Great War 1914-1918,( New York: Bantam Books, 2007) 87
6 Ibid, 115
day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces suffered more than 60,000 casualties going “over the top” to directly engage the enemy’s lines. In the Battle of Verdun French forces suffered nearly 380,000 using this flawed strategy of direct attack by ground forces. At this point in the war each side recognized that trenches made excellent defensive positions but gaining ground through direct attack was suicidal
New Technologies and New Strategies:
With a virtual stalemate on the Western Front, German chemists created a new weapon of war, poison gas. Arthur Empey, an American who enlisted with the British Army describes such an attack:
“We had a new man at the periscope, I was sitting on the fire step, cleaning my rifle, when he called out to me; ‘There’s a sort of greenish, yellow cloud rolling along the ground out in front, it’s coming.’ Gongs started ringing down the trench, the signal to don our respirators. A company man on our right was too slow in getting on his helmet; he sank to the ground, clutching at his throat, and after a few spasmodic twistings, died.”7
Although one of the most insidious weapons of war ever developed, poison gas proved effective in attacks against entrenched soldiers, although concurrent improvements in gas mask technology reduced the effective killing potential of chlorine and phosgene gases. In 1916 another family of toxic anti-personnel substances was developed. Sulfur mustard or mustard gas was highly toxic to skin cells creating large, painful and debilitating blisters where the
7 Arthur Empey, Over the Top (1917), Eye Witness to History, Gas Attack, 1916. 1999 http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/gas.htm accessed April 7, 2018
atomized fluid made contact with the victim’s skin. Even soldiers wearing respirators were disabled through skin contact with mustard gas. During World War I, an estimated 30,000 soldiers died directly from gas attacks and thousands more were disabled by their exposure while in their entrenched positions.
The rapid pace of artillery development, in both range and payload capability, made the new weapons highly effective when used against enemy trenches. By combining hydraulic cylinders to absorb recoil with large caliber artillery pieces, the Germans created artillery weapons that did not need to be repositioned after each shot. When the artillery spotters confirmed the accuracy of their shells, armies could deliver round after round of high explosive or gas filled shells directly into enemy entrenchments. As the French soldier Louis Barthas observed; “Cheating death, was a matter of luck amid the monstrous avalanche of metal and the veritable curtain of steel and fire.”8
In November 1917 the German High Command became alarmed that the United States might soon join the war and began planning a tactical change in their war fighting strategy. German military leaders realized that their only chance for victory on the Western Front was to achieve it prior to deployment of American troops. A change in operational strategy was required to evade entrenched French and British troops. Called the Spring Offensive, commander Erich Ludendorff planned to concentrate his best remaining elite infantry, called Stormtroops, and equip them with limited food and ammunition reserves and mobilize them to quickly occupy territory and flank British and French forces. The new strategy used infiltration tactics where the troops operated in small groups to exploit gaps and weakened defenses.
8 Barthas, 81
Heavily defended areas were avoided and would be addressed by the regular infantry troops following initial operations. The Stormtroopers quickly occupied enemy territory, effectively disrupted communication resources, and attacked supply depots and idle artillery hardware. Ludendorff also changed his artillery attack strategy to focus on communication centers, railways, enemy command and control structures as well as machine gun and artillery emplacements. Ludendorff’s new strategy sought to quickly disrupt enemy operations and coordination from behind enemy lines. Initially the Spring Offensive was successful in securing vast territory and placing British and French forces in retreat. German forces advanced so far so quickly that they outpaced their resupply capabilities and were forced to abandon the action. This new infiltration strategy, avoiding entrenched troops and focusing on the elimination of command and control resources proved highly effective and tolled the death knell for trench warfare.
The trench, that which was once a reliable defensive structure, was now an entrapment for death by poison gas or artillery shells. “I saw, as if hallucinating, a pile of corpses…they had started to bury right in the trench…there is no one here but the dead.”9
As weapons technology and war fighting practices advanced during the war, trench warfare became ineffective for both defensive and offensive battle strategies.
9 Barthas, 114
Barthas, Louis. Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. trans Edward M. Strauss. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015. JSTOR e-book.
Binding, Rudolf. Letter to his Family October 1914. Europeana Collections, Letters from World War I, 2018 https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/contributions_9866.html?q=lettersEmpey, Arthur. Over the Top (1917), Eye Witness to History, Gas Attack, 1916. 1999 http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/gas.htm Secondary Sources:
Bidwell, Shelford and Graham, Dominick. Fire-Power, British Army Weapons and Theories of War 1904-1945. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982
Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Books, 2007
Zabecki, David T. Military Developments of World War I , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2015. DOI: 10.15463/ie1418.10636.