A horrific form of warfare in which combatants dig trenches to protect themselves. The trenches are then foritified with machine guns, sometimes more powerful weapons, barbed wire, etc. When one side tries to attack (by going over the top) they usually suffer very high casualties. Since the two sides are fairly close to each other, as soon as men start leaving their trench they are chewed up by the defender's firepower. Most of the attackers end up dead in the area between the trenches called the no-man's land. Many attacks never even got as far as the defender's trenches. Even when the attack is succesful the defenders simply move back to the next trench and it all starts over again. For the gains of sometimes less than one hundred yards many men were killed and wounded. This leads to a stalemate and a war of attrition.

If you ignore his pseudo-philosophical ravings, you can find a good description of the absurdity of trench warfare in Ernst Jünger's book In Stahlgewittern. For example, there is a connecting trench somewhere on Jünger's section of the front where dozens of people pass through each day. Every day, two or three people get killed there, just walking down the trench. Nobody bothers. It's normal.

The_Custodian: The Germans actually found a way to innovate around trench warfare without tanks. (Probably this is one of the reasons that they developed only one type of tank in all of WW1, the A7V which came very late.) Their invention was Sturmtruppen - yes, stormtroopers.

Highly trained elite soldiers armed mainly with hand grenades and submachine guns ('trench brooms'). Yes, the machine pistol was invented in Germany, more or less... A small group of stormtroopers would crack up a trench and proceed along it, evading all enemy strongholds, killing and maiming as many enemy personnel as possible though. Strongholds such as MG nests were to be dealt with by later waves of the attack. Stormtroopers were remarkably effective and became to the rest of the world the stereotype of the horrid efficiency the German war machine could exhibit. Thus maybe the word 'stormtrooper' became synonymous with 'SS' for many later on.

Perhaps the best account of World War I warfare and trench warfare is the book All Quiet on the Western Front. It accurately and vividly describes the conditions in the trenches. Although written from the point of view of a German Private, the account is equally relevant to both sides of the lines. Think of poison gas, constant bombardment and mud so deep and thick that men who slip into a shell hole slowly sink, never to been seen again (to this day remains of World War I soldiers turn up in the French countryside).

The horror of Trench Warfare can not be described in any amount of text or in any number of photographs. Trench foot, a new type of condition resulting from the prolonged immersion in water, was so bad that soldiers feet literally rotted off, resulting in the amputation of the lower leg. Troops actually had to compete with rats for their food. Soldiers could not sleep because the rodents would run over their faces in the night. These were perhaps the largest and healthiest rats in history, gorging themselves on the flesh of dead troops. These are but a few of the many hardships and inhumane conditions at the front.

Trench warfare arose when there was a clear advantage to the defense in the form of warfare both sides were using. Armies advanced until they reached contact, at which point neither one would be able to 'break through' the other's defenses. In times before industrial warfare, the favored tactic was to flank the enemy; whichever army could move laterally more quickly had a decent chance of surrounding or at least evading the frontal prepared defenses of their opponent. However, with the enormous militaries of the Twentieth Century and the ability to supply them (railroads), it became possible for both sides to simply extend their frontage to either side to prevent encirclement until the fronts ran up against a natural obstacle like, say, an ocean.

The Germans, in World War I, firmly believed that the way to deal with trench warfare was to innovate around it. Both sides tried numerous tactics (usually initiated by the Germans) such as tunnelling, infiltration, artillery bombardment (this was an American favorite) to get past enemy trench fortifications. Not much helped, however, until the British advent of the tank. This came late in the war, when economic collapse was swiftly closing in on the Germans, and in any case the British didn't figure out how to consolidate the gains their tanks could make before the war ended.

The primary factor determining the location of the 'start line' trenches in World War I, other than the advance rates of the various forces, was the distance to the nearest railhead where supplies and reinforcements could be shipped in. Armies couldn't venture more than perhaps a couple of days walk from a railhead, because pack animals wouldn't be able to make the trip without carrying nothing but feed, and mechanized transport at the time was extremely unreliable.

The Custodian is correct in stating that trench warfare was a result of the superiority of the defense. The problem faced by the generals was that machine guns, barbed wire and mud conspired to make any unprotected movement too expensive in human life to be practiceable. Not enough soldiers could cross no man's land to make a difference. The most pointed example came during the opening days of the First Battle of the Somme where 20,000 British infantrymen died within one hour.

 Trench warfare first appeared late in the American Civil War, most notably during the siege of Petersburg. Combat Experience gained in that war taught that troops simply could not successfully assault a properly manned and supported trench line. The cost was too great. World War I generals greatly downrated the American experience during the Civil War. Part of the reason was European snobbery, but the more professional reason was that breech-loading guns had revolutionized artillery in the latter half of the 19th century. Union and Confederate armies had relied upon what were essentially Napoleonic guns throughout that conflict. With the new guns, Generals planned to have artillery fire blast a hole in enemy lines. It was hoped this would create a breakthrough, which would restore a war of movement. Battles would become meeting engagements. Battles would become less deadly and potentially decisive.

The problem with that strategy was threefold. First, the heavy artillery barrage alerted the enemy, who could begin moving reserves to plug any gaps. The second and more important reason was that the given horse-drawn transport and footpower of the era, the cratering and mud created by the barrage rendered the battlefield nearly impassable. The attacker had to cross destroyed terrain before he could reach open country, and exploit his breakthrough. Conversely, the defender could move across unbroken terrain to reinforce. The defender was always able to move faster, and thus re-establish a defensive line. Finally, the barrages effectively destroyed any communications between the attackers and front lines. Even wires buried six feet deep (the practical minimum) could not survive a heavy bombardment. Radio communications did not exist. As attackers advanced they lost all ability to communicate with their rear. Reinforcements could not be summoned to exploit success. Artillery fire could not be adjusted to the current situation. Once infantrymen 'crossed the line' they were entirely out of contact with the back. The result was a reliance on overly-rigid plans that never survived contact with the enemy.

Two solutions appeared during the war. The first was the German Stormtroopers, who appeared very late in the war. These were picked troops who practiced infiltration tactics. Stormtroopers attacked with little or no preparatory bombardment. Their tactics stressed speed. Enemy defence lines were bypassed with the enemy rear the primary objective. Limited moving barrages and close air support was used once the engagement began, making the effort an early use of combined arms operations. Stormtrooper tactics enjoyed some successes, but the tactic was too expensive in manpower. Also withdrawing so many picked troops from the line to make up Stormtrooper battalions significantly weakened regular army units.

The second, and more successful, solution was the tank.

Noders wishing more information are strongly suggested to read: Bryan Perret A Short History of Blitzkrieg and Basil Liddell-Hart Strategy

I have personally walked a small section of trench preserved from the Somme battlefields. They have a preserved bomb shelters and a sapper tunnel, which you can tour. I also interviewed a few veterans of that war, one of whom shared his war photos with me. No man's land is now green with grass, where it would have been soft mud back in 1916. No grass would have survived. But I could easily see how difficult an infantry assault would have been even today. These were brave men on both sides of that line.

To what extent did their experience of trench warfare impact on the lives of the soldiers who fought in World War One?
Part of Node Your Homework

The effects of trench warfare were horrific for those who endured it; the harsh cold, constant shelling, diseases and new weapons of war were enough to drive a man to the brink of insanity. But the effects did not cease once the war came to it’s conclusion in July 1919. Hundreds of thousands of men were disabled due to fighting in the front lines and many others suffered from mental illnesses, termed 'Shellshock' because it was originally thought to have been caused by the crashing of shells around the soldiers in the field.

The treatments for Shellshock victims were a far cry from modern medical practices: “The ‘deaf’ were caught by lip reading; the ‘blind’ by having their heads plunged into water; the ‘severe headaches’ by lumbar punctures and the ‘blackouts’ by sodium Amytal injections.” (Winter, Denis: “Death’s Men”) Electric-shock therapy was also a widely used treatment for such casualties of the war.

It was hard for many of the demobilized soldiers to integrate seamlessly back into society as the effects of the war lingered in their minds long after the war. The period immediately after the war was a time “where the men who returned from the horrors of the trenches wanted to forget, and where those who had stayed behind, and had lost husbands and brothers, and sons and fathers were equally determined never to forget.” (Roden, Mike. "Aftermath.”) Nightmares and the memories of the war plagued those who had survived it, and many turned to a life of silence and isolation, avoiding strangers and gradually recovering from their terrible experiences.

The soldiers returning home also had trouble finding work; all the ex-soldiers who were unemployed received 24 shillings a week for the first year following the war with additional amounts for those with children. Those who were disabled by the war had an additional disability pension to provide for them, these included the thousands of men blinded by gas and those who had lost limbs and other appendages. However full-time employment was still desired by the majority of the veterans and there was much resentment directed at the women who occupied the positions in the workforce that were occupied by men before they went to war. There were also many who at first did not care much for seeking full-time employment, they said “That can wait. I’ve done my bit. The country can keep me for a while. I helped to save it.” But eventually even they found that a quiet day at home did not appeal to them.

It had become second nature for the soldiers to live their life in the present; the tension that stopped so suddenly threw many of them off-balance and it was a long time before they could resume normal civilian lives. During this difficult period of adjustment, the ex-soldier was also likely to face hostility from civilians. The soldiers with their uniforms and their wounds were the most visible sign of a war that the population wanted to forget, a war that had become hateful to many people, including the soldiers themselves. The general cost of living had risen by 75% immediately after the war while relative wage levels had fluctuated.

As veteran Professor Woodward noted, “the soldiers counted for less than any generation for 300 years. Like Xenophon after his heroic 1000-mile march through Asia, the English soldier was likewise banished.”

The impact of trench warfare would linger in their minds for the rest of their lives, their nightmares of the war would leave them “lying awake in a cold sweat in the dead of night” for the majority of their lives. It was a hard time, and harder still for the soldier returning home after the war. It was hard for many to cope with the horrors they had experienced, added to the difficulty of finding employment in a time when the cost of living was higher than it had ever been before, this was not the “land fit for heroes” that they had been promised.


Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.