Trenches Saved Lives

Photo credit: SDASM Archives

When one thinks about the First World War, most people tend to think of the trenches of the Western Front, and of a war going basically nowhere for 4 years. That this is a vast oversimplification of the fighting of the war is irrelevant – I am going to argue that the trenches were actually a good idea.

I must concede that these trenches were not nice places to be. Lice and vermin-infested, dirty and uncomfortable, few troops would have recommended them, especially when they were under fire. The helplessness of being shelled but not being able to move was unbearable for some – the phrase “shell shock” is often associated with the trenches, and it’s not difficult to make the connection. An even more obvious connection can be made with the phrase “trench foot”, a foot infection caused by dirt and moisture trapped inside boots for days on end (though once this was realised, proper cleaning regimes were implemented).

So why bother with trenches then? To answer that question, we must look at the early history of the First World War. Following the July Crisis, where a Serbian assassin (Gavrillo Princip) had murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), Europe had spiralled into war. In an attempt to prevent a two-front war, Germany marched through Belgium to get at France. Meeting stiff resistance, the Germans were eventually stopped at the Battle of the Marne, where (following an amusing use of Paris taxi cabs) the Germans were forced to retreat. At this point, though the Germans knew that defeating France quickly was now impossible, they could secure what gains they had made, and try their luck in the east against Russia, or perhaps plan a new attack later on. Either way, the imperative was now to secure their position.

The trouble was that the new weapons of war had enormous killing power and accuracy. The troops themselves were equipped with bolt action rifles, which, provided the operator was sufficiently skilled, could loose of over 10 well placed rounds a minute (the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force were trained to do 15). Machine guns could do much better than that even, with the heavy machine guns of the era managing 60 rounds per minute. Provided they were well-cooled, many of these machine guns could keep firing without jamming for hours. Artillery had always been deadly, but it was now much more accurate than before, and deployed in quantities that would make anyone’s head spin – in preparation for the Battle of the Somme, for example, the British fired over 1 million shells.

The combined effect of these weapons was that any soldier in the open either:

a) Had to come to terms with not being out in the open (or in fact alive) much longer or;

b) Had to find cover

And the way that the Germans found that cover was by digging in, on the Chemin Des Dames ridge in their case. They did this principally because it is much more difficult to hit someone in a trench, since you cannot see them from the open. Artillery will have to land shells either very near to or right inside the trench (in which case the soldier could simply retreat to the safety of a dugout) in order to be lethal. The British and French were clearly not going anywhere – and they decided to dig in too. As the sides tried to outflank one another, trenches spread rapidly. Casualty figures plummeted.

We hear much about the enormous casualties of the war. Indeed, it was a deadly war, but most of the casualties were sustained either in the open warfare of the early stages or in trying to attack the trench lines and other defences of the various fronts. Indeed, the deadliest single day of the war for France was during the Battle of the Frontiers at the very start, and for Britain it was the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

Notice that I mentioned “other defences” in the previous paragraph. Many of the Western Front defences evolved beyond simple trenches. The Hindenburg Line (as it was known by the British, the Germans who created it called it the Siegfried Stellung) was a system involving concrete blockhouses, various earthworks, killing grounds and barbed wire. It was designed to save manpower as compared to a trench line, and was in some ways more effective too, but I am getting a little off topic.

One other advantage of having a fixed line was that medical facilities and supply arrangements could be made much more consistent. A regular stream of casualties from many walks of life was a golden opportunity for medical research, and we owe many modern practices to the First World War, including blood transfusions, the widespread use of X-rays, and basic plastic surgery. Strides were also made (though nowhere near quickly enough) in the treatment of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the understanding of mental health overall.

The difficulty, at least from the end of 1914 to 1917, was how exactly the deadlock between the two sides was supposed to be broken. That really is outside the scope of what I am talking about here, but suffice to say the various methods fall broadly into 2 categories:

– Method 1: Open a new front (hopefully a more mobile one) somewhere else. This had mixed success, and some very notable failures.

– Method 2: Invent completely new methods of warfare. This resulted in techniques still used by modern armies, and made 1918 much more mobile than the preceeding years (though casualties were still heavy on both sides).

I am not going to argue that the First World War was a good thing – far from it. But trenches do seem to get a particularly bad rap, and I do think that the reasons for them and the benefits over open warfare are frequently ignored.

It only remains for me to thank you for your attentions, and bid you a fine rest-of-day.

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