Trench warfare was used in World War I and they were forced to live in muddy, isolated conditions for months exposed to horrific elements, and inviting diseases like gangrene. During World War I many things changed, as lives were destroyed, dreams shattered, and many soldiers died or suffering immeasurable psychological and physical conditions.
WWI was the first time in history that war involved the use of new technology such as airplanes, tanks and submarines. However, for many WWI soldiers, trench warfare presents the most lasting image of World War I. Trench warfare caused many horrific deaths. In addition, many soldiers who participated in trench warfare had serious psychological and health problems by the time they returned home.
About Trench Warfare
Trench warfare is a type of warfare in which opponents of war "attack, counterattack, and defend from relatively permanent systems of trenches dug into the ground." In most situations, the opposing trench systems are developed in close proximity of one another.
Trench warfare has traditionally been used when "superior firepower of the defense compels the opposing forces to "dig in" so extensively as to sacrifice their mobility in order to gain protection." trench system consists of a group of foxholes that are dug throughout an area. The foxholes are usually able to shelter and hide a soldier who is standing in an upright position. Shallow crawl trenches connect the foxholes.
When soldiers have established this basic system, they usually follow up by building a more permanent solution, in which soil is dug up from the trenches and used to "build raised parapets on both sides of the trench." Inside the trench there is a raised step called a fire step, which is typically used for firing positions by the troops.
Trench Systems in WWI
The average trench system in World War I consisted of two or more trench lines that ran parallel to one another and were at least one mile in depth. The trenches were developed in a zig-zag method, so that enemy troops standing at one end of the trench would be unable to shoot more than a few yards down.
These main trench lines were all linked to each other and to the rear through a series of communications trenches, which were dug perpendicular to the main trenches. These communications trenches allowed the delivery of "food, mail, ammunition, more troops, and new orders."
The network of trenches included "command posts, forward supply dumps, first-aid stations, kitchens, and latrines," as well as machine gun emplacements for protection against attacks, and a large number of dugouts to shelter troops in the event of a bombardment.
The front line was called the outpost line, and was held by machine gunners behind barbed wire. The main resistance was behind them in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines, where the majority of troops were. The main artillery was located near the rear of the main trenches.
At night, small projected flares were shot up that slowly parachuted down...casting an eerie green or yellow light in the shifting silhouettes that slowly marched. It was a sign of relief for those in the trenches, awaiting the shadowy figures approaching for they knew they had the safety of the trenches against those who dared to breach the desolate and death filled wastelands known as No-Man's Land."
The Implications of Trench Warfare
Prior to World War I, trench warfare was not widely used. This new type of warfare was developed through the use of new technology available to develop new weapons.
Because of trench warfare, the war lasted much longer than expected. According to Garrett (2002), "Before the war, it seemed incredible that such terrors and slaughters could last more than a few months. After the first two years, it was difficult to believe that they would ever end."
In prior wars, opponents would wear different colors so that soldiers would not kill their own men in a smoky battle. The newly developed machine guns and smokeless gunpowder meant that a new type of war would be fought-- a long-range battle with clean air. As a result, the soldiers had to hide themselves to survive.
To do so, they would dig trenches in the ground that were approximately ten feet deep. These trenches were useful in protection yet had many consequences, as well. For one, the trenches were breeding areas for disease.
The trenches had latrines built into them, which served to attract rats and other diseased animals. The soldiers were forced to eat and sleep with these animals. During the war, at least half of American deaths were caused by disease. In addition, the trenches made the battles last longer because neither side could see their opponents.
Paul Fussell of the University of Pennsylvania describes life in the trenches, "The first thing was it smelled bad. It smelled bad because there were open latrines everywhere and they were not always being used by the troops. There were bodies rotting everywhere. Both the Germans and the British were troubled with rats. The rats ate corpses, then they came in and snuggled next to you while you were sleeping. Sky study becomes one of your few amusements. You never see your enemy, and the only thing you can see is the sky up above."
Methods of Trench Warfare
As a result of the development of trench warfare in WWI, soldiers used the trenches to develop new methods of attack, defense and information gathering. One such method was know as the "patrol and raid," in which groups of troops were sent into "no man's land" to find out what the enemy was planning. This dangerous mission involved inching towards the enemy trenches to hear what was going on.
In Another World,
Anthony Eden described a first night-patrol into No Man's Land, "We worked our way across no-man's-land without incident, and Pratt and Liddell began to cut the enemy wire. This was tough and rather thicker than we had reckoned. Even so we made good progress and there were only a few more strands left to cut, so we were right under the German trench, when suddenly, jabber, jabber, and without warning two German heads appeared above the parapet and began pointing into the long grass. We lay flat and still for our lives, expecting every second a blast of machine-gun fire or a bomb in our midst."
In addition, the armies organized raiding mission, in which groups of soldiers would raid the enemy trenches to capture German soldiers for interrogation.
Soldiers often used attack and defensives to take control of enemy trenches. "The main objective of an attack was to break the enemy line but an offensive was an attempt to hold any positions that were taken during the operation." This meant sustained fighting in forward positions, making it difficult to provide soldiers with ammunition, food and water.
The main goal of trench warfare was to send soldiers out of the safety of the trenches, across no-man's-land, and into the enemy trenches. The opposing armies often responded by killing the enemy with gunshots and then giving the order to attack. Machine guns killed soldiers by the thousands.
In "no-man's-land," the quiet of a shell hole is interrupted by a form in the dark, which could be an enemy or it could be a friend -- thinking it is not the enemy can result in a grenade in your lap. After the fight, you scurry back to your trenches, but even this can put you into a nasty barbed wire entanglement if you are unaware of the "safe" paths or draw a hail of fire for having forgotten the "password." You tumble back into the safety of your own lines and collapse on the muddy firing step to try and get a gulp of air, catch your breath and then a long drink of water. Hopefully, the enemy won't drop a mortar shell on your head tonight, or decide to gas your line -- thus forcing you to don your stuffy and uncomfortable gas mask, that is also impossible to even see out of, let alone fight in it.
Soldiers who made it across no-man's-land had to quickly jump into the enemy trench and kill as many opponents as possible with the bayonets attached to the end of their rifles. However, even if an attack was successful, the opposing side often developed another trench, and a new no-man's-land was created. So the war was fought trench by trench.
The Effects of Trench Warfare
The horrendous conditions of the trenches had a unique effect on the soldiers. They were exposed to frostbite, trench foot, rheumatism, pneumonia, rain, rats, lice, fleas, and the constant stench of the dead, as well as severe bouts of boredom.
These atrocious conditions often led to fraternization between enemies. Military leaders strongly discouraged interaction with the enemy, but the boredom and conditions of trench life encouraged opposing soldiers to communicate with each other.