World War 1 is perhaps best known for being a war fought in trenches, ditches dug out of the ground to give troops protection from enemy artillery and machine-gun fire. The trenches spread from the East to the West. By the end of 1914, trenches stretched all along the 475 miles front between the Swiss border and the Channel coast. The trench system on the Western Front consisted of front-line, support and reserve trenches. The three rows of trenches covered between 200 and 500 yards of ground. Communication trenches were dug at an angle to those facing the enemy. These trenches used to transport men equipment and food supplies. The Frontline Trench was usually about seven feet deep and six feet wide. The front of the trench was known as the parapet. The top two or three feet of the parapet and the parados (the rear side of the trench) would consist of a thick line of sandbags to absorb any bullets or artillery shell fragments. The frontline Trench war were all the fighting took place but most of it wasnt offensive because trench warfare in based on defense. Next were Communication trenches which carrying parties took supplies of water, food, ammunition, bombs and trench stores to the front-line.
The communication trench was also used to transport wounded men to Casualty Clearing Station. Sometimes communication trenches were dug in zigzags just like all the other trenches and also had a fire-step in case the enemy managed to break-through the front-line. Then came the Reserve Trench was much like the front-line trench but without all the fighting. It held all the reinforcements and some of the ammunition. This also held the place for the Regimental Aid Post where standard medical procedures took place. Once the injured soldier had been picked up by the stretcher bearers he would be taken to the Regimental Aid Post that was usually based in the reserve trenches. The Regimental Medical Officer and his assistants cleaned the wounds applied dressings, and gave injections. The injured man was then taken to the Advanced Dressing Station. Wounds were again treated and sometimes emergency amputations took place. The wounded soldier was now moved to the Casualty Clearing Station where surgery if needed was carried out.
Trenches varied from eight to six feet in height. In these waterlogged trenches, there was a need for extra support wood boards were placed on the side and on the floor for a safe area for walking. The Soldiers stood no chance against the diseases. Body lice were among one of the diseases that traveled among the trenches the most. Body lice caused scratching and led to trench fever. Fifteen percent of sickness was from body lice (Simkin).Trench foot was another disease found in the trenches. After hours of standing in waterlogged trenches, the feet would begin to numb, change color, and swell, and this would soon result in amputation. In the first two weeks of a battle, the British with other allies managed to shoot 4,283,550 shells at the German defenses and 800,000 of them got shell shock (Simkin). The trenches never protected soldiers from shell shock. Soldiers who exposed themselves to continuous amount of shellfire produced a number of symptoms.
These symptoms included tiredness, irritability, and lack of concentration, headaches, and eventually mental breakdowns. Dugouts were protective holes dug out of the sides of trenches. The size of dugouts varied a lot and sometimes could hold over ten men. A manual recommended dugouts that were between 2 ft. and 4 ft. 6 in. wide, roofed with corrugated iron or brushwood and then covered with a minimum of 9 inches of earth. (British Army Service Manual). As the war went on dugouts grew in size. By 1917 dugouts could hold two battalions of soldiers at a time. Large dugouts were also built into the side of communication trenches so that they were not directly in line of fire from enemy guns. These often served as the battalion headquarters and provided sleeping accommodation for the officers.
On the Western Front the military got specialist miners to dig tunnels under No Mans Land. The main objective was to place mines beneath enemy defensive positions. When it was detonated the explosion would destroy that section of the trench. The infantry would then advance towards the enemy front-line hoping to take advantage of the confusion that followed the explosion of an underground mine. Soldiers in the trenches developed different strategies to discover enemy tunneling. One method was to drive a stick into the ground and hold the other end between the teeth and feel any underground vibrations. As well as digging their own tunnels the miners had to listen out for enemy tunnellers. On occasions miners accidentally dug into the opposing side’s tunnel and an underground fight took place. When an enemy’s tunnel was found it was usually destroyed by placing an explosive charge inside. Running out ahead of the front-line trenches on No-Mans Land were narrow, shallow, trenches or listening posts. These trenches were about 30 yards long.
Small groups of soldiers were sent to the listening post and were given the order of finding out about the enemy. This included information about enemy patrols, wiring parties, or sniper positions. No Man’s Land is the term used by soldiers to describe the ground between the two opposing trenches. Its width along the Western Front could vary a great deal. The narrowest gap was at Zonnebeke where British and German soldiers were only about seven yards apart (Livesey). No Man’s Land contained a lot of barbed wire. In the areas most likely to be attacked there were ten belts of barbed wire just before the front-line trenches. In some places the wire was more than a 100 feet deep. If the area had been in a lot of action No Man’s Land would be full of broken and abandoned equipment. After an attack No Man’s Land would also have a large number of bodies. Attacks across No Man’s Land were always very difficult. Not only did the soldiers have to avoid being shot or blown-up they also had to cope with barbed-wire and water-filled shell-holes.
The Germans were the first to introduce the machine gun into military combat. There machine-gunners were often housed inside pillboxes with very thick walls they were difficult to destroy but during an enemy attack the machine guns were placed either on the top or at the side of the pillbox. The British built very few machine-gun pillboxes because not building them was that such work was not worth the labor or the cost. Probably the real reason was that the Commanders feared that if the troops had such solid defenses they would be less on the offence. Both sides also used smaller machine-gun posts. The British tended to use Bergmann machine-gun rather than Maxims in these posts (Livesey 106). Machine-gunners were deeply hated by the infantry and they were more likely to be killed when captured than other soldiers. Soldiers in front-line trenches suffered from enemy snipers. These men were usually specially trained marksmen that had rifles with telescopic sights. German snipers did not normally work from their own trenches.
The main strategy was to creep out at dawn into No Mans Land and remain there all day. Wearing camouflaged clothing and using the cover of a fake tree they waited for a British soldier to pop his head above the parapet. A common trick was to send up a kite with English writing on it. Anyone who raised his head to read it was shot. At the beginning of the WW1 mounted troops were still considered as the main component of offensive warfare. In battle members of the cavalry carried a sword rifle which was for use when dismounted and sometimes a lance. Cavalry regiments were also equipped with one or two machine guns carried by a team and cart. The reconnaissance function of the cavalry during the WW1 was rendered obsolete by the use of aircraft such as the Fatman MF-11, Avor 504 and the BE-2. The cavalry were of limited value in trench warfare. However during major offencives mounted troops were still massed in large numbers waiting the opportunity to charge the enemy lines. When the cavalry were used on the Western Front it was found to be completely ineffective against machine-gun fire.
The Germany Army first began experimenting with flame-throwers in 1900 and was issued to special battalions eleven years later. The flame-thrower used pressurized air carbon dioxide or nitrogen to force oil through a nozzle. Ignited by a small charge the oil became a jet of flame. Flame-throwers were first used at the Western Front in October 1914.( ) Operated by two men they were mainly used to clear enemy soldiers from Front-line trenches. At first they had a range of 25 meters but later this was increased to 40 meters. This meant they were only effective over narrow areas of No-Mans Land. Another problem was that the flame-thrower was difficult to move around and only contained enough oil to burn 40 seconds at the time. Soldiers who operated flame-throwers had a short-life span because as soon as they used them they were the target. The first successfully developed tank Mark I was ready for use in the summer of 1916. Sir Douglas Haig Commander-in Chief of the British Army had doubts about the value of tanks.
However after failing to break through German lines at the Battle of the Somme of the 59 tanks in France only 49 were considered to be in good working order. Of these 17 broke down on the way to their starting point. The sight of the tanks created panic and had a profound effect on the morale of the German Army. Colonel John Fuller chief of staff of the Tank Corps was convinced that these machines could win the war and persuaded the government to supply him with another 1,000 tanks. Aware of the tank’s early problems Fuller argued that they should only be deployed when the terrain was appropriate. The Germany Army first used chlorine gas cylinders in April 1915 against the French Army. French soldiers reported seeing yellow-green clouds drifting slowly towards the Allied trenches. They also noticed its distinctive smell which was like a mixture of pineapple and pepper. At first the French officers assumed that the German infantry were advancing behind a smoke screen and orders were given to prepare for an armed attack.
When the gas arrived at the Allied front-trenches soldiers began to complain about pains in the chests and a burning sensation in their throats. Most soldiers now realized they were being gassed and many ran as fast as they could away from the scene. An hour after the attack had started there was a four-mile gap in the Allied line. Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs of its victims and this led to a slow death by asphyxiation. Mustard Gas was first used by the Germany Army in September 1917. The most lethal of all the poisonous chemicals used during the war it was almost odorless and took twelve hours to take effect. It was so powerful that only small amounts had to be added to high explosive shells to be effective. Throughout the war, the allies used five million tons of artillery shells against the enemy and on million of that had chemicals added (Livesey). Once in the soil mustard gas remained active for several weeks.
The skin of victims of mustard gas blistered the eyes became very sore and they began to vomit. Mustard gas caused internal and external bleeding and attacked the bronchial tubes stripping off the mucous membrane. This was extremely painful and most soldiers had to be strapped to their beds. It usually took a person four or five weeks to die of mustard gas poisoning. Trench warfare was a strategy of fighting in World War 1 that involved two or more armies in trenches. This was not always a good way to fight because many young men lost there lives. Trench fighting was usually grim and not always very pleasant but it was an affective way to fight but with many casualties. It was a high point in history and always will be. Bibliography:
Simkin, John. Home page. 19 April 2002 Trench Warfare. BBC History. 20 April 2002 Farwell, Byron. Over There: the United States in the Great War. W. W. Norton & Company: New York. 1999 Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Introduction by Major General Jeremy Moore. Marshall Editions Limited: New York. 1997