The Efficacy of the Trench Warfare in World War I

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World War I is also commonly known as ‘The Great War’ that took place between the years of 1914 to 1918. In just four years an estimated 59 million casualties were reported between the Allied and Central powers combined (facinghistory.org). The immediate cause of the war started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian-nationalist terrorist group, The Black Hand. This led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, which ultimately was the very beginning of World War I. World War I brought new military ideas and tactics such as airplanes, gas masks, the machine gun, as well as chemical warfare. Trench warfare, however, wasn’t anything new to war. Trenches was a tactic used well before World War I, in fact, it was seen in the American Civil War. However, Trench Warfare originated primarily on the Western Front, which was the area between northern France and Belgium where German troops and Allied forces saw combat. Trench warfare came with both it’s pro’s and con’s, however, was Trench Warfare more or less effective during World War I?

Firstly, what exactly was the purpose of trenches? Trenches were long, deep ditches that were used as a form of protective defense and is most associated with World War I. Trenches were aimed to provide a safe place for soldiers to live as well as serve protection from machine gun fire and artillery attacks coming from the air. It was common to see sandbags stacked on top of one another to form a makeshift wall that would provide additional protection for soldiers. It was also a common sight to see soldiers taking turns on watch so they can always be on constant alert for any potential attacks. In addition, this is where the use of a periscope was common as it was an instrument that had mirrors at both ends that “allowed men to observe the battlefield from the safety of the trench below” (bbc.co.uk). This served to be beneficial for soldiers as they were able to have protection from attacks as well as be able to see attacks coming from enemy lines.

Trench warfare origins can be traced back to the American Civil War. Since the Confederate Army was fighting a defensive strategy, this resulted in trench warfare being used as one of their primary defensive tactics. It was proved to be effective in defending key positions for the Confederate Army. Historian, Samuel W. Bettwy, points out that the Confederate Army’s use of trenches in Richmond was able to help them successfully defend against the Union army from 1862 to 1863. He also brings up an important quote that Grant wrote that “‘Richmond was so fortified and entrenched so perfectly that one man inside to defend was more than equal to five outside besieging or assaulting’” (Bettwy, 1). With such reports of success of trench warfare of the Confederate Army the German Army wanted to use the tactic when entering World War I as a way to defend Austra-Hungary from Russia, the Ottoman Empire.

In World War I the German’s used trench warfare as one of their main strategies. Germany was apart of the Central Powers, and it also consists of other countries such as Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The main role of Germany in World War I was to defend it’s ally, Austria-Hungary, from Russian intervention. By using trench warfare, Germany had caught the Allies by the element of surprise since they were not expecting to see trenches on the Western Front. Also, “the strategy proved to be effective in forcing France out of the war and all but destroying the will for the Russians” (Bettwy, 2). Trench warfare proved to be effective for the Central Powers during this time, and especially to Germany and Austria-Hungary as they were successfully able to defend themselves from the Ottoman Empire, or also known as Russia. Also, Germany had developed relief trenches. Relief trenches are trenches installed in the middle of no man’s-land that soliders could retreat to if needed, which proved to be effective since it made it harder for the Allied Powers in an offensive position to have any type of “long-term success” (McCormick, 2).

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At first glance, it seems as if trenches were very beneficial to soldiers during World War I. However, historians and even the accounts of soldiers will argue that it was far from safe and is best described to be ‘hellish.’ Ernst Jünger, a German officer and author of his memoir titled Storm of Steel recounts his personal experience fighting on the Western Front. He describes Trench Warfare as “…the bloodiest, wildest, most brutal of all… There’s no mercy there, no going back, the blood speaks from a shrill cry of recognition that tears itself from one’s breast like a nightmare.” Trench Warfare was a prime reason as to why World War I lasted for as long as it did as well as causing so many casualties. So many casualties were inflicted as a result of the overall strategy in trench warfare, to defend your trench while in the process of doing whatever means necessary to attack the enemy. In fact, trench warfare resulted in a stalemate. A stalemate in war is when both opposing sides can’t make any type of progress.

The area located between both opposing trenches was called no-man’s land. In no-man’s land, it was common to see the entire area lined with barbed wire. It’s main purpose was to slow attackers and make them an easier target while the gunman would usually be safe behind the trench wall, which is one of many reasons as to why so many casualties took place during the war. In fact, 56% of soldiers during WWI would suffer some type of casualty (McCormick, 2). Soldiers fighting in trenches were under threat of potentially suffering from shell shock, a form of post traumatic stress disorder, as well. This would happen when bombs, or commonly known as shells, were thrown into enemy trenches. Some soldiers would endure major injuries while many unfortunately died due to the explosion. However, soldiers watching their partners die in front of them is a traumatic event where they found themselves suffering and recounting the horrors of war years after it was over. Shell shock was so common among soldiers that even after the war, “it was a common feature in European Society” (McCormick, 3).

Another disadvantage to trench warfare was disease. Trenches stationed soldiers and they lived in dirty and harsh environments. It was common to see trenches crawling with rats, soldiers would sometimes describe them to be as large as cats, as well as lice. Winters in France were especially cold and it was common for the floor of trenches to be completely sodden with mud. Many soldiers would develop diseases such as “trench fever (an infection caused by louse feces), trench nephritis (an inflammation of the kidneys), and trench foot (the infection and swelling of feet exposed to long periods of dampness and cold, sometimes leading to amputation)” (awm.gov.au). With disease running rampant through trenches lead to many soldiers succumbing to their sickness and eventually dying. These diseases were common medical problems among soldiers and was a prime reason as to why World War I suffered so many deaths in just the course of four years.

Overall, trench warfare was effective in some aspects, however, it was also very ineffective. With the development of new military technologies such as the machine gun, air artillery, the flame thrower, and chemical warfare, trench warfare did serve to be effective when using more of a defensive strategy. The Central Powers used this type of strategy since Germany introduced the idea of trench warfare into The Great War. From the result of trench warfare, Germany caught the Allied forces by surprise, and forced France out of the war as well as defending Austria-Hungary from the Ottoman Empire. Also, trenches served as an alternative way for soldiers to gun down enemies from behind the protection of trench walls. However, the trenches were not an easy place to live. Soldiers endured harsh and unsanitary conditions that led them to develop diseases that resulted in amputations and even death. No man’s-land made soldiers an easy target when tangled in barbed wire, which was a primitive cause many casualties. In addition, trench warfare resulted in the war stalemate, making neither effective or ineffective. Many soldiers suffered psychological trauma as a result of being in the trenches, such as shell shock. In conclusion, trench warfare did have it’s advantages. However, it was a prime reason as to why World War I had such a high number of casualties as it did and overall was more so ineffective in the Great War.

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