The Nature of Trench Warfare and Its Different Forms

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Trench Warfare – a phrase of perhaps the most notable feature of The Great War – has been etched on our consciousness through various accounts and photographs. At its core, trench warfare was seen as merely a short-term expedient, as within all previous conflicts “normality” was defined as constant movement. However, the progression of the conflict saw the trenches taking on an air of permanency, rendering The Great War merely an “unexpected troglodyte struggle for holes in the ground”.[1] Nevertheless, these complex systems of interlinking ditches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps, had inflicted damage upon the landscape, as well as the participants; whether it be physically or psychologically. This so-called war to end all wars was no more than a “vile attraction[2]”; a mere sacrifice of mobility for safety, with the power of modern weaponry, and a battlefield of disease and destruction. It is imperative all of these factors are taken into consideration when recognizing the dreadful world of the trenches, and the impact and nature of trench warfare on the allied and German forces.

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Apocalyptic terms are often thrown around as a means of describing World War 1 – the horrific conditions, the constant fear – yet, the reality was the trench system had safeguarded the soldiers from a reality much worse; the brutality of modern firepower. With the technological advancements of the 20th century came an entirely new class of weapons, revolutionizing the concept of warfare, and inflicting chaos upon everything in its path. The greatest threat to the soldiers lied within the heavy artillery, with the most prominent being the German trench mortar (minenwerfer), a weapon that can be seen in Source D. The Minenwerfer, otherwise known as “an invention of the devil”,[3] was responsible for 58.5% of British wounds and casualties in the conflict, thus, rendering it a key contributor to the character of the war in the trenches. Furthermore, the introduction of innovative weaponry, such as artillery shells; adopted by the allied troops after the Second Battle of Ypres, made it near impossible for soldiers to show themselves over the surface of the trenches, particularly apparent for the British as the Germans were notable for their accuracy. In addition to this, further innovations had made their debut prior to the war, such as the realm of communications, altering all previous aspects of warfare. Historically, conflicts were regarded as “daytime endeavors”, defined by the unfamiliarity of electricity. This reality changed as electricity became used worldwide subsequent to the 1870s, not only allowing military commanders to launch effective invasions with the help of artificial light, but virtually changing all previous mechanical contraptions, such as field telephones. The use of telephones, which can be seen in Source E, was the foremost method of telecommunication within the trench systems ensuring that soldiers as far as the front line were informed of the plans for attack and defense. Despite of these clear improvements, problems lied within the execution, as many military leaders were slow in recognizing this clear shift in the concept of warfare, continuing to wage war “as if it were merely a cavalry-based affair[4]”. An understanding of weaponry and communications within the trenches provides further insight into the nature of trench warfare for both the allied and German armies.

Conflicting with the weaponry and communication advancements of The Great War was a very different dilemma; one that drastically affected all soldiers, be they allied or German. Life in the trenches is almost incomprehensible, as fear and the terror of shellfire only represented a minor aspect of the nightmare experience. With disease and decay as a constant companion in the trenches, soldiers had found themselves in an endless battle for survival. Daily life for the soldiers differed drastically, as the Germans had formed permanent trenches that were more elaborate in construction; built from concrete and bricks, compared to the temporary allied trenches that had lacked the effort and stamina. Despite of this, disease ran rapid, as rain, decomposing bodies, and trench creatures such as rats and lice, had joined forces to transform the trenches into cesspools of decay and illness. The most prominent disease on all fronts was perhaps trench foot; a condition which Sergeant Harry Roberts claimed in a post-war interview to have made the “feet swell to two or three times their normal size and go completely dead”, after experiencing the effects himself prior to the Battle of The Somme; as can be seen in Source C. In addition to this, many soldiers have described their existence in the trenches as ranging somewhere between “moments of utter fear and terror” to “possible weeks of complete and utter boredom”[5]. Soldiers were not only forced to endure the bursts of violence, the diseases, and the loss of their fallen friends, but were also in a constant battle with boredom. However, with nightfall came a new dawn of horrors; one that varied according to the sector and unit. Frederick Noakes of the Household Battalion described his experiences during the night as being “hours of blackness, broken by gun flashes, the gleam of star shells and punctuated by the scream of a shell or the sudden heart-stopping rattle of a machine gun”, a statement which can be seen in Source B.

The Great War had not only inflicted physical suffering upon the men, but had also cursed them with psychological wounds, such as shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder; an outcome that is hardly surprising. Surely – it made sense that such a constant exposure to violence and savagery would eventually turn the sanest men to lunacy. The majority of those who suffered at the hands of the war itself were completely unaccustomed to the notion of violence prior to the conflict. Farmers, students, clerks – men of various professions were thrown into the trenches, and were forced to cope with the constant din of an artillery barrage, and the sight of the deceased and tortured. This not only meant that the soldiers were experiencing the horror of the war in that particular moment, but were continually re-living the aftermath of the violence that had been imposed over the years of the battle. Hence why many of these men had cracked under the strain, bearing no physical wounds with their return home, yet clearly suffering at the hands of a condition much worse. Despite of this, the initial attitude towards the men who acquired this condition was somewhat callous; as they were accused of being cowardice, particularly by military authorities. The poet Sassoon, a British soldier of World War One, indirectly criticized this notion on multiple accounts, evidently portrayed in Source A. In Sassoon’s poem Survivors, he states “men who went out to battle, grim and glad”; the common mindset of those who didn’t experience the full extent of trench warfare first-hand. In addition to this, the poem followed with “children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad…”, reminding those who failed to recognize the trauma the soldiers were left with that those memories can simply never be erased. His poem serves as a reminder of the impact of trench warfare, on both allied and German soldiers.

To conclude this argument, it is evident that the nature of trench warfare and life in the trenches took many different forms, yet, entirely revolutionized all previous aspects of war. Soldiers were forced to endure more than just the physical hardships. They were confronted with the difficulties and triumphs that came with the innovation of technology, battled the constant fear and horrendous conditions of the trenches, and spent the rest of their existence living in complete and utter trauma. Although, the news of that particular time period portrayed little to no aspects of the horrors endured, now it has been left to the photographer, and writers of World War 1 to inform the world of the true reality of war.

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