Written by Matthew Marcum
Machine-gun rounds smack into the sandbags above the soldier’s head as an artillery blast sends large clumps of earth, twisted metal, and human appendages raining down atop him. He presses himself against the trench-wall and attempts to unjam his malfunctioning, mud-covered rifle.
Beside him, the soldier he has spent days—possibly even weeks or months—fighting alongside collapses. He watches as the man’s lifeless body drops into the foul, stagnant water below.
There’s no time to waste; the enemy is advancing. He steps up to take the fallen man’s place, aims his rifle, and fires.
What I have just described to you has been shown countless times in Hollywood movies and documentaries over the years, and for those stationed on the front lines of battle during the First World War, it is a very accurate portrayal of the fighting they often had to endure. However, the one thing that these films often forgo in favor of hooking audiences and telling an interesting story, is that these soldiers only spent an average of about 4 days-per-month in open combat. This was done in an attempt to keep troops both fresh and in good spirits, but that didn’t exactly go to plan as the other 26-or-so days were an entirely different kind of nightmare.
While not on duty, soldiers would spend their spare time playing card games, writing to loved ones, or simply cleaning their weapons and inspecting one another for signs of trench-foot, but even in these times of rest, the war was never more than a few hundred yards away.
If we are going to have any chance at understanding the true horrors that these men went through, it might be best to think of that time as a maddening mix of anxiety and boredom: Anxiety, because you never knew when the next round of shells might fall or cloud of chlorine gas might drift your way, but also boredom, because you had little-to-nothing to distract your mind as you waited for that inevitability.
A somber tone took hold as death became seen not as a possibility but as a near certainty. The old days of warfare were gone forever, and, for now, there was only the trenches, where every single inch of ground for was paid for by the blood of thousands.
History of Trench Warfare
Trenches were by no means a modern invention by the time of the First World War. They had existed, in one form or another, for as long as armies themselves had existed, and their usefulness was well established.
In the case of the Romans, traveling Legions would take the time to entrench their camps each night before resting. These hastily constructed trenches were rudimentary, but very effective deterrents against late-night ambushes.
By 627 CE, outside the city of Yathrib—now modern day Madina—a siege known as the Battle of the Trench took place where around 3000 defenders were able to hold off an attacking force of 10,000 men and 600 horses. The defenders had encircled their city with a large trench which, along with other natural defenses, rendered the attacking cavalry useless and eventually forced the two sides into a stalemate.
In 1673, French military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban used three parallel trenches, linked by communication lines, as part of an offensive strategy to lay siege to the Dutch city of Maastricht. These lines were dug in front of the city’s walls and used to shield troops from enemy fire as they moved toward the designated assault point. Artillery was used to breach the walls, at which point, the city was stormed.
While countless other examples like these can be seen all throughout history, none of them were even close to providing the levels of misery would later be seen, which begs the question: what exactly had changed?
How had trenches gone from simple defensive structures, to the pits of misery and despair that so many returning soldiers would later describe?
The simplest answer, is firepower.
Up until around the 1850s, muskets, which were the weapon of choice for most infantries at the time, suffered from many issues such as inaccuracy at long distances and painfully slow reload speeds. For these guns, no sights were even added as trying hit anything not directly in front of you was an exercise in futility. The best you could do as an individual infantryman was point your musket in the direction of your target and hope for the best.
To make up for these shortcomings during the Napoleonic War, the big man himself, Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to use a tactic known as volley-fire to achieve much greater results than possible by having troops fire individually.
In volley-fire, Napoleon’s men were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, multiple rows deep, with very little room between them. On command, each row would take turns concentrating fire on a single target, while the others reloaded. The result was a near constant barrage of fire, and, even though it was still inaccurate, having so many shots fired at once gave the troops a significantly better chance of hitting their target. This tactic was used as part of a larger strategy to control the battlefield and was often referred as Napoleonic Warfare. For a time, it was considered the gold standard of military strategy.
On the American continent, these tactics continued to be used right up until the Civil War, at which time they were still largely considered to be best practice.
As the civil war heated up, many Generals, particularly in the North, still held much faith in the effectiveness of these tactics; however, something very significant had changed that few were able to recognize.
Rifles had grown increasingly accurate over the past several decades and what once took entire lines of troops to accomplish could now be done by a dozen-or-so riflemen. This meant that the tightly packed lines of troops were now easy targets for even a half-decent shot.
A prime example of the tactical superiority that could be achieved by combining these new, highly-accurate rifles with a system of well-constructed trenches was seen outside of the confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Here, the commander of the Confederate Army, General Robert E. Lee, entrenched his troops in preparation for an attack by the advancing Union army. The commander of that army, United States General Ulysses S. Grant, who was emboldened by the superior number of his troops, sent wave after wave of his men to attack the entrenched confederates’ position.
It was an absolute slaughter. Despite their smaller numbers, the confederates were easily able to repel Grant’s troops; however, instead of adjusting his strategy, Grant continued to order his men to charge. Again and Again, Grant’s men would advance, and, again and again, they would be repelled.
By the end of the battle, the Union Army had suffered approximately 1,844 casualties with over 9,000 wounded, while the Confederates had suffered only 83 casualties with approximately 3800 wounded.
These hard-learned lessons by the North were spread far and wide, and, by the end of the war, it became obvious that the age of Napoleonic warfare was over. Strategies need to be adjusted.
But, devastating as these new rifles were to the northern troops, something else was just arriving on the scene that would truly change the art of warfare forever.
In 1862, Richard Jordan Gatling invented a multi-barreled, rotating gun that was operated using a crank and capable of firing up to 200 rounds-per-minute. While it was only used in a handful of battles throughout the Civil War, anyone who witnessed its destructive power understood that the game had now completely changed. Trenches were now the only defenses against what was, at one time, unimaginable firepower.
Constructing the Trenches
Over the next 60 years, the destructive power of weaponry continued to improve as the world entered what was known as the age of industrialized warfare.
British troops were being equipped with the Lee-Enfield SMLE MK III rifle, which had a capacity of 10 rounds and was accurate at up to 2000 yards. A fully trained soldier could fire a minimum of 15 rounds per minute, with the quickest among them firing over 30.
Artillery, which during the days of Napoleon had been capable of firing up to 12lb cannonballs, was now able to fire 2000lb mortar rounds that could delay their explosions or even release toxic gases onto the battlefield.
New machine-guns, descendants of the Gatling gun, could fire a staggering 600 rounds-per-minute.
These new weapons, and other like them, made it so troops simply could not survive in open warfare. The only solution was to head underground.
On the 28th of June 1914, the Great War began, and, by the end of that very year, just 6 months later, both the Germans and Allied forces had dug a combined 2000 kilometers of trenches.
These trenches, which were roughly 1-2 meters wide and up to 3 meters deep, had what can be described as a V-shape with sandbags and wooden planks securing their walls and an elevated, wooden-floor constructed in their base. They were dug in a zigzag pattern, multiple rows deep and with connecting-tunnels linking the different rows. These smaller connecting-tunnels allowed soldiers to travel between the different levels without being exposed to enemy gunfire.
To create this maze of trenches, a variety of tactics were employed, each with varying degrees of difficulty and success.
If a trench needed to be constructed as quickly as possible, large groups of soldiers would use their shovels to dig directly down into the dirt below them. This method was known, simply, as entrenching and was the most widely used, but it came with a heavy price. While digging, soldiers would be fully exposed to enemy gunfire until they could reach a depth deep enough that allowed them to dig from a crouched position. If a man was killed during this type of dig, his body would be pulled from the dirt and another soldier would quickly take his place to ensure the trench’s timely completion.
If a trench had already been established but needed to be expanded, that could easily be accomplished through a process known as sapping. To a sap a trench, soldiers would dig into a trench’s existing wall or end, securing the new walls and constructing elevated floors as they went. This method, while certainly safer, took far longer than traditional entrenching as the number of men working in a given area was restricted by width of the tunnel.
If secrecy was the primary concern, soldiers might find themselves burrowing deep underground below the battlefield’s surface until the majority of the trench could be completed, at which time they would collapse the roof, revealing to the enemy their newly fortified position. However, this method was agonizingly slow as, in addition to being restricted by the width of the tunnel, the materiel pulled from the earth also had to be transported back to the surface. It could not simply tossed over the walls, as was the case with entrenching and sapping.
Conditions in the Trench
Regardless of which method was used to construct them, these trenches required near constant upkeep as bad weather eroded their walls and flooded their bases. The drainage systems put in place often proved to be woefully inadequate as knee-high, and sometime waist-high, water collected around the men’s feet. Once the rain was over, that water turned into a thick, stinking mud that was filled with everything from blood and urine to dismembered appendages.
This putrid concoction, which was present for roughly nine months out of the year, was everywhere. It filled the soldier’s shoes, soiled their bedrolls, contaminated their food and water, and even jammed their rifles.
Trench newspapers, which were one of the few much needed comforts at the time, once printed, “Hell is not fire; that would be the ultimate in suffering. Hell is mud.”
While in this mud, soldiers were susceptible to all manner of disease and infection with even the smallest cut having the potential to become life-threatening. Casualty numbers are often disputed, but it is believed that over 2 million soldiers died from disease alone. Pneumonia and Influenza were common killers that spread like wildfire among the men.
Trench foot, which I mentioned at the beginning of the post, was another serious condition that resulted from these wet conditions. After long hours of standing in the flooded trenches, soldiers’ feet would swell and go numb before turning blue. If untreated, they would become gangrenous leading to nerve damage, tissue loss, or possibly even amputation. It was a horrible condition that is believed to have affected a total of 74,000 allied troops at some point throughout the war.
During the winter, when the weather turned cold, soldiers were also vulnerable to frostbite and would often loose fingers and toes to the harsh conditions.
Lice infestations caused the men to itch terribly and sometimes resulted in a condition known as Trench Fever. Soldiers effected would experience reoccurring fevers that would last about five days and cause headaches, weakness, anorexia, abdominal pain, as well as soreness in the muscles, bones, and joints.
Starving rats were a constant concern as they ripped into food supplies, damaged bedding and clothing, and fed on the corpses of the dead who had yet to be buried.
One soldier recalls hearing a scuffling late one night coming from behind his pillow and, after shining his flashlight in the direction of the noise, found two large rats fighting for possession of a severed human hand.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to contend with, things were about to get much worse.
On April 22, 1915, German forces shocked the world when they released more than 150 tons of the highly deadly chlorine gas on two French divisions. At first, the men believed it to be a harmless smokescreen and held their positions in anticipation of an attack; however, it soon became very clear that the gas itself was the attack.
All at once, the men began to abandon their positions to flee from the thick, green smoke that had engulfed them; however, for many, it was far too late. 800 French troops died that day and many more suffered permanent lung damage.
They were the first of many victims.
Chlorine gas, which had been devolved by German scientist Fritz Haber earlier that very year, works by irritating the lungs, causing them to fill with fluid. The men quite literally drowned while on dry land. Some of the poor souls killed in this manner were later photographed with their hands twisted and frozen into claws, desperately trying to rip into their own throats for air.
If for some odd reason you’ve ever found yourself wondering what chlorine gas may have smelled like, those who survived would later describe it as a, “mix of black pepper and pineapple.”
Later in the war, phosgene gas would be used and, while its effects were just as devastating, those exposed would sometimes take up to 48 hours to begin showing signs.
In reality, as scary and infamous as they were, gas attacks accounted for less than 1% of all deaths throughout the entire war, but the psychological factor was a much more effective weapon. Troops were issued gas masks but often had little more than a moment’s notice to make use of them.
Spending weeks or months in these unrelenting, nightmarish conditions led to Shell Shock, a term which was coined by the soldiers themselves. Symptoms included fatigue, tremors, loss of balance, headaches, confusion, nightmares and impaired sight and hearing. It was often diagnosed when a soldier was unable to function but no obvious cause could be identified. Today we refer to it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
It is said that the Trenches of the First World War were not created, but stumbled into, and that may be the most accurate description that I’ve heard. Nobody on either side of the conflict had intended for warfare to devolve in the way it had.
By the end of the war, three full years were spent in the trenches and over 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians would be killed. It was, at the time, the deadliest war in human history.
After this, trench warfare would never again be so common. Rapid advancements in tanks, roads, communication lines, and air-based warfare, along with Adolf Hitler’s common use of Blitzkrieg tactics, would make it so trench warfare was just as obsolete during the Second World War, as the old Napoleonic tactics were during the First.