World War One: Life and Death in the Trenches

The First World War was a defining event that determined the course of the entire 20th century. The bloody quagmire of 1914-1918 led to the birth of modern “total warfare”, in which not just an enemy’s armed forces but his entire social capacity to wage war became legitimate targets, and the distinction between “soldier” and “civilian” became blurred. It also led to the development of modern weapons like the tank, the airplane, chemical weapons, the machine gun, the massed artillery barrage, the aircraft carrier, and the submarine.

In the political sphere, the Great War led to the emergence of the United States as a world power, to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, and to the appearance of the Soviet Union and then the Cold War which dominated the second half of the 20th century. The slaughter of virtually an entire generation in the trenches also led to labor shortages in the industrial nations which strengthened the positions of labor unions and socialist political movements, leading to sweeping social and political changes in Europe and the United States. And World War One and its aftermath re-drew much of the world map, particularly in places like the Middle East and Africa.

Today, 100 years later, we still live with the effects of the Great War.


At the opening of the 20th century, all of Europe knew that a major war was coming, though no one knew when it would break out. The newly unified Germany wanted to become a world power and build a global empire to rival that of France and Britain. France, still seeking revenge for its humiliating loss in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, wanted the return of its lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. France’s longtime imperial rival, Britain, now found itself sharing interests with the French, as both sought to limit German power and prevent the Kaiser from intruding into their global territories. The tottering Austria-Hungary Empire was wracked by ethnic and national strife in the Balkans, as numerous groups sought political independence from the Empire. Russia had its own territorial interests in the Balkans, which brought the Tsar into direct conflict with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Tensions ran high, friends were picked, and alliances were made, and Europe became divided into two armed camps—the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, and the Triple Entente Allies, consisting of France, Britain and Russia. Everyone knew that conflict was inevitable.

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist student shot and killed archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne. In the scheme of things, it was not a very significant event—just another in a long string of violence by ethnic rebels in the Balkans. But, in the tightly-wound network of alliances and agreements that criss-crossed Europe in 1914, those two pistol shots quickly snowballed. Austria-Hungary accused the Serbian government of aiding the rebels, and with the support of Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russia responded by mobilizing its own army in order to defend the Serbs. Germany, required to defend its ally Austria-Hungary and surrounded by an alliance of potential enemies, decided to strike first, and invaded Belgium and then France—which brought Britain’s entry into the conflict. The Guns of August sounded, and the war that everyone was expecting, had begun. Both sides confidently predicted victory “before the autumn leaves fell from the trees”.

Germany, faced on two sides by the Entente Allies, knew it had to act quickly. Counting on the fact that it would take some time for Russia to mobilize its large but poorly-equipped army, the German war plans, drawn up years before by General von Schlieffen, called for a two-part strategy. In the first half of the plan, a large German army would move through neutral Belgium, bypassing the French border defenses, and take Paris from the north, to quickly force France’s surrender before Britain would be able to get any significant forces across the Channel. With France’s rapid defeat, the German Army could then execute the second half of the plan, by turning on Russia before the Tsar could fully deploy his huge army.

The Schlieffen Plan almost worked. In the first week of August 1914, German troops had rolled through Belgium and entered France. By the end of the month, they were within 30 miles of Paris. But here, on the Marne River, the Germans ran into trouble. French resistance stiffened, and on September 6, a scout in one of the French army’s new “aeroplanes” spotted a gap between two German armies, which allowed French and some newly-arrived British troops to pour in and drive the Germans back over 40 miles. It became known as “The Miracle of the Marne”.

The war that both sides expected to be over by Christmas, now settled into a stalemate that was to drag on, virtually unchanged, for the next four years.

Within weeks of the halt at the Marne, both sides, unable to advance against the other, dug defensive positions. At first, these were simple temporary rifle pits, but as the deadlock continued, they were transformed into intricate trench systems, which stretched unbroken from the shores of the English Channel all the way across France to the Swiss border. “Trench warfare” became the iconic characteristic of the Western Front.

The typical trench was about seven feet deep and four feet wide. The sides were reinforced with wooden planks, corrugated metal, or wire mesh, to prevent the sides from collapsing. The bottom of the trenches quickly filled with water, and to help prevent “trench foot” (caused by constant immersion of the feet), a pathway of wooden planks called “duckboards” ran through each trench. On the front of the trench, sandbags were piled up to make a parapet; a shelf running along the inside of the trench, called a “firing step”, allowed soldiers to shoot through small gaps in the parapet called “loopholes”. There were also machine gun emplacements (called “pill-boxes”) built into the parapets from sandbags, cement, or stones, placed together closely enough so that their interlocking arcs of fire covered the entire front, even if some of the guns were knocked out.

The trench was built in a zig-zag or corrugated shape, turning every twenty feet or so, to protect each segment from any artillery fragments or grenades that exploded in adjacent segments.

At intervals along each trench, an underground shelter called a “dug-out” was made, 10 or 20 feet below ground, where troops could rest in relative safety. In places where the ground made this impossible, individual soldiers dug their own little caves into the back side of the trench.

The trench system was usually built in two or three parallel lines. The forward trenches were used for observation, sniping, and defensive or offensive combat. The rear trenches were used for storage, sleeping, and emergency medical treatment. The parallel trenches were connected to each other by a series of perpendicular “communications trenches”, which allowed troops to move in safety from one trenchline to another. The artillery units were located some distance behind the trenches, and the rear area was also used for training, medical areas, and billets for troops who were not on frontline duty.

In most areas, the opposing trenches were 200-300 yards apart. In some areas, however, they were as close as 30 yards. The area between opposing trench systems was known as “No Man’s Land”. In general, when the war bogged down in 1914, the Germans withdrew to the best nearby defensive positions, and dug their trenches on the higher ground. British and French generals, on the other hand, believed that any retreat, of any distance, would be bad for the troop’s fighting spirit, so they ordered Entente troops to dig in at whatever position they found themselves in. As a result, the German trenches were typically stronger and drier than the Allied trenches, which were often built on unsuitable soggy ground in valleys, where the water table was close to the surface. It was the first of many blunders made by the Allied generals.

World War One is not the first example of trench warfare; at the siege of Petersburg during the final stages of the American civil war in 1865, the besieging Union troops build networks of trenches that were very similar to those later used in France.

In the 50 years since the Civil War, however, military weaponry had undergone a quantum leap. In the Civil War, the most advanced artillery gun had consisted of muzzle-loaded rifled cannon that could fire black-powder canister shot or exploding cannonballs to a distance of several hundred yards. At each shot, the recoil knocked the cannon out of alignment, forcing the gunner to re-aim before he could fire again. In the Great War, however, breech-loading artillery pieces could fire self-contained cartridges of explosive or shrapnel shells (and soon poison gas) to a distance of several miles, and the recoil mechanism absorbed the shock without moving the gun, allowing shell after shell to be quickly dropped on the same spot. Artillery fire killed and maimed more men in the trenches than any other weapon.

Only slightly less effective as a killer, however, was the machine gun. Although the US Army had experimented with the crank-operated magazine-fed Gatling gun late in the Civil War, it was not until Hiram Maxim invented a gas-operated automatic machine gun which fired cartridge ammunition from long belts, that the rapid-fire gun claimed a dominant place on the battlefield. According to legend, Maxim, an American, began work on the design after someone told him that if he really wanted to get rich, he should make a weapon that the Europeans could use to kill each other more easily. The machine gun fit the bill. Both sides used the Maxim in the First World War (the British produced it under the name Vickers, and the Germans produced it under the name Spandau). Placed at intervals along the trenches, the guns were set to fire at knee height above the ground, sweeping the area ahead of them to strike advancing enemy troops in the legs, causing them to fall to the ground and be cut apart by the Maxim’s 800 rounds per minute. While the Maxim was too heavy to move easily, lighter versions of the machine gun were produced, such as the British Lewis Gun and the French Hotchkiss, allowing advancing troops to carry their own portable firepower. Later, the Maxim was replaced by the .50-caliber Browning.

The effectiveness of the machine gun was greatly enhanced by another staple of trench warfare—barbed wire. To slow the advance of enemy troops, both sides began placing strands of barbed wire in front of their trenches. The barbed wire was not intended to injure troops—its purpose was to slow and stop them, giving the riflemen and machine gunners an easy target. Soon, both Allied and German trenches were protected by immense tangles of barbed wire, some over 100 feet wide. In some cases, gaps were deliberately left, which channeled the unwary enemy into narrow killing fields directly in front of the machine gun nests.

The protection offered by the extensive trench system, and the lethal firepower from fixed machine gun emplacements, meant that advancing troops, exposed outside of the protection of their trenches, were ludicrously vulnerable, and the defending troops, safe in their trenches, enjoyed a huge advantage. This helped the Germans far more than it did the Entente, since the Germans were the occupiers and could therefore take an entirely defensive stance, sitting tight and challenging the French and British to come and drive them out. The unimaginative Entente generals, who had been trained in the tactics of cavalry and cannons, were entirely unable to deal with the stalemate in the trenches in an era of machine guns and howitzers. Nearly the entire history of the Western Front—Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun—consists of desperate human-wave attacks by British and French soldiers who bravely charged the waiting German lines, only to be hung up on the barbed wire entanglements and mowed down en masse by German machine guns. It was slaughter on a scale that had never been seen before. Post-war accounts referred to the Entente armies as “lions, who were commanded by donkeys”.

Both sides tried a number of ideas to break the stalemate and allow an advance through the enemy lines. None of them worked. One imaginative attempt to break through the German defenses was tried by a group of English soldiers who were former coal miners—they dug a long underground tunnel to a point underneath the German trenches, packed it with explosives, then set off an explosion to blow a gap in the lines. At the Messines Ridge, some 20 underground mines were detonated at the same time, an explosion so large it was heard across the English Channel in England and Ireland. Both the Germans and the Allies attempted to mine the other’s trenches, but with only limited success.

Another attempt to break the stalemate came in 1915, when the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas from hundreds of gas canisters near Ypres. New chemical weapons quickly followed from both sides. Chlorine canisters were replaced by chambered artillery shells, which delivered phosgene gas and then later mustard gas. It did not, however, have the hoped-for effect. No major battle was decided by gas warfare, and it did virtually nothing to break the stalemate. Gas warfare’s primary effect was simply to make things more horrible for everybody.

The tactic that was finally settled on by the Entente was to precede every attack with a massive artillery bombardment, lasting for days or even weeks. The hope was that the blizzard of shells would tear up the barbed wire emplacements, knock out most of the machine guns, and drive the German troops to the rear trenches, allowing the British “Tommies” and the French “Poilus” (and later the American “Doughboys”) to simply walk across No Man’s Land and mop up the remnants of the surviving “Boches”. Although the tactic never worked, the generals nevertheless tried it again, and again, and again, simply because they had no other alternative.

The troops, meanwhile, found trench warfare to be a nightmarish hell. Everyone lived like moles in underground burrows. The entire surrounding countryside had been pounded into a cratered moonscape by the constant artillery fire—not a tree or a blade of grass survived for long—and during the rainy season, everything was enveloped in thigh-deep mud. The trenches constantly filled up with water, and trench foot—in which the flesh literally rots and falls off—was a never-ending problem. Lice, rats, and unburied dead bodies were everywhere, leading to rampant disease. Since the German soldiers almost never attacked Allied trenches in force, and Allied mass attacks happened only rarely, the vast majority of British and French troops experienced long boring periods where there was no action.

Even in these inactive periods, however, death was ever-present. About 5,000 people were killed or wounded every day, even when there were no attacks. Random artillery shells fell everywhere, occasionally dropping directly into trenches or occupied craters and blasting everyone in the area to unrecognizable bits. Short-range trench mortars had the same effect. Even people in the rear areas were exposed to artillery fire.

Snipers were also a constant threat. They would wait patiently for hours on end, protected by a thick steel plate with a small trapdoor through which they could watch, until someone within range unwisely exposed himself for a brief moment—allowing the sniper to get off one well-aimed shot. Several stories mention fresh recruits, newly-arrived at the front, who cautiously peeked over their parapet to have a curious look across No Man’s Land at the opposing trenches—only to instantly attract a fatal bullet from an enemy sniper.

Only at nighttime was it reasonably safe to emerge from underground, and it was then that troops were able to repair trenches and parapets, bury dead bodies, place or repair barbed wire patches, or dig new trenchlines. The patrols also went out under cover of darkness, to scout out No Man’s Land, to raid the enemy trenches with grenades or knives, or to capture prisoners for interrogation. To discourage enemy patrols, machine gunners would often sweep the darkness ahead of them at random intervals, hoping to catch a group of enemy in the open.

Night patrol work became so dangerous that troops soon began taking illicit steps to avoid the danger. Often, a patrol would simply travel a short distance from its own trench, wait quietly in the darkness, crouched in a shell hole for a while, and then return (without ever having gone near the enemy trenches) and make a false report. This became such a problem that the Entente command began requiring its patrols to carry wirecutters and snip a piece of German wire to bring back with them, thus proving that they had actually been there. Enterprising troops got around that by creatively procuring rolls of captured German wire, from which they could snip off pieces in safety.

In many areas, both sides practiced what the British generals contemptuously referred to as “live and let live”, an agreement, either tacit or open, that “we won’t shoot at you if you don’t shoot at us”. The most famous example of this came in December 1914, when in a large section of the front, a temporary ceasefire to allow burial of the dead turned into a non-sanctioned truce, with troops from both sides mingling with each other, exchanging gifts and stories, and even playing soccer in No Man’s Land. The “Christmas Truce” ended the next day, but it shook the generals so badly that in December 1915, orders were issued authorizing anyone who fraternized with German troops to be shot on the spot.

Nevertheless, there are many accounts of sections of the front where troops on both sides had an “arrangement”. In many cases, this took the form of a simple cease-fire during dinnertime so everyone could eat in peace. In a few areas, though, both sides simply agreed to stop fighting. In some of these cases, one side, forced by an impending visit from some high-ranking officer to plan an artillery barrage, even went so far as to send advance warning to the other side so they could take cover.

By 1917, both the Entente and the German armies were bloodied and exhausted. A significant portion of the French Army broke out in open mutiny, flatly refusing to go out in any more suicidal attacks. The mutineer leaders were arrested, but the generals worried about more rebellion. It seemed as if the war would never end.

Then the United States declared war on Germany.

When Woodrow Wilson joined the Entente alliance in April 1917, the US was a virtual nonentity. Its military was tiny, and the only recent war experience it had was beating the aged and crumbling Spanish Empire in 1898, and ineffectually chasing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico in 1916. The first American troops to arrive in Europe had to be hurriedly provided with French equipment and weapons, since the US had none of its own.

Nevertheless, the entry of the United States was decisive. The Germans knew that not only would America’s massive industrial capacity soon be flooding the battlefield with brand-new equipment and supplies, but the fresh American troops, once they were trained and equipped, would shore up the wounded Entente forces and overwhelm the outnumbered Germans by sheer weight. If Germany were to have any chance at all of winning the war, it would have to be done quickly, before significant numbers of Americans could be trained and shipped to Europe.

The Kaiser had gambled that an all-out offensive by his submarine force would be enough to defeat Britain before the US could effectively intervene. He lost that gamble, however, and Germany seemed inevitably on its way to defeat.

In November 1917, Germany got a second chance.

The war on the Russian front had never bogged down in trench warfare, but the sheer weight of Russian numbers prevented German victory. Nevertheless, the poorly-equipped Russian Army managed nothing more than one spectacular defeat after another, and weariness of the war, combined with hatred for the Tsar, led to Revolution in March 1917. Kerensky’s new Provisional Government, however, made a fatal error—it decided to continue Russia’s participation in the war. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power under the slogan “Bread, Land and Peace”. The Russians quickly withdrew from the Entente and negotiated peace with Germany.

The end of the Eastern front freed up a huge number of German troops, and the Kaiser’s generals acted as rapidly as they could to move these armies to France and use them to beat the French and British before the Americans could begin arriving in large numbers. The 1918 Offensive, the first time since the war began that the German Army went on the strategic attack, was the only remaining opportunity for the Central Powers to save themselves.

The newly-reinforced Germans hit the exhausted British and French like a tidal wave, but it did not break them. The Germans, like the Entente, were unable to overcome the advantages held by the defender in trench warfare. The German offensive broke against British and French machine guns, just as the Entente attacks had always broken against the German.

Only a handful of American troops had so far arrived on the battlefield, but with the failure of the 1918 Offensive, the German generals knew that the war was already over. The Germans withdrew to the heavily-fortified Hindenburg Line and awaited the inevitable Allied assault.

The technical means of breaking the trench stalemate, moreover, now existed, and by mid-1918, with significant numbers of American troops finally beginning to arrive, the Allies were in a position to use it.

In 1916, the British had begun development of a tracked armored vehicle, armed with machine guns and light artillery cannon, that would be able to plow its way through the barbed wire and over the German trenches. Originally called the “land battleship”, it was given the code name “special tank” to hide its nature from German spies, and the name “tank” stuck. The British Mark I tank was first battle-tested in September 1916, and a group of Mark IV tanks proved their potential during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.

The Germans had also developed an armored tank, but were only able to produce 15 of them by the end of the war.

By 1918, the British were turning out sufficient numbers of heavy Mark V tanks and Whippet medium tanks, while the French were manufacturing the Renault light tank. At the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, a force of Allied tanks, supported by ground-attacking airplanes, broke through the German lines. The decisive anti-trench weapon had been found.

Within weeks, the Allies had launched offensives all along the front, and the Germans were unable to stop them. At the same time, labor strikes and rebellions in Germany against the war, led by the German Communists, weakened the Kaiser’s regime. In October 1918, the Kaiser turned over power to an elected Reichstag, and in November, Germany asked for an armistice.

The last day of the war brought the final absurdity of futile death. By dawn on November 11, 1918, every Entente commander knew that the Armistice signed the night before would go into effect at 11 am, and all everyone had to do was sit tight and they would all get to go home intact. Instead, Allied commanders, especially American, launched attacks all along the front, in a final gesture to gain glory or just to strike one last time at the hated enemy. As a result, over 10,000 casualties occurred on the last day of the war, all to try to capture ground that the troops could safely walk across that very afternoon. The last man to die a futile death in World War One was American private Henry Gunther, who was killed at 10:59 am, one minute before the Armistice, while attacking a German machine gun nest.

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