World War I was a military conflict that lasted from 1914 to 1918. It was a modern war with airplanes, machine guns, and tanks. However, the commanders often fought World War I as if it were a 19th Century war. They would march their troops across open land into the face of machine guns and often slaughter. As a result of this action, a tactic known as trench warfare was implemented.
The most recent use of use of trench warfare, before World War I, took place during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). This war attracted worldwide attention among military authorities that were interested in studying the latest technology used in war. Many viewed trench warfare to be an effective tactic against enemy advancement. Because of this view, trench warfare proved to be, in World War I, an ineffective and traumatizing experience for all.
In September 1914, the German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered his troops to dig trenched that would provide protection from the allied troops. When the allies reached the trench, they soon realized that they could not break through the line that the trench provided. They also realized that the trench provided the Germans with shelter from their fire. Soon after, the allies began to dig their own trenches and, therefore, trench warfare began.
Not very long, after the first trenches of the war were dug, a network of trenches arose. This network spread across France and Belgium for many miles. Within the network, there were three different types of trenches: front line trenches, support trenches, and reserve trenches.
The first line of trenches was called front line trenches. These were usually two meters deep and had a zigzag pattern to prevent enemy fire from sweeping the entire length of the trench. In order to prevent the trench form caving in, sandbags were stacked against the trench walls. Between the trenches of opposing forces laid no man’s land. This area between the opposing front line trenches was filled with barbwire and mines to prevent enemy crossing. If a soldier was ever injured in no man’s land, he usually was killed because of his vulnerability to enemy fire.
The second and third types of trenches were the support and reserve trenches, respectively. These trenches were constructed to easily move supplies and troops to the front trenches. All of the trenches were linked to each other by other trenches, underground tunnels, or telephone communications networks. Barbwire was also stretched across the line to protect from enemy attack.
While the design of the trenches and the network of trenches seemed like a great tactic, the reality of the life in the trenches was a different story. Life in the trenches took its toll on the soldiers involved in the war. The soldiers in the front line trenches often stayed there for at least 10 days at a time, usually with very little sleep. “Katczinsky is right when he says it would not be such a bad war if only one could get more sleep. In the line we have next to none, and fourteen days is a long time at one stretch”(p.2). The main reason that soldiers on the front line could not sleep was to be on guard against enemy sneak attacks.
Another reason that the soldiers were very tired is that night was used as a time for preparation and maintenance of the trenches. The trenches were constantly being destroyed, either by enemy shellfire, or water damage. Many times, soldiers would be buried alive by the collapsing trench walls. Paul, in All Quiet on the Western Front, states “Our trench is almost gone. At many places, it is only eighteen inches high, it is broken by holes, and craters, and mountains of earth.”(p.107).
Along with very little sleep and the destruction of trenches, soldiers also had to worry about contracting trench foot. Trench foot is an infection of the feet caused by wet and insanitary conditions. Soldiers stood for hours on end in waterlogged trenches without being able to remove wet socks or boots. This caused their feet to gradually go numb and their skin to turn red or blue. If these conditions went untreated, they would turn gangrenous and result in amputation.
Another major concern for soldiers in the trenches was dysentery. Dysentery is a disease involving the inflammation of the lining of the large intestine. The inflammation caused stomach pains, diarrhea, and usually vomiting or fever. The main causes of dysentery were bacteria entering the body through the mouth, contact with human feces, and contact with infected people. Dysentery mainly struck the soldiers because of improper sanitation from latrine use in the trenches.
Another major concern for soldiers in the trenches was the rats. Many times, in the trenches, the bodies of soldiers were buried in the walls of the trenches. If a wall fell, a large number of decomposing bodies would become exposed. These corpuses, as well as food scraps, attracted large numbers of rats. As Paul states in All Quiet on the Western Front, “The rats here are particularly repulsive, they are so fat – the kind we call corpse rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails.”(p.102). The rats would feast on the eyes of the dead soldiers first and then hollow out the remainder of the corpse. Since one pair of rats can produce 880 offspring per year, one can only imagine the number of rats that swarmed the trenches.
Trench warfare lasted for about four years. At the end of World War I, the network of trenches extended for more than 600 miles across the countryside. Through the course of the war, many soldiers lost their lives not only to the fighting that was involved, but also to the extreme conditions that they had to endure in the trenches. Many years after the war, authorities realized the actual cost of trench warfare. World War I was the last time that the tactic of trench warfare was ever used.
Remarque, Erich Maria (1958). All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books.
Strout, J. (1997). Life in the Trenches. [On-line]. Available: http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/recollect/audio.htm (July 1999).
Thomas, R. (1999). On the Fire Step. [On line]. Available: http://users.erols.com/rhephner/index.html (July 1999).
Wright, J.R. (1998). World War One. [On Line]. Available: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co (July 1999).