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Weapons of World War One:
Trench Warfare  pt1


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Trenches and earthworks were used in warfare well before World War One, often to the dismay of generals who felt that fighting behind defensive works was a cowardly act that damaged the fighting spirit of an army. Others of course realized that these types of defenses saved lives, none more than the soldiers themselves who quickly learned to dig in even without orders to do so. When trenches began appearing across the landscape during the Great War, they were just an immediate tactical response to certain conditions on the battlefield, not a strategic philosophy. All the belligerents initially believed that a policy of offensive warfare was the only sensible route to victory and that mobile warfare would resume with the spring. While this prediction was based on historic precedent, it did not take into account advancements in technology that made the killing fields between armies ever more deadly and breaches of defenses ever more difficult to achieve.

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By World War One most infantry units were equipped with some sort of entrenching tools as standard gear. The location of the defenses they built were not always on the best chosen ground as soldiers began to dig in where they stopped to face the enemy. These defensive positions were usually nothing more that hastily dug holes with an embankment, designed to increase the odds of self-preservation. These works might be improved upon, but this was not always easy or even possible if under enemy fire. Very often they only served as a temporary measure with soldiers soon advancing beyond these positions or with more substantial defenses being dug to their rear to fall back on.

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The initial German strategy on the Western Front entailed a giant pivot through Belgium that would eventually outflank the French armies and roll them up. They nearly succeeded, but when the German High command finally realized that a battlefield victory would not force France to surrender, they abandoned their offensive. Armed forces of a modern industrial state had just become too large to surround. With no workable strategy they withdrew to the most defensible ground and began to entrench. As each side tried to gain the others flank a number of sharp engagements were fought that extended the trench line into Flanders and only ended when they reached the sea. By October 1914, a continuous line of trenches had been constructed from the Swiss border near Belfort to the English Channel at Nieuport in Belgium.

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The Allies launched offensives through the winter to try to break through the German defenses erected on the Western Front but none were successful. Generals did not yet realize that a new type of warfare had beset Europe. The inability to recognize a stalemate led to further offensives being launched through 1915 with no better results. Such attacks would grow larger as the War continued but they never achieved more than modest gains. Trenches and the life that grew around them became one of the prime subjects for postcard production.

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While the initial trench lines started by infantrymen where they halted were rather makeshift, they tended to grow into more complex structures the longer they remained static. As the Western Front turned into a stalemate, deeper and more complex lines began to be dug that were backed by reserve trenches, artillery and machine gun emplacements, and all connected with as many communication trenches as possible. Most of this more sophisticated system would be constructed by pioneer units that had the specialized tools and engineering skills needed to create them. This work would be supplemented by prisoners of war or in the Allied case by labor battalions largely recruited from Asia.

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Postcards depicting large machines called Trench Diggers can be very misleading, especially when pictured together with soldiers or when they were issued during the War. While some machines were used in trench construction behind the front lines where they would not be the target of enemy artillery fire, most work was done by hand. Pioneer units would provide much of the skilled work while labor battalions did much of the digging. While a trench digging machine sounds like a soldiers dream, these devices were designed to only dig a shallow trench primarily for the placement of pipes. They were more likely to be found at construction sites than in war zones. The trench digger pictured on the card above has some military associations as it was used to help build Camp Devens in Massachusetts. It was one of many temporary cantonments constructed from scratch in 1917 to process and train soldiers before they were shipped overseas.

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When the Germans adopted a policy of deep defense at the end of 1914, some of these fortified trench lines grew to three layers deep. While this added space was designed so that troops had a secure place to withdraw to and launch counterattacks from, it also gave pioneers the freedom to build more elaborate defenses in the relative peace to the rear. While all armies had guidelines for building trenches drawn up by engineers before the War, perhaps the best manual was the Stellungsbau, that by 1916 provided the Germans with the most consistent policy when it came to building trenches. These works tended to be better constructed than their Allied counterparts most likely because they came to assume a largely defensive strategy on the Western Front. The complacency of the Allies would come to haunt them when the Germans launched their spring offensive in 1918 and quickly overran the trenches in front of them. Many postcards show pioneers at work building trenches.

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Although each nation’s army had a different philosophy as to what made the best trench, they were largely supported by sandbags and dirt filled wicker cylinders known as gabions. Sandbags allowed for quick repairs to be made as they were self-supporting. The bag was light to transport and the fill could be found on the spot where it was to be used. Gabions, which had been utilized since medieval times were used in a similar manner but they could be made in any size to fit a particular need. Once filled the gabion was too heavy to move so it was first staked into position where needed. The characteristics of a trench often varied due to its location and what other materials of convenience like planks, logs, corrugated metal, and wattle could be found.

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A well built trench was usually one that was deep enough to completely shelter its occupants from direct fire at ground level. It would have a fire step along one of its walls that was used to raise a soldier’s height to firing level. These steps could also perform as seating. Loopholes were created in the earthen embankment at ground level to fire through so that soldiers could minimize their exposure to enemy fire. Many of these loopholes would eventually be supplemented with shutters and iron plates for further protection. Roofs were sometimes constructed over the firing position to protect troops from splinters raining down on them from blasts. Some of these were only makeshift while others heavily reinforced, but none could withstand a direct hit from incoming shellfire.

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The distances between friendly and enemy trenches could vary considerably, and sometimes they were just too close for necessary construction or repair work to be done. When within sight of the enemy this type of work was impossible to take on; so what could not be done in the light of day without becoming a target was largely performed under the cover of darkness. Even work to the rear was sometimes only accomplished at night and then camouflaged by day to keep it hidden from enemy observers. This was especially important when weapons and ammunition were being stockpiled in anticipation of a new offensive. Any activity that was meant to be kept out of enemy sight often made it difficult to portray on postcards. A number of artists still found ways to render night work.

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It was often the character of the land that determined the way a trench would be built. In high altitudes were the ground was particularly rocky, soldiers could only dig trenches a few feet deep, which severely limited their protective value. High ground in other places offered opportunities to dig trenches that were deeper than usual. While typical trench works were opened topped with only a few having roofs, some trenches on hilltops were turned into deep mazes that were sometimes combined with large networks of underground tunnels. These types of trenches are captured far less on postcards because their cavern like appearance is not always easy to express.

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When forced to construct a trench line in a hurry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. While economical in terms of materials and in speed, it was soon found that long trenches had many drawbacks in combat. Much of this was already known by pioneers in theory, but the effects of very large guns on trenches had never been experienced before. Construction of long straightaways were eventually avoided when possible to help isolate the power of blasts from incoming mortars. This also helped to limit the damage the enemy could inflict if the trench was taken because it limited the field of fire and it made it easier to isolate any captured portion.

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The undistinguished complexes of zigzags that evolved from this policy soon turned into mazes. As it was too dangerous to get a sense of baring by looking over a trench wall, informal street signs written on boards or punched out of tins went up to offer soldiers some sense of direction. The names on these often bore some connection to places back home, or they could be an expression of a dark sense of humor. Some signs also provided warnings of dangers particular to that spot like snipers.

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When new trench systems were not carefully being constructed behind behind existing lines, they sometimes had to deal with terrain and manmade features that were problematic. Villages could add to a defense but collapsing buildings hit by enemy artillery fire could prove a hazard. Likewise moving men and supplies down open streets too close to the front presented good targets. Very often communication trenches had to be dug through buildings, breaking through walls house to house of entire blocks as if they were just a natural obstacle in the landscape.

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Rifles were often left propped up atop a trench or positioned in loopholes. This saved time when an alarm was sounded for solders to leave their bunkers and quickly man their positions. Everyone knew where their rifle was at all times. This practice also confused the observant enemy lookout as to how many soldiers were manning a trench at any given moment.

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Early in the conflict as many soldiers as possible were packed into a thin trench line to maximize their firepower but it was soon discovered that this left them highly vulnerable to infiltration fire and high explosives. Later in the War the German front lines were usually only lightly manned. They would surrender them if too hard pressed, and then launch a counterattack with fresh troops from the second line against an exhausted enemy now holding the first. As more machine guns were employed it was soon found that less men could hold the same length of trench.

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Strongpoints were built intermittently along and behind trench lines to house machine guns, mortars, and observation posts. They were carefully placed where they could maximize their fire potential while keeping them as well hidden from the enemy as possible. At first many of these positions were reinforced with logs even to the point of building blockhouses.

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By 1916 the Germans began using concrete extensively to shore up trench walls and construct pillboxes. This practice became so common that cement works were set up just behind the front lines to produce prefabricated concrete blocks. Their use varied greatly in purpose; some just providing shelter to a handful of troops while others performed as strongpoints armed with machine guns. Some of these concrete positions were even built to house large guns. Few postcards exist depicting these concrete strongpoints, perhaps because they were designed to blend in to the terrain and were not very distinguishable within a composition. With no precedent to rely on, artists would have also had a difficult time illustrating these structures that they were forbidden to observe, and make them understandable to the public back home.

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While concrete pillboxes offered a great deal of protection against small arms fire and shrapnel from bombs, their ability to offer protection diminished in proportion to the size of high explosive shells directed against them. In Flanders where the water table was high, the Germans built many pillboxes higher above ground than they would normally do in better conditions. These became formidable obstacles to Allied infantry, but there exposed positions also made them easier for Allied artillery to target. Many were destroyed by railway guns as they could not survive a direct hit from their high caliber shells. Most postcards depicting pillboxes were real photos produced after the War that pictured them in a ruined state.

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General Pershing leading the American Expeditionary Force despised trench warfare and tried to keep the battlefield fluid with his open warfare doctrine once enemy defenses were breached. While this aggressive stance kept the Americans pressing forward, it came at a great cost in casualties against an enemy adept in defense. American troops were forced to dig some trench lines as their advance slowed in the Argonne; but since they were only viewed as a temporary protective measure, they never reached the complexities of design found in German defenses. Despite Pershing’s philosophy, American soldiers had plenty of practice digging trenches as part of their training back in the United States. If American trench lines in France are difficult to find, there is no shortage of cards showing soldiers digging or occupying trenches back at their camps in the States.

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Most soldiers did not quarter in the front line trenches but were placed more safely and comfortably to the rear. If enough troops were available they could be rotated in and out of the trenches on a regular basis. A series of winding communication trenches connected rear positions with the front to shuttle men forward in a hurry when they were needed. The types of shelters soldiers lived in were very dependent on the terrain and the natural materials available, which also largely determined their comfort.

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Whenever possible, soldiers dug quarters into the dead side of hills that protected them from direct artillery fire. If the hill was steep enough, it might even be difficult for the plunging fire of howitzers to hit. In these places very creative engineering skills were often required to accomplish this task. The more unusual the result, the more likely it would become the subject of a photograph.

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The war torn fields of Flanders is usually the first image that comes to mind today when thinking about living in the trenches during World War One. In this flat terrain men burrowed into the earth, but in many other regions trenches were built through heavily wooded areas where access to lumber was readily available. The poor lines of sight in these areas often made structures less vulnerable to artillery fire, allowing cabin-like shelters to be built. The light and air that came into these above ground quarters must have been a huge improvement over living in a dugout.

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Soldiers tended to build themselves the most comfortable quarters possible but terrain often led to severe restrictions. Comfort was also often dependent upon how long a battlefront remained static. Where there was no movement, soldiers slowly made improvements unafraid that their labor would go to waste. On more fluid fronts a shelter might consist of nothing but interwoven branches, sometimes coated with mud. These transient quarters were captured on postcards just as often as more elaborate structures.

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While soldiers held in reserve could be quartered in reasonable comfort, those on the front line were usually sheltered in small semi-underground dugouts sometimes called bombproofs. Their roofs were heavily reinforced to protect the occupants from incoming shells, but nothing offered protection from the largest guns and they were also vulnerable to poison gas drifting close to the ground. German quarters were usually dug deeper than their Allied counterparts.

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As the War progressed, bombproofs were built deeper and deeper into the ground to compensate for heavier artillery barrages. Eventually the Germans began to construct elaborate underground bunkers out of concrete that could usually handle the worst of Allied shelling. This allowed front line troops to survive bombardments that were so dense they were meant to kill all defenders. They could then emerge intact to fight off the arriving infantry attack.

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German trenches tended to grow stronger and much more complex as the War progressed. This was in part due to the close integration of pioneer units with infantry that made men with the proper expertise and tools always available for such work. When pioneers are pictured on postcards, it is often in their more traditional role as bridge builders, but images can be found of them engaged in all sorts of construction including deep bunker systems.

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The trench line on the Western Front stretched for such a distance that the various types of terrain it crossed dramatically changed the trench experience. The French who held most of the Allied line had no set policy when it came to entrenchments, and their quality was often determined by local commanders. Some sectors became heavily fortified while others offered scant protection at best. Despite their long tradition of military engineering, French entrenchments generally lacked the organization and depth used by the British further down the line.

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In Flanders where the land was flat and the water table high, digging any sort of trench posed immense problems. Trenches here would often fill with water, especially when the complex system of drainage in the region was destroyed by years of shelling. This did not only make life here uncomfortable, it posed many serious health risks to ailments such as trench foot that could turn flesh gangrenous.

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The British who held much of this sector usually placed duckboards at the bottom of the trench to help alleviate these wet and muddy conditions. In some places layers were continuously built upwards to try to keep up with the rising mud. Sometimes these duckboards were placed over a prefabricated framework to keep the water flowing beneath them. Pumps were also used to get rid of water but there was really no place for it to permanently go. Although trenches were also built upwards to compensate for rising water, it was a bad option because it did not take much to stand out in this flat terrain, and standing out made you a target. For too many soldiers, trying to stay dry was a constant struggle.

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In sectors like the Argonne Forest or the Vosges Mountains that were heavily wooded, trenches tended to fall closer to one another due to poor lines of sight. Direct artillery fire was rare, so in some spots entrenchments were built upwards with dirt and logs resembling the more traditional construction of breastworks. Attacks made here were often furious but limited in scope since it was difficult to precisely control unfolding events in this rugged terrain. Even artillery and machine guns, which dramatically changed the modern battlefield, could not be used to their best advantage here. These conditions changed dramatically as the continuous struggle for control over this area destroyed much of the forest. Early and late depictions of both sectors found on postcards can be startlingly different.

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Although trench warfare has come to represent the Western Front, it was used extensively in most other theaters of War. In the Balkans there was extensive trench system set up in Macedonia that separated the Bulgarians from the Allies holding Solonika. The failure of British and Anzac forces to break out from their beach heads at Gallipoli resulted in intense trench warfare with the Turks. Though the Eastern Front proved to be rather mobile, much fighting still took place against fortified lines. The Russians had a formidable trench system protecting the port of Riga. Although postcards exist of these fronts, there are not many that capture the essence of trench warfare.

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After the Russians made a general retreat on the Eastern Front in 1915, the Austro-Hungarian army constructed an elaborate line of trenches to protect their conquests in Galicia. These defenses were mostly five lines deep supported with concrete strongpoints. Believing the Russians were finished and these defenses impregnable, most reserves were redeployed to other fronts. The Austro-Hungarians were taken by complete surprise in June 1916 when after a brief bombardment focused in on their strongpoints, the entire Russian army under Brusilov got up and marched forward. With few reserves to draw on and danger poised everywhere they could not quickly shift troops to prevent a Russian breakthrough. As strong as defensive works might be, it has been shown that they can be overcome if not backed with a good defensive strategy.

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Trench warfare dominated the Italian Front from Austro-Hungarian defenses on the Isonzo to the Italian stronghold on top of Mt. Grappa. Perhaps the most extreme form of trench warfare took place on the Alpine Dolomite front where defenses extended into altitudes above 12,000 feet. It was almost impossible to dig in this rocky ground, so there wal little protection to be had unless defenses could be built up with rocks. There are many postcards representing this theater of war from both belligerents on postcards. Although many of these cards come surprisingly close to capturing the harsh winter conditions, few capture the truly desperate nature of the fighting that took place there.

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Before the war began, Austria-Hungary built a number of stone fortifications to guard the approaches to strategic passes through the rugged terrain of the Dolomites. They were often needed where the solid rock faces of the mountains could not be dug into to construct trenches. This type of construction only made sense because forts could be placed in positions where high caliber guns could not be brought to bear against them. Even so they became too vulnerable to attack when there weren’t enough troops to man them. The Austro-Hungarians then abandoned these forts to take up more natural mountain positions that were practically impregnable.

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After the Russians made a general retreat on the Eastern Front in 1915, the Austro-Hungarian army constructed an elaborate line of trenches to protect their conquests in Galicia. These defenses were mostly five lines deep supported with concrete strongpoints. Believing the Russians were finished and these defenses impregnable, most reserves were redeployed to other fronts. The Austro-Hungarians were taken by complete surprise in June 1916 when after a brief bombardment focused in on their strongpoints, the entire Russian army under Brusilov got up and marched forward. With few reserves to draw on and danger poised everywhere they could not quickly shift troops to prevent a Russian breakthrough. As strong as defensive works might be, it has been shown that they can be overcome if not backed with a good defensive strategy.




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