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Weapons of World War One:
Wherever trenches were located, obstacles were usually placed in front of them to slow the enemy advance without giving the enemy cover. Early in the war these tended to be hastily assembled from whatever materials were at hand. Very common was abatis consisting of interlocking tangles of branches with their ends sharpened that stretched out for about thirty feet in front of a trench. To properly create them took time, so sometimes trees were just felled instead. Any amount of time spent to clime over any obstacle increased a soldiers chance of being shot. Improvised defenses could also be supplemented by planks with spikes driven into them, and even broken glass. As the production of barbed wire dramatically increased, wire replaced wood in creating obstacle zones in front of trenches.
Wire entanglements began being used during the American Civil War, but as a defensive measure of opportunity rather than established policy. Spools of wire were fairly common because of their use in building fences, especially in places where neither stone nor wood was readily available. It might seem perfect for keeping cattle out of cultivated land but a determined steer will not let a simple string of wire separate him from a meal. This problem was overcome by F. Gildden in 1867 when he patented a method of tying barbs into a strand of woven wire at intervals. The pain these metal barbs inflicted were enough to deter any large animal from trying to get over this type of wire fence.
The usefulness of barbed wire in warfare quickly became apparent. While it could not stop a soldier from carefully climbing over it, it was enough of a barrier to slow him down. This delay meant being exposed to enemy fire for a longer time, which increased the odds of the attacker being killed before ever reaching the enemy trench. Barbed wire had been used as early as the Spanish-American war in 1898, but it did not see large scale usage until World War One. By then its employment was so widespread it has become synonymous with trench warfare.
By 1917 the Germans became particularly adept at creating wide obstacle zones. Two or three belts of barbed wire about fifteen feet thick were staked down in front of their defense, often placed in hollows to be out of the enemy’s sight. This made them less vulnerable to artillery fire, and it could provide a nasty surprise to attacking soldiers who would then hesitate before it. When barbed wire wasn’t available, regular wire could be staked down close to the ground. This could still substantially slow an attack, and it could prove deadly when used in combination with pointed iron stakes for soldiers to trip on to.
Even though most trench lines ran through open countryside, sometimes towns and villages became the dividing line between two armies. While cellars could be turned into makeshift bunkers, barbed wire that was so effective when strung out in open fields was now staked up in streets and alleyways to prevent movement outside of the trench network.
Because of its extensive use, barbed wire is often a component of many drawn cards of battle scenes. It was however of particular interest to photographers who produce many cards with barbed wire obstacles as their main subject. Some of these wire tangles were so intensely woven that they proved difficult for an illustrator to properly render, while these same properties allowed photographers to experiment with abstract form.
Wire is difficult to destroy with artillery fire because its open structure dilutes the power of a blast. While not impossible to cut by hand, it was difficult to do so. A soldier engaged in wire cutting made himself a prime target on a battlefield. Explosive cylinders, similar to stick grenades, were also detonated under wire entanglements to clear them but they were only used during attacks. Many times small cutting parties would go out into no man’s land under the cover of night to due this dangerous work. Darkness did not yield complete security. Tin cans were sometimes attached to the wire whose jangling would alert enemy snipers that were always on the lookout. Wire cutting became a routine practice at night when an attack was pending as even a small gap could save many lives. While a widespread activity and one that is now often associated with trench warfare, it is poorly represented on postcards.
Explosive cylinders, similar to stick grenades, were also detonated under wire entanglements to clear them. They were usually filled with gelignite, a clay-like explosive material that could easily be packed into tubes. Unlike dynamite or gun powder, it could be safely handled under battle conditions as it could only be set off with a detonator. Since the explosion would be obvious to the enemy, these devises were only useful during an attack. Gelignite tubes were not widely deployed, and do not show up often on postcards.
If cut or destroyed by artillery fire, barbed wire obstacles could easily be replaced unless an attack was eminent. This was usually accomplished under the cover of darkness when wire laying parties would emerge from their trenches and wander into no man’s land with spools of wire. Handling barbed wire in the dark often led to injuries though there was far more danger from enemy fire. Even at night the slightest noise could draw attention and all could be killed. Muffled mallets were first used to pound the stakes that held the wire into the ground but they still proved to be too loud. They would eventually be replaced by screw pickets that could be silently twisted into the ground. Sometimes the work was gruesome as they had to untangle putrid bodies from the wire, but this crosses the line of what publishers were willing to depict on cards.
Self-supporting wooden structures strung with barbed wire were also constructed behind the front line out of the enemy’s sight, and then carried into place in front of the trench line at night. When used in numbers they could be wired or chained together to make it difficult for the enemy to move them during an attack.
During the War, the Germans began using razor wire, which was die-cut in long strips from sheet metal. They had a continuous serrated edge of sharp pointy spikes that were nearly impossible to cut and impervious to artillery fire. While razor wire could be nailed to wooden posts like ordinary wire, belts of it were often just spooled out into obstacle zones as their more rigid structure did not require them to be secured to supporting structures. Only tanks could move through them with impunity. Razor wire was used extensively on German defenses near Ypres and was nicknamed Flanders Hedges (Flandern Zaun).
The vast amount of postcards depicting trenches came from Germany. While many cards from all nations depict their soldiers bravely fending off enemy attacks or assaulting enemy lines, the Germans produced just as many if not more that reveal the close quarters and daily tasks that were part of everyday life in the trenches. These scenes may not have revealed the worst of it, but neither did they glorify the situation. Their matter of fact narratives gives the sense that these are honest depictions.
For the average soldier much of trench life consisted of boredom. To help prevent discipline from disintegrating a very regiment schedule was set up for most troops consisting of meals, cleaning, washing, digging, and for the British, tea. Even so there was free time to be had with very little to fill it. Books played an important role in keeping soldiers occupied but there was always too few of them when compared to the need. Although diaries were prohibited as they might reveal sensitive information if captured, many soldiers ignored orders and extensively scribbled away in journals. Corresponding with those at home also helped fill the quiet moments, which is why it was so important for morale. Letters were written read, and read over again, often being shared with comrades. Postcards played an important role here because they were cheaper to mail than a letter. Correspondence was such a major part of soldier’s lives that it became an important theme for postcards.
Men engaged in all sorts of occupations volunteered or were conscripted for service in the Great War, and some of these were artists. Many continued to work in this capacity at the front when opportunity arose and resources were available. Late in the War, the talents of a number of these men were recognized and they were given the status of official war artists to capture military life in the field. Most artists however continued serving in the trenches with no official capacity. Some found the opportunity to exhibit this work while the War still raged; and sometimes it would be sold to a publisher who reproduced it on postcards. While rules varied from nation to nation, works of art whether created at the front or at home generally needed the approval of censors before it could be publicly shown. This limited their scope but many of these cards still manage to capture a real sense of place.
Along with art created for public consumption, many soldiers drew pictures on blank postals for the eyes of friends and family alone. While some of these were professional artists, many more were just ordinary soldiers who sketched to pass the time. The primitive nature of these handmade postcards gives them much immediacy as they were not concerned with artistic or popular trends. While these pictures first needed official approval before they could be mailed, many questionable cards got through because sensors concentrated on editing words not imagery. These types of cards still exist in large numbers, though those created by now famous artists are mostly to be found in cultural institutions.
Most front line sketches capture the boredom of camp life rather than the drama of battle. While this might represent the times when soldiers were the most free to engage in such personal work, it probably was the most representative of life in the trenches. Men are often seen just lying around. While they could just be posing, the sense is that they were drawn because they became easy models by doing nothing. Even when engaged in activities, they are very limited and are repeated over and over again on postcards. While their message is to show soldiers fine and safe, they cannot help but inspire melancholy. Many of these images were placed on fieldpost cards for general or regimental use.
The only real break from monotony many of these soldiers serving in the trenches had was when they were faced with life or death situations. While major offensives were usually preceded by days of bombardment, smaller attacks and raids could be very sudden. A number of postcards represent the moment an alarm is sounded and men come scrambling out of their shelters to defend their trench. The failure of a sentry to sound an alarm could mean everyone’s deaths.
For the average soldier, airpower played an insignificant role in their day to day life early in the War when they were more a curiosity than a menace. Airplanes were primarily engaged in reconnaissance missions, and when they did fight they shot at each other. As time went on their role expanded into fighter aircraft, and they began supplying close air support to ground attacks. For the men in the trenches tis meant that they were now bombed and strafed with machine gun fire from above. While trenches tended to be defended with plenty of machine guns, they were heavy and bulky and difficult to reorient in a hurry. To cope with this new threat some guns began to be remounted just for anti-aircraft duty.
In some sectors rats became a huge problem as their burrowing habits allowed them to easily coexist with the men living in the trenches. Their numbers grew to excessive proportions whenever excessive supplies of food were at hand. Their best source was no man’s land where a nearly inexhaustible supply of unburied dead and body parts were usually available after a battle. Rats became a real problem when they invaded the underground living quarters of soldiers in bombproofs in search of their rations. Many ingenious methods were developed to hide food from rats but few of these fully worked. One can also imagine that artillery fire scared rats as much as men, causing them so seek shelter further underground with solders. Rats became a particular problem in winter when the ground froze and sustenance grew scarce. They were known to attack men for food, and a number of postcards were published with solders waking up in the middle of night covered in rats; though it is difficult to fathom who the audience was for this type of imagery.
While there was no way to completely eliminate the presence of rats in trenches, their numbers could be kept down in various ways. Cats were often outsized by rats with a limitless supply of food, so some breeds of dogs were kept in the trenches that would specifically hunt for them. Soldiers would also organize rat hunts to at least temporarily drive these creatures away; and if unsuccessful, it at least gave the men something to do. These hunts can be judged popular by the number of real photo postcards that were produced showing soldiers posing with strings of dead rats as trophies.
Though postcards did not portray trench life as glamorous in any way, rarely did they capture the close presence of death. Where censorship did not prohibit it, public taste did not demand it. Bodies and body parts often lay around for some time. When they couldn’t be removed, they would be buried in place but they did not always stay in place. Incoming artillery fire had a way of churning up the ground and everything in it. After a while soldiers just began to accept these sights as part of everyday life. Portraying such gruesome scenes for people back home was another matter, so it is surprising to find cards that do. They are often softened by a bit of black humor.
Life for the average soldier on each side of the trench line was not easy. If extreme hardships were not so easily expressed during the war years, then many participants who had the skill to capture it did so once the War was over. Some of these might seem excessively dramatic such as those drawn by Wilhelm Sauter that were placed on Continental sized postcards, but they are drawn from his own experiences while fighting at the Somme. Through firsthand accounts even the postwar production of postcards can still produce a feeling of immediacy.
Although there was a general prohibition against photography at the battlefront, it seems that many officers brought their own cameras with them. Enforcement was lax at first, probably because it did not seem that the images taken could do much damage in a short war; but as the conflict dragged on, this prohibition led to arrests. While there are many anonymous scenes of carnage captured on real photo postcards, most pictures seem to be of fellow soldiers posing in the trenches, just like a snapshot taken at home.
Not all of trench life was boredom for it was not easy for a soldier to forget he was involved in a life and death struggle. Snipers were a constant menace. At first this activity was not organized; mostly former gun club members and hunters now taking it upon themselves to hunt for human prey. Eventually snipers received further training and specialized weapons to better carry out their task. It reached the point where anyone who exposed himself above a parapet was bound to get shot. Many postcards were produced to represent snipers but not in the proportion to their presence. All snipers were very unpopular with the ordinary soldier because they helped make trench life more of a hell than it already was. Death was always an accepted possibility in battle but where there were snipers in the mix; there would never be a quiet moment.
Sniping generally took place at close range so it was very difficult for a shooter to find a good position to fire from and not be seen in the process. They often had to change position if they wanted to avoid retaliation but there were only a limited number of good vantage points. The small loopholes in the trench wall, sometimes protected with armor plating rarely gave snipers the desired view they needed to work effectively. Snipers eventually began to camouflage themselves to get into better positions closer to the enemy. A popular rouse were faux dead trees that were manufactured just for this purpose. Their basic problem was that they were too conspicuous where trees were sparse.
If opposing trench lines existed for any period of time, every detail of no man’s land between them would have been well scrutinized an recorded. Each side was constantly looking for clues that would reveal their opponents intentions or weaknesses. This made it very difficult for snipers not to be spotted when working here. The most transient aspect of no man’s land were the bodies of those left behind after a battle or raid. Snipers soon found that they would draw little attention if they hid in paper machete carcasses of horses and men that were positioned in the darkness of night.
Troops manning trenches sometimes made life-size puppets to attract an enemy sniper’s attention. While some of this was done out of sheer boredom and took the form of play, it was often a serious ruse used to discover the location of snipers. If a lookout could spot the flash of the gun that fired upon a puppet, the sniper might be quickly fired at by friendly snipers or even a mortar before he could change his location. The elimination of these positions was important when preparing for any activity where soldiers would have to expose themselves to enemy fire.
While the presence of snipers made it difficult to impossible to see over the wall of a trench, this did not eliminate the need to do so. The enemy’s defenses had to be constantly monitored for any changes, and sentries had to be on the lookout for raids or attacks. One solution was the periscope, a mirrored optical device that allowed a viewer to look over a wall without exposing themselves to enemy fire. Despite their careful placement and camouflage, these devices were often disabled by snipers who endlessly searched for them. The earliest devices were homemade, which were far more common among the Allies since they lacked the fine optical glass that was almost entirely produced in Germany. Eventually they struck a deal in which Germany sent the Allies this valuable glass in exchange for their valuable supplies of rubber. There are far more postcards depicting trench periscopes than there are of snipers.