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Weapons of World War One:
Trench Warfare  pt3


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The term no man’s land was used since the 14th century to describe the space lying between friendly and enemy trench lines that neither side could claim control over. Even today it has an ominous ring to it as it has become an essential part of the Great War myth. This area was not completely devoid of troops since sentries, snipers, forward observers for artillery, and listening posts all made this area their domain. Deserters would sometimes take refuge here, plundering the dead for resources to keep them alive. They all found shelter from enemy fire in the countless shell holes that usually pot marked this zone.

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Although no man’s land is a generic term, the space between trench lines could vary greatly in distance and the type of terrain it was spread over. In some places enemy lines were close enough to hurl bombs over by hand, while elsewhere the enemy was so faraway he could barely be seen. It is the crater filled treeless flatlands of Flanders that has become stereotyped, probably because of its ease to represent and the sense of devastation it conjures up. Attacks in such places were not just difficult because of the torn up landscape, the sameness of it all often disoriented troops especially when under fire.

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Even when no battles were raging each side would send out patrols into no man’s land at night when they had the best chance to advance unseen. They were largely meant to gather intelligence though observation and the taking of prisoners. They would cut the enemies barbed wire and hamper their repair. This was dangerous work and sometimes adversaries would meet up in no man’s land and vicious hand to hand combat would ensue. The British in particular believed in sending out patrols so that their men would not grow too complacent sitting in the trenches. While this forms so much of our own picture of the Great War, this aspect received scant attention on postcards.

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The darkness of no man’s land and the trenches is hard to fathom. Since the human eye is highly perceptive to light at night, campfires, cigarettes and any form of illumination was prohibited on the front lines so not to pinpoint position. The only source of light to move by was the moon, which was neither reliable due to weather or consistent. Trenches were already a maze of zigzags confusing by day, and if attacked at night, confusion was sure to follow. This atmosphere was not only difficult to capture on postcards, buyers of any sort of imagery tend to shy away from scenes that are too dark unless dramatically illuminated. Most cards depicting the night are far more bright than reality.

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The use of flares for signaling is almost as old as gunpowder itself. Their ability to produce a brilliant light also made them useful on the battlefront at night, only here they were often used to illuminate the no man’s land that sat between entrenched lines. They were usually shot out of flare pistols on the suspicion of enemy activity. In a night setting soldiers creeping through the dark could easily be spotted and shot if they did not hug the ground right away. Since a flare was not designed to explode, its illumination lasted longer than that given off by the burst of a bomb. The use of star shells fired by artillery prolonged the life of flares in the sky. They would ignite in mid-air by means of a fuse and then fall slowly to earth suspended by a small parachute.

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Some of these night patrols venturing out into no man’s land were large enough to be termed raids that developed into outright skirmishes. The Canadians became particularly feared for these types of actions. Often the place of attack would be reconnoitered for weeks to pick out their strong and weak points, and to find the routes to them that offered the best protection. A successful raid often caused a great deal of destruction and death.

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Soldiers often used knives and homemade weapons like spiked clubs and sharpened entrenching tools to add stealth to the attack. After a few prisoners were taken for interrogation, everyone else was to be killed including the wounded. Grenades and bombs were hurled into bunkers where men slept blowing them apart before they could respond to an alarm. These raids lowered enemy morale to the point that many evaded their duty in forward positions, which in turn made their line even more vulnerable to future attacks while reducing the attacker’s casualties.

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Many of those who were wounded out in no man’s land were left there to die. There were usually standing orders that forbade their rescue so not to risk additional casualties. Seeing and hearing wounded comrades suffer was often too much for soldiers to bare, and they risked their lives to bring them back to safety regardless of orders. Much of this work took place during the cover of night. Sometimes daylight truces to bring the wounded into the safety of friendly lines were informally arranged by front line soldiers, but these were always subject to sudden cancellation by officers who got wind of them. Making any sort of arrangement with the enemy was strictly forbidden but respect for the rule seemed to decline as you went down in rank. Very often the best a wounded man could expect in no man’s land was mercy through a sniper’s bullet.

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There are numerous postcards that depict hand to hand combat inside of trenches, so many in fact that it is easy to conclude that this was a major form of combat during the Great War. While this type of fighting did take place during some raids and assaults, and was often exceedingly vicious, it was also fairly uncommon. Most attacks on trenches failed before a charge got anywhere near that close; and if it did succeed, a trench might just be abandoned. The exception was when trenches ran through dense woods and the enemy might close in relatively unseen.

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Despite the trend of postcard publishers to depict combat on a more personal level, violence is only portrayed up to the level of public acceptance. Wars produce all sorts of horrible wounds, and put men in unspeakable situations that could never be shown on cards. The fighting that did occur in trenches was often nightmarish. If an attack was successful, the first wave usually pressed on and a second wave of trench cleaners followed to rid the defenses of any of any survivors left behind. Combat at close quarters was often brutal using grenades and flame throwers. When the Americans arrived, shotguns were added into the mix. Artists who experienced such horrors only portrayed them as such in the postwar years, and they still rarely found their way onto postcards outside of art reproductions.

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The vast majority of soldiers killed or maimed were the product of artillery fire. Though trenches offered some protection, soldiers in them were still vulnerable to the plunging fire provided by howitzers, mortars, and mine throwers that all came into common use during the War. Most of the time soldiers killed an unseen enemy or were killed by them, but this sort of unanimity did not well suit public expectations. The romance surrounding the war was built upon personal encounters that could show off a warrior’s virtues and superiority. There were postcard publishers that tried to approximate reality, but most naturally followed the public’s wishes and found the most exciting imagery and narratives in order to secure sales.

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In medieval times the impregnable walls of mighty castles were sometimes breached through the digging of mines. These tunnels would be dug under the walls and then propped up with timber. When these supports were set ablaze the heavy stone wall would collapse under its own weight. As time went on, this method grew more efficient and evolved into the practice of blowing up trenches and earthen forts with large quantities of explosives placed in chambers dug beneath them. The size of these detonations varied widely depending on the objectives they were supposed to achieve. Usually they were only meant to eliminate troublesome strongpoints before an attack.

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At the beginning of the war there were no men specifically trained for mining operations because no one foresaw an entrenched stalemated front. Towards the end of December 1914 the Germans blew the first mines under British positions at Givenchy. In response the British began to form Brigade sized mining sections, and by February 1915 they blew the first mine under German lines. Afterwards more mining units on the company level were formed, mostly made up of men who had long engaged in tunneling as a livelihood. Countermines were also dug in hopes of discovering any tunnels growing toward them before they reached their lines. When two tunnels met fierce underground fighting would erupt. Sometimes a countermine would be positioned under a known enemy tunnel and then blown up to create a camouflet. The cavernous space create would then cause the tunnel above it to collapse.

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The use of mining greatly increased as the war dragged on, and it largely became a British activity. They began using them in support of larger infantry offensives where they were detonated just before an assault. The British attack at Aubers Ridge in May 1915, Loos in September 1915, and the Somme in July 1916 all began with the blowing of mines. During World War One both sides dug and exploded thousands of such mines in hopes of breaching enemy defenses. Such detonations became so common place that special units were developed (trench jumpers) who had the capacity to quickly reoccupy a blown out crater and defend it against an enemy attack.

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The British also made use of huge mines in June 1917 when they detonated seven at once under Messines Ridge. The results of this battle are controversial due to the amount of propaganda contained in the initial British reports. While they claim that 10,000 Germans were killed in the blast, German reports indicate they had abandoned this section of the line four days earlier when they suspected tunneling, and only a few forward emplacements were lost. The side effects of tunneling could rarely be kept secret, and endangered positions were often abandoned beforehand. The detonation at Messines Ridge removed the land mass from the map, but no matter how capable they were capable of completely destroying enemy positions, the exploitation of the gaps created were always limited no matter how much effort went into them. These large scale events are best captured on cards by small details such as dead soldiers half buried when time stood still.

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The French also used mines, most notably in an attempt to recapture the butte at Vouquois seized by the Germans. One the French gained a foothold; the Germans began digging their own mines to counter this threat. Between February 1916 and the summer of 1916 over 800 mines were detonated by both sides that significantly lowered the elevation of the entire hill but never completely dislodged the defenders.

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Another huge blast occurred in the Dolomites when the Italians detonated a mine under the Austro-Hungarian fortifications on the Castelletto in July 1916. The explosion was enormous like an earthquake, but most of the defenders had deduced it was coming and pulled back beforehand. Just as in many of these detonations, the attackers were hampered by having to scramble over churned up heaps of rock and stone, and in this case pockets of poisonous fumes created by the combustion of explosives. Months of work went into drilling a tunnel through solid rock but no advantage was gained in the end.

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Few postcard publishers dealt with the subject of mining possibly because it was obviously a very secretive affair and only occurred where the press was not permitted to go. Photo based cards tend to show a meaningless puff of distant smoke that supposedly indicates a detonation. Some of these massive explosions were also captured on unofficial real photo cards. Since the soldier snapping the shot might be closer to the event than an official photographer, it might better represent scale and drama but it could just as often be poorly composed or out of focus. Artist drawn scenes of explosions or of mining itself are far more effective but they too were only produced in small numbers. PostcardThe largest number of postcards related to mines were those that depicted the huge craters their detonations left behind. Though most of these are photo-based cards published after the war as souvenirs, some real photo cards, especially with posing soldiers can also be found. Despite their realism they can rarely capture the scope of their subject matter and are difficult to interpret on the small scale of a postcard. This is a general problem of trying to create the illusion on depth on a two dimensional surface when the subject matter offers few familiar visual clues.

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Since periods of prolonged trench warfare were not predicted before the Great War began, few specialized weapons were designed for this type of combat among the Allies. Where they did exist they were not always available in enough quantity to make a difference in battle. Under these conditions many weapons were simply improvised, but these too rarely added to strategic outcomes. They seem designed more for harassment, largely born out of the frustration of stalemate. While informal agreements were sometimes made with the enemy to keep a sector quiet, others did their best to find ways to make trench life hell for all. Makeshift mortars made from hollow wooden logs, and even catapults and giant slingshots were designed to hurl grenades or explosives into opposing trenches.

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Eventually more powerful weapons such as the trench mortar were specifically designed and manufactured for firing from trenches. Besides harassing the enemy, this weapon was powerful enough to be very effective on both the defense and offense. Its plunging fire allowed shells to easily land within an enemy’s trench, and it was very accurate at short distances. It became an essential tool in reducing enemy strongpoints prior to attacks. It often had short term use as it was not easy to stockpile ammunition near the front lines. While firing from a trench protected the guns crew from direct fire, its proximity to enemy lines also made the location of these guns easy to calculate and they quickly became targets of counter-battery fire.

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In 1915 the British introduced a simple trench mortar that was basically a metal tube secured to a stationary base. Without a recoil mechanism the plate had to be heavy, which greatly interfered with its mobility. The French would produce a similar outdated design by the end of the year, and it was eventually made in a number if sizes. These guns were even less mobile, which was counter to their purpose. Mortars were largely used to knock out enemy strongpoints at close range.

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In 1915 the French began deploying a more mobile light bomb thrower known as Le Crapouillot. Despite its small size it could hurl a projectile mounted on a stick about 1500 feet. The British equivalent was the 2 inch Trench Howitzer better known as Toffee Apple. These weapons were widely deployed and were deadly but they could not add to the strategic outcome of a battle. Their value was largely relegated to the war of attrition.

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Eventually the practicality of bomb throwers led all armies to adapt some version of them. They were often manned by elite units that moved around the front lines where best needed. Though highly effective against the enemy, friendly troops did not always appreciate their presence as they drew in counter-battery fire that affect all nearby. Some pneumatic models were developed that could be better hidden, but their range was very limited.

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The German army put the most emphasis on supplying their army with high angled guns before World War One, and they were the most prepared when trench warfare began. Most units were already equipped with trench mortars, and they eventually were made in a number of sizes to match particular situations. These guns were not true artillery pieces and had a very short range, but this gave them the advantage of only needing a small charge to propel a shell, which in turn allowed the shell to be packed with more high explosives. The 170mm mine thrower (Minenwerfer) could deliver a tremendous payload of high explosives capable of destroying any fortification even of reinforced concrete with a direct hit. These weapons were assigned to Pioneer units, usually thought of as construction engineers but also armed and trained to assail and destroy heavy defenses. These mortars were usually placed in fortified bunkers at the front lines in preparation for an assault.

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The German trench mortar introduced in 1916 was rifled with a recoil mechanism, and it came with wheels making it much easier to maneuver through the confined spaces of trenches. After being put in place the wheels were removed to prevent unwanted mobility that might cause injury to its gunners. This also made it more difficult to quickly haul away if front line trenches were overrun by the enemy. It was then ready to fire any one of a multitude of different shells depending on the target. This gun saw widespread us and became the subject of many postcards.

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The design of mine throwers often seem to defy the conventional wisdom applied to artillery that called for longer gun barrels in ratio to larger shells. There was an advantage to mine throwers being small so they could more easily fit into a forward trench position, but the payload they carried was often enormous so they could tear apart enemy bunkers. The cost of these benefits was a weapon with a very short range and less accuracy. Trenches however were often so close to one another that this offset these problems. Note the round base plate to this gun; despite its weight, it could be rolled for greater mobility.

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Many generals bemoaned the arrival of trench warfare; they had been trained in another way of fighting and felt these new circumstances deprived them of executing their best talents. Much of the German army's success during the Great War came from the General Staff’s ability to embrace new weaponry and adapt tactics to suit the situation at hand. When confronted with trench warfare they quickly realized they could not use the same failed tactics of the Allies that just threw massive amounts of men against strong defenses that achieved nothing but mounting casualties. They also suffered the same high casualty rates early in the War when bravado trumped common sense, but they soon found them unacceptable. After studying this situation they began teaching their best soldiers of the Jager battalions to fight in new ways, and these elite units became to be called storm troopers (Stosstruppen). They would first fight in the West in the campaigns for the Vosges and then in the Argonne Forest. Their success led to the training of many more young men.

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Many of these new storm troop battalions were organized out of pioneers. These small units are usually depicted on postcards rebuilding destroyed bridges, deploying pontoons, and sometimes even constructing fortifications. These same engineering skills gave them extra competence when it came to breaching enemy trench lines and destroying bunkers. These men were heavily armed and trained for such destructive tasks, and only brought up to the front line when an attack was imminent. While some German postcards just displayed storm troopers in general action, other cards specifically reference these units to honor them. This became more common as the War progressed and stormtroopers were romanticized by the public. Decorative postcards were also made that single these elite troops out for special honors. Some of these are of generic nature but others were issued as regimental cards, which is unusual considering these were new units without a long history.

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Each storm trooper section was armed with hand grenades, flame throwers, machine guns and a variety of light mortars. These tools were all essential for the quick clearing of enemy trenches. They would concentrate on massing firepower against the weakest points in the enemy line while bypassing their strongpoints. The more traditional forces that followed would then mop up these isolated positions while storm troopers would continue advancing to destroy command and communication centers, artillery support, and generally cause so much confusion that their enemy would find it difficult to react in any organized manner. They are often shown fighting with their specialized weaponry to help distinguish them from more ordinary soldiers.

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Once the hodgepodge of experimental stormtrooper units proved their worth in battle, efforts began to train more of them. By October 1916, all armies on the Western Front were ordered by General Ludendorff to create stormtrooper battalions through retraining. The need to place more manpower on the front quickly cut down on tradition training time, and only the essentials of weapons and tactics were taught. By 1918 large numbers of German troops who had learned the methods of stormtroopers were reformed into attack divisions (Angriffdivisionen). They would play an essential role in the German breakthroughs on the Western Front that spring.

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A number of nations had elite fighting units in the form of mountain troops. They not only had to be trained and equipped to fight, but to deal with the harsh mountainous environments they might be called to fight in. The Germans formed mountain infantry units (Gebirgsjager) from which many came to be trained as stormtroopers. Austria-Hungary had its Alpine regiments (Landesschutzen), which often fought against their Italian counterparts on the Italian Front.

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Members of these Italian Alpine brigades (Alpini) are easily identifiable by the large black plumes they wore in their hats, which gave them the nickname, the black feathers. The French reorganized their Hunter battalions into a mountain corps (Bataillons de Chasseurs Alpins) to face off against the Italians, but they spent most of the War opposing the Germans in the Vosges Mountains. By the end of the War the Poles seeing value in these troops organized a mountain infantry unit in 1918 (Strzelcy podhalańscy). While all these units were highly trained, this was no guarantee of success on a modern battlefield. These elite French troops suffered badly at the hands of the German home guard due to a difference in tactics.

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While the use of storm troopers proved to be highly effective against entrenchments and were heavily responsible for the German breakthroughs in the spring offensives of 1918, the Allies tended to take little notice of these new tactics. They were employed to some degree in the 1917 French counteroffensive at Verdun, but by this time their army was too depleted to put it to its best use. Mountain units of the Austro-Hungarian army adopted storm trooper tactics, which were employed in the battle for Mount Grappa in Italy. The Italians countered with their own elite assault troops, the Arditi, though they weren’t trained in storm troopers tactics.

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Stormtrooper tactics were also passed down to the newly arriving Americans by the elite French Alpine troops, who had unfortunately only learned to make use of them after being decimated by them in the Vosges earlier in the War. They proved effective in the hands of fresh American troops who wanted to avoid the costly mass assaults that the Allied armies had become notoriously known for. While the goal was to have all of the American Expeditionary Force employ these new tactics as part of military doctrine, they went into combat much sooner than expected before most of them had received this training. American troops sometimes suffered because they had to meet political goals at the expense of prudent military procedure. This of course was also true in other armies.

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Years of trench warfare may have come to best symbolize this conflict, but this subject was approached very differently by publishers of each nation. The Germans produced most of these cards by far, often as anonymous scenes with no more a titled than In Shutzengraben. Perhaps after having seized a good chunk of Belgium and France, holding onto it in the face of massive onslaughts seemed like a victory of sorts. Generals might have been frustrated by stalemate but the public at home was presented with a narrative that stressed a resolute defense. The trench could then be interpreted as a tool used towards achieving victory.

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For the Allies on the Western Front the trench represented their inability to achieve the results they wanted; in other words failure. The enemy was occupying parts of Belgium and France, and there seemed that there was nothing they could do to change this. Near the end of 1918 German fortifications on the Western Front were at their strongest but this mattered little when the defenders were exhausted by years of war and were losing their willingness to carry on the fight. When pressed hard the Germans just withdrew to new defensive positions, and suddenly depictions of abandoned trenches began to fill postcards. Production however had grown lighter by this phase of the War, and most representations of the final months of the conflict seem to have been captured on real photo postcards.

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Stormtrooper tactics were also passed down to the newly arriving Americans by the elite French Alpine troops, who had unfortunately only learned to make use of them after being decimated by them in the Vosges earlier in the War. They proved effective in the hands of fresh American troops who wanted to avoid the costly mass assaults that the Allied armies had become notoriously known for. While the goal was to have all of the American Expeditionary Force employ these new tactics as part of military doctrine, they went into combat much sooner than expected before most of them had received this training. American troops sometimes suffered because they had to meet political goals at the expense of prudent military procedure. This of course was also true in other armies.




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