By name, front-linetrenches were not the most forward
By the end of 1914, the commencing year of W.
W.I, it was apparent that the oldfashioned warfare of dashing cavalry charges and rapid movements of troops was over. Soldiers were forced to shelter themselves in trenches from enemy rifle and machine-gun fire and the explosions of artillery shells.
The first use of trench warfare began inthe Battle of the Marne and from then on, armies remained in the trenches for the nextfour years. As quoted by military historian J.F.C.Fuller, success (in the war) dependedon overcoming the defensive trinity of bullet, spade and wire, referring to horrendoustrench conditions. The trenches developed into such elaborate systems of defense andcommunication; so complicated that only the birds and young flying aces couldappreciate their complexity. Millions of soldiers on both sides confronted each otherfrom below ground level.
Trenches were zig-zagged in the ground which made themharder to destroy from enemy artillery. As well, this was an intelligent defensive tacticbecause if one section of a trench was to be captured, the zig-zag prevented enemysoldiers from firing down the length of the trench. Despite its name, front-linetrenches were not the most forward defensive position. Narrow passages called sapswere dug at 90 to the main trench and were on average 30 yards long. These saps ledto isolated positions only large enough for two men and were designed to listen forenemy movement. The sounds of shovels and picks underground were listened forextremely closely because enemy mining parties often tried to burrow beneath the frontlines for a surprise attack or to plant a bomb.The German trenches near Somme were exceedingly more sophisticated than theBritish trenches.
Often, German trenches were practically fortresses in a hole; sittingsome 30-40 feet below ground as opposed to a typical British 5-7 foot deep trench. Ina large number of these German monster-trenches, such amenities such as barbershops and Officer Clubs were customary.Living conditions in the trenches were generally ghastly. Apart from thediscomfort of living in mud and water filled trenches, soldiers also battled commonillness such as Trench Mouth and especially Trench Foot. Trench Mouth was an acuteinfectious disorder characterized by painful ulcerations in the mouth. Predisposingfactors for the infection include poor oral hygiene. Painful and bleeding gums were thechief symptoms, accompanied by malodourous breath and a severely unpleasant taste inthe mouth.
Trench foot was a foot disorder resembling extreme frostbite. It wascaused by the cold, wet and unsanitary conditions that soldiers endured standing inflooded trenches. The feet gradually numb turning the skin blue or red. If untreated,Trench Foot led to gangrene which resulted in amputation.
In the winter of 1914-1915,20,000 British soldiers were treated with Trench Foot. By the end of 1915, Britishsoldiers had to have three pairs of socks with them and were under order to changethem at least twice a day. Apart from frequent sock changing the only other preventionwas to cover ones feet with a grease made from whales oil. It was estimated that afront-line battalion would use 10 gallons of the whale-oil every day. These ailmentsstruck the British more unrelentingly because of their more primitive trenches comparedto the advanced Germans who had wooden planks to walk on, keeping them out of mudand water.
Dug-outs were small quarters where the British treated their wounded andill. The dug-outs were located approximately 15 feet underground at the front-linetrench. Over the top was a phrase that came into use during W.W.I. It was a commandgiven by the Commanding Officer to his troops instructing them to, as quick aspossible, leap over the top of the trench and charge forth.
This was also very often adeath warrant for many soldiers. Even with the element of utmost surprise, numerousof the first soldiers to make the charge were gunned down by enemy fire. The strip of land that divided the two opposing trench lines was referred to asNo-Mans Land. Soldiers that made it back from night patrol told of the desolate stripbeing littered with deadly pieces of barbed wire and tin. The litter was strategicallyplaced there to make it easier to hear enemy movement.
Not only was the area strewnwith junk but also with countless decomposing bodies and limbs, the soil sodden withblood. The rotting bodies made for an awful rankness. Any soldier that survived a trekthrough No-Mans Land reported traumatization and at the least, sickness to thestomach.In 1917, the desperate but clever British army excavated its way under Germanfront-lines at Messines and planted 19 huge mines, 1,000,000 pounds of explosives. On June 7, 17 of the 19 mines were detonated and 10,000-20,000 Germans wereburied alive, to die a slow death. Two mines were not used and their exact location waslost until recently when one exploded in a rain storm in 1955. The last mine, some40,000 pounds of explosives, is still set and ready to go off someday.
The development of trench warfare, though gruesome, tedious and deadly,greatly revolutionized the strategies and outcome of W.W.I.