Problems and Tactics During Trench Warfare

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During 1914 through to 1918, World War One took place in Europe and trenches were recently introduced into the strategy of war. Being quite new as a form of warfare during a world war, the art of trench warfare significantly developed new weapons and ways of attack and defence. Trench warfare was a land-based warfare that consisted of building deep or shallow trenches as a defence against the enemy. They work by providing soldiers with shelter from enemy fire and continue to dig forward during the night. 5 main factors of world war ones trench warfare was how it was used during the start of the war (1914), how life in the trenches were for the soldier, how trench weapons developed during the war, how trench tactics and strategies developed during the war and how the chemical warfare was introduced into the war.

In the beginning of World War One, the first instance of trench warfare began on the Western Front in France. By the end of 1914, both sides (the allied powers and the central powers) had built trenches spanning from the North Sea and through Belgium and France. Trench warfare started after the Battle of Marne in September 1914, when the Germans were forced to retreat to the River Aisne. Both sides had battled each other to a standstill and the German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, chose to dig trenches. These trenches would not only provide protection from advancing soldiers, but also hold their position that they currently held in France and Belgium. The British and French troops quickly learnt that they couldn’t break through the defensive structure and also began to dig trenches. These were the first ‘real’ trenches dug by The Allies and The Central Powers on September 16th (N.m., 2014, n.p.). This fight shaped how the countries who were a part of World War One mainly fought on ground and led to many casualties on both sides and extended the length of the war to such great lengths.

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Life in the trenches were rampant with deadly diseases and ‘shell shocked’ soldiers. Fighting in such unsanitary conditions caused many infectious diseases to spread rapidly and the use of chemical warfare, made the trenches an even deadlier place to live and fight. Most trenches were ridden with pests, including mice, rats, lice and frogs. These pests became a problem when they started to eat the soldier’s rations and the rats started to eat the soldiers themselves while they slept. Trenches were usually dug only a few feet above sea level, because of this, most trenches were waterlogged at the base of the trench (see Appendix B). Historian Dunleavy explained that due to the constant exposure to wetness, soldiers developed trench foot, which was a condition where dead tissue on the feet spread and in worse cases required amputation. Days in the trenches could result is permanent traumatization and life-changing damage to the veterans of war. Richard Fredrick, a lance corporal who was enlisted in WWI, quoted “…we had a most awful time” and “…I can assure you it was an experience I could never forget.” (Frederick,1908, n.p.) He had also commented that they were under seven days of bombardment by the enemy and suffered more than 200 casualties those seven days. This must have been a dreadful time within the trenches suffering many casualties a day and being bombarded by artillery for days at a time, resulting in such a costly and lengthy war.

Trench weapons became a vital component of the war, causing many more casualties within the war with the deadly firepower, or the speed and stealth of the weapon. Notable Historian, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau described that “Massive bombing became the main tactical answer to the stalemate. Various forms of firing pursued various tactical objectives: …, destruction or annihilation fire, adjustment fire, barrage or box barrage fire, harassing fire, and so on – not to mention the firing of shrapnel which exploded high up with devastating consequences, and the firing of toxic grenades which became ever more important as the conflict wore on”( Audoin-Rouzeau, 2014, n.p.). Although, this was a result in quicker battles, the number of casualties grew due to the fact that the weapons became deadlier. It also did not resolve stalemates very efficiently, losing hundreds and thousands of men each battle resulting in an immense human cost and a lengthy war.

Trenching methods and tactics during ground warfare was a fundamental part of moving forwards and gaining more ground than the opposition. All of the trenches in WWI weren’t dug in straight lines, they were built as a system, in a zigzag pattern with different levels among the lines (This was so that the soldiers could move between levels with ease. Most trenches were dug by soldiers, in which they dug in three different ways. Sometimes the soldiers would use the method of entrenching, which was when they dug straight into the ground. This was the quickest method, but they were well exposed to enemy fire. Another way of digging was by extending the trench from one end. This was called sapping and was much safer but became very painstaking and tedious. The final and safest way of making ground was tunnelling. This method was to dig a tunnel and remove the roof when the trench was complete, this was rarely used as it was very time consuming and the most difficult one to perform. These trench tactics led to the slow-moving tactical ground warfare in World War One, sacrificing hundreds of men just to gain a few metres at times and resulting in such a lengthy and costly war.

Chemical warfare was an extremely deadly weapon that could wipe out entire trenches within hours and force the enemy to retreat hundreds of metres (See Appendix A). This weapon had caused more than 1.3million casualties in WWI and around 100,000 fatalities, mainly from phosgene. (Everts,2015, n.p.). Notable scholar Sarah Everts explains that there were 3 main gases used within WWI, each deadlier than the next. The first was chlorine gas, used on the infamous day of April 22nd, 1915. At high enough doses a human can die. The gas responsible for 85% of chemical fatalities in WWI was phosgene. It was six times deadlier than chlorine gas and was also colourless, which made it extremely stealthy and caused soldiers to die a slow and agonizing death. The supposed ‘King of the Battle Gases’ was called mustard gas. Its effects were not immediate, but it was extremely deadly as even at low doses death would be imminent. It caused the greatest number of casualties from chemical weapons; some would estimate more than 120,000. . These statistics are harrowing, the number of men injured and killed made the war so costly in humans and also the amount of time and money researchers invested to create deadlier gases. It also created the war to become so lengthy, hospitalising many men affected by the poisonous fumes leading to such a costly and lengthy war.

World War One was a time of incredible technological advancements, sacrificing many men through war of the world. Trench warfare was a major component of this war and contributed to many casualties and fatalities of ground warfare. Its defensive structure, added to the slow movement of war, causing a supposed six to eight-week war, to an entire four-year war. The sheer number of men killed by trench warfare is devastating and abhorrent. Its cost of humans and financial supplies caused the ‘Great War’ to be filled with incredible weaponry advancements and defence structure. The main factors of trench warfare becoming such a considerable warfare within WWI was the life within the trenches, how trench warfare started out, the development of trench weapons and the deadliness of chemical warfare.

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