Trench Warfare

The Horrific WWI Battlefield

Machine Gun Nest in a WWI Trench

Trench warfare tactics exercised in World War I were detrimental both strategically and psychologically. The outdated fighting style of two sides lining up and firing at each other, except paired with new battlefield technology such as machine guns, chemical weapons, and tanks, made exactly a recipe for disaster. The environment was pestilent, disgusting, and sickness spread quickly. The reeking smell of death, and the relentless sound of explosions, screams, and gunfire were all too common on the battlefields of World War I. These factors resulted in both a massive death toll for both sides and traumatized combatants.

To understand just how destructive trench warfare was, one must understand the layout of a World War I battlefield. Three trenches would be dug: a frontline, support, and reserve trench. Behind the reserve trench there would be artillery. Barbed wire fencing would be put ahead of the frontline trench. Machine gun nests would be in the frontline trench. In between opposing trenches was No Man’s Land. No Man’s Land could be hundreds of yards wide, and gave no cover to attacking soldiers. This is where the problem begins. (Henry)

An “attack” in World War I meant a direct charge across No Man’s Land. Straight into a fortified position. Never has this ever ended well in warfare, and never will this ever end well in warfare. The battles were large scale, usually ending in hundreds of thousands of casualties and stalemate. The attackers would run toward the enemy trench while being bombarded by artillery, under fire from machine gun nests, and under fire from enemy soldiers—all the while running straight for a barbed wire fence. It’s clearly seen how this might end badly. To make matters worse, the opposing side usually counter attacked, running at the now-defending trench. Their ranks fared no better, causing the death toll to skyrocket even further.

During time when neither side was charging at the other, the opposing trenches constantly bombarded one another with long-range artillery. Not only did this become extremely expensive in the long run, it caused psychological problems. A common, negative psychological result of being bombarded in the trench was referred to as “shellshock”. This was a feeling described by soldiers as the mix of terror and helplessness that they felt when artillery shells were exploding in and around the trench. (Jones)

Advancements in military technology meant new weaponry could kill many soldiers in little time. Guns like the MG08 (Germany) and the Vickers Machine Gun (Britain) and new, fast-firing artillery on both sides caused demoralization among combatants. They watched their fellow soldiers die and felt they died for nothing because trench warfare always ended in stalemate. They were not wrong. The trenches on the Western Front remained unchanged with no side prevailing over the other for the entire duration of the war. It became a waiting game to see which side would accept more loss before giving up.

The trenches were desperate, disgusting places to be. Sickness and disease were common and the unsanitary, confined space meant soldiers contracted illnesses rapidly. This further contributed to the demoralization of the soldiers, surely eliminating any remaining will to fight. Common diseases to plague the trenches of World War I included Typhoid, Influenza, and Malaria. The lack of medicine and medicinal knowledge at the time meant that these illnesses were unpreventable, went untreated, and often resulted in death. Other conditions such as trench foot and trench fever were byproducts of the damp and wet environment that the soldiers operated in. Although these would eventually pass, they usually took around 10 weeks to do so. Trench foot was dead black tissue on the feet of the soldiers and was very painful and made movement necessary for combat very difficult. Trench fever was transmitted by lice and was very contagious and caused high fever, dizziness, headaches, rash, and aching pains. Sicknesses like these could quickly take the fight out of an army, and take much of the army out of the fight. (Emerson)

Trench warfare was a horrific experience for the soldiers who had to endure it, and it is shocking that fighting a war in this manner was ever an acceptable use of human and other resources. It was a recipe for disaster, and it created just that. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I is estimated to be just over 38 million. This makes WWI one of the deadliest wars ever. Atop that, mental effects of this type of warfare were devastating, making World War I one of the harshest examples of the engagement we call "war".

Sources

Emerson, Mark J. "Medicine." BBC News. BBC, 08 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

Henry, John F. "World War One - What Is a Trench?" World War One. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

Jones, Edgar, Dr. "Shell Shocked." Apa.org. American Psychological Association, June 2012. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

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