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message 1: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (last edited Jan 01, 2010 11:00PM) (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
Why did the war of movement devolve into trench warfare? What were the conditions under which those in the trenches fought?


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 299 comments Mod
I think the title of a book on the subject sums it up: Eye-Deep in Hell Trench Warfare in World War I. (Good book, and not a long one.)

It was hell.

Why did it devolve to trench warfare? I'm not sure if it was a matter of the defensive technology being in a more advanced state than the offensive, or if they just ran out of space for the "war of movement."


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

There is a gritty description of trench warfare, or at least the battlefields in-between them in The Magus, in fact that is the only bit of that book that's stuck with me. Gruesome.

Why did it devolve...? My uneducated view has to be that TBTB saw they would quickly run out of space to back up, and saw that digging in was the only alternative. ?? As opposed to losing more and more territory to the enemy?


message 4: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
I suspect they preferred digging to facing machine guns which would decimate their ranks. Until the invention of the tank there was no defense against machine guns except digging.


message 5: by James (last edited Jan 03, 2010 09:31AM) (new)

James | 88 comments It was the combination of the trenches, the machine guns, and the barbed wire - plus outmoded tactical thinking. Most of the generals were tragically out of touch and had little grasp of how technology had changed combat. They still thought in terms of massed attacks by large formations of soldiers in tidy rows, a la Napoleonic warfare; the problem was that those tactics had evolved in an era when the soldiers carried single-shot smooth-bore muskets that (a) had an effective range of 100 yards or less and (b) took 15 to 20 seconds to reload even for a soldier with a lot of practice (and he had to hold the weapon vertically to reload, meaning he had to be standing up.) By the time WWI came along, they were carrying bolt-action rifles that had effective ranges of up to 1000 yards and had internal magazines holding up to ten shots before reloading (which could be done lying prone) was necessary. Artillery had also progressed and was much more accurate, had longer ranges, and fired much more rapidly. And then there were those pesky machine guns, which the brass initially mostly dismissed as a feeble sort of artillery.

Against those technologies combined with barbed wire obstacles to slow advancing troops almost to a standstill, attacking with massed troops online was suicidal, but the generals ordering the attacks tended to be so far behind the lines that they never saw what was actually happening, and often attributed the attacks' failures to their men not being brave or aggressive enough. In fact, of course, a bullet doesn't give a damn how brave you are...

Tanks offered a solution by creating breaches in the barbed wire and by carrying soldiers through the shooting gallery in relative safety. Actually, the Germans also found another solution, a tactical one, but too late in the war to have much effect. They formed groups of highly trained, highly mobile soldiers to use stealth (both by attacking without the usual "here we come" artillery preparation and by moving stealthily rather than upright in neat lines with whistles blowing) and slip through no-man's-land undetected in enough force to capture and clear a section of enemy trenchline, then keep pushing into the rear and outflank more of the enemy trench system from behind. It worked, and they carried that lesson into their preparations for World War II.

Actually, the commanders in WWI could have avoided a lot of grief if they'd been willing to look for lessons in the American Civil War - they'd have seen trench fighting and the effects of longer-range rifle fire (though still single-shot muzzle-loaders for most soldiers) and improved artillery; they'd even have seen the development of newer tactics similar to the ones the Germans figured out at the end of WWI, by a Union officer named Upton who later became the chief of staff for the U.S. Army. The Germans did look at our Civil War (they also took away from it an appreciation for the significance of railroads for rapid movement of troops and supplies) but the rest of the European military establishment dismissed the U.S. Civil War as a brawl between two armed mobs, and millions of their own troops died as a result.

The French in particular went into World War I convinced that a spirited offense (usually involving bayonet charges and lots of cavalry) was irresistible and could sweep away any possible defense; they came out of it convinced that an entrenched defense was immovable and could not be defeated by any offense, and proceeded to spend years and a huge amount of money building the Maginot Line, which the Germans dealt with in 1940 by simply going around it through a forest the French had dismissed as impassible for mechanized forces (having apparently never noticed that there were roads in that forest and that tanks can drive along a road even if there are trees next to it.)


message 6: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (last edited Jan 03, 2010 10:54PM) (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
James wrote: "It was the combination of the trenches, the machine guns, and the barbed wire - plus outmoded tactical thinking. Most of the generals were tragically out of touch and had little grasp of how techno..."

James,

An incredibly cogent analysis and one I totally agree with.

BTW, the British were not much better than the French. The German high command was heard to say that they had two advantages in the Ypres salient: the German soldier and the British Generals.


message 7: by James (last edited Jan 04, 2010 01:06AM) (new)

James | 88 comments Thanks, Ed - that change in tactics by Upton in the latter part of our civil war and the parallel update by the Germans late in WWI (it was where the phrase storm troopers came from) has been of special interest to me for a long time. In 1990-1991, I spent ten months at the Marine Corps University at the USMC base in Quantico, Virginia, attending the Command and Control Systems Course for ten months. There were additional MCU courses we could take as electives, and I took one on infantry tactics titled "The Last 300 Yards" that covered that particular bit of history. It was partially taught by Bruce Gudmundsson, who is now a frequently seen talking head on the Military Channel; at that time he was a USMC Reserve officer. Being in Virginia, we were able to go out and walk the ground at some of the Civil War battlefields we were studying. To me, that was an incredible experience, to be standing on the spot where events I'd read about since I was a kid had taken place.

I also took a course on the history of military reform (some overlap there, because the updated tactics studied in the other class fell into the category of military reforms.) It looked at innovations ranging from small unit tactics to weapons procurements; also a fascinating course.


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 299 comments Mod
Well, I guess it took about as long for Lincoln to find Grant. Needed the same "fight it out along this line if it takes all summer" attitude, I would imagine.


Silvana (silvaubrey) Great info from James, many thanks :)

How do you guys think the involvement of the British tank (Mark I?) affected the trench warfare?
It was supposedly able to navigate through long trenches, thus breaking the stalemate caused by this kind of warfare.


message 10: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
Silvana wrote: "Great info from James, many thanks :)

How do you guys think the involvement of the British tank (Mark I?) affected the trench warfare?
It was supposedly able to navigate through long trenches, th..."


My understanding is that tanks could go over the trenches, thereby making them vulnerable. Also there was nothing available to stop them except their own break-downs of which there were many.


message 11: by Candy (last edited Jan 08, 2010 07:54AM) (new)

Candy | 28 comments I am really enjoying reading these posts. It's especially exciting for me because I don't know very much about this aspect of war. I was wondering what benfits may have arisen from trench warfare. I can easily imagine how awful it was from these posts here. But I wondered...is there any thing good? I started thinking that I bet a lot of bonding occurred which would make the relationships between the soldiers very strong. And as such a group to be reckoned with. I also imagine the lost of one's trench mates could be devastaing...losing a serious friendship as well as the risks to oneself.

I found myself reading the Wiki page and thought the act of raiding other trenches was very interesting.

"Pioneered by the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in February 1915, trench raids were carried out in order to capture prisoners and "booty"—letters and other documents to provide intelligence about the unit occupying the opposing trenches. As the war progressed, raiding became part of the general British policy, the intention being to maintain the fighting spirit of the troops and to deny no man's land to the Germans. As well, they were intended to compel the enemy to reinforce, which exposed his troops to artillery fire. Such dominance was achieved at a high cost when the enemy replied with his own artillery, and a post-war British analysis concluded the benefits were probably not worth the cost. Early in the war, surprise raids would be mounted, particularly by the Canadians, but increased vigilance made achieving surprise difficult as the war progressed. By 1916, raids were carefully planned exercises in combined arms and involved close co-operation of infantry and artillery. A raid would begin with an intense artillery bombardment designed to drive off or kill the front-trench garrison and cut the barbed wire. Then the bombardment would shift to form a "box barrage", or cordon, around a section of the front line to prevent a counter-attack intercepting the raid. However, the bombardment also had the effect of notifying the enemy of the location of the planned attack, thus allowing reinforcements to be called in from wider sectors."

And then the "trench cycle"

"Typically, a battalion would be expected to serve a spell in the front line. This would be followed by a stint spent in support, and then in reserve lines. A period of rest would follow - generally short in duration - before the whole cycle of trench duty would start afresh.

In reality the cycle was determined by the necessities of the situation. Even while at rest men might find themselves tasked with duties that placed them in the line of fire.

Others would spend far longer in the front line than usual, usually in the more 'busy' sectors.

As an example - and the numbers varied widely - a man might expect in a year to spend some 70 days in the front line, with another 30 in nearby support trenches. A further 120 might be spent in reserve. Only 70 days might be spent at rest. The amount of leave varied, with perhaps two weeks being granted during the year."

http://www.firstworldwar.com/features...

Gee, it's just overwhelming putting my mind into what this must have been like. What a grueling job.


James | 88 comments The only thing the trench system had as an advantage was that it was defensively unbeatable with the technology and tactics on hand in 1914. It was a hellish life, probably as miserable as that of any other group of soldiers in history.

The British tanks did offer a way to get past the trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns. Equally important, they were so unlike anything the German troops had seen, they caused even veteran troops to panic and run.

However, the British didn't understand how to use them effectively - tanks are a mechanized counterpart to heavy cavalry, basically, and the key to success with heavy cavalry had been to use them in sufficient mass. The Brits spread their tanks too thinly and so the inevitable breakdowns, bog-downs, and casualties caused their momentum to stall out.

Even a generation later, the British and French hadn't figured out how to use tanks effectively, but the Germans had (partly by studying the writings of some British and French officers whose own armies ignored them!) In France in 1940 the Allies had more tanks than the Germans, and they were on average better armed and armored - the only technical edge tank-for-tank the Germans had was good radios, and in some cases they were faster. But the Germans massed their tanks at critical points and combined their attacks with close air support, while the British and French saw tanks as mobile artillery to spread amongst infantry units, and they saw no reason for tanks to drive much faster than a man could walk. So at any point where the Germans chose to hit, they had an overwhelming local edge and moved with what seemed to the Allies to be blinding speed, which their close coordination using those radios further accentuated.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments Christmas, 1914, there was a spontaneous cessation of hostilities between British and German troops in the front lines. The Germans were decorating their trenches with small Christmas trees and singing carols. The British “retaliated” with English carols, and soon the men were shouting greetings to each other. Many met in No Man's Land where small gifts like chocolate or buttons were exchanged, and pictures of sweethearts were shown. In some places, the opposing troops played soccer, and drank together. It became known as the "Christmas Truce", and was dramatized in the 2005 Oscar-nominated French film entitled "Joyeux Noel". The commanders, of course, didn’t like this fraternization with the enemy, and tried to ensure that it never happened again.



Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments The trenches became even more horrific at places like the Somme after the fall rains, and of, course, Passchendaele - that notorious sea of mud, in which men could drown if they fell off the duckboards. Considering that an infantry soldier carried 70 - 90 pounds of kit, equipment, arms, and ammunition, and his greatcoat could weigh an additional 60 pounds when wet and muddy, that was hardly surprising.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments It was an amazing experience to visit Vimy Ridge and walk through the preserved trenches and tunnels. That really gives you a better perspective, especially when so much of that area is off limits because of unexploded armaments. The war doesn't feel that long ago there.

And the cemeteries are heart-wrenching.


James | 88 comments I hope to have the chance sooner or later to visit France and see some of the battlefields from both world wars - walking some of the battlefields of the Civil War in Virginia and at Gettysburg was powerful, and I'm sure the European ones would be too. Same with the cemeteries.
I asked my stepfather once what was the most meaningful aspect of WWII was for him (he served in the Navy in both oceans.) His answer was "Dead friends." He told me that he'd gone through the local university's first ROTC class and had entered the service with about twenty guys he'd gotten to be close friends with, and at the end of it about two thirds of them were dead. He said he still thought often about them, about all the life experiences he'd had after the war, and wondered what their lives would have been like, what they'd missed, and what the world had missed out on by not having them around.



message 17: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
Did anyone read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and can help us understand the German attitudes at the beginning of the war and how they changed as the war progressed?


message 18: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (last edited Jan 09, 2010 11:30PM) (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
James wrote: "I hope to have the chance sooner or later to visit France and see some of the battlefields from both world wars - walking some of the battlefields of the Civil War in Virginia and at Gettysburg was..."

I visited the Normandy Invasion Beaches and when I went to the major U.S. cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer, (http://www.battlefieldsww2.50megs.com...) I couldn't stop weeping. It became embarrassing.

I also have visited a number of Civil War Battlefields and was profoundly touched particularly by Gettysburg and Fredericksburg.

When I visited the Ypres Salient, I was blown away by the numbers of soldiers killed and how many were unidentified. They had no dog tags in those days. That visit is what got me interested in WW I in the first place.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments Ed, I did read All Quiet on the Western Front (albeit quite a while ago), and it struck me that the German soldiers were not any different from the Allies - they went off to war patriotically and naively, and ended up disillusioned and "shell shocked", unable to talk to their families about their experiences, and feeling that they no longer belonged to that world.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments When we were in France last year, we visited the grave of my husband's great uncle, who died in the Battle of Loos at age 21. We have a photo of him in his Lieutenant's uniform - he looked heartbreakingly young. Agreed, Ed, that you can't walk through those cemeteries without weeping. And what was so striking, especially in Belgium, was how many small WW1 cemeteries were dotted among farmers' fields and edges of villages. Unlike the large ones, like Tyne Cot at Passchendaele, these small ones are not overrun by tourists, but lie poignantly quiet.


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 299 comments Mod
I recall Tolkien wrote (I think in the introduction to Lord of the Rings) that it was just as horrible to be caught by youth in 1914 as in 1939, and that by 1918 all but one of his friends were dead.


James | 88 comments Yes - National Geographic did a couple of documentaries on Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, and they drew strong connections between his experience in WWI and some elements in the trilogy, such as the incident in which Sam Gamgee finds himself looking into the face of an enemy soldier who had just been killed and wondering what kind of person he had been and what his life had been like.


message 23: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
Candy wrote: "I am really enjoying reading these posts. It's especially exciting for me because I don't know very much about this aspect of war. I was wondering what benfits may have arisen from trench warfare. ..."

Candy, Your contribution got me thinking that WW I might have been worse for the soldiers involved than WW II. I believe more soldiers were killed in the European Theater in WW I than WW II.

I heard a description, regarding the Ypres salient, from our guide that British soldiers made agreements with each other that if one fell off the boardwalks into the marshy mud that their buddy shoot them rather than let them drown in the mud, encumbered as they were with 60 pound packs.


Candy | 28 comments Ed said, I heard a description, regarding the Ypres salient, from our guide that British soldiers made agreements with each other that if one fell off the boardwalks into the marshy mud that their buddy shoot them rather than let them drown in the mud, encumbered as they were with 60 pound packs.

Good god, what a trade off. It's so heartbreaking.

I think I mentioned earlier that one of the best novels I read about warfare was Timothy Findley's The Wars. He has an incredible section of the novel set in the trenches. It's really the only thing I "know" about trench warfare..and it has stayed with me decades later.

(I wonder if anyone else has read this outstanding novel around here?)


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments Yes, Candy, I read and enjoyed The Wars, and met author Timothy Findley, who lived nearby, as he was a friend of a friend. We had a good discussion about his writing about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in his novel, Famous Last Words.


James | 88 comments World War I was probably worse for most of the soldiers, while World War II saw a much higher rate of civilian casualties - the combination of mobile mechanized war and terror bombing of cities made it a lot harder for civilians to find a safe place.


message 27: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
Gabriele wrote: "Yes, Candy, I read and enjoyed The Wars, and met author Timothy Findley, who lived nearby, as he was a friend of a friend. We had a good discussion about his writing about the Duke and..."

Darn you guys 2 more books for my TBR list.

I saw the movie "All Quiet on the Western Front" when I was a teenager and I'm still carrying images of that movie around in my head.


James | 88 comments Was it the first version of the film or the remake with Richard Thomas? I saw that second version, and it was very good; I've heard the first was too. The book is powerful and exceeds the film I saw - nothing against the film, they just have a hard time making a film that lives up to any good book.


message 29: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (last edited Jan 12, 2010 06:05AM) (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
James wrote: "Was it the first version of the film or the remake with Richard Thomas? I saw that second version, and it was very good; I've heard the first was too. The book is powerful and exceeds the film I ..."

I saw the 1930 version with Lewis Wolheim, John Wray and Lew Ayres. A very powerful film. Won the Oscar for Best Picture. Find it in IMDB at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020629/

Didn't even know about the re-make until now. Thanks! It was a 1979 Hallmark Hall of Fame production, which means I think it's not on DVD. I'd love to see it.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments Ed, Blockbuster has the 1979 version of All Quiet on the Western Front for rent.


message 31: by Gabriele (last edited Jan 12, 2010 07:10AM) (new)

Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments I recall in Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves mentioning that his friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, once did a trench raid by himself, managed to chase off the Germans, and then proceeded to sit in their trenches and read a book! After about half an hour he went back to his side, not having had any backup come along to help him secure the German trenches. An amazing story if it's indeed true. Having read about Sassoon, though, I don't doubt it.


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 299 comments Mod
Netflix has both the 1930 and 1979 versions available on DVD.

From what I know of Sassoon, that may well be true, Gabrielle.


message 33: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
Susanna wrote: "Netflix has both the 1930 and 1979 versions available on DVD.

From what I know of Sassoon, that may well be true, Gabrielle."


Thanks for the info on availability. Since I live in Hong Kong, I'll have to wait until my next trip to the U.S. to check it out.


James | 88 comments I'd read the same story about Sassoon. He had gone into the war filled to the brim with the patriotic pixie dust about what a grand adventure it would be, but in short order had seen enough death and misery and tragic blundering by the generals that it left him more than a little bit crazy. He kept that idealism, but began channeling it into public criticism of the British government and military high command, to the point that his friends were afraid he was going to get himself referred to a court-martial and either incarcerated or stood in front of a firing squad. He had been a writer before the war and continued to write, but the tone of his work changed completely, and he reportedly found the early stuff he'd written while still in that naive state sad and embarrassing.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments Apparently Robert Graves helped to persuade the military that Sassoon was shell shocked and not a traitor when he publicly criticized the government's motives for the war. So Sassoon, along with Graves, ended up at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, where they met poet Wilfred Owen.


James | 88 comments Yes - Graves was right, and Sassoon was very definitely shell-shocked; today we'd call it not just PTSD but complex PTSD.
The difference is that in 'ordinary' PTSD, a person has experienced an event or situation that is outside the realm of common experience, that involved the risk or occurrence of grave harm or death to the person or to someone close to him/her (close in either relationship or physical proximity), and that evoked strong feelings of terror, horror, and/or helplessness in that person.
Complex PTSD has those factors and the added dimension that the trauma results from the betrayal of the person by someone he/she relies on. In military terms, that can mean incompetent or uncaring leadership that treats their subordinates as cannon fodder, or a government that sends them to fight a needless war, micromanages their tactics and strategy in ways that gets people killed, or issues defective equipment that gets them killed.
A couple of books that examine that as well as I've ever seen are Achilles In Vietnam : Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
Achilles In Vietnam   Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay
and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming
Odysseus in America  Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Jonathan Shay,
both by Jonathan Shay, a doctor who was working in the VA system when he wrote them.
Not trying to take the discussion off topic, but the things Shay explains apply as well to World War I as to Vietnam.


message 37: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
James wrote: "Yes - Graves was right, and Sassoon was very definitely shell-shocked; today we'd call it not just PTSD but complex PTSD.
The difference is that in 'ordinary' PTSD, a person has experienced an eve..."


James, I don't worry about off-topic info, especially if it's as valuable as what you are offering. It's up to me to get things back on topic.

Alright everyone, get back on topic!!!!!!!!!!(Grin)


message 38: by Silvana (last edited Feb 15, 2010 07:59PM) (new)

Silvana (silvaubrey) Just curious...did the Allies/Germans ever built tunnel systems like the ones built by the North Vietnamese Army?


James | 88 comments They had some very large and well-built tunnel systems - they didn't extend as far as the ones in Vietnam, but they were sometimes deeper, larger, and more solidly reinforced.


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 299 comments Mod
Sometimes including entire factories in them, near the end.


Silvana (silvaubrey) entire factories?
to make weapons and things? i would definitely like to see some pictures :D

A silly thought but I also wonder whether there were special troops assign to dig/penetrate the ground so as to get closer to the enemy and avoided the artillery/fire at the same time.


James | 88 comments Yes on the special troops - that kind of work was often done by the combat engineers, a.k.a. sappers. They would dig deep tunnels to get as close to the enemy's front line as they could, then dig back up to the surface so that their troops could launch surprise assaults bypassing no-man's-land and the barbed wire/machine gun defensive systems. They also sometimes dug right under the enemy trench system, planted huge amounts of explosives at the ends of those tunnels, and blew entire hills off the map, creating a major gap in the enemy line and stunning the enemy troops who were nearby but not quite close enough to be killed in the explosion.

It wasn't unusual for both sides to be digging toward each other's lines, and trying to detect enemy tunneling groups at the same time - sometimes the tunnels of the two sides would meet and the troops doing the digging ended up in terrible fights underground in cramped, badly lit, cold, muddy tunnels using guns, knives, picks and shovels, and whatever else they had; other times they'd plant large explosive charges to blow up the enemy tunneling teams in their tunnels or collapse the enemy tunnel and bury them alive.


message 43: by Ed, Chief Curmudgeon (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 622 comments Mod
I saw the hole the British sappers blew in the German line at Paschendale. Still there 90 years later.


Gabriele Wills (Muskoka) | 36 comments Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks gives a good look at the tunnellers.

When the British exploded 19 of 21 mines under the Messines Ridge in 1917, as a prelude to Passchendaele, 10,000 German troops were killed and the explosion was heard as far away as Dublin. In 1955 a lightning strike set off one of the original 2 mines that didn't explode in 1917, killing a cow. Kind of scary to think that one still lurks there!

If you ever have a chance to visit Vimy Ridge, you can go into the tunnels that the Canadians dug in preparation for the battle. Very eerie.


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History: Actual, Fictional and Legendary

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Books mentioned in this topic

Eye-Deep In Hell: Trench Warfare In World War I (other topics)
The Magus (other topics)
All Quiet on the Western Front (other topics)
The Wars (other topics)
Famous Last Words (other topics)
More...

Authors mentioned in this topic

Erich Maria Remarque (other topics)
Sebastian Faulks (other topics)