Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Trench in the Great War

Trench of Doom

Trench warfare symbolises the war on the Western Front. Static, linear lines, stretching from the Belgium coast to the frontiers of Switzerland. At first, they were mere scrapes in the ground. But as the war progressed, the trench and the trench system evolved into something fantastic. What follows will be a description of a typical British trench. Of course, there will be differences, according to nation. The Germans opted for a sophisticated trench system, which reflected, for the most part, their defensive stance, on the Western Front. French trenches were often crudely constructed in comparison. But this is merely a reflection, initially at least, on their aggressive policy of reclaiming sacred ground. There is no point in expending unnecessary labour on a temporary dwelling.

The German retreat after the Marne battles in Autumn of 1914 culminated in the Germans digging in. As they held the initiative they maximised the lie of the land, siting their trenches on the high ground, where possible. This meant that the British and French had to dig their trenches in inferior positions.

The trenches in 1914 were relatively crude and singular. As the war continued, the trench system became plural and scientifically designed. Typically, the trench system consisted of three lines. The first line would take the brunt of the initial attack. Die hard machine gun teams would delay and inflict loss on the attacking enemy. The main battle trench would lie some yards to the rear. Most of the men would be situated in this trench. Fully alerted, this is where the main defensive strength was concentrated. The third trench, in the rear, was the trench of desperation. It represented the final redoubt before retreat.  

The Anatomy of the trench circa 1916  
By 1916 the trench and the trench system had become highly developed. The average British trench was 8 foot deep. The base was lined with wooden planks to keep feet out of water. The water table in Belgium and northern France is often high. Mere planks of wood were not always effective and 'trench foot' was rampant among the allied soldiers. In some parts of Belgium the water table dictated a 'trench' of sand bags.

The trench was built up at the front and especially at the back. This was an important feature of trench design. The back end of the trench prevented men being silhouetted in the morning or evening sun. An important point considering the all prevailing presence of snipers. Finally, the trench was protected by a low palisade of coiled barbed wire,

The trench was kinked. This was important on two accounts. Firstly, the blast from shells, or more importantly, mortar bombs, could be contained. Secondly, if the enemy gained access to your bit of trench they could not effect fire along its entire length.

Communication trenches filtered to the rear of the main trench. This allowed men and munitions to move without the inconvenience of enemy observation. Forward saps extended into no mans land. This afforded protected observation of enemy lines and provided a convenient jump off point during offensives and raids.

Contrary to popular belief, most men did not spend much time in the front line trench. On average, and in a typical month, men spent four days in the front line, four in support and eight days in reserve. The rest of their time was spent in barracks, miles behind the front lines. Most of the front line existence was spent in humdrum boredom. Many sectors had a 'live and let live' policy. Friend and enemy coexisted in precarious harmony. Life in the trench was hard enough without constant withering fire and sniping. This was not always the case. As a reminder that there was a war on, the enemy could shell the latrines after breakfast or deliver shrapnel for afternoon tea; such are the vicissitudes of war.  

Ouch, trench foot. Methinks unguent should be liberally applied  

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