Trench Warfare in World War One
The History of Trench Warfare and Why it was Used
The method of trench warfare was developed in the 17th century by a French military engineer called Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. The tactic was then used in the American Civil war and the Russian/Japanese war. However, it had not fully developed until the First World War, where it was used as the main defence tactic along the Western Front. The method of trench warfare was used because of the higher accuracy of bombs and guns and the more destructive force the newly developed artillery had. The most effective method of defence against the new artillery was to hide underground or close to the ground. The picture on the left is a painting of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban the creator of the trench warfare tactic.
The Method of Trench Warfare used in World War 1
Trench Warfare is a method of defence that was used throughout the First World War. It used 3 lines of deep trenches; the line facing the enemy called the front or primary line, the second line is referred to as the secondary line and the third line is just called the third line. The front line is where the soldiers go to battle and fire at the enemy, the secondary trench was used as a support line for the front line, for example, if a soldier on the front line was injured he would be replaced with another soldier from the support trench, and the third line was the reserve trench where soldiers would rest, eat and open their comfort parcels. The three rows of trenches lined the Western Front which stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. This was approximately 700 kilometres long. The picture on the left demonstrates how the trenches worked and what they looked like.
Building the Trenches
Building the trenches was a tedious and exhausting job. It took 450 men 6 hours to construct 250 metres of trench along the Western Front and that isn’t including adding barbed wire, sand bags, board walks, etc. Originally the trenches were built in straight lines but modifications were soon made to make the trenches into a zigzag pattern. This was due to a number of reasons, one of the being massive casualties were being caused if one part of the trench was hit with a bomb due to the shock wave of the explosion travelling. This was prevented by the sharp corners the zigzag pattern made. It also prevented the spreading of mustard gas and the enemy being able to fire straight up the line of the trench killing all the soldiers. The communication trenches between the main trenches were also built in a zigzag fashion because of these reasons. Firesteps were another modification made to the original trenches to enable the soldiers on the Front line to stand on them to fire and step back off for cover. The video below is an Austrlian Capaign to advertise the First World War it demonstrates several of the steps these soldiers would have had to go through to create these trenches.
Living Conditions of the Trenches and the Health Problems Associated with them
The living conditions of the trenches were disgusting and the health of the soldiers rapidly deteriorated when the soldiers spent any long duration of time in the trench, especially during the wet seasons in the United Kingdom due to long exposure to the cold and the wet. Many soldiers died due to the cold and lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Bacteria spread quickly as soldiers on the front line didn’t have time to use the bathroom (which was just a bucket at the side of the trench) and relieved themselves where they were. Dead bodies also added to the large amount of bacteria within the trench. Rodents and pests would spread the bacteria, the worst of these being Rats and lice. Rats became a huge pest in the trenches when they started feeding off the bodies of dead soldiers. Rats also spread disease and would diminish the soldiers’ food sources if they could access them. Lice were another problem as they got into the soldiers clothing and irritated the skin. They also proved to be the cause of trench fever, although this was only discovered at the end of the war in 1918. Trench fever caused the soldiers to experience an extremely high fever and severe pain. Another horrible disease that occured in the trenches was trench foot. Trench foot was a fungal infection that occurred due to the trench filling with water and often the result of trench foot was amputation of the limb effected. The constant gunfire, explosions and death caused many of the soldiers’ mental health to deteriorate as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder was apparent among the young soldiers who finally returned from the Great War, however; posttraumatic stress disorder was only recognised as a psychiatric problem after World War 2 and was just referred to as ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’. On the left is a picture of a bad case of trench foot.
Trench Warfare's Effect on the Soldiers after the War
The ongoing impacts on the soldiers emotionally and physically after the war was horrendous. Many soldiers did suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and exhibited the symptoms of trembling, loss of memory, confusion, dizziness, headaches and disorders when sleeping. However, ‘shell shock’ was often just brushed off as a short term problem. Some soldiers suffering from ‘shell shock’ during the war refused to fight and were shot for cowardice. Overall 306 British soldiers were shot for cowardice. This would have had a huge effect on the families of those soldiers knowing their own country’s army shot one of their family members. The physical impacts on the soldiers that returned home would have also been dreadful. Many of the soldiers would have lost limbs and would need to be helped physically for the rest of their lives to do everyday tasks. Many family members would have had to quit jobs to assist the young soldiers and that would have also had an impact on the income being earned by the family. The image on the left is an example of shell shock or posttraumatic stress disorder during the war.