Tag Archives: World War 1

Breaking the Stalemate at the Front

During World War I, two equally-matched armies sat deadlocked on the Western Front, each ensconced in elaborate entrenchments.  While night patrols and trench raids took place, they did not amount to much, and lobbing grenades at each other only went so far.  Creative thinking was needed to end this bloody war of attrition.

Through the combined use of new weaponry and tactics, the stalemate was finally broken in 1918, beginning with the German Spring Offensive.

Frontal infantry assaults on heavily fortified trenches led to devastating losses and little ground gained.  Shelling the trenches beforehand had proved ineffective (such as in the Battle of the Somme).  The following new tactics were developed in hopes of ending the stalemate:

  • Pre-battle training: Model trenches (see picture here) were designed to help soldiers visualize what they would be running into, so that they could avoid dangerous spots and target the weaker sections of an enemy’s trench system.  Sharing this knowledge with a number of soldiers, rather than just the senior officers, meant the men would know what to do in the event their officers were shot down during battle.  Junior officers were also given a larger role, as the armies realized that it was unrealistic to carry out a large orchestrated military maneuver from afar.  Junior officers would need to think on the spot and show initiative.
  • Artillery coverage: The new plan was to have the artillery suppress the strongest portions of the enemy entrenchments, while the infantry went around them to the weaker points.  Artillery also used new intelligence-gathering techniques in order to find enemy guns and destroy them, so that they would not be in the way of the infantry.
  • Pushing forward: The army was to constantly push into enemy territory without letting up, so that the enemy did not have time to reinforce their trenches and deploy their reserve troops.
  • Combining forces: The main key to success was to combine artillery, infantry, and new weapons and to throw everything at the enemy at once.

So what happened when these tactics were put into action?

Spring Offensive

German Stormtrooper, spring 1918

In March, 1918, the Germans launched a full-scale offensive in an attempt to end the war.  Seeing that the war of attrition was tipping in the Allies’ favor with the United States entering the fight on their side (with fresh troops and supplies), the Germans knew they needed to launch an attack before the United States had a chance to become a formidably trained fighting force.

The plan was to attack the weakly defended Somme area, outflank British troops there and defeat the British army, thus causing the French to call for an armistice.  The German army had developed specialized units known as “stormtroopers” to move through the weakened sections of enemy lines, disrupting artillery, enemy headquarters, and supply depots, and rapidly seizing enemy territory.

At first the Germans found success with this tactic, surprising the British troops, who suffered heavy casualties.  However, the German army began to lose momentum as they were unable to keep the stormtroopers supplied.  These delays gave the Allies enough time to regroup and slow the German advance.  By April the German offensive was no longer a great danger to Allied forces.

During the Spring Offensive the Allies lost 255,000 men, numbers that could be replenished by American troops.  The Germans lost 239,000 men, most of whom were the best soldiers Germany had to offer, the “stormtroopers” that had been sent in during their final big push to win the war.  The lack of decisive victory lowered the remaining German troops’ morale.

Amiens and the last 100 days

Canadian troops at Amiens

In August the Allies launched a surprise offensive against the weakened German army.  The “combined arms” approach was used for this successful attack, with the infantry advancing behind a curtain of artillery fire, and with the support of tanks, armored cars, cavalry, and close air support.  The Allies almost broke through the German lines, but reinforcements were rushed in, preventing the Allies from moving farther.

However, the battle of Amiens had shaken the German army’s confidence, while bolstering the Allies’.  Before Amiens, the Allied army saw the war stretching on for another two years at least, but the battle had proven just how weakened the German army was.

In the hundred days that followed, the Allied troops continued to forge ahead, pushing past German trenches using the same techniques (tanks, artillery, and air power).  Outnumbered and outgunned, the German army was forced to retreat, and it was soon obvious that the war was drawing to its conclusion.

Sources: Canada and the First World War, First World War.com, Wikipedia

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Trench construction in World War I

When people think of World War I, one of the first images that comes to mind is the trench.  Here’s a look into how these major features were constructed, as well as their impact on the war.

1. When were the trenches in World War I first built?

French troops waiting assault behind a ditch during the Battle of the Marne.

After the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 (one month after the war truly began), the Germans were pushed back to the River Aisne.  The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, assessed the situation.  Not wanting to lose the territory in France and Belgium Germany had gained, he ordered his army to dig trenches to defend against French and British troops.  The trenches provided necessary protection from artillery shells and machine guns, and gave soldiers a major advantage when warding off a frontal assault.  Realizing that they could not break through these trenches, the British and French soon began digging their own.

Over the next few months the equally-matched armies tried to outflank each other, continuously adding on to their trenches as they went.  This “race to the sea” ended with two parallel trench lines running from the North Sea all the way to the border of Switzerland.  If all of the trenches constructed during World War I were laid end to end, they would cover 25,000 miles.

Because the Germans dug in first, they were able to seize the high ground.  This not only gave them a tactical advantage, it also kept them much drier than the British and French, who were forced to dig in areas that were typically only 2 to 3 feet above sea level.  This led to frequent flooding and an almost constant presence of water in Allied trenches.

Trenches could sometimes flood as high as a man's waist.

2. How were the trenches constructed?

There were two main ways to dig a trench.  There was entrenchment, which was the faster method, allowing many soldiers equipped with shovels and picks to dig a large portion of trench at once.  However, this left the diggers exposed to all of the dangers that the trenches were supposed to protect against.  So entrenchment had to take place either in a rear area where diggers were not as vulnerable, or at night.  British guidelines for trench construction inform us that it took 450 men approximately 6 hours to dig 275 yards of a front-line trench (approx. 7 feet deep, 6 feet wide) a night.

The other option was sapping, where a trench was extended by digging at the end face.  It was a much safer route, but took more time, as only one or two men could fit in the area to dig.

These trenches were dug through the beautiful countryside of France, and often through private property, particularly that of farmers.  Private Victor Wheeler, a Canadian soldier, described his experience when digging one of the first Allied trenches:

With pick and shovel we dug trenches through beautiful fields of grain, fully realising what damage we were doing to the farmers’ hopes of reaping small harvests that would enable them to stem hunger during the coming winter. The patriarch with his ox-drawn plough, the matronly gleaner, and the young woman gathering grass and leaves, roots and truffles, stood arms akimbo, wordlessly, helplessly, hopelessly watching. The depressing effect on the morale of the men – to many of whom raising grain on the Western prairie also meant their livelihood – could not be easily dismissed.

After a trench was constructed, sandbags, wire mesh, and wooden frames would be brought in to reinforce the walls.  Wooden planking, referred to as duckboards, were also put in place to prevent men from standing in water, which often led to an ailment known as “trench foot.”  Shell fire and the weather made constant maintenance a necessity.


3. How were the trenches laid out? 

Trenches were never built in straight lines but instead in a zigzag pattern.  This method was used so that if the enemy invaded a trench, they would be prevented from firing down its entire length, as well as providing some buffer in the event a shell were to explode.

Multiple trenches were created on either side of No Man’s Land.  The front-line trench was exactly as it sounded–it was the first line of defense.  Sandbags placed at the opening of the trenches were particularly important here, as they also absorbed bullets that might otherwise hit soldiers.  Fire-steps were built into the sides and allowed soldiers to see over with their rifles at the ready when on sentry duty or when an enemy attack was anticipated.

Cross-section of front-line trench

Front-line trenches also had appendages called “saps,” which were dug out into No Man’s Land and used as listening posts to find out information about the enemy.

Behind the front-line trench was the support trench.  As its name implies, it held support troops and supplies to aid the front-line trench soldiers when necessary.  It also could be used as a fall back point if the enemy occupied the front-line trench.  Dugouts were typically built in the rear of the support trench, varying in size between 8 to 16 feet for the British.

Beyond the support trench was the reserve trench, which held emergency supplies and troops, in the event the first two failed.

All three of these trenches were connected by communication trenches, which allowed men and supplies to travel safely back and forth.  This is also where telephone lines could be run.

A soldier did not spend the allof his time in any given trench.  A typical British soldier spent 15% of his year on the front line, 10% on the support line, 30% on the reserve line, and the rest of his time would be spent either on rest, on leave, in the hospital, etc.

4. German trenches

Loos-Hulluch trench system

Unlike the British and French trenches, German trenches were much more elaborate in construction.  This was due to the defensive strategy of their army.  The above photograph is an excellent illustration of this: the German trenches are located to the right, the British to the left.

German bunkers were also more sophisticated.  Unlike the shallower dugouts of the British, German dugouts were typically 12 feet or more in depth, and were sometimes constructed three stories down, complete with concrete stairs.  German dugouts also typically had electricity, as well as toilets (luxuries that were not found in Allied trenches).

5. Significance

It soon became obvious to both sides that this would be a war of attrition.  Who could outlast the other with men and supplies?  Trench warfare created a stalemate that prolonged the conflict well past what either side originally imagined.  It would take the implementation of new tactics and technology to finally propel the war to its conclusion.

Sources: Spartacus Educational, Trench Warfare, St. Boniface’s College, history.com 


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“I wanted to do my bit”: VADs during World War I

In the second season of Downton Abbey, Lady Sybil Crawley grieves as she receives news of yet another male acquaintance dying for his country.  Tired of waiting idly for the war to end, she decides to volunteer as a VAD.

"Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead." ~Lady Sybil

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (or VAD) was founded in 1909 through the efforts of the Red Cross and the Order of St. John.  Its function was to provide free help to hospitals throughout England and later, on the Western Front.  VADs (as they were called) mostly came from Britain’s middle and upper classes, women who could afford to volunteer their time.  At the beginning of the war the British Red Cross, as well as military authorities, refused to allow VADs in field hospitals, due to their lack of experience.  Many of these women were unaccustomed to manual labor, having had servants their entire lives.  We see this in Downton Abbey when Lady Sybil goes downstairs to the kitchen, asking Mrs. Patmore for cooking lessons.

Sybil's cake is a success

Naomi Mitchison was pursuing a degree in science from the University of Oxford when she decided to volunteer as a VAD.  She wrote of her inexperience:

Of course I made awful mistakes. I had never done real manual household work; I had never used mops and polishes and disinfectants. I was very willing but clumsy. I was told to make tea but hadn’t realised that tea must be made with boiling water. All that had been left to the servants.

As the war progressed, a shortage of trained nurses caused the Red Cross and military authorities to reevaluate their priorities.  Restrictions were lifted, and women over the age of 23 who had at least 3 months’ experience in a British hospital (many VAD hospitals were set up in larger British towns to nurse those who returned from the front) could now continue their work overseas.

Katharine Furse, who was appointed “Commander-in-Chief” of the VAD, wrote a letter that each VAD was to keep in their pocket book.

You are being sent to work for the Red Cross. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience, your humility, your determination to overcome all difficulties.

38,000 women volunteered for the VAD during World War I, working as nurse assistants, cooks, ambulance drivers, letter writers, and any other work that proved necessary both at home and overseas.  Vera Brittain described her experience in a field hospital near Etaples:

I am a Sister VAD, and orderly all in one. Quite apart from the nursing, I have stoked the fire all night, done two or three rounds of bed pans, and kept the kettles going…I feel as if I had been dragged through the gutter. Possibly acute surgical is the heaviest type of work there is, I think, more wearing than anything else on earth. You are kept on the go the whole time but in the end there seems to be nothing definite to show for it – except that one or two are still alive that might otherwise have been dead.

Vera Brittain in VAD uniform

Catherine Cathcart-Smith served as an ambulance driver:

I wanted to do my bit for the war so I volunteered to drive an ambulance. We had to meet the troop trains at the big London railway stations – Waterloo and Victoria. The trains had hundreds of wounded soldiers packed on them. Their wounds were frightful. Young men with no arms or legs. Many had been gassed. Others blinded. One day I saw this young man on a stretcher. It was my brother, so I said to the soldiers who were carrying him: “Put him in my ambulance, I am his sister.” When he died the next day I was with him, holding his hand.

May Bradford composed letters home for men who were either illiterate or were injured in a way that prevented them from doing so.  She later recalled that she had to educate some of the men on the proper ways of writing to women:

 To one man I said, “Shall I begin the letter with my dear wife?”  He quietly answered: “That sounds fine, but she’ll be wondering I never said that before.”

May Bradford

Many women quickly adapted to their new roles, becoming invaluable assets to the war effort.  Some VADs were even decorated for distinguished service.  This organization proved so effective it would be used again in World War II.

To read more about life as a VAD, I highly recommend Vera Brittain’s memoir A Testament to Youth.

Source: Spartacus Educational


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