Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

It Was a War of Entrenchments—But Never Entirely

By John Terraine

Earliest Trenches on the Western Front, Aisne Sector, 1914

There are, undoubtedly, close resemblances between this field entrenchment warfare, and siege warfare—so close in fact that the British Official Historian, Sir James Edmonds, insists that trench warfare was really only siege warfare by another name, and that giving it another names was actually mischievous. He tells us:

“A fresh vocabulary was created to meet that supposed new conditions. Instead of using the old-fashioed word ‘breach’, the higher commands called upon the troops to make a ‘gap’; a ‘retrenchment’ became a ‘switch’; a ‘sap’ was not made by sapping; ‘mining’ was renamed tunneling; ‘subsidiary’ attacks, were demonstrations that could not possibly be developed into a ‘break-through’, took the place not only of ‘false’ attacks, but also of the minor attacks of old days; and the new words were misleading. The Germans stuck closer to the older methods …”

Well, I think Sir James Edmonds was right to be critical of this habit—which proves to be characteristic of the twentieth century—knowing better than previous generations, changing the names of things for the sake of change, and causing a great deal of confusion thereby.

But I think he is wrong on the large point. Siege warfare, after all, is no novelty; one of the very earliest military operations of which we have an extended account was a siege—the 10-year siege of Troy by the Greeks in the 12th century B.C. History has been sprinkled with famous sieges ever since. World War II affords a number of examples—Malta, Tobruk, Sebastopol, Stalingrad spring to mind. A somber turning point of affairs in Vietnam was marked by the siege of Dien Bien Phu.

There is no mystery about sieges; they are what happens when one side is trapped by the other in a position from which it cannot retreat, where it cannot be reinforced, and where it cannot be supplied (or can only be supplied with very great difficulty). The classic form of a siege is, of course, to surround the enemy force completely.

None of these conditions applied to the Western Front.

From the end of 1914 the Germans always had plenty of enemy territory to retreat in, if it suited them; not until they ran out of manpower at the very end did they run short of reinforcements and they were always able to supply their army. The Western Front was not a siege, whatever Sir James may say. It was a war of field entrenchments—and there was nothing new about that either.

The first regular use of them, I should say, was by the Romans, who used to dig in at the end of every days’s march, constructing a fortified camp surrounded by a ditch and a parapet. The Duke of Marlborough knew all about field entrenchments and he suffered very sever casualties indeed when he tried to rush the French of of theirs at Malplaquet. Napoleon’s Grand Army suffered heavy losses attacking the Great Redoubt at Borodino in 1812

Union Trenches Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia

But the most outstanding war of field entrenchments was the American Civil War, especially in its latest stages. Like the Romans, both sides in America habitually dug in when they took up new positions, making lavish use of timber, which there was plenty available, to construct the parapets, and chopping the branches—they were called “slashings”—to make the same sort of obstacle that barbed wire later served to supply only too well.

European soldiers, before 1914, paid very little attention to the American Civil War, because they thought is was a performance by amateurs. It received much more notice in Britain Colonel G.F.R. Henderson, whose biography of Stonewall Jackson is still the classic work on him today, was Chief Instructor at the Staff College when the “top brass” of World War I were students there. Unfortunately though, military science at that time tended to concentrate far more on “Great Captains” and “The Art of War” than on such mundane subjects as muck-shifting-which is what the business of entrenching is mostly about.

And so, for reasons with which I should think we are all pretty familiar in this room, the armies took to their field entrenchments in 1915 as they had done in Virginia in 1864–65, and they stuck in them for three years.

Those three years have been allowed to form the image of the whole war - that’s where the stereotype comes in and when people speak of its “standard tactics” they are always thinking of trench warfare. This is quite wrong, and I hope this association will do all it can to discourage that error.

Even within the trench warfare period itself, it is really absurd to speak of “standard tactics;” the whole time from 1915–1917 was one of constant change, constant experiment to try to overcome the astonishing deadlock brought about by the simple fact that the trench line extended from the sea to Switzerland, with no open flanks anywhere that could be turned

Post Trench Warfare: German Assault, Spring 1918

That, at least, was unique.

But year by year the attempt was made to overcome this overwhelming difficulty.

Source: John Terraine’s 1983 Address to the Western Front Association

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