|Wonder Woman Navigating a Grim No-Man's-Land|
By Dr. Bret Devereaux
From: A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry
Author and publisher of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, Bret Devereaux is an ancient and military historian who currently teaches as a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His articles have been published in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, The National Interest, and numerous academic journals.
In his two-part in-depth analysis of trench warfare he looks at how the trench system came apart and how they were eventually broken. In doing so, he draws on the imagery and some of the practical details of the trenches incorporated into the 2017 film Wonder Woman. In my opinion, that particular film has some of the best examples of trenches and no-man's-land ever captured in a Hollywood film. I added some imagery from the film for this introduction to Devereaux's article.
Part I: No-Man's-Land, the Trench Stalemate
This week (and next) I want to build a bit off of our discussion of Victoria II and talk a bit about World War I and in particular the trench stalemate on the Western Front. That trench stalemate is, in many countries, synonymous with the war itself. Of course the war was much larger than that, and while trenches, machine guns and artillery appeared everywhere in the war, not all fronts devolved into the static trench warfare of the Western Front. The Eastern Front, for instance, was always too large for this (though trench systems developed in areas of frequent fighting), while battles in Mesopotamia and the Levant always had the desert as a vast, open (but also logistically challenging) flank. Nevertheless, the experience of the Western Front was extremely important; the disaster of the First World War both broke and made nations. Yet precisely because it was so formative, World War I, its generals, tactics, and battles are often shrouded in national myths and unquestioned assumptions.
|A Defensive Position from the Film|
They Could Have Shown More Barbed Wire
What I want to focus on here is the disconnect between the popular conception of how trench warfare actually worked and the actual conditions that produced trench warfare. This week, we’re going to look at the problem: both the popular perception of what the problem is and what the actual problem of trench warfare is. This is both to set the groundwork for the next post, which will discuss the ways that this stalemate was and wasn’t broken, but it also serves to handily dismiss some of the "easy" solutions that are often offered which don’t solve the actual problem but merely solve the imaginary one.
One thing I should note I am not going to do here is discuss specific battles or specific generals. If you are expecting a all-round defense of WWI generalship, you will not find it here; while there has been a tendency of historians to revisit (fairly, I think) the tarnished reputations of many of the commanders of WWI, I think it is also broadly indisputable that the First World War saw more than its share of stunning command incompetence. (For what it is worth, I generally consider Luigi Cadorna, Italian chief of Staff 1914-1917, to have been the worst general I know of. I may run a B-side addendum to these posts on why I think Cadorna deserves this unique dishonor, especially given how stiff the competition in WWI is for terrible generalship.) On the other hand, as will soon become apparent, I think that, quite to the contrary of the popular perception that this or that easy solution was available, many WWI generals were presented by what was a fundamentally unsolvable problem, at least unsolvable with the technologies and armies they had to work with. Nevertheless, even within an unsolvable problem one may discern different degrees of quality, in part in the speed with which someone realizes that the problem is unsolvable and adjusts accordingly. Some generals did this, some did not.
Naturally, though, we need a jumping off point for the popular perception of trench warfare and if you’ve paid any attention to the thumbnail you already know what it is: the iconic no-man’s-land scene from Wonder Woman (2017).
A quick walk-through of what I think are the key points in the scene here. We start in what is apparently a frontline trench position somewhere in Flanders (although, as we’ll see, it is surprisingly densely held and also both surprisingly dry and overbuilt but also lacks any machine-gun positions). It’s held by British troops. After a shell goes off (which no one reacts much to), Steve Trevor explains to Wonder Woman that “this is no-man’s-land” (which is not true, they’re in a trench which is, definitionally, not no man’s land), “…means no man can cross it” (which is also not correct, by the by. No-man’s-land was called that because no one held it and so it belonged to no man). Trevor then declares that “this battalion has been here nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch,” which initially seems an odd statement since this is supposed to be late in the war. But if we squint really hard it could make sense if we assume this is a position abandoned by the Germans in the pullback to the Hindenburg Line in February of 1917.
The film takes place is 1918, so the dates almost add up. Though that’d be an odd thing, “we only gained an inch, except for that one time barely out of the time horizon I am offered where we gained several miles in a day because the enemy didn’t fight for them” is a strange way to present a stalemate. Alternately, he is just meaning that this battalion has been here for that long, the previous battalion that was also here having been rotated out, which would be an odd point to make.
|An Actual WWI Trench|
Also, if I may just stop here for a moment, but Hollywood writers, please. Please. Go to your computer, go to Wikipedia, and look up the sizes of various military units. A British battalion in WWI was notionally 1,000 men, though by 1918, they’re all going to be under strength to one degree or another. These aren’t independent maneuvering units; battalions do not launch major independent attacks but rather are components of attacks generally launched at the divisional level. Steve Trevor has just patiently explained to Wonder Woman that his car seat has been stuck in that parking space for almost a year; yes it has, because it is attached to the car. It is the car that hasn’t moved! The word you were looking for here was "brigade" or more likely "division." This is a seemingly perennial problem in movies that have no sense of how large particular units are or what sort of tasks are appropriate for what unit size (though screenwriters do love battalions; I assume because it has that word "battle" in it).
Steve Trevor then explains that this lack of movement is because there are “a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place.” Wonder Woman then decides to charge over no man’s land, which is a flat expanse of blasted ground. Because she is basically immune to bullets, she absorbs the machine gun fire (and deflects a mortar with her shield; how this solves the fragmentation issue is beyond me). Because the machine gunners are distracted, the British troops can swarm up out of their trench and charge and seize the opposing position. This in turn causes a break in the front which allows our heroes to slip through the German lines and continue their mission.
Apart from its story utility (and don’t get me wrong, as a scene in a story this bit is fantastic; it’s easily the defining scene for the character in the film and honestly the franchise), the scene serves to drive home some of the basics of the popular conception of trench warfare in WWI, namely:
1. The primary obstacle to a successful assault was crossing no-man’s-land.
2. The primary obstacle to that was machine-gun fire, such that "drawing all of the fire" would be sufficient to enable an attack.
3. Reaching and clearly the immediate enemy trench line was sufficient to break a sector’s defense (but attacks cannot accomplish this because of (1) and (2))
4. Consequently, attacks always fail because attackers are mowed down by machine-gun fire before ever reaching the enemy line; defenders take negligible casualties.
As premises, those conceptions lead to a nearly inevitable conclusion, typically phrased by my students as, "Why don’t you just go on the defensive and let your opponent attack himself to exhaustion?"
To continue Part I and learn Dr. Devereaux's response, click HERE.
To read Part II, No-Man’s-Land, Part II: Breaking the Stalemate, Click HERE.