Three men of the 7th Armored Division, known as the “Lucky Seventh”, man a 3-inch Gun M5 (anti-tank gun) covering the approach on a road near Vielsalm, Belgium; December 23rd, 1944
Hiter, Speer and entourage mesmerized at the Schwerer Gustav. Largest and Heaviest artillery ever used in combat; ca. 1941
Also know as Dora, Krupp was responsible for its development. It saw very little combat as the gun proved to be a logistical nightmare. Stands as the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, the heaviest artillery piece ever built by weight and fired the heaviest shells of any artillery.
The Schwerer Gustav could fire armor-piercing rounds weighing over 7,000kg (~15,000lb) with a muzzle velocity of ~700 m/s (~2,400 ft/s)
Canadian Soldiers take back a wounded from the front during the battle of Passchendaele; ca. November, 1917
Douglas Haig’s chief of staff, Launcelot Kiggell, reportedly broke down and wept when he finally visited the Passchendaele battlefield in the autumn of 1917, saying “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
Massed infantry attacks in the Great War were typically carried out for one of the following reasons:
- To apply pressure on a certain part of the enemy’s line to prevent those troops from being able to rotate out and reinforce another sector (as in the Somme Offensive of 1916, for example; the British push in the summer was intended in part to stem the flow of German reinforcements being sent to the ongoing siege of Verdun).
- To wear down the enemy through sheer, dogged attrition.
- Plenty of attacks were done in hopes of taking certain ground (ridges, bottlenecks, etc.) that would make a breakthrough easier in the future.
(A typical infantry assault on the Western Front from a British perspective.)
First, it had to be decided where the attack was going to take place. Not just anywhere was worth the effort. Would the ground achieved in a theoretical victory be worth holding? Would the topography of the region lead to the creation of indefensible salients? What type of troops do we have on the opposing side? Prussians? Bavarians? Saxons? Have they just rotated in, or have they been there for a while? What have they been doing themselves while they’ve been there? What’s the weather going to be like? What attacks are being planned for nearby sectors? What kind of support can we expect? These are just some of the questions that had to be asked.
Once a sector for the attack had been chosen, the preparations had to begin. Parties of men from the forward line would go out at night to ensure that there were sufficient (though not obvious) gaps at precisely-determined spots in their own line’s barbed wire installations to allow everyone to get through once the attack began. They’d also ever-so-cautiously try to creep up to the enemy wire and cut holes in it, too, for the same purpose. Ammo stores had to be checked and rechecked, equipment thoroughly inspected, all the stuff you’d expect. I won’t bore you with the cleaning protocols in the trench itself.
Now, “surprise” attacks in any sense that we might currently mean when using the term were basically impossible in the Great War, at least on the Western Front. If the enemy didn’t notice the increased bustle in your forward lines – not to mention lots of new troops being brought up to support the attack if it was going to be a large one – he sure as hell couldn’t fail to notice the artillery barrage that would typically precede the attack.
The nature and intention of such barrages varied from case to case, and there were different schools of thought as to how best to employ them even at that. They were necessary as a prelude to an infantry advance because walking into a wall of alert, functioning machine gun nests is not a way to win a war. The barrage would keep the enemy’s heads down while the troops would muster, and would throw the enemy line into a state of disruption and chaos on a practical level. Even a limited barrage of only a few minutes’ duration was useful; the machine guns employed by the Germans at the time could only effectively rotate 30 degrees, so knocking out even a couple of them could create “safe zones” towards which the infantry could proceed to punch through. They’d still have to contend with rifle and small-arms fire, but that was a reality all along the line.
Different types of barrages preceded different types of attacks. The lead-up to the Somme Offensive I mentioned above saw the German lines shelled continuously, day and night, for an entire week. Other attacks might have one lasting only a few minutes. Still others would be accompanied by what was known as a “creeping barrage,” where the shellfire was co-ordinated to fall just in advance of the attacking troops, keeping the Germans suppressed until the last possible moment. It’s worth knowing that artillery accounted for over half of all the deaths in combat throughout the war, and something like three quarters of injuries.
With the artillery roaring away, the first line would prepare to advance. The men would get up onto the firestep in the trench near their respective ladders and await the signal to go over the top. What happened next depended upon both the objectives in play and the stage of the war at which it took place.
Early on, it was more common for soldiers to move forward slowly, trying to maintain an unbroken line of advance. This owes something to the tactics of bygone centuries, certainly, but it was also a practical necessity. The war was still young enough that accomplished veterans did not exist; the entire BEF at the war’s outset was only 100,000 strong, and the need for more, more, more men, as soon as possible, everywhere, meant that the amount of rigorous, professionalizing training they could receive before being sent out was minimal. It was thought (often correctly) that expecting initiative, cunning and intuition from untested privates was a dangerous way to go about it, and the battle doctrine was adapted to the material they had at hand.
The slow line-advance kept everyone in sight of their commanding officer and aware of where they were. It allowed messages to be passed down from man to man if need be. It permitted excellent rifle-fire opportunities – in the war’s early stages, British rifle drill was still so absurdly good that it was even more dangerous than machine gun fire.
It had lots of reasons behind it. It was still awful and amazingly dangerous.
As the war went on, thankfully, everyone involved (who had lived) began to learn from their mistakes. Principles that we now take for granted were developed. With more experienced, better-trained soldiers and a better understanding of what could be accomplished by the weapons involved on both sides, infantry charges began to take on a different character. The single line was abandoned in favour of small, semi-autonomous groups – still technically in a line, I guess, but able to function well out of one as well. Advancing was done with all seemly haste, and with an eye for judicious use of terrain. Most importantly, the advance would be conducted under covering fire: one group under cover would suppress the German line while another advanced still closer. In this leap-frogging fashion, the line went forward.
“Mixed” is the best term I could apply to it, unfortunately. While there was undoubtedly a learning curve (usually thought to be most pronounced from 1916 onward), early large-scale attacks were not well-managed and did not typically succeed. The methods involved were successful when measured against the first two of the three rationales I listed so far above, but in terms of the third – breaking through – they were not.
Breakthroughs were sometimes achieved all the same (the British at Cambrai, for example, or the Germans along a long front during the Ludendorff Offensive of Spring 1918), but following up on them was difficult. The idea was to establish a thoroughfare through which cavalry and more infantry could be dispatched and take the enemy in the rear. It didn’t work out, though the idea itself is sound enough.
Many have asked if it could all have been done differently, and the answer is most certainly “yes.” What that different approach might look like is another matter…
As with most things, it varied greatly from man to man. Certainly it was terrifying for many, as the memoirs and novels of the war amply demonstrate, but others perceived it with ambivalence or even delight.
Here are some standard accounts, if you’d like to read up on it:
- Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (fictionalized memoir; written by a veteran; trauma narrative)
- Ernst Junger – Storm of Steel (fictionalized memoir; veteran; author seems to have positively reveled in the experience)
- Robert Graves – Goodbye to All That (highly fictionalized memoir; veteran; very dim view of it all)
- Frederic Manning – The Middle Parts of Fortune (novel; veteran; ambivalent; amazingly good)
- Henri Barbusse – Under Fire (very fictionalized memoir; veteran; almost a horror story)
- A.O. Pollard – Fire-Eater: Memoirs of a V.C. (memoir; veteran and Victoria Cross winner; greatly enjoyed the war)
- Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front (novel; veteran and fraud; deeply cynical about the experience)
Finally, if you’d like a far more comprehensive and detailed view of infantry tactics of this time, you’d do well to look into Erwin Rommel’s Infantry Attacks and Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18. Rommel’s views on the matter were admittedly idiosyncratic, but it’s an amazing document all the same; Griffith’s volume is far more recent (1994) and offers a detached academic overview rather than a first-hand account.
I have the daily schedule of one Captain Geoffrey Bowen with the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers on September 3rd, 1917.
I’ll be giving some context in brackets throughout for reading sake:
8.pm. Started [wake up] 9.30 p.m. Arrived. [at trench] 11 p.m. Company arrived. 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Round the line [ie: checking on men, checking positions, maintaining quality control across the line] 3.15 a.m.-4.15 a.m. Sleep 4.15 a.m.-6.am. Stand to. [Night watch, essentially] 6 a.m.-6.30 Reports [from lower level officers] 6.30a.m.-9. Sleep 9 a.m.-9.30 Breakfast: bacon, eggs, tinned sausage 9.30 a.m.-10.10 Round the line 10.10 a.m.-12. Reports, etc. 12.30 p.m. Lunch: Steak, potatoes, beans, sweet omelette 1.45 p.m.-2.15. Daylight patrol. 2.15 p.m-2.30. Sleep. 2.30 p.m.-3.40. Gup [gossip, idle chat] with the C.O. 4 p.m. Tea, bread, jam. 4.30 p.m.-4.35. Sleep. 4.35 p.m.-5.10. Entertain 'Bowes' 5.10 p.m.-5.15. Sleep. 5.15 p.m.-5.25. Trench Mortar Officer reports. 5.25 p.m.-6.15. Sleep 6.15 p.m.-6.35. Entertain Brain and Padre [Chaplains, implied work on mental and religious health] 6.35 p.m.-7.30. Sleep. 7.30 p.m.-8. Round the line 8 p.m.-8.15. Dinner: steak, potatoes, tinned fruit and custard. 8.15 p.m.-9. Round the line 11.30 p.m.-12.30 a.m. Sleep. 12.30-2.30 a.m. Intensive sniping [under fire] 2.30-5 a.m. Sleep.
It’s not nearly as dramatic as you may think. The unfortunate truth for Hollywood is that most of WWI was sitting around improving defenses and doing basically nothing. The conditions were horrific the entire time for most parts but you were not constantly getting out of trenches and charging enemies most of the time. One of the biggest jobs of men on the front is to constantly check, repair and lay down barbed wire outside of their trenches. This was generally done at night for obvious reasons and generally required hundreds of men to cover the workers doing this. At first they had to use mallets and even if they tried to muffle the sound by putting sandbags between the mallet and the stake to hold the barbed wire down, it was still noisy business. This brought the attention of many snipers. Eventually a corkscrew type of device would be universalized which would allow men to ‘screw’ the stake into the ground silently.
However the amount of fighting and what fighting you got depended on your sector. There were generally two types, quiet and loud sectors. Loud sectors were ones where the trenches were extremely close to the Germans — at times less than 25 yards away but usually no further than 100-200 yards away. You are in constant threat of rifle fire but not so much artillery lest each side hits their own men. So your entire existence is painted by avoiding snipers, being under sniper fire, and having bursts of machine gun fired in your general direction in your daily life. The quiet sectors were generally very different. You could easily be 600-800 yards away from the other trench and both sides adopted a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and your greatest threat would be random artillery barrages from miles away. Capt. Dugdale described the experience:
Time passed very peacefully, as the Germans were very quiet. My battalion snipers had the time of their lives; never before had they been given such targets. We literally kept a game book of hits for hte first three days; after that the Germans did not show themselves so much; also they started to retaliate.
Wiring was carried out nearly every night, but not in the style we were accustomed to in the days of the Somme. Our men did not creep through the wire carrying coils of wire, stakes, etc.; instead, a general service wagon was driven into No Man’s Land with the materials on board, which were dumped out when required. At first we expected bursts of machine gun fire every minute, but nothing happened. It must have become a well-established custom, as the enemy did the same thing themselves; we did not interfere.
Nonetheless in the general, the Germans were very keen on disrupting workers parties; particularly with machine guns and offensive patrols. The need for quiet was imperative but not always followed by the more reckless green horns. One account by Henry Gregory describes a particularly loud worker party shouting orders and joking with each other while his company was covering their duties. After about 30 minutes of it the Germans (who were previously pretty quiet) got fed up and unleashed a massive mortar barrage and machine gun attack on the position, killing dozens of men who had no reason to.
Conditions in the trenches were universally awful however. That is one universal thing that can be applied. Many trenches had water up the knees of men and you would have to wade around in this grungy, dirty mud water all day and everything you had would be almost constantly wet. When digging new trenches it was not uncommon to get a sudden and sharp scent of a dead body lying there for weeks or months as you pierced his flesh in the dirt, especially in when repairing trenches taken over from the enemy after large artillery barrages. Everything, once you got up to the front, had to be carried by hand for obvious reasons. Usually in the dark. In knee to waist high water. While being shot at by snipers consistently. You can imagine the frustration and how it could wear on a man.
That’s really what made the war so horrible. You didn’t attack all that much if you were a soldier but your life was still a miserable hellhole. You sat in a crappy trench while being shot on constantly by snipers or being bombarded constantly by artillery depending on where you were — if you were in a perfect spot both at once! You were constantly slightly hungry because of poor rations and if someone slipped and dropped a box of steak in water they were done for and you had just go without. Something that happened enough for men to justify writing about it as a part of their experience. However, for all that, the actual combat was pretty minimal and dare I say cushy, especially for quiet sectors. Your duties if you were a rifleman were essentially forward patrols from time to time and covering worker parties (usually the two duties were combined) which was a dangerous job but not really an all out attack and otherwise maintaining the trench system through constant labor. If you were a machine gunner or a sniper your life was essentially to sit in one spot for hours and harass the enemy and discourage them from performing their own maintenance or making them do it under great duress. And if you were an officer your job was basically to walk around and make sure everyone was doing their job correctly.
Now I’d like to talk briefly about how trench warfare worked. At first it was a crude type of deal, the Generals were literally learning on the fly. The original tactic through 1915 and 1916 was essentially bombard the enemy trench with so much firepower that they couldn’t possibly survive and then mop up the rest with your infantry. This was basically what The Battle of Somme was supposed to be — one of the biggest failures of the war where the British men advancing quickly found that the artillery barrage did nothing to the enemy barbed wire and the Germans just huddled up underground ,waited for the barrage to stop, and then just manned their machine guns again once the assault started. Things like the creeping barrage were developed as well where basically the artillery would ‘creep’ to the German trench as the infantry marched behind it. The idea was that the artillery would hit the trench and within seconds be struck by British and French troops in the immediate aftermath.
Again, the issue was coming with that all out artillery barrages where the men were marching was a horrible strategy. This is most demonstrated at the Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, where the British attempted to break out of the Ypres salient in Belgium by taking surrounding ridges. The British absolutely unloaded artillery on these positions and when the men went into battle the ground was so utterly destroyed the entire battlefield was composed of flooded craters. The men were literally getting stuck in the mud and could barely move and they were cut down endlessly. The battle was only a half success, only capturing a few ridges with egregious casualties no one predicted even at this stage in the war.
In many ways WWI was an artillery war, but it was a war that was won in the development of infantry doctrine. What generals realized by 1918 was that artillery can not win this war. It could not single handedly destroy the enemy like they believed and the principle of combined arms was developed. Combined arms stated that every component of the army must be used together in equal parts to support each other and win the battle and that’s precisely what happened. Artillery was used in short, concentrated bursts and barrages not meant to obliterate the enemy defense but just shock them and generally create temporary weak points. Infantry stopped being a force that charged into trenches trying to overwhelm a position “shattered” by artillery but rather began doing something we are more familiar with — squad based infiltration tactics. Small squads of men would independently infiltrate enemy weak points, neutralize key points and create an open path for friendly mortars and flamethrowers to move in to create a combined mortar, machine gun and flamethrower assault on the more fortified positions with the infiltrated elite troops attacking from all sides inside the trench as well. Combined with aerial reconnaissance, armor to shield advancing infantry, and short but sweet ‘hurricane’ barrages trenches became all but a stepping stone in the March 1918 offensive by the Germans and then for the Allies in the Hundred Days counter-offensive in August which ended the war.
Holmes, Richard, “Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front “
Simpson, Andy “Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life and Death in the Trenches of the First World War”
The bright uniforms worn by French infantry in the early months of the war, alongside a reckless doctrine of attack at all times, help explain the staggering losses sustained by the French Army. By the end of 1914 they had lost nearly a million men killed, captured or wounded. Lantern slide from a box of 73 lantern slides, one of two boxes associated with World War One, Western Front, 1914-1916. Published by Newton and Company, 3 Fleet Street, London. One of 29 boxes of lantern slides. Associated with World War One, Western Front (1914-1918).