Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “The Great War


German soldiers walk past fallen British soldiers, following heavy street fighting in the village of Moreuil; ca. 1918.



“The Desolation of War” – Poelcapelle, Belgium; ca. 1917


A captured soldier suffering from Shell Shock, The Somme; ca. 1916.


We often joke about “I’ve seen some shit”, but this is a representation of a visceral and downright frightening reality that someone people had to experience. I can’t imagine being subject to something so extreme that my brain had to shut everything down just to cope. His eyes are so hauntingly tragic.

Nothing in history prepared those men for what they faced.

“The worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had had their souls torn out. I don’t want to look in your eyes someday, and see no spark, no love, no… no life. That would break my heart.” -Eugene Sledge Sr. (hoping to convince his son not to enlist in the Marines)

The mass infantry charges in World War One.



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.

The Battle of Verdun; ca. 1916.


From ‘The First World War in Colour’ by Peter Walther.


A British Mark series tank, Péronne, France; ca. 1917.



An old woman who fled the war zone with her cow, sits on a bench in Amiens, France; March 28th, 1918



Men of the 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment going up to the line near Frezenberg during the Third Battle of Ypres; ca. 1917

WAR… what is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING.

“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation…This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers…This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here…All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love…”

-Dick Diver (Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

From Wikipedia:

The Battle of Broodseinde was fought on 4 October 1917 near Ypres in Flanders, at the east end of the Gheluvelt plateau, by the British Second and Fifth armies and the German Fourth Army. The battle was the most successful Allied attack of the Battle of Passchendaele. Using “bite-and-hold” tactics, with objectives limited to what could be held against German counter-attacks, the British devastated the German defence, which prompted a crisis among the German commanders and caused a severe loss of morale in the German Fourth Army. Preparations were made by the Germans for local withdrawals and planning began for a greater withdrawal, which would entail the loss to the Germans of the Belgian coast, one of the strategic aims of the British offensive. After the period of unsettled but drier weather in September, heavy rain began again on 4 October and affected the remainder of the campaign, working more to the advantage of the German defenders, who were being pushed back on to far less damaged ground. The British had to move their artillery forward into the area devastated by shellfire and soaked by the return of heavy rain, restricting the routes on which guns and ammunition could be moved, which presented German artillery with easier targets. In the next British attack on 9 October after several days of rain, the German defence achieved a costly defensive success, holding the approaches to Passchendaele village, which was the most tactically vital ground.

Winston Churchill; ca.1895

Loving the tighter pants tucked into the boots. Seriously. Fashion icon.

Well, his figure went way the hell downhill after that.

A large French digging machine building trenches on the western front during WWI.

 The digging was moving away from the solider. A Trencher like that moved backwards as it digs.

The digging was moving away from the solider. A Trencher like that moved backwards as it digs.

“War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder”

Harry Patch was the last Tommy to survive the horror of the trenches of WWI. He died aged 111 in 2009.


He never forgot those lost and always made sure to remember lost Germans as well as Allied troops. A quote from Harry: “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”

5hekHgqThe following account was given by Harry Patch in 2007 when he was 109:

We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.

We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.

Life in the trenches was dirty, lousy, unsanitary. The barrages that preceded battle were one long nightmare. And when you went over the top, it was just mud, mud and more mud. Mixed with blood. You struggled through it, with dead bodies all around you. Any one of them could have been me.

Yet 90 years on, I’m still here, now 109 years old. It’s incredible to think that of the millions who fought in the trenches in the First World War, I’m the only one left – the last Tommy.

So now, on Remembrance Sunday, it is up to me to speak out for all those fallen or forgotten comrades. But today isn’t just about my generation. It is about all the servicemen who have risked or given their lives, and the soldiers who are still doing so.

My comrades died long ago and it’s easy for us to feel emotional about them. But the nation should honour what we did by helping the young soldiers of today feel worthwhile, by making them feel that their sacrifice has been worth it.

Remember the men in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t make them wait eight decades, like my generation had to wait, to feel appreciated.

The time for really remembering our Forces is while they are at war or in the years immediately after they return, when they are coping with the shock and distress or just the problems of returning to civilian life.

That is what upsets me now. It is as if we have not learned the lessons of the war of 90 years ago.

Last year, the politicians suggested holding a commemoration service at Westminster Abbey to honour the remaining First World War veterans. But why? What for? It was too, too late.

Why didn’t they think about doing something when the boys came back from the war bloodied and broken? And why didn’t they do more for the veterans and the widows in later life?

It was easy to forget about them because for years afterwards they never spoke out about the horrors they had experienced. I was the same. For 80 years I bottled it up, never mentioning my time in the trenches, not even to my wife or sons.

I never watched a war film either. It would have brought back too many bad memories.

And in all that time, although I never said it, I still felt a deep anger and resentment towards our old enemy, the Germans.

Three years ago, at the age of 106, I went back to Flanders for a memorial service. I met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. It was 87 years since we had fought. For all I know, he might have killed my own comrades. But we shook hands. And we had so much more in common than I could ever have thought.

He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. We had a translator but in a way we didn’t need him. After we had talked, we both sat in silence, looking at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of fallen comrades.

Once, to have shaken the hand of the enemy would have been treason, but Charles and I agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don’t know.

He told me: “I fought you because I was told to and you did the same.” It’s sad but true.

When Charles and I met, we’d both had a long time to think about the war and all that had happened. We both agreed it had been a pointless exercise. We didn’t know each other, we’d never met before, so why would we want to kill each other?

Charles has died now, but after our meeting he wrote me a letter. It said: “Shaking your hand was an honour and with that handshake we said more about peace than anything else ever could. On Sunday, I shall think of you, old comrade.”

Now, finally, I feel I can talk about those times. I’ve even written a book about my life and they say that makes me the oldest ever first-time author. Isn’t that something? I hope it helps people understand how the young men of my generation suffered.

I was conscripted into the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in 1916, by which time enthusiasm for the war had fallen away. I knew when I watched the White Cliffs receding as I sailed for France that I might never see England again.

I was put in a Lewis gun crew with three others and we became a very close team by the time we were ordered up to the front line during the Battle of Passchendaele. It was August 16, 1917, and just a couple of months after my 19th birthday.

It doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had, you can’t prepare for the reality of the front line – the noise, the filth, the uncertainty, the casualties, the call for stretcher-bearers.

Exactly 90 years later, in July this year, I returned to that very spot with The Mail on Sunday. There, in the sleepy Flanders countryside, I stared out at what was once No Man’s Land and it all came back to me.

The bombardment like non-stop claps of thunder, the ground we had to cover, the stench of rotting bodies who would never be buried.

You lived in fear and counted the hours. You saw the sun rise, hopefully you’d see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped to see it rise. Some men would, some wouldn’t.

Then the war, for me, suddenly came to an end. We were crossing open ground at Pilckem Ridge on September 22. In my mind, I can still see the shell explosion that took three of my pals and nearly did for me too.

I wasn’t told until later that the three behind me had been blown to pieces. My reaction was terrible and it’s still difficult to explain. It was like losing part of my life. The friendship you have during a war, it’s almost like love.

It was because of those three men that I did not speak about the war for most of my life. It was too painful. Today I have forgiven the men who killed them – they were in the same position as us. I find it harder, though, to forgive the politicians.

Somebody told me the other day that at homecoming parades for our men in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely anyone turns up. I was shocked. Even in our day there would at least be some kind of welcome.

I hope that today people will take the time to remember not just those who have died but those who are alive and fighting for our country. Please don’t forget them – or leave your thanks until it is too late.

(Harry Patch was talking to Nigel Blundell.)

  • From The Last Fighting Tommy, by Harry Patch with Richard van Emden (Bloomsbury). Britain’s Last Tommies, also by Richard van Emden (Pen & Sword). 

Harry Patch_2.jpg

Frontline Soldiers in World War One:

The British lost 1.53% of their population in military service during the Great War, the Germans lost 3.23% and the French 3.7%1.

Fatalities in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were on average 1 in 7 for officers and 1 in 8 for other ranks, and on the Western Front 10% of these fatalities were caused by something other than enemy action (in East Africa over 70% were non-battle fatalities). In the last month of the war alone, over 2,500 british soldiers died from Spanish Flu.

Furthermore, the British suffered over 6 million non-fatal casualties, some 65% of which were classified as non-battle injuries across all theatres, but the British only reported injuries which prevented a soldier from reporting for duty, regardless of how they were caused. Thus if you were going to die then it was likely to be the enemy who were responsible, but injury was more likely to come from a different source. Also many soldiers would suffer multiple wounds so it is very difficult to estimate the chances of a British soldier being wounded during a particular period of time.

The issue is further clouded by the definition of a front line soldier. Before the war it was easy to categorise the infantry, artillery and cavalry as front line (a habit which persists in the Army to this day), but come the middle of the war an artilleryman could find himself posted from the field artillery, a front line unit, to garrison artillery, which sat much further back. Also infantry units were rotated in and out of the front line on a regular basis and so, by sheer caprice, some found themselves in contact with the enemy more often than others. The reach of artillery also brought soldiers in traditionally safer occupations (e.g. drivers or medics) in to the midst of battle.

The census data from 1911 to 1921 shows that 14% of men who would have been of fighting age at some point during the war died during that period. The vast majority of these are for non-war related reasons and for soldiers from the most impoverished sectors of society, life on the Western front was healthier and less dangerous than civilian life at home.

*This gives you some idea why the French did everything they could to avoid war in 1939/40, including their failure to go on the offensive in any meaningful way.

A Basic Summary of World War One:

Europe had a long standing culture of regarding war as glorious and honorable Together with a complicated set of alliances that essentially broke most of the world into two camps war was really inevitable. Unfortunately iindustrializationallowed mass production of soldiers and material which meant the war was far larger than the people who started it envisioned.

So the trigger was an Austrian Archduke being shot by a Serb, Gavrilo Princip. Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia considered itself the protector of the balkans and declared war on Austria. Germany declared war Russia, and to avoid fighting a war on two fronts declared war on France in the hopes on knocking them out before the technologically backwards Russians could mobilize.

France had an excellent defensive line but it didn’t extend as far as Belgium and so Germany invaded Belgium. Britain was a guarantor of Belgium neutrality and so declared war on Germany.

Britain, France and Russia were known as the Triple Entente, while Germany, Austro-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empire were referred to as the Central Powers.

The early war had movement on both east and west fronts. Germany did well in the west and poorly in the east, but nowhere was decisive. The war dragged on, with most of the professional armies being destroyed and large conscript or volunteer forces replacing them.

1915 – Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente and the Ottoman empire joined the central powers. The last great cavalry charges occurred. The western front stagnated and trench warfare solidified. Hindenburg and Ludendorff distinguished themselves on the eastern front.

Britain attacked the Ottomans at Gallipolli, it was a catastrophic failure.

1916 – The new armies were ready to use on-masse. Faulkner attacked Verdun not to take ground but to kill as many enemies as possible, a new and terrifying tactic. It had mixed success causing huge French casualties but giving them a morale boost.

The British attacked on the Somme to relive pressure on France, it was the worst military affair In British history. The tank was used for the first time.

Germany was under blockade, but managed to blockade Britain through the use of submarines. This caused diplomatic problems with neutrals.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff became de facto leaders of Germany.

1917 – Russia had a civil war due to the extremely poor conditions for their soldiers and civilians. The communists took control (with the help of Germany). Russia left the war seeding large amounts of land and resources to Germany.

America joined the war. The stated cause was Germanys submarine usage (in particular the sinking of the Lusitania) but really America had been funding the entente and it now looked like they might lose (and hence America would lose alot of money). This had huge implications. America had been isolationist, focusing instead on gaining hold of their massive new territory. But now they became an extremely powerful world player.

Western front was a stalemate. Britain started a campaign to make Arabs rise against their Turkish masters.

1918 – Germany was starving. This year had the most casualties of the war. Germany launched a last ditch offensive which was a surprising success. However the advance outran communication lines and stalled. The Entente counter attack was successful, the German people lost the will to fight.

The Arab uprising was successful and destroyed the Ottoman empire.

A poorly thought out peace treaty was signed and the guns finally fell silent.

Life & Death in The Trenches:

Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, paints a pretty graphic depiction of life and death in the trenches and goes into trench raids quite a bit. Graves trained to become an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (a regular army battalion), but ended up being deployed with the Welsh Regiment (territorials). His reflections on trench storming vary quite a bit between the two units – everything depended on the circumstances. Who were you attacking, and how long had they been on the line? Were you attacking during the day or at night? Were your attackers particularly keen or experienced at going over? Graves wrote a lot about how the Welsh Regiment was primarily composed of miners, who, while being excellent diggers, were not too pumped about lobbing grenades into German trenches. They spent most evenings spraying the German lines with rifle and machine gun fire, and would leave it at that (they also made tea with the hot water produced off the machine guns, fun fact). The officers had a hell of a time getting them to do much raiding.
 Around the time of the Battle of Loos, Graves pretty much gave up on life, and frequently volunteered to go on trench raids at night. I believe this was after he had been transferred to the RWF. He usually took a small squad of men (as to avoid detection) armed with multiple grenades and Webley revolvers. He became pretty good at raids, and mortality rates on his sorties were apparently pretty low. Another book, K-1 the First Hundred Thousand, by Ian Hay, (an excellent read BTW) is about a fictional unit (It’s supposed to be The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) fighting in France. It is available for free in many places on line, and discusses trench raiding and its evolution quite a bit (among many MANY other things). Before the advent of more technologically advanced grenades, many soldiers were forced to simply “make do” and used crude substitutes (that were also occasionally furnished by the government) like “jam tin” grenades, which were tin cans stuffed with cordite and a fuse. Better grenades usually meant safer conditions for the ones throwing them, and better results on targets. To try to better answer your question, from what I’ve read, trench raiding evolved pretty extensively during the war, especially in the opening years. If anything, trench raiding quickly became “an art form” (so said Ian Hay, who performed it) and men were self proclaimed “specialists” in what they did – be it throwing grenades, cutting wire, or sneaking around. That being said, mortality and success rates really depended on the circumstances of the fight. Doing a raid during the day, for example was generally a terrible idea. Doing one at night under cover of fog, was a much better one. Having experienced soldiers that had a clear idea of what was going on (and what they should be doing) was an obvious bonus. Just remember to freeze when the flare goes up.

Trench Stroming in World War One:

Trench storming was obviously important, since it was the only possible way to break through the unflankable 400-mile Western Front. What’s more interesting is to see whether it actually worked. According to popular belief this is a no-brainer–assaults during World War One never worked! They were just a complete waste of human life by unimaginative and out-of-touch generals living in mansions miles behind the front line who had no understanding of the number of lives they were throwing away to no purpose! This stereotype is quite simply wrong. Trench assaults could and often did succeed.

Until the end of 1914 the war was obviously extremely mobile, yet even after it settled down into a war of attrition, it was still possible to break the deadlock. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the British broke through the single German trench line, thanks to a rapid (35-minute) and extremely concentrated bombardment. This success wasn’t followed through quickly enough to achieve an operational breakthrough, but tactically, the British had well and truly succeeded in overcoming the German defences. The British took the wrong lesson from this; they reasoned that longer and heavier barrages would allow even greater successes, failing to realize that the barrage worked so well at Neuve Chapelle only because it was short and focused on a narrow section of the front. At Loos in September-October 1915, the dispersed bombardment failed to destroy the German defences, although even then, the British were able to break through the defences; again, breakthrough was only prevented by the late arrival of reserves. By the time the offensive could renew, the Germans had reconstituted their defence; but again, the attack was a tactical success.

After Neuve Chapelle, the Germans took the correct lesson, realizing that one trench line was not enough; thereafter they developed a defence in depth, with at least three lines of trenches to absorb the momentum of attacks. This was the situation at the Somme, the classic futile assault. Yet the assault was in numerous places successful; in fact, the British 30th Division was able to break right through the depth of the German defences, within sight of the green fields beyond. That this breach was not exploited does not discount the fact that a trench assault had succeeded in defeating three successive lines of German defences. This map ( shows the ground captured from July-November 1916; although such gains weren’t enough to change the strategic situation, and despite the fact that casualties (on both sides) were extreme, it just can’t be argued that assaults were always unsuccessful.

At the start of 1917, the Germans withdrew part of their line to prepared positions at the Hindenburg (or Siegfried) line. The German defensive art was reaching its most advanced; soldiers manned three successive lines of well-built trenches, with deep shelters to protect them from the barrage and well-practised defensive artillery. Yet these defences continued to be taken, largely because Allied offensive developments–air reconnaissance, creeping barrages, and the tank–kept pace with German defensive developments. The Battle of Arras from April-May saw tactical success, notably the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians. Probably the most decisive success of the war, at Messines, took place in June; the ridge was taken with ease after a series of 19 huge mines demolished the German trenches (it’s debatable whether this counts as a trench storming, since the trenches were virtually gone by the time the assault began). The subsequent Third Battle of Ypres was wasteful of manpower and achieved no strategic aim, but the village of Passchendaele was captured nonetheless. The Battle of Cambrai in November was an undeniable tactical success thanks to the skilful use of artillery and tanks, a success only marred by a German counter-attack which restored the front line–which shows that the Germans were just as capable of overcoming defences as the British.

The Germans enjoyed even more success in 1918, when their Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s battle), succeeded in finally breaking the stalemate and throwing the Allies back more than 60 miles. The remainder of the war, with far more mobile fighting, saw numerous examples of defences being overcome (although these defences tended to be far less well-prepared than they had been during the stalemate).

So trench-storming was often successful; in fact, you’d struggle to find an offensive which didn’t achieve at least some tactical success. The natural question, then, is: why didn’t the Allies achieve an operational breakthrough if they were able to capture the German trenches virtually every time they launched an offensive? The answer is in the poor state of communications. To have any chance of exploiting a breach, commanders had to hold back reserves until the time was right; sending them in too early would lead to casualties from the enemy artillery, and allow the troops to become disorganised by enemy action and the destroyed terrain. Commanders had to wait for confirmation of a breakthrough before committing their reserves, for if they were used poorly, and came up against enemy defences, their attack would peter out before they had created a large enough breach in the enemy line to form the basis of a break-out operation. News of a breach, however, was extremely difficult to send back; troops lacked radios, telephone lines were quickly cut by artillery fire, and the only alternative was to send a runner, who, if they did make it back to HQ, would take, on average, about 12 hours to do so. The defenders, meanwhile, would be busy reforming their defensive line, which would invariably take far less time. Armies of the time simply lacked the technology needed to react quickly enough to take advantage of breaches, apart from when tactical success was so overwhelming (as in the 1918 German Spring Offensive) that the defenders were incapable of reforming. The need to rely on horse-drawn transport also made the movement of troops slow. By 1939, armies had both portable radios and far more motor transport, which is why World War Two never really became a stalemate like World War One.

There’s a tendency to assume that, since the Western Front was for so long an operational stalemate, this was reflected at a tactical level too. The truth is that trench storming was often successful; no defensive system was safe from assault, as the numerous successful attacks on the extremely advanced Hindenburg Line prove.

Casualties during World War One were extremely high, especially during offensives. Unfortunately I don’t have any statistics, but suffice to say that they would be well into the tens of thousands for major offensives. It’s important to note, however, that casualties were always several times higher (at least) in the mobile periods of the war; trench warfare was relatively safe in comparison. Men in the trenches were not always being shelled in some kind of perpetual battle; on the contrary, on quiet sectors of the front an unofficial true existed between the two sides, with the soldiers doing only what fighting was necessary to placate their commanders, and otherwise trying to co-exist with the enemy (for more see Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System (London, 1980)) It’s also worth noting that World War One wasn’t necessarily more bloody than World War Two; a British soldier was more likely to become a casualty in Normandy in 1944 than on the Somme in 1916 or at Passchendaele in 1917.

Trenches were often taken by assault. The reason everyone thinks they weren’t, is because tactical successes were only rarely turned into operational and strategic successes due to the limitations of battlefield communication at the time.

[It wasn’t the tactics of trench-storming that were lacking, but rather the ability of either side to exploit successful breakthroughs. The defender had the capability to rapidly reinforce depleted sectors via railroads, while attackers had to move forward on foot. The density of soldiers on the Western front and a lack of mechanization made attempts at maneuver warfare futile.]

* Tactical level=involving squads and companies. Operational level=involving units up to divisional size. Strategic level=involving armies.


Sources: •Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18 (London, 1994). •Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence, 2004). (Citino discusses the limitations of operations in WWI in his introduction). •Tim Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and the Emergence of Modern War 1900-1918 (Barnsley, [1987] 2003). •University lectures and seminars and general reading.