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?”
*The trenches varied from country to country, and during an attack, a trench could devolve into a scant 18″ deep in places, due to artillery tearing them up, and the soldiers having no extra time to repair them. A fully dug trench could be 5 to 8 feet deep, and generally wide enough that at least three men could walk abreast. A soldiers life in the trench was constant work, as officers kept the men at task, in order to keep them occupied. Concerning dugouts, they varied depending on the country digging them, the soldiers digging them, how far back from the line they were, and so on. As the war progressed, dugouts became less and less protected. Germany’s dugouts were considered better because Germany dug them deeper and the men felt better protected from shelling. Britain’s dugouts were more shallow because the British thought that if their holes were too deep the soldiers would not want to come back again. Concerning trench layout, “the front” wasn’t a single trench with artillery behind it, but rather a complex maze of trenches, reserve trenches, and perpendicular trenches meant to aid the flow of traffic back and forth. (Though this seldom was as efficient as possible, with people trying to go both ways.)
The Wipers Times was a largely satiric British newspaper famously published in the trenches during the First World War on a printing press that had been “liberated” from the ruins of a French town. It was by the infantry and for the infantry, and much of it was marked by a very dark streak of humor indeed.
Nevertheless, there were contributions that were amazingly sad and touching, too. The poem “To My Chum”, written by an infantry private of the Sherwood Foresters who had lost his friend, is impossible to read without at least a twinge of sorrow. I say this charitably — for my own part, at least, I can barely get through it at all without tearing up.
To My Chum
No more we’ll share the same old barn
The same old dug-out, same old yarn,
No more a tin of bully share
Nor split our rum by a star-shell’s glare
So long old lad.
What times we’ve had, both good and bad,
We’ve shared what shelter could be had,
The same crump-hole when the whizz-bangs shrieked,
The same old billet that always leaked,
And now – you’ve “stopped one”.
We’d weathered the storms two winters long
We’d managed to grin when all went wrong,
Because together we fought and fed,
Our hearts were light; but now – you’re dead
And I am mateless.
Well, old lad, here’s peace to you,
And for me, well, there’s my job to do,
For you and the others who are at rest
Assured may be that we’ll do our best
Just one more cross by a strafed roadside,
With its G.R.C., and a name for guide,
But it’s only myself who has lost a friend,
And though I may fight through to the end,
No dug-out or billet will be the same,
All pals can only be pals in name,
But we’ll all carry on till the end of the game
Because you lie there.
An aerial view of trenches of the Western Front during World War I. Hill of Combres, St. Mihiel Sector, north of Hattonchatel and Vigneulles; Ca 1919.
An aerial view of the Hellish moonscape of the Western Front during World War I. Hill of Combres, St. Mihiel Sector, north of Hattonchatel and Vigneulles. Note the criss-cross patterns of multiple generations of trenches, and the thousands of craters left by mortars, artillery, and the detonation of underground mines. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)
An aerial view of the WWI Loos-Hulluch trench system in France. British trenches are situated on the left of the photo, and German trenches on the right – in the middle of the two is no man’s land. July 22, 1917
This is the location today.
The Black an White version:
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 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 (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_the_Somme_1916_map.png) 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,  2003). •University lectures and seminars and general reading.