The Transition from a War of Movement to Trench Warfare
In 1914 a war of movement engulfed Europe, the Imperial German Army swung through Belgium and Holland down into Northern France as they enacted the Schlieffen Plan and the French, Belgian and British forces scrambled to meet them. By the Battle of the Ainse in September 1914, which had seen the Germans retire to defensively favourable high ground which the allies were unable to dislodge them from, both sides were seeking to outflank their opponents. This lead to a series of bloody battles along a front a 140 miles long which led all the way from North East France to the Channel coast. The ‘Race to the Sea’ saw extensive use of the existing road and rail networks available in an attempt to get a head and around the enemy but by October 1914 neither side had managed to outflank the other and stalemate ensued. A network of trench defences were constructed the likes of which human history had never seen before.
Rough German trenches along the River Aisne, c. late 1914 (source)
In late September 1914, commander of the BEF, Field Marshal Sir John French wrote to the Duke of Connaught saying he believed: “nothing but the most powerful and efficient entrenchments will avail against the modern heavy artillery which is brought into the field.” Such was the effect of modern, fast-firing, heavy artillery which in 1914 the German Army had the advantage in. The combination of heavy artillery, machine gun fire and terrain meant that by October 1914 the war of movement had given way to a stalemate.
The tactical doctrines of both sides had at first been in sharp contrast to one another, the French favoured rapid movement and surprise attacks while the German forces preferred a more methodical approach with the use of concentrated artillery and machine gun fire in support. These two contrasting doctrines neutralised one another, with the French counter-offensives being met by massed artillery and machine gun fire.
British Troops in what look like recently dug (possibly practice) trenches (source)
The advancing technology played a key role in creating the horrific trench warfare we think of when we think of the First world war. Not only advances in artillery and the widespread introduction of machine guns but also the effects of massed, rapid and accurate rifle fire. As seen time and time again during the early battles of the war even forces under equipped with machine guns could inflict massive casualties on troops caught in open country with long range, accurate, massed rifle fire. The combination of powerful cartridges and magazine fed bolt-action rifles meant that the volume of fire created by a battalion of infantry could be huge. As such, even during early engagements, the infantry often took full advantage of the natural cover available, using farm ditches, tree lines and sunken roads as cover. It did not take long for men to begin to dig their own cover when no natural protection was available. This being a pre-programmed response of any soldier halted by enemy resistance. As the Race to the Sea began it was a small step from improvised defences to beginnings of the intricate trench systems we think of today.
The photographs above roughly illustrate this evolution from open warfare, through use of cover and the digging of scrapes to the creation of the trenches that came to characterise the war. This evolution took place as different paces in the various sectors of the Western Front but by early 1915 the entire front had become a continuous line of defensive trenches.
In the first photograph we see German troops advancing across a field in open order, with the battalion’s ensign (battle flag) flying - a scene which would have been seen on Europe’s battlefield for the past 500 years. In the next three photographs we see German, British & French troops using natural cover of ditches and roads.
British Troops training in mock trenches c.1915 (source)
In the fourth photograph we can see British troops lying in shallow, hastily dug scrape trenches and similarly below that two German troops stand watch at the edge of a shallow trench. The last photograph shows the beginnings of more complex trenches - deeper with sloped rear walls and a parapet, this photo was taken in the winter of 1914. By the early months of 1915 both sides began work on ever more complex trench systems with multiple lines of trenches, zigzagged layout profiles, deeper trenches, reinforced firesteps, dugouts, bunkers, observations posts, increased use of concrete and ever deeper belts of barbed wire. By late 1916 the pinnacle of technical complexity and defensibility had been reached requiring new ways to overcome the stalemate.
Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, S. Bull, (2010)