A defensive warfare technique extensively used during the World War I, trench warfare did save thousands of lives, but then, it also had some drawbacks of its own.
The dawn of the 20th century marked the use of new weapons in the form of firearms, which were much more accurate and lethal. This made it almost impossible to continue with the traditional approach of taking on each other in a frontal ambush. It called for the need of a new technique of warfare, wherein the soldiers wouldn’t come in enemy’s direct line of fire, and trench warfare surfaced as the best possible option.
A stalemate technique, it ensured that both sides involved in war remained within each others firing range, but could only attack when the soldiers from other side tried to advance. It turned out to be the key when it came to attrition warfare, wherein the war was won by exhausting other side of their personnel and equipage. It was widely used during the World War I.
What is Trench Warfare?
As its name suggests, ‘trench warfare’ is a form of warfare in which either both or one of the two sides resort to defensive emplacements lodged in trenches to hold their position and be safe from enemy’s firearms. It centers around the concept of stalemate by wearing down the opponents. It came as a blessing in disguise for soldiers when frontal assaults had become virtual suicides owing to the introduction of new weapons, which were not just powerful, but were equally accurate.
How it Works?
In trench warfare, both sides establish their fortifications by digging trenches and strengthen their position. Once a particular side occupies its position in a trench, it becomes very difficult to dislodge them from this position. Even in case of casualties or injuries, reinforcements can be called in from the rear, while the ‘no mans land’, i.e., the area between the trenches, can be used for sorties and charges. The number of casualties in case of trench warfare is far less as compared to frontal assault even with same weapons.
Trench Warfare in World War 1
Those historians who have studied World War I are of the opinion that the trench warfare emerged as a result of the failure of Schlieffen Plan―a brainchild of German field marshal and strategist, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. The German forces resorted to trench warfare in the World War I during the second half of 1914. The trenches constructed during this period ran for thousands of miles and housed millions of soldiers who participated in this war. The trench system was divided into three parts: the front line (which faced the enemy at a distance of 200 – 800 meters,) the second line (the support or reserve line that was used as a back-up in case the enemy captured the front line), and the third line (which was used to facilitate communication and transportation of personnel as well as equipage to the front line.)
The side of the trench towards the enemy forces was referred to as ‘parapet’, while the side at its rear was referred to as the ‘parados’. Along the paratpet, was the firing step―an elevated portion on which the soldiers could stand when carrying out firearm assault on the enemy. These trenches were dug in a zigzag manner to bar the enemy from attacking from the side and also, to reduce the impact of shelling. This technique also made it difficult for the other side to map the location on trenches to facilitate an airborne assault. While most of these trenches were deep enough for the soldiers to stand without being seen by the enemy, some were relatively short and the soldiers had to literally crawl on all fours to avoid coming in the line of fire.
One of the major problems associated with trench warfare during the WWI was that of hygiene. Unhygienic conditions in these trenches resulted in diseases like cholera, typhus, trench foot, and trench mouth. Rats, lice, maggots, flies, and other such vermin added to the unhealthy conditions prevailing in these trenches by acting as carriers of these diseases. Other than poor hygiene and sanitation, the soldiers also had to bear the brunt of extreme weather conditions. It is very difficult to determine how many people died in these trenches during the WWI. While estimates put this figure at 200,000, the actual figure is expected to be well in excess of that.