Although this month is dedicated to music and such, we still keep up our monthly updates on WW1! So without further ado I welcome you to a blog post on WW1 trench engineering. The trenches made a big part of what we know of WW1. Trench warfare however was not new; this has to be made clear. Trench warfare had been used in the American Civil War and previous wars, and is still used today. However I will be discussing them as in WW1 terms. Now this post will cover a few points; firstly how were trenches designed, and how where they made. Secondly how did engineers work, this includes mine work as well as the use of barbed wire and the like. I would like to point out before I continue, that I am no engineer, and won’t be able to give you many technical specifications, I could always ask my sister, but she will be way to be busy doing her MA! So grab a drink, relax and enjoy the read.
So as I mentioned in my short introduction, trench warfare was not new, it had been developed in the American Civil war. Battles such as Gettysburg are well-known for their trench systems, and can still be visited to this day! You would think that the horror of that civil war would have deterred people from using trenches? Sadly not, they are good for defensible positions, and as the First World War was a war of attrition (who would run out of men first), trenches seemed the best way to win.
So a WW1 trench, what did it look like?, Well I could use words to describe one, but that would take too long and would no doubt be really tedious and boring, so I will share with you an image which explains their layout.
Notice how the trench zig zags? Well that is for defence purposes. They were dug in a zigzag pattern so that if an enemy entered the trench, he could not fire straight down the line. Makes sense, you don’t want an enemy to kill all your soldiers in one go! It made trenches more prone to melee combat, which meant troops reverted to medieval style weaponry in these areas. Spikes, handmade gauntlets and such, to help fight the enemy in these close in spaces. Also notice the barbed wire? That is anti-infantry, it made little impact on tanks, but men used to get caught on these and would be easy to shoot and kill by the opposite side. It would also hurt and could kill you if landed on. The sandbags were used to reduce damage to the trench, but to also protect the men from enemy fire and to ensure that the walls of the trench did not suddenly collapse. So how did a soldier look over the top in a trench I hear you ask me, especially with all these sandbags in the way! Well the answer is that they used Trench Periscopes to see over without being shot, and when attacked they would stand and peer over the top to fire their rifles. The Machine guns had specially designed areas to fire from.
The area in between the trenches was known as no man’s land. An area of land in which you certainly do not want to end up. It ranged from around 300m to as little as 50m. So some trenches were extremely close to one another! This area was the killing ground, where machine gun fire blazed across the land killing hundreds or thousands of men in one assault. It was the area where dying men were left screaming and where medics (in the early part of the war) were roaming to find wounded men to save.
So a normal trench system for both sides included a set of three or four trenches: you had the front the support trench, and the reserve trench. Each was linked with a trench known as the communication trench which men would walk through to move through to the front. However this was not always useful and became very crowded, some units used to run over the top to get to the next trench line, in some cases all of the men were killed. You may call them idiots for doing this, but it made sense, the communication trench were sometimes badly designed and were chock a block full of men, the wounded, the dying and just others moving to and from the front lines, therefore going over the top seemed the only logical thing to do.
So what side had the better trenches? Easy to answer! The German trenches were away better than those of the British and French. Why do you think the Somme failed so badly? The Germans were hidden down in their well-built bunkers that could take a pounding from the British guns, if the Germans had done the same, the result would have been different! Whilst looking for some information I learnt that in the German dugouts in the Somme Valley in 1916, there were toilets, electricity, ventilation, and even wallpaper. There were also built using better materials. This does not make their experience any better and certainly by the end of the war, these would not have been available as trenches changed hands more often.
The Trench conditions as we know were terrible, and there was little or no drainage, they used to be full of water during the winter months, and this had a poor medical effect on the soldiers themselves, as they had to stand and sit in muddy, cold, wet trenches. They were hastily made, dug by the soldiers themselves; they did not have time to make them homely, but quickly so they could repulse any attacks made by the enemy.
So how could you assault a trench in engineering terms then? Well the most common way was by an infantry assault of course. But why not mine underneath them! What could go wrong! Oh there was the occasional cave in and men being buried alive, nothing much. Mining was a dangerous task, underwent by either professional miners or the sappers. These were to become part of the Royal Engineers (go check out their museum by the way, it is amazing!). Their heroic sacrifice sometimes blew holes in the enemies’ defences which made the job for the infantry a bit easier. However they were usually wrong and blew up miles before the enemy trench. In fact miners on both sides used to look out for each other, if they heard another set of miners nearby, they would try to collapse their tunnel! It’s horrid to think, but it was either them or us. I am sure you have seen footage of a mine blowing up, but if you haven’t you can search for it on Youtube, or you can look up the Battle of the Somme film (a propaganda film made in 1916, which had the opposite effect on which it was supposed to!) which has a mine explosion in!
Trenches were to be later added with anti-aircraft guns, which were crude in design but could still take out a low flying aircraft. One of Britain’s aces was lost by flying to close to the ground. The trenches were fitted with as much as possible in order to make them defensible.
When we look at the trenches, we must remember Verdun was a completely different story, they were a number of fortresses connected and staggered. They would require their own blog post. But I will mention briefly that they seemed impregnable, especially when the Germans took them and fortified them, they lost fewer than 100 men taking it, and the French lost hundreds of thousands taking it back. A prime example of a great defence and stupid generals.
To conclude, Trenches were made to be as defensible and as impregnable as possible. They certainly had many design flaws and were an awful piece of work. They proved to be killers in the 19th century, but they were still relied upon. Of course it doesn’t help that generals were still using Napoleonic tactics in a 20th century war, but the advent of the trench certainly led to more deaths. The trenches changed warfare though, they led to the development of the tank (or land ship as they were called!) and they led to the formation of the storm trooper, who attacked trenches before the main attack with flamethrowers and the like. Eventually trenches could be overrun quicker and the great German offence of 1918 shows that. As I have said at the start, I am no trench expert, or engineer expert, If you want more technical specifications I would advise you to contact a place such as the Royal Engineers museum or ask someone more gifted in numbers than I am. That being said I do hope this has been an interesting read, and has shed some light on trench warfare. We must remember that Trenches are stilled used today, it is not an old tactic, but a common one. Also as I write this the Armistice Day had just passed, so I would like to take the opportunity to thank those who died for my freedom and especially to those who lived and served in those trenches, what horrors they faced is unimaginable. I often wonder, do they make men like they used to. I don’t think I could have survived one day in a trench!
If you have any questions or want to know more, just let me know, I would be happy to answer any questions and any feedback is welcome!