Published: 4 December 2023
By Michael Peck
via the Popular Mechanics magazine web site
Plus, what the lessons learned in WWI mean for the current trench stalemate in Ukraine.
Mud, blood, and barbed wire. To an Allied soldier in the trenches of the Western Front in 1917, that seemed to be the future as well as the present. He had good reason for his fatalism. When the First World War began in August 1914, his generals had promised that the troops would be home “before the leaves fall.” But appalling casualties from new weapons—especially machine guns and long-range artillery—quickly forced armies to dig in for survival.
And dig they did, building intricate systems of trenches, barbed wire, machine gun nests, and artillery batteries that stretched 500 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. For three years, the German and Allied armies had tried to breach these defenses, seeking a path “through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond.”
Failure was not from lack of courage. At the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone. For most of World War I, armies suffered tens of thousands of casualties to gain a mile or two of shell-cratered ground. Armies designed for sweeping maneuver were forced to adapt to attritional warfare, and their commanders began to think in terms of daily human “wastage.”
A wounded British soldier is carried back to camp on a stretcher, past a carnage-strewn trench, 1915.
The problem was that defense had triumphed over offense. The days when Roman legions and Napoleon’s regiments could overwhelm a defender with numbers, bravery, and bayonets had passed. Now an entire battalion, struggling through the barbed wire, could be mown down by a couple of entrenched rapid-fire machine guns. Before their infantry attacked the Somme, the British fired 1.5 million shells in a week-long preliminary barrage. But when the shellfire lifted, the barbed wire was still intact, and the Germans emerged from their underground dugouts to man their machine guns. After five months and a million Allied and German casualties, the British had advanced just six miles.
Politics and technology have changed, but a Ukrainian infantryman in a muddy trench might be forgiven for despairing that trench warfare is forever. Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive is mired in a maze of Russian trenches and minefields worthy of the Somme or Kursk. Hopes of a World War II-style armored breakthrough have sunk into the autumn mud. Ukraine risks being trapped in a war of attrition against a Russian foe superior in manpower and resources.
Defense seems to dominate offense, as it did in 1916. And yet two years after the futile bloodbath of the Somme, the Allies used new technology and tactics in the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918 to smash through the deep fortifications of the Hindenburg Line and compel Germany to sue for peace.
How did the Allies break the trench deadlock?
Read the entire article on the Popular Mechanics web site.
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