Trench Warfare

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Australia and World War I

World War I can only be described as a senseless war, it was unlike any war fought before or since. On the Western Front each side dug trenches facing each other with a small stretch of 'no-man's land' and barbed wire between them. For the most part of four years these armies hardly moved at all.

When men were ordered to go 'over the top', tens of thousands of lives could be lost over a couple of days, just to win a hill or a few kilometres of ground. Mostly though they sat in the cold and mud and smell of death firing shots and mortars across to one another.

On both sides, those commanding had mostly gained their positions because they had been born into the class that officers and politicians came from. In many cases they had only minimal, if any, training for the roles they played and no idea of strategy or tactics.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. At least 2 million died from diseases.

They could not cope with the number of wounded - The armies on both sides had few doctors, nurses or other health professionals and nowhere near enough people to feed, clothe, transport and care for soldiers.

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Australian lighthorsemen, Anzac Cove, 1915. The man on the right is using a trench periscope to take a quick look at the Turkish lines while another sights a periscope rifle

Stalemate in the trenches

War began with Austro-Hungarian troops fighting Russian and Serbian troops in eastern Europe and German troops fighting France, Belgium and their allies in western Europe. By late 1914, all armies had begun to build trenches to protect their soldiers from the enemy and from the winter cold. Eventually, a line of trenches, known as the Western Front, stretched almost continuously from south-west Belgium across north-eastern France to the Swiss border.

As the Germans were the first to decide where to stand fast and dig, they had been able to choose the best places to build their trenches. The possession of the higher ground not only gave the Germans a tactical advantage, but it forced the British and French to live in the worst conditions. Most of this area was rarely a few feet above sea level. As soon as soldiers began to dig down they would invariably find water two or three feet below the surface. Water-logged trenches were a constant problem for soldiers on the Western Front.

No side could make progress without breaking through the enemy's trench system. Attempts to do so resulted in a huge number of casualties as men went ‘over the top’ to face their enemies' machine-gun, rifle and artillery fire.
Trench warfare, using these weapons so well suited to defence, meant that what had begun as a war of movement developed into a stalemate. The Gallipoli campaign in which Australian soldiers first saw active duty, was part of an attempt to break the stalemate and resume a war of movement.

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Modern artist's interpretation of a typical trench system

  1. Trenches generally formed a zigzag pattern to help protect the trench against enemy attack.
  2. Fire steps and scaling ladders enabled troops to go ‘over the top’, i.e. to go out into no-man's-land (the area between the opposing armies) to attack enemy trenches.
  3. Machine guns, one of the most deadly weapons, could fire 400–500 bullets/minute.
  4. Trench toilets, called latrines, were usually pits 1.5 metres deep, dug at the end of a short gangway. Each company had two sanitary personnel who had to keep the latrines in good condition.
  5. Earth-filled sandbags helped to shore up the edges of the trenches and absorb bullets and shell fragments.
  6. Duckboards were wooden planks placed across the bottom of trenches and other muddy ground. They helped protect men from trench foot and from sinking deep into the mud. Trench foot was a painful and dangerous condition resulting from days spent standing in freezing water and muddy trenches; gangrene could set in and result in the amputation of a man's foot.
  7. Owing to the use of mustard gas and other chemical weapons, all soldiers needed gas masks. Mustard gas was almost odourless and took 12 hours to take effect.
  8. Each soldier had a kit containing nearly 30 kilograms of equipment. This included a rifle, two grenades, ammunition, a steel helmet, wire cutters, a field dressing, a spade, a heavy coat, two sandbags, a ground sheet, a water bottle, a haversack, a mess tin, a towel, a shaving kit, socks and rations of preserved food.
  9. Barbed wire helped protect the trenches and also made it very difficult to attack the opposing trench. Before an attack, soldiers went out at night to cut sections of wire to make it easier for the soldiers in morning raids. Minor cuts and grazes caused by the barbed wire often became infected in the unsanitary conditions of the trenches.
  10. The British army employed 300 000 field workers to cook and supply the food for troops. However, there was often not enough food to cook. The main diet in the trenches was bully beef (canned corned beef), bread and biscuits.
  11. Snow, rain and freezing temperatures drastically slowed combat during the winter months. In hot, dry summers, lack of fresh water, scorching sun, and the stench of dead bodies and rubbish made trench life equally difficult.

Problems Facing Attacking Troops

Once both sides dug in and began Trench Warfare, neither side was able to bring back to the battlefield the mobility that cavalry had provided in earlier centuries, and both sides fought costly actions as they tried to break through these strong defensive lines.
Those in command had little idea about strategy and tactics. The gulf between tactical theory and warfare reality lead to the high number of casualties from this war.

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1 Allied Soldiers to advance
2 The Allied Soldiers cut the enemy barbed wire
3 The Allied Soldiers have an aeroplane above the area to tell them what is happening
4 The Allied Soldiers destroy the enemy trenches and capture the Germans
5 The Allied Soldiers destroy the enemy village
6 The Germans run away
7 The Allied Soldiers destroy the German guns

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1. Allied Soldiers are advancing into No Man’s Land which has already bee churned up by artillery fire. In wet weather this becomes mud and even harder for troops to cross.
2. Allied Soldiers are cut down by machine gun fire in No Man’s Land and unable to cut enemy barbed wire
3. German aeroplanes above tell the Germans what is happening
4. German trenches are well equipped with machine guns and front line dug-outs which provide protection from gun fire but not from a direct hit from an artillery shell.
5. Allied soldiers unable to advance as far as enemy village where German dug-outs could be as far as 15 meteres below. They are too well constructed to be damaged by Allied shell fire
6. Long range German artillery guns also fire upon advancing troops causing heavy casualties.

Trench Conditions

Trench Conditions also led to diseases and injuries contributing to the high casualties of this war.

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Sentries of the 8th Battalion at Bullecourt

Turkish forces at Anzac Cove

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AIF 2nd Battalion, Lone Pine. Australian and Turkish dead lie on the parapet of the trench


German soldiers, Battle of Verdun, France, 1916. Note the gas mask, use of machine gun and devastated landscape

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Sleep was a luxury

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ANZACs making a push from the trenches