The Western Front
The History Cat Classroom
At his retirement speech to the German Reichstag, the outgoing Chief General of the German army, Helmut von Moltke, warned that in the near future Europeans would be caught up in a war so horrific that ten million people would die. This was back in 1890 and it’s too bad that nobody listened because World War One turned out to be even bloodier than Moltke predicted. By the time it was all said and done 17 million people were dead and 20 million wounded in the greatest conflict Europe had seen... up to that point in history.
To recap. War broke out in the summer of 1914 when a Serbian nationalist/ terrorist (whatever you want to call him) murdered the heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Austria sent its ambassador to Germany looking for backup, the Germans foolishly declared their unconditional support for whatever revenge Austria had up its sleeve. Russia threw its hat into the ring on the side of the Serbians and called on France for support. As Russia and France mobilized their armies the Germans found themselves in the worst possible position: having to fight a war on two fronts. But the Germans had been planning for precisely this type of war for years.
The Schlieffen Plan, named for the guy who created it, called for a lightning attack to knock out both France and Russia in under sixth months. The plan was risky because success or failure all came down to good timing. France, as the greater threat to Germany, would have to be neutralized first. With strong French defenses in the south, the bulk of the German army would surge through the neutral countries of Belgium and Luxembourg into France. With Paris captured, the Germans could load their troops onto trains and hustle them off to Poland with just enough time to dig defenses before the Russian army came stumbling up to the border.
But the Schlieffen Plan didn’t quite go the way the Kaiser had hoped. For starters, the Russians managed to mobilize their forces and march to the German border way faster than was anticipated. On top of that Great Britain, who the Germans hoped would stay out of it, promptly declared war as soon as German troops crossed the Belgian border. But the biggest blow to a quick German victory came when the French wound up being far more competent on the battlefield than Berlin had thought possible. The combined allied forces were able to halt the German advance near the Marne River just east of Paris. Unable to break the stalemate both sides began to dig in, and with astonishing speed- the French-Belgian border (known as the Western Front) was transformed into 25,000 miles of trenches, topped with barbed wire, and mounted with machine guns.
The Western Front
The machine gun had made the days of full frontal assaults obsolete. In fact charging at the enemy was no longer brave, it became a suicide mission. In the first few months of the war, this lesson was learnt the hard way as thousands of troops were sent charging into a spray of bullets. It soon became clear that a new strategy was needed to break through enemy lines. And that brings us to the story of trench warfare.
Trenches in the First World War were more than just holes in the ground, they were pure works of engineering. More defensible than a fortress, and too narrow to be an easy target for artillery, the trench network was like an underground city complete with telephone lines, hospitals, pubs, churches, and of course whorehouses.
Dug deep enough so that a man could walk upright, trenches were built in a zigzag pattern, that way if an artillery shell should happen to make a direct hit the blast could be contained to a small section. Steps were cut into the earth so that soldiers could easily climb to ground-level and fire into attackers. And, because sticking your head above the trench was a sure way to get pegged in the head by a sniper, periscopes were used to keep an eye on the enemy.
World War I was supposed to be a war of movement. But because the trenches were built so soundly, movement became next to impossible. This war was going to be won or lost purely on playing defense. The winner would be the one who could break his enemies defense while maintaining his own.
The Life of a Soldier
It's hard to imagine what life must've been like for the soldiers in the first world war. Most were teenagers, far from home, and now they found themselves fighting for their lives in the on the Western front. I don't know what would've been worse the deafening noise of artillery shells exploding or the cries of men dying around you. For the soldiers stationed on the front lines, the experience must have been a scene straight out of hell.
A soldier's day began before dawn with "stand to" where everyone would climb the fire steps with rifles ready and bayonets fixed. Despite the fact that both sides knew that attacks were most likely to be carried out at dawn many attacks happened around this time anyway. After weapons check and breakfast were over soldiers would be given chores like refilling the sandbags, repairing walls, and pumping water out of the trenches. And if you screwed up in some way you would be given latrine duty. Latrines were trench toilets, literally pits dug into the ground were soldiers did their business. Old latrines had to be filled in and new ones dug on a regular basis. Night duty was the most dangerous when troops climbed out of the trenches to scour no man's land for dead bodies and the repair broken barbed wire.
But the worst part of living in the trench was hands-down the stench. The smell of open latrines, hundreds of unwashed bodies, rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, and decomposing corpses still lying in No Man's Land could make the trenches an unbearable place to be. Chloride lime was thrown on the ground to santize the place but this only made the area smell like a chemical sewer. And if the smell didn't get you the rats might. Rats were attracted to the filthy conditions of the trench and they were everywhere. Soldiers made a game out of who could kill the most with millions of rats running around it was impossible to get rid of them all. Not to mention that his grosses rats are they performed an extremely important service by feeding on the decomposing bodies which could spread disease to the living. Some soldiers even swore that rats could tell when an artillery attack was about to happen making them furry little bomb sirens.
Keeping the trenches dry was a constant problem. Digging deep meant that your feet were close to the water table and a few inches of stagnant water mixed with mud, blood, urine, and other bits of gore. Boots were in an adequate protection from from Trench Foot, an infection caused by dirty water getting into open sores that could very often led to death or if you were lucky amputations. Of course, if Trench Foot didn’t get you then influenza, dysentery (caused by drinking bad water) or any number of other nasty illnesses might. But if you manage to survive the war without being shot or infected by disease thing you had to deal with the constant irritation of lice which crawled in men's hair and clothing as thick as London fog. Lice was such a problem that many men chose to shave their heads to avoid risking infestation.
Typically an attack on a trench was preceded by an artillery barrage to create confusion and soften your defenses. Then the enemy would come pouring out of their “foxholes” and, if they were lucky, would be able to race across no man's land to reach your line of trenches before machine gunners killed their last guy. To slow the enemy tangles of barbed wire was strung across no man's land. Needless to say capturing an enemy trench was an extremely difficult task. Even if you had managed to dodge the bullets of the machine guns, cut through the barbed wire, and kill the enemy in hand-to-hand combat you still had bunkers and two additional lines of trenches to fight your way through.
Weapons of War
World War I became infamous not only for the insanely high number of people killed but for the new weapons and strategies that were developed to kill those people.
The French were the first to use poison gas which was essentially tear gas. But by 1915 the Germans took it one step further with the development of chlorine gas which causes fluid to fill up in the lungs. However, chlorine gas wasn't all that effective because its strong odor and greenish color gave it away. Soldiers were able to defend themselves by using urine soaked rags that counteracted the effect of the chemicals. Gross but effective. Not to be outdone, British chemists developed phosgene gas. Colorless, odorless, and denser than air this highly toxic gas hugs the ground and sinks into the trenches. Burning eyes and a scratchy throat were typically the only signs that you had inhaled the gas. By then it was too late. The tissues of your lungs had already begun to disintegrate and ooze. The next day you'd either be dead or seriously out of commission.
But the award for the most hideously infamous chemical agent goes to mustard gas. Developed by the Germans in 1917 mustard gas was not nearly as deadly as phosgene but the horrific effects it had on soldiers bodies were straight out of the Wes Craven film. This gas was truly vile. Burning any tissue it touched, victims often went blind, had their lungs turned to mush, and were left with painful mustard colored blisters on exposed skin. Even though mustard gas rarely killed it was enough to incapacitate soldiers for the rest of the war, which was the whole point. But using poison gas was not only considered a war crime it was totally unpredictable. Shifting winds could blow the gas back into your trenches making it an ineffective way of winning the war.
As the stalemate progressed both sides turned to machines to give them an edge over the enemy. Recent inventions like the airplane and automobile were fitted to military use. World War I became the first to use the airplane as a weapon of war. With so much chaos on the ground commanders needed eyes inside the enemy trenches to see how strong the enemy position was and plan for the next attack. Mounted with cameras and wireless telegraph sets these machines proved great for reconnaissance. But you didn't want your enemy flying around above you taking pictures and so somebody got the bright idea to mount machine guns and the first air battles were born.
Early airplanes were poorly built, made of wood and metal frames these bi-planes, maxed out at 100 MPH and could only hold one or two pilots- who flew in an open cockpit and no parachute. Being a fighter pilot in those days was truly an act of heroism. Many planes fell apart or caught on fire in midair! As airplanes began to be used to attack enemy trenches it was a natural leap to the total air warfare where enemy planes engaged in “dogfights” to see which side would be the master of the skies. The biggest risk was shooting your own plane down. A poorly calibrated machine gun could rip your propeller to shreds.
In 1915, the stalemate on the Western Front inspired another icon of modern warfare-the tank. Motor vehicles had only been around for a few decades and most were slow, clumsy contraptions. Winston Churchill (the future Prime Minister of Britain) had the bright idea of adapting the automobile to the battlefield. These new machines called landships, we know them better by their code name ‘tank’, ran on tracks, and covered in thick steel plates, with an artillery gun mounted to the front. Most tanks weighed about four tons and could travel at a speed of 20 MPH and were big enough to carry one or two men. The tank could roll across No Man’s Land and crush the barbed wire defenses. For a while the British had the advantage, until the Germans developed their own tanks. In 1918, the first tank-to-tank battle took place.
The Christmas Truce
Christmas Eve 1914. World War I has been raging for only four months but already the French-Belgian border had been turned into the waste land that would later be called "The Western Front". Allied and German soldiers fire at each other from their trenches--some of which are not more than a few yards apart. As Christmas approaches the firing dies down along the Western Front but never seems to die out. Sitting in their trenches, filled with mud, ooze, and gore the soldiers try to focus on the care packages of cigarettes and chocolates from the government. As they open their gifts and read the letters from loved ones safely at home, many are reminded that this is the first Christmas that many will be spending away from their families.
From enemy trenches soldiers are shouting greetings across No Man's Land. Christmas carols mix with the sounds of artillery guns in the distance. Then someone shouts an order not to shoot. Bravery a few Germans stand up out of their trenches and offer cigarettes to the British troops that had been trying to kill them just hours before. Somewhere else along the Front, a German soldier sent a chocolate cake with a message for a truce to begin at 7:00 p.m. In this way the Christmas Truce began in chunks across the Western Front. Former enemies exchanged gifts and sang Silent Night. The most value gift were cigarettes which dotted the inky blackness of No Man's Land like cancer-causing fireflies.
When the officers of the British and German command heard of what was happening, some tried to quash the impromptu celebrations out of fear that it would make it more difficult to convince the soldiers to resume killing one another once the holiday was over.
The next morning - Christmas Day- British and German soldiers could be seen walking around No Man's Land, laughing and sharing photos of their families. Some even got a soccer match going right in the middle of the biggest killing zone Europe had ever seen. Where it existed the truce lasted the entire day. Some people who had been barbers before the war gave out free haircuts. Another showed off his juggling skills right out in the open as he were in a park rather than on a battlefield.
For most parts of the Western front, the Christmas Truce ended as quickly as it had come. One British soldier, Captain J.C. Dunn, recounts the following story:
'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.'
In some isolated spots the truce held for days even weeks. But by spring 1915, the war was back in full swing. The introduction of poison gas would take the fighting to a more brutal level, Never again would the soldiers of World War One voluntarily stop fighting and come together to celebrate their humanity.
Check out this interactive map of the Western Front
Take an interactive tour of the trenches