Thursday, June 7, 2012

Trench Warfare in World War I Argonne Forests Neuve Chapelle

Trench Warfare in World War I Argonne Forests Neuve Chapelle
by J. W McConaughy

Diagram of a WWI Mining & Sapping attack
c. Enemy's defensive counter mine. d. the explosive, e. concrete parapet of fort
In boxing, there are two safe methods of avoiding a heavy blow. One is to get so far away that your opponent cannot hit you; the other is to get so close to him that he cannot hit you. This latter, which is much in favor, is known as the "clinch."

And that is what trench fighting is to modern warfare - the clinch. It is possi­ble to do a lot of rough work in the clinches. You can annoy and hurt your enemy, and wear him out, but it is practically impossible to deliver a "knock­out punch." This is exactly the case with trench warfare, and it grew up - or down - in much the same fashion.

As far back as Caesar's time trenches were known and used. Any schoolboy will recall the elaborate works designed and constructed by the great Roman when he penned up Vercingetorix, a hundred miles or so behind the present battle-line in the Vosges. Napoleon, though he loved to hurl mobile armies about like bean­bags, admitted that "field fortifications, properly constructed, are always useful and never harmful." Probably disquieted by the high reputation of the Prussian army, he told his officers at Mayence, before the advance which resulted in the annihilation of Prussia's power at Jena:

"We shall have to move earth in this war."

But two gentlemen named Shrapnel and Maxim were chiefly responsible for the invisible war of today and the long, meandering lines of tunnels and burrows that stretch from the coast of Flanders to the Swiss border.

Diagram of a WWI Mining & Sapping attack
a. beseigers' approach trenches, b. their mine
At the time of the Manchurian cam­paign of 1904-1905 it was calculated that a superiority of at least three to one was essential in a frontal field attack against modern weapons. The present war was scarcely sixty days old before the com­manders on both sides discovered that it was practically impossible to push such an assault to success, no matter what the numerical superiority of the attacking party. Thus it was that when there was no longer any chance for outflanking - when the lines of the western battle-field were extended from Switzerland to the sea - there was nothing to do but get so close to the enemy that neither antagonist could strike a heavy blow.

Literally, war had become so scientific - the hitting power was of such tremendous range and deadliness - that it was no longer possible along scientific lines; so both sides went back to primitive methods. They hid behind rocks and mounds of earth, and dug ditches, and crept up nearer and nearer until at last they grappled with bayonet and rifle-butt, with hand-grenades, stones, knives, and strong fingers. In many cases the lines were so close that the great murder-machines of science, far to the rear, were powerless because they could not strike without destroying friend and foe together.

But this was only a temporary situation. While the men were fighting hand to hand, the generals were a few miles back, doing the thinking. It was a new kind of war­fare, and it took them some time to devise new systems of fighting. The result of their cogitation was more tunneling and mining, more and bigger artillery, a revival of hand-grenades and ancient catapults to hurl mines - and other things which will be discussed later.

First it is necessary to understand the trenches themselves. Compared with the earthworks of earlier wars, they have become exceedingly elaborate. This is not because the soldiers on the battle- fronts today have so much more time for spade-work; it is a case of stern necessity. Formerly they needed protection from what was practically horizontal fire in front. Now they need protection from horizontal fire, from fire that plunges down at every angle, and even from back fire. From any point of a half-circle arching overhead from front to rear, death may leap at them.

Rifle-fire, of course, is pretty well un­derstood. From rifles and machine guns the bullets pour in horizontal streams. But shrapnel is another matter.

Shrapnel is an interesting device to study at a safe distance. It is a steel shell that contains three hundred lead bullets, or more, with a charge of explosive behind them and a time-fuse attached. When it is discharged from a field-gun it is really a little cannon whizzing through the air.

In properly made shrapnel, the fuses can be so timed that the bursting charge will explode with diabolical exactness. The head of the shell is blown out, and the bullets are hurled forward in a rough cone formation that rapidly widens. It is usually timed to burst about thirty feet above and sixty feet in front of the mark. Then the bullets sprinkle a strip of earth about twenty-five yards wide and twice as long, like a man throwing a handful of sand along the floor.

When you realize that the French soixante-quinze, or field-gun of seventy-five millimeters' caliber, can throw these shells pretty nearly as rapidly as you can work a revolver, it is easy to figure how long an unprotected line of men could stand up before them.

WWI trench warfare at point where hostile armies have approached
closely with saps and counter-saps.  White circle shows a mine and
the area of explosion
Because of the angle of discharge, an ordinary ditch is no protection against shrapnel fire, which is aptly called "searching." Hence the trenches in this war are partly roofed with timbers or brush, and covered over with sods and dirt, as a protection against the searching shrapnel. Sections of tiling, wooden boxes, or other forms of tubing are inserted be­tween the roofing and the top of the trench wall to serve as loopholes for rifles.

Against the high-explosive shells of the howitzer, which drop perpendicularly, there is no protection excepting the dif­ficulty the gunner has in exactly locating the trench, and the danger of dropping shells among your own friends. One of these huge projectiles exploding to the rear of a trench is a serious menace to the defenders, because the fragments may be blown in over the sloping roof. So the best trenches of today have a pile of earth running along their rear as a pro­tection from such accidents.

This, roughly, is the defensive armor of the trench. The active defense is being more and more entrusted to machine guns. The rifle seems to be becoming little more than a handle for a bayonet and a club for work at close quarters. The opposing trenches are from thirty feet to a few hundred yards apart, and in case of a sudden attack it is obvious that as many bullets as possible must be thrown in a few seconds. One man with a machine gun can send a hundred little killers across the open while the man next to him is reloading a rifle.

Every rod of the many-angled, criss­crossed ditches along the battle-line in France and Belgium is manned every hour of the day and night. When free communications, plenty of men, and the absence of hard fighting make it possible, the troops work perhaps thirty-six hours in the trenches and then rest twice as long at the base several miles in the rear. This does not necessarily mean that they do not sleep for thirty-six hours. There are always enough men to work in relays, but always there must be a man at every loop­hole, at every machine gun, watching, watching, watching. The others can sleep or play cards.

In the front wall of the trench the sleeping-quarters are hollowed out - damp, dark little caves with heaps of straw for beds, a tar-paper or sheet-iron roof to stop the dripping water, and perhaps a burlap door to temper the winds of winter.

Hitherto the best strategists have frowned upon night maneuvers and at­tacks, except in rare instances. The reason is obvious. When a few hundred thousand men are scurrying around in the heavy blackness, no matter how carefully plans have been laid there is too much op­portunity for mistakes and entanglements that might lead to general disaster.

Trench fighting has changed all this. Night is the ideal time for attack. There is little chance for grave mistakes. Each side knows exactly where the enemy is. It is not a question of mistaking friend for foe, or of groping around in the dark to find the enemy. It is rather a ques­tion of coming to hand-grips with him before the attack is annihilated. Speed, not concealment, is the key-note, and the darkness is useful only in making aim un­certain and in clouding the movements of reserves coming up from the rear.

When there is time to elaborate the de­fenses of a trench, barbed wire has been found to be an effective protection against attacking infantry. Entanglements vary­ing in width from a few feet to many yards are built along the front, so that the enemy's soldiers can be shot with de­liberation while they are making their way across. "Across" is a better word than "through," for these entanglements have no kinship with the ordinary barbed-wire fence. They are seldom more than two or three feet high, the idea being that they shall catch and trip the impetuous assailant who tries to rush across them.

Not until this war is over shall we have a complete text-book of the tactics of trench fighting; but from what we now know we may roughly divide offensive op­erations into three classes - the small sur­prise attack, the broad "prepared" at­tack, and the mine attack. This does not include the constant sniping and annoy­ance that are part of the "quiet" life at the front.

The first type of attack is the most com­mon. We read of it every day during last winter in the French communiqu├ęs, while Joffre was "nibbling" at the German lines. For instance:

In the Argonne we made a little progress with the bayonet. The enemy's first-line trenches over a front of three hundred meters were carried. We successfully resisted several counter-attacks, and the trenches were consolidated with our lines.

It is, by the way, in wooded country like the Argonne forests that the small surprise attack is most successful. Tac­tically, it is a very simple operation. As many men as the first-line trenches will comfortably hold are quietly concentrated against a narrow front. Protected as much as possible by machine-gun fire, they suddenly swarm out of the trenches and come down on the enemy at a dead run. Bayonet and butt are the weapons.

If they are successful in killing or dri­ving out the enemy in the section attacked their comrades work feverishly to drive connecting trenches forward, so as to pro­vide them with support against the inevi­table counter-attacks. It is easy to see that they are in an exposed position, be­cause reinforcements cannot come in any numbers across the open ground. They must hold on until connecting trenches are driven through; and this work is prob­ably done under a blasting fire from the hostile guns. If the enemy can delay the "consolidation" long enough, it is almost an arithmetical certainty that the captors of the advanced trench will be destroyed.

The mine attack has much the same purpose, but it is a more pretentious affair, as well as safer. Everyone is familiar with the zigzag trench approaches with which fortresses were attacked in the days before huge howitzers made it possible to anni­hilate concrete and earth and steel at twelve miles. While trench warfare is essentially siege warfare, the trenches are now so close together that zigzag ap­proaches of the old sort are no longer necessary or possible. The miner must begin to burrow as soon as he leaves the most advanced trench.

His first work is to construct a sort of underground power-house or shaft-house. This may be about six feet high, six feet wide, and perhaps twice as long. Here is room for air-bellows, fans, pumps, and the other paraphernalia of the sapper. It is heavily timbered against a collapse.

From this, chamber he begins to drive his tunnel straight toward the enemy's trenches. In about an hour, in ordinary soil, he has progressed far enough to fit in a section of wooden box a foot deep, four and one-half feet high, and two feet wide. This marks the dimensions of the tunnel. When another foot has been excavated, another section is worked in - and so on.

It is toilsome, weary, back-breaking work. One man at a time must do the digging, and an hour of it is about all that he can stand. Then he is put to wheeling dirt, and another takes his place. Twenty-five feet in twenty-four hours is considered very good progress indeed.

The tunnel is continued until its head is well under the enemy's trench. It is necessary to be exact, for powder follows the line of least resistance, and, if it gets a fair chance, the full force of the explo­sion will come up through the bottom of the enemy's trench.

When the sap-head, as it is called, is completed, a small mine chamber is built off at right angles. It is about two and one-half feet square. Then an engineer officer, alone, and lighted only by a piece of planking painted with phosphorus goes in and places the charge and the electric wiring for exploding it. The sap-head is closed and packed tight, to force the explosion upward and prevent it from coming out through the tunnel.

The expectant troops fix bayonets and crouch for the spring. The engineer offi­cer throws the little switch - and a fifty-foot length of the enemy's trench leaps into the air. In less than a minute the crater is filled with attacking soldiers.

Then comes the test of their own artillery. They are well advanced. They offer an easy mark, and the enemy's guns will presently make of that crater a hellish shambles unless their own artillery can search out and silence the opposing guns long enough to give the men time to build defenses around the lip of the pit and consolidate it with their old positions. High-explosive shells which fall near but not in the crater are often their best friends. Each projectile makes a small crater of its own, and by driving a trench to one shell hole, and from that to the next, in a very short time a fairly strong position may be established.

As a rule, however, the seizure of such a point results in the establishing of a salient in the enemy's lines. It is exposed to attack on three sides, and is for that reason extremely hard to hold.

And this brings us down to the broad attack, such as the English launched at Neuve Chapelle on the l0th of March, and the French more recently along the Arras front, where thousands of men fell in the "labyrinth" and around the sugar-mills of Souchez.

Here artillery comes to the front again. At Neuve Chapelle it made a victory pos­sible, though blunders prevented what might have been a really great success. Hundreds of field-guns were concentrated on a front of about two miles. Beginning as near to their own lines as they dared, and carrying as far back as their range permitted, these guns fairly tore the sur­face off the earth with a furious rain of shells. Even barbed-wire entanglements were cut to bits.
Then the British infantry surged for­ward through the gap in the German lines. After the first trenches were carried they met practically with no resistance. In front of them was that fearful “curtain of iron" made by their own artillery, through which no German could come alive. Unfortunately orders were misun­derstood, there was confusion and delay, and it appears that part of the English forces came under the fire of their own guns. The advance was halted; but the ground they gained was held.

The experience of Neuve Chapelle taught the commanders of the Allies that a two-mile gap in the enemy's lines is not worth much more than a two-rod gap. When they break through, they are at once fighting on three fronts instead of one, and it is impossible to pour enough men through the narrow neck to make a general break possible. It is now estimated that a twenty-mile gap is necessary.

That is why the deadlock in the west­ern field of war has not yet been broken. That is why it will never be broken until one of the contending armies is ready to pay a terrific price in blood, until it has piled up mountains of ammunition, and can concentrate at least a million men and thousands of guns for a decisive blow at a twenty-mile front.

Machine gunners watching for attack in trenches

Originally published in Munsey’s Magazine in September of 1915.


If you enjoy reading Digital History Project - Consider making a donation today. Every dollar donated will help us publish more articles and illustrations.

With your help we can turn this site into a real look at History - Past, Present, and Future.

All donations over $100 will be acknowledged on our Donor Thank-you page, unless we are specifically notified not to list you.

Donation Amount