Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard

Trench Warfare

Live and Let Live

It was never intended by any of the military that the Western Front in the First World War should become bogged down into a campaign of attrition, fought with the infantry bottled up in trenches stretching some 460miles from Switzerland to the Belgian coast. The Schlieffen plan envisaged a fast right hook of very mobile forces sweeping through Belgium and down into France, to capture the French capital and so neutralise Belgium and France – and hopefully Britain, all in 40 days/6 weeks. It had to be wrapped up in this length of time, because any longer, and the immense and slow-moving giant, Russia, would take that length of time to amass her forces on Germany’s Eastern Front, and Germany could not afford to fight on 2 fronts. Wrap up France et al quickly, then concentrate on Russia.

The French, with Plan XVII, would recapture the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in ultra-quick time, with their characteristically Gallic ‘elan’, which would sweep all before them. The French and the Germans had large conscript armies, and many reserves. The British had a small but highly professional army, which was used to keeping the natives in the colonies under control. Britain had not committed large forces to conventional land battles since Waterloo, 1815. Trench warfare was not unknown. It had happened between the Russians and the Japanese on 1905. But it would obviously have no place in the coming conflict, when the war started on 28th July – each side was convinced it was going to be victorious – of course! –and that it was all going to be over by Christmas! Kitchener was one of the few who recognised that the war would be immensely bloody and protracted, lasting some 3-4 years.

Many of the military leaders on both sides were ex-cavalry officers, often decorated for their own personal bravery in action, and they all believed that after an initial thrust by the infantry, the cavalry would break through ‘into open country’ and lead the march onto capture the appropriate capital – Berlin/Paris. The cavalry were the elite – just look at their magnificent –and costly –uniforms! In retrospect, the only time when the cavalry really shone, was the Australian Light Horse, late in the war, with Allenby in the Palestine desert. Otherwise, it was sometimes said that the best thing that the cavalry could do, was to get off their horses and make cups of tea for the infantry!! Other less contentious suggestions were that the cavalry could be used more as a mounted infantry, and to this end, the British cavalry at least had had training in using rifles, and not just lances and swords. The new cavalry – the knights of the air – were the pilots, a number of whom were ex-cavalry men, such as Richthofen.

Each country had its own style of trench. Initially, all trenches were just shallow scrapes to provide a bit of shelter from bullets and shrapnel. They became deeper as both sides appreciated that the trench was becoming more a way of life. The Germans were more thorough, and built their trenches deeper, with more amenities and general attitude that they were there to stay! The British did not want to encourage any feeling of being there to stay – a trench was a temporary structure, from which to attack the enemy and move on! Their attitude changed a bit throughout the war, and the trenches developed better amenities. The French trenches were not regarded highly by either the British or the Germans. The British were at times re-located to man the French lines, and vice versa, so each got to see the other’s handiwork, and the backwards and forwards nature of the warfare meant that the British and French got to see the German trenches, and likewise the Germans got to see the British and French.

Trenches were never dug in one straight line but were zigzagged one way or another. That prevented the enemy from enfilading a long length of trench. Quite how the trenches were constructed depended on the soil. In Flanders it was muddy and the water table was high, especially after the Belgians had opened the lock gates to allow flooding by the sea water. In the Somme region the soil was very chalky and the drainage was very good. In the Ypres salient, the Allied defences were at a lower altitude than the Germans. This meant that the Allies were constantly fighting uphill, against an enemy who were only too happy to empty their trenches, effluent and everything, onto those lower down!

Front line trenches might only be 15 –20 yards away from the enemy, or as much as 3-400 yards. Behind these would be support trenches, and connecting trenches between the two systems. In established lines, these would all be well sign-posted and names borrowed from well-known landmarks would be used, e.g. Piccadilly Circus, The Strand, often with a sense of humour – Leafy lane, The Meadows. In active areas, troops often got lost, as landmarks were destroyed. It took a skilled guide to lead men in and out. This was going on all the time as rations had to brought in as well as the rotation of troops.

Life in the trenches was described as:

  • 80% bored to death
  • 19% frozen to death
  • 1% scared to death

This did not mean that most of the time spent in the trenches was inactive. In places like Ypres, trench walls required revetting to keep them in place. At the Somme, chalkier but harder to dig, little revetting was needed. The barbed wire in front of the trenches often needed repairing, but this was usually done at night. Day and night there was sentry duty to do. How much the frontline forces harassed or aggressed the enemy depended largely upon their own attitude and that of the forces opposing them. At one extreme was the live and let live policy. ‘Don’t disturb Mr Boche, and he won’t disturb you!’

Because orders would come from Brigade or Divisional level to maintain aggression, token attacks of agreed intensity and kind, at agreed hours would take place. There would also be agreed hours when they would not take place, e.g. when meals were being eaten or when men were using the latrines or performing ablutions. Early on during the war, attacks were limited by the lack of munitions, such as grenades, mortars, shells, ammunition for small arms etc. As the war progressed as bureaucracy became more efficient, the soldier in the front line had everything he needed! For the soldier raiding enemy trenches, one of the favourite weapons remained the shovel, with sharpened edges.!

Trenches that were close together often elicited verbal exchanges. Many Germans had worked as waiters in England before the war. To have the ‘enemy’ enquiring about football scores and admitting to being Chelsea supporters, prompted Tommy to remark that perhaps Mr Boche was not such a bad guy after all! The smell of bacon and eggs cooking did not encourage aggression. The exchange of rations – food and drink – did much to calm the situation.

At the other extreme, some Regiments saw the Front Line as the opportunity to be constantly aggressive. The Guards and the Welch Regiments were good examples, as were the Brandenburghers and Prussian Regiments of the Germans. It was seen as a matter of personal and battalion/regimental pride. General principles of aggression came from the highest level, but the practical application of these principles tended to come from battalion and brigade commanders – lieutenant-colonels and brigadiers, or their staff officers. Those who were very anxious to have raiding parties were known as ‘thrusters’. This at times seemed very incongruous – non-combatants from the safety of the rear lines telling those in the trenches how and when to risk their lives, and at times it caused ill feeling.

Raiding parties quite often relied on volunteers, but financial bribery was often used, as well as the prospect of decorations and promotion. It could also get the volunteer out of more menial but unpleasant tasks such as cleaning latrines etc. Raids on enemy trenches was certainly not without risk, but the risk seemed to have the quality about it that one stood a chance of survival, and that it was not haphazard and random, like the risk in ‘going over the top’. The more skilled one was, the better the chance of success and survival. Good raiders were quite often kept back from major pushes - they were too valuable to be wasted as cannon fodder! It was also found that specialising made a soldier more aggressive. An ordinary infantryman with a rifle might have a certain level of aggression, but that this went up if he became trained as a machine gunner.

Killing at a distance was always easier than close up, and what the ordinary soldier disliked most was killing with the cold steel of the bayonet.

Even with the most aggressive units, there would be short-lived truces to pick up wounded and the dead. When airmen were shot down and captured or killed, a message was dropped at the nearest airfield by a member of the opposition, who would indicate that he was dropping a message, and it was not appropriate to fire at him while he did so.

The truce across the front lines during the first Christmas is well known and well recorded. The Germans seemed to break into song whenever they stopped, as they had much respect for a good male voice. For them to have heard Victor Garnier of the Paris Opera House singing ‘Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solenelle’ across frozen no-man’s land was a stunning experience that was met with ‘awed and dead silence’. What is less well known is the story of the irate German pastry chef, Alfred Kornitzke! He was making traditional marzipan balls on Christmas Eve, and the troops opposite were not observing the truce and were putting his life at risk.

“No one can do this to me!” he exploded, and seizing a Weihnachtsbaum as holy protection, he lifted it high and, still wearing his white baker’s hat, ran into the middle of no-man’s land. The Algerian troops, who were of course Muslim, were baffled by this apparition. He appeared to crazy to shoot at, and too comical to take seriously! Telephones began to ring in the French trenches and the shooting stopped. The chef calmly put the tree down and took out matches and lit all the candles one by one.

“Now you block-heads,” he shouted, “Now you know what is going on! Merry Christmas!”

He returned back to his trench and a bunch of admiring soldiers, and got on with stirring his precious marzipan mixture! After the war, he vowed, he would become a missionary to the heathen, “For now I know how it is done!”