Trench Warfare

Popular images of the Great War are generally two. The first is the neat, clean image of bi-planes piloted by aviators in leather helmets with scarves flying behind them. The other is life in the trenches.

Trench warfare, where opposing infantry forces lived in trenches, long, deep ditches, that faced the opposing forces across an open area called “no man’s land,” was a result of the stalemate that occurred when Germany’s Schlieffin plan ground to a halt. Under that plan, Germany expected to move quickly through Belgium and then France. During August 1914 the Germans had success with this plan, winning several battles. However the German army ran into fierce resistance from Belgian and French forces at the Battle of Marne in September. The Germans had forced the British Expeditionary Force to retreat across the Marne River, only 30 miles from Paris. However the German commander deviated from the Schlieffin plan and attacked Paris from the east instead of the north. The Allied forces held; the Germans retreated back across the Marne and the stalemate began.

Life in the trenches was deplorable to say the least. Trenches filled with water so soldiers spent their days in miserably wet conditions. Disease was rampant. Constant bombardment from the other side’s artillery left many with “shell shock,” what we call now Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Going over the top” was a dreaded order. It meant storming out of the trenches, bayonets fixed to rifles, in an attempt to rush the enemy across no man’s land. Casualties were high and the tactic rarely worked.

The Schlieffin plan called for two fronts for Germany. The first was in Germany’s west, against France. Because Russia was France’s ally, the Plan also called for an invasion of Russia in the east. The battle against France and its Allies became known as the Western Front and gave rise to what is widely considered one of the greatest war novels ever written, All Quiet on the Western Front. The book was a gritty, no-holds-barred look at the horrors of the Western Front. Soldiers lost limbs and eyes. Horses blew up, showering men with blood and gore.  Men rooted through garbage for food. It was an international best seller that tapped into the sorrow following the War to End All Wars. Amazingly, only a few months after its publication, it was banned in Germany by the Nazi party.

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