The Transition from a War of Movement to Trench Warfare
In 1914 a war of movement engulfed Europe, the Imperial German Army swung through Belgium and Holland down into Northern France as they enacted the Schlieffen Plan and the French, Belgian & British forces scrambled to meet them. By the Battle of the Ainse in September 1914 both sides were seeking to outflank their opponents, this lead to a series of bloody battles along a front a 140 miles long which led all the way from North East France to the Channel coast. The ‘Race to the Sea’ saw extensive use of the existing rail networks available in an attempt to get a head and around the enemy but by October 1914 neither side had managed to outflank the other and stalemate ensued. A network of trench defences the likes of which human history had never seen before
The tactical doctrines of both sides were in sharp contrast to one another, the French favoured rapid movement and surprise attacks while the German forces preferred a more methodical approach with the use of concentrated artillery and machine gun fire in support. These two contrasting doctrines neutralised one another, with the French counter-offensives being met by massed artillery and machine gun fire.
The advancing technology played a key role in creating the horrific trench warfare we think of when we think of the First world war. Not only advances in artillery and the widespread introduction of machine guns but also the effects of massed rifle fire. As seen time and time again during the early battles of the war even forces under equipped with machine guns could inflict massive casualties on troops caught in open country with long range, accurate, massed rifle fire. The combination of powerful cartridges and magazine fed bolt-action rifles meant that the volume of fire created by a battalion of infantry could be huge. As such, even during early engagements, the infantry often took full advantage of the natural cover available, using farm ditches, tree lines and sunken roads as cover. It did not take long for men to begin to dig their own cover when no natural protection was available and with the race to the sea it was a small step to begin the intricate trench defences we recognise today.
The photographs above roughly show this evolution from open warfare, through use of cover and the digging of scrapes to the creation of the trenches that came to characterise the war.
In the first photograph we see German troops advancing across a field in open order, with the battalion’s ensign (battle flag) flying - a scene which would have been seen on Europe’s battlefield for the past 500 years. In the next three photographs we see German, British & French troops using natural cover of ditches and roads. Below in the next photograph we can see British troops lying in shallow, hastily dug scrape trenches and similarly below that two German troops stand watch at the edge of a shallow trench. The last photograph shows the beginnings of more complex trenches - deeper with sloped rear walls and a parapet, this photo was taken in the winter of 1914. By the early months of 1915 both sides began work on ever more complex trench systems with zigzagged profiles, deeper walkways and bunkers.