Collections: No Man’s Land, Part I: The Trench Stalemate

This week (and next) I want to build a bit off of our discussion of Victoria II and talk a bit about World War I and in particular the trench stalemate on the Western Front. That trench stalemate is, in many countries, synonymous with the war itself. Of course the war was much larger than that and while trenches, machine guns and artillery appeared everywhere in the war, not all fronts devolved into the static trench warfare of the Western front. The Eastern front, for instance, was always too large for this (though trench systems developed in areas of frequent fighting), while battles in Mesopotamia and the Levant always had the desert as a vast, open (but also logistically challenging) flank. Nevertheless, the experience of the Western Front was extremely important; the disaster of the First World War both broke and made nations. Yet precisely because it was so formative, World War I, its generals, tactics and battles are often shrouded in national myths and unquestioned assumptions.

What I want to focus on here is the disconnect between the popular conception of how trench warfare actually worked and the actual conditions that produced trench warfare. This week, we’re going to look at the problem: both the popular perception of what the problem is and what the actual problem of trench warfare is. This is both to set the groundwork for the next post, which will discuss the ways that this stalemate was and wasn’t broken, but it also serves to handily dismiss some of the ‘easy’ solutions that are often offered which don’t solve the actual problem but merely solve the imaginary one.

One thing I should note I am not going to do here is discuss specific battles or specific generals. If you are expecting a all-round defense of WWI generalship you will not find it here; while there has been a tendency of historians to revisit (fairly, I think) the tarnished reputations of many of the commanders of WWI, I think it is also broadly indisputable that the First World War saw more than its share of stunning command incompetence (for what it is worth, I generally consider Luigi Cadorna, Italian chief of Staff 1914-1917, to have been the worst general I know of. I may run a B-side addendum to these posts on why I think Cadorna deserves this unique dishonor, especially given how stiff the competition in WWI is for terrible generalship.). On the other hand, as will soon become apparent, I think that, quite to the contrary of the popular perception that this or that easy solution was available, many WWI generals were presented by what was a fundamentally unsolvable problem, at least unsolvable with the technologies and armies they had to work with. Nevertheless even within an unsolvable problem one may discern different degrees of quality, in part in the speed with which someone realizes that the problem is unsolvable and adjusts accordingly. Some generals did this, some did not.

Naturally though, we need a jumping off point for the popular perception of trench warfare and if you’ve paid any attention to the thumbnail you already know what it is: the iconic No Man’s Land scene from Wonder Woman (2017).

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(Bibliography note: There are any number of books on the First World War and the Western Front. I have relied here particularly on Robert A. Doughty’s Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (2005). For more general reading, consider M.S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History (2005) and W. Philpott, War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War (2014). For an overview of the technological and social factors that led to this point, delivered in an accessible for-the-layman-manner, see W.E. Lee, Waging War (2016), chapters 9-11. For a campaign history of the war, my own favorite is the now rather aged J.L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I (1981), for the dry, sardonic prose as much as for the quite capable narrative of the war.)

That No Man’s Land Scene

A quick walkthrough of what I think are the key points in the scene here. We start in what is apparently a front-line trench position somewhere in Flanders (although, as we’ll see, it is surprisingly densely held and also both surprisingly dry and overbuilt but also lacks any machine-gun positions). It’s held by British troops. After a shell goes off (which no one reacts much to), Steve Trevor explains to Wonder Woman that “this is no man’s land” (which is not true, they’re in a trench which is, definitionally, not no man’s land), “…means no man can cross it” (which is also not correct, by the by. No man’s land was called that because no one held it and so it belonged to no man). Trevor then declares that “this battalion has been here nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch” which initially seems an odd statement since this is supposed to be late in the war. But if we squint really hard it could make sense if we assume this is a position abandoned by the Germans in the pullback to the Hindenburg Line in February of 1917. The film takes place is 1918, so the dates almost add up. Though that’d be an odd thing, “we only gained an inch, except for that one time barely out of the time horizon I am offered where we gained several miles in a day because the enemy didn’t fight for them” is a strange way to present a stalemate. Alternately, he is just meaning that this battalion has been here for that long, the previous battalion which was also here having been rotated out which would be an odd point to make.

Also, if I may just stop here for a moment, but Hollywood writers, please. Please. Go to your computer, go to Wikipedia, and look up the sizes of various military units. A British battalion in WWI was notionally 1,000 men, though by 1918, they’re all going to be under-strength to one degree or another. These aren’t independent maneuvering units; battalions do not launch major independent attacks but rather are components of attacks generally launched at the divisional level. Steve Trevor has just patiently explained to Wonder Woman that his car seat has been stuck in that parking space for almost a year; yes it has, because it is attached to the car. It is the car that hasn’t moved! The word you were looking for here was ‘brigade’ or more likely ‘division.’ This is a seemingly perennial problem in movies that have no sense of how large particular units are or what sort of tasks are appropriate for what unit size (though screenwriters do love battalions; I assume because it has that word ‘battle’ in it).

Steve Trevor then explains that this lack of movement is because there are “a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place.” Wonder Woman then decides to charge over no man’s land, which is a flat expanse of blasted ground. Because she is basically immune to bullets, she absorbs the machine gun fire (and deflects a mortar with her shield; how this solves the fragmentation issue is beyond me). Because the machine-gunners are distracted, the British troops can swarm up out of their trench and charge and seize the opposing position. This in turn causes a break in the front which allows our heroes to slip through the German lines and continue their mission.

This shot is so good. But a solid representation of warfare in World War I it is not.

Apart from its story utility (and don’t get me wrong, as a scene in a story this bit is fantastic; it’s easily the defining scene for the character in the film and honestly the franchise), the scene serves to drive home some of the basics of the popular conception of trench warfare in WWI, namely:

  1. The primary obstacle to a successful assault was crossing no man’s land.
  2. The primary obstacle to that was machine-gun fire, such that ‘drawing all of the fire’ would be sufficient to enable an attack.
  3. Reaching and clearly the immediate enemy trench line was sufficient to break a sector’s defense (but attacks cannot accomplish this because of (1) and (2))
  4. Consequently, attacks always fail because attackers are mowed down by machine-gun fire before ever reaching the enemy line; defenders take negligible casualties.

As premises, those conceptions lead to a nearly inevitable conclusion, typically phrased by my students as, ‘why don’t you just go on the defensive and let your opponent attack himself to exhaustion?’ The popular culture history has an answer to that question, of course, and it is that all of the generals in World War I were some mix of idiots or detached, aristocratic psychopaths utterly uncaring about their men.

And every part of that, from the premises to the conclusion is some degree of wrong; some of the premises are straight up wrong, others are deceptive half truths and all of the rest of it collapses from the broken foundation. Many World War I generals were incompetent and some were uncaring, but there were also a lot of quite capable, focused and dedicated commanders and they couldn’t break the trench stalemate either.

Wonder Woman couldn’t have done it either. But to understand why, we need to understand what creates the trench stalemate, because machine guns aren’t enough.

What Looks To Be The Problem

The trench stalemate is the result of a fairly complicated interaction of weapons which created a novel tactical problem. The key technologies are machine guns, barbed wire and artillery (though as we’ll see, artillery almost ought to be listed here multiple times: the problems are artillery, machine guns, trenches, artillery, barbed wire, artillery, and artillery), but their interaction is not quite straight-forward. The best way to understand the problem is to walk through an idealized, ‘platonic form’ of an attack over no man’s land and the problems it presents.

(I should note that this is not a development history. I am not walking through these innovations in the order that they are deployed, just in the order that makes sense. If you want a development history, see the bibliography above; in practice many of these problems were at least partly anticipated or otherwise realized quite quickly, so almost all of the main components here at least began appearing together fairly quickly in 1914)

Via Wikimedia, a ‘French 75’ light field gun; the formal name for this fast-firing and deadly light artillery piece was the Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897. Brutally effective in its role, the gun suffered from the fact that trench warfare increasingly prioritized heavy artillery over light, fast moving field guns like this one.

So, the first problem: artillery. Neither side starts the war in trenches. Rather the war starts with large armies, consisting mostly of infantry with rifles, backed up by smaller amounts of cavalry for scouting duties (who typically fight dismounted because this is 1914, not 1814) and substantial amounts of artillery, mostly smaller caliber direct-fire1 guns, maneuvering in the open, trying to do fancy thinks like flanking and enveloping attacks to win by movement rather than by brute attrition (though it is worth noting that this war of maneuver is also the period of the highest casualties on a per-day basis). The tremendous lethality of those weapons – both rifles that are accurate for hundreds of yards, machine guns that can deny entire areas of the battlefield to infantry and the artillery, which is utterly murderous against any infantry it can see and by far the most lethal part of the equation – all of that demands trenches. Trenches shield the infantry from all of that firepower. So you end up with parallel trenches, typically a few hundred yards apart as the armies settle in to defenses and maneuver breaks down (because the armies are large enough to occupy the entire front from the Alps to the Sea).

The new problem this creates, from the perspective of the defender, is how to defend these trenches. If enemies actually get close to them, they are very vulnerable because the soldier at the top of the trench has a huge advantage against enemies in the trench: he can fire down more easily, can throw grenades down very easily and also has an enormous mechanical advantage if the fight comes to bayonets and trench-knives, which it might. If you end up fighting at the lip of your trench against massed enemy infantry, you have almost certainly already lost. The defensive solution here, of course, are those machine guns which can deploy enough fire to prohibit enemies moving over no man’s land: put a bunch of those in strong-points in your trench line and you can prevent enemy infantry from reaching you.

Now the attacker has the problem: how to prevent the machine guns from making approach impossible. The popular conception here is that WWI generals didn’t ‘figure out’ machine guns for a long time; that’s not quite true. By the end of 1914, most everyone seems to have recognized that attacking into machine guns without some way of shutting them down was futile. But generals who had done their studies already had the ready solution: the way to beat infantry defenses was with artillery and had been for centuries. Light, smaller, direct-fire guns wouldn’t work,2 but heavy, indirect-fire howitzers could! Now landing a shell directly in a trench was hard and trenches were already being zig-zagged to prevent shell fragments flying down the whole line anyway, so actually annihilating the defenses wasn’t quite in the cards (though heavy shells designed to penetrate the ground with large high-explosive payloads could heavy a hundred meters of trench along with all of their inhabitants up into the air at a stretch with predictably fatal results). But anyone fool enough to be standing out during a barrage would be killed, so your artillery could force enemy gunners to hide in deep dugouts designed to resist artillery. Machine gunners hiding in deep dugouts can’t fire their machine guns at your approaching infantry.

And now we have the ‘race to the parapet.’ The attacker opens with a barrage, which has two purposes: silence enemy artillery (which could utterly ruin the attack if it isn’t knocked out) and second to disable the machine guns: knock out some directly, force the crews of the rest to flee underground. But attacking infantry can’t occupy a position its own artillery is shelling, so there is some gap between when the shells stop and when the attack arrives. In that gap, the defender is going to rush to set up their machine guns while the attacker rushes to get to the lip of the trench:first one to get into position is going to inflict a terrible slaughter on the other.

Via Wikimedia, WWI era barbed wire emplacements. Note just how much wire is being used here.

Now the defender begins to look for ways to slant the race to his advantage. One option is better dugouts and indeed there is fairly rapid development in sophistication here, with artillery-resistant shelters dug many meters underground, often reinforced with lots of concrete. Artillery which could have torn apart the long-prepared expensive fortresses of a few decades earlier struggle to actually kill all of the infantry in such positions (though they can bury them alive and men hiding in a dugout are, of course, not at the parapet ready to fire). The other option was to slow the enemy advance and here came barbed wire. One misconception to clear up here: the barbed wire here is not like you would see on a fence (like an animal pen, or as an anti-climb device at the top of a chain link fence), it is not a single wire or a set of parallel wires. Rather it is set out in giant coils, like massive hay-bales of barbed wire, or else strung in large numbers of interwoven strands held up with wooden or metal posts. And there isn’t merely one line of it, but multiple lines deep. If the attacker goes in with no preparation, the result will be sadly predictable even without machine guns: troops will get stuck at the wire (or worse yet, on the wire) and then get shot to pieces. But even if troops have wire-cutters, cutting the wire and clearing passages through it will still slow them down…and this is a race.

Also via Wikimedia, another example of the ways in which barbed wire might be deployed.

So far we haven’t strayed very far from the popular conception of how this all works. It’s a bit more complicated, to be sure but we’re still looking at a system of ‘prohibitive defense’ where it seems just foolish to attack at all because so many advantages are on the side of the defender. Which means it is now time for:

The Actual Problem

Because the generals on the attacking side – and it is worth remembering that Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Italy all took their turns being the attacker on the narrower Western and Italian fronts defined by continuous unbroken trench-lines (the Eastern Front was somewhat more open) – were actively looking for ways out of the trench stalemate. We’ve already discussed one effort to get out, poison gas, and why it didn’t succeed. But there was a more immediate solution: after all, every field manual said the solution to weakening infantry positions on the field was artillery. Sure, trenches and dugouts made infantry resistant to artillery, but they didn’t make them immune to it. So what if we used more artillery?

So by the Second Battle of Artois (May, 1915), the barrage was four days long and included 293 heavy guns and 1,075 lighter pieces. At Verdun (February, 1916) the Germans brought in 1,201 guns, mostly heavy indirect fire artillery (of which the Germans had more than the French) with a shifting barrage that expected to fire 2 million shells in the first six days and 4 million during the first 18 days. At the Somme (1916) the British barrage lasted from the 24th of June to the attack on July 1 (so a seven-day barrage); a shorter barrage was proposed but could not be managed because the British didn’t have enough guns to throw enough shells in the shorter time frame. A longer barrage was also out: the British didn’t have the shells for it. By Passchendaele (1917) the British were deploying some 3,000 artillery pieces; one for every 15 yards of frontage they were attacking.

These efforts didn’t merely get to be more, but also more complex. It was recognized that if the infantry could start their advance while the shells were still falling, that would give them an advantage in the race to the parapet. The solution was the ‘creeping’ barrage which slowly lifted, moving further towards the enemy’s rear. These could be run by carefully planned time-table (but disaster might strike if the infantry moved too slow or the barrage lifted too early) or, if you could guarantee observation by aircraft, be lifted based on your own movements (in as much as your aircraft pilots, with their MK1 eyeballs, could tell what was happening below them). If you think this was all very simple, here is the army barrage map for the Battle of Passchendaele, with the various timed lifting barrage lines:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/First_Battle_of_Passchendaele_-_barrage_map_%28colour_balance%29.jpg
Via Wikipedia, the British Army Barrage Map for the Battle of Passchendaele (1917).

I find that most casual students of military history assume that these barrages generally failed. I suspect this has a lot to do with how certain attacks with ineffective barrages (e.g. the Somme generally, the ANZAC Corps’ attack at Passchendaele) have ended up as emblematic of the entire war (and in some cases, nationality-defining events) in the English-language discussion. And absolutely, sometimes the barrages just failed and attacks were stopped cold with terrible losses. But rather more frequently, the barrages worked: they inflicted tremendous casualties on defenders and allowed the attackers to win the race to the parapet which in turn meant the remaining defenders were likely to be swiftly grenaded or bayoneted. This is part of why WWI commanders continued to believe that they were ‘on the verge of a breakthrough,’ that each attack had come so close, because initially there were often promising gains. They were wrong, of course, about being that close, but opening attacks regularly overran the initial enemy positions. Even the worst debacles of the war, like at the Somme, generally did so.

And at this point, you may be wondering if you’d been lied to, because you were always told this was a war where advances where measured in feet and meters instead of miles or kilometers and how can that be if initial attacks generally did, in fact, overrun the forward enemy positions? I’ll push this even further – typically, in the initial phases of these battles (the first few days) the casualty rates between attacker and defender were close to even, or favored the attacker. This is of course connected to the fact that the leading cause of battle deaths in the war was not rifle fire, machine guns, grenades, bayonets but in fact artillery fire and the attacker was the one blasting fixed positions with literal tons of artillery fire. So what is going on?

Via Wikipedia, an aerial view of trenchlines around Loos and Hulluch in 1917, showing the forward positions along with the communications trenches leading back to secondary and tertiary positions to the rear. The more heavily developed position on the right is German; being more frequently the defenders, the Germans tended to develop their trench defenses more extensively.

Because both sides quickly figured out that their forward positions were badly exposed to artillery barrages and began designing defenses in depth, with rear positions well out of the reach of all but the largest enemy artillery. For instance, most of the so-called ‘Hindenburg Line’ (the Germans called it the Siegfriedstellung or ‘Siegfiend Position’) was set in multiple lines (the Great War youtube channel actually made a neat diagram of the doctrine position setup for the line as a poster; I have it in poster format – a gift from my better half – but it is obviously copyright so I won’t duplicate it here. You can buy it here). The plan consisted of a thin initially defense which was assumed to fall in the event of an attack, but still featured channels made by heavy barbed wire and machine guns designed to inflict maximum casualties on an advancing force (and be dangerous enough to require the artillery barrage and planned assault). Then behind that was more open ground and then a second line of trenches, this time much more solid, with communications trenches cutting vertically and the battle positions horizontally, enabling reserves to be brought up through those trenches without being exposed to fire. Finally the reserves themselves were in a third line of trenches even further back, well outside of the enemy’s barrage (or indeed the range of all but their heaviest guns). Of course while your artillery is in the back, out of range of the enemy artillery, the enemy infantry is attacking into your artillery range. This keeps your artillery from being disabled into the initial barrage (you hope) so that it can be brought into action for the counter-attack.

And now the enemy of the attacker is friction (as we’ve discussed before with defense in depth). If everything possible goes right, you open with the barrage, your infantry sweeps forward, the creeping barrage lifts and you win the race to the parapet. The forward enemy defenders are either blasted apart by the barrage or butchered in their holes by your gas, grenades and bayonets. Great! Now you need to then attack again out of those enemy positions to get to the next line, but you forces are disorganized and disoriented, your troops are tired and your supplies, reinforcements and artillery (including many heavy guns that weigh many tons and shoot shells that also weigh 100+lbs a pop) have to get to you through the terrain the barrage created, which to be clear looks like this:

Via Wikipedia, no man’s land in Belgium, 1919.

So rapidly the power of your initial attack runs out. And then the counter-attacks, as inevitable as the rising sun, start. Your opponents can shell you from nice, prepared positions, while your artillery now has to move forward to support you. Their troops can ride railways to staging posts close to the front lines, advance through well-maintained communications trenches directly to you, while your troops have to advance over open group, under artillery fire, in order to support you. The brutal calculus begins to take its toll, you lose ground and the casualty ratios swings in favor of the ‘defender’ (who to be clear, is now attacking positions he once held). Eventually your footholds are lost and both sides end up more or less where they started, minus a few hundreds of thousands of dead. This – not the popular image – this is the stalemate: the attacker frequently wins tactically, but operational conditions make it impossible to make victory stick.

The brutal irony of this ‘defensive’ stalemate is that at any given moment in a battle that might last months and swing from offensive to defensive and back again that casualties typically favored the side which was attacking at any given moment. More ironic yet, the problem here is that the artillery itself is digging the hole you cannot climb out of, because it is the barrage that tears up the landscape, obliterating roads, making movement and communication nearly impossible for the attacker (but not for the defender). But without the barrage, there’s no way to suppress enemy artillery and machine guns to make it possible to cross no man’s land. Even with tanks, an attack without supporting artillery is suicide; enemy artillery will calmly knock out your tanks (which are quite slow; this is in 1918, not 1939).

The problem, for the attacker and the defender isn’t machine guns, it is artillery: the artillery that makes assaults possible in the first place makes actual victory – breaking through the enemy and restoring maneuver – impossible.

The Failure of Easy Answers

So what ought to happen when Wonder Woman storms the German trench lines? Given that she has super-powers and is effectively immune to bullets, I suppose she might reach the German lines and badly disrupt them. Recall that, by this point in the war, German doctrine (indeed, everyone’s doctrine if they had any sense) called for the front lines to be thinly manned. The excited rush of the regular troops behind her would be a bit slower though: unable to manage Wonder Woman’s smooth 50-foot vertical jump, they’ll have to deal with the barbed wire (mysteriously absent in the scene), moving forward slowly, with wire cutters. It is probably at around this point that, without supporting artillery fires to knock out enemy guns, that the actual artillery will get into the fight. The scene has a single German light infantry mortar, but Wonder Woman is probably going to need initially to stop direct fire from German field guns (in particular the 7.7cm Feldkanone 16, or 10.5cm Feldhaubitze either 98/09 or 16). Knocking them out of the way with her shield isn’t going to work: the shells are going to come in as high explosive fragmentation or bursting shrapnel shells, fused to explode above the ground and rain down small lethal metal fragments.

Again, Wonder Woman is probably fine, but Steve Trevor and their British infantry support is likely to have a hard time catching up to her. Once they do take the opposing forward trench, they’ll need to get ready for the inevitable counter-attacks. The German army in particular was noted for the consistency and ferocity with which its counter-attacks came. But without preparation, there is functionally zero chance that the British artillery was ready to move up to support this new position, so Wonder Woman’s supporting infantry is going to be in a lot of trouble, likely blasted by whatever heavy artillery is available in the sector before being violently shoved out of position by something a lot bigger than just an infantry battalion. Even if they manage to hold against the counter-attack, Wonder Woman now has to do this routine twice more in order to get through the lines and by now, while she and her comrades are moving over mud-soaked blasted wasteland, the German reserves are moving along train tracks and the undamaged roads behind their lines. That village she wanted to save would, of course, almost certainly cease to exist as both sides began shelling the area in support of their attacks or defenses.

Via Wikipedia, aerial photography of the Belgian village of Passchendaele (or Passendale) from before the war and after it. You can make out the remains of the road lines and the shattered husk of the village’s stone church; the small pock-marks are all shell holes.

A great many casualties later, Wonder Woman might have considered it wiser to have made the crossing at the stealthier place alluded to in the dialogue.

(Two notes for the ultra-pedants here. First, it’s not clear how late in 1918 this movie is supposed to be set. If these events are taking place in, say, October or November of 1918, Wonder Woman’s attack might not be greeted by machine gun fire at all if she’s lucky, but by exhausted, under-fed and demoralized German soldiers looking to surrender or simply abandoning their positions. German morale in late 1918 was awful, in part because their partly successful offensives in the Spring had exposed some of the lies of their own high command, which had insisted that the supply situation of the allies was as bad as the Germans when it was nowhere close. Second, I should note that the idea of trying to cross no man’s land by stealth, advanced by the supporting cast in the scene, is not insane. ‘Trench raids’ were a common feature of trench warfare: small units crossing no man’s land under cover of darkness to launch surprise dawn raids on opposing forward trench positions. Such raids weren’t meant to take ground, but to inflict casualties, as well as sustain morale (because leaving soldiers idle tends to sap morale) and gather intelligence (through prisoners and captured documents). As you might well imagine, such raids increased the terror of being on the front line, which is why allied units were not kept there for ‘almost a year’ but were instead cycled in and out (though the Germans tended to avoid this sort of cycling).)

Fair enough, you may say, the Wonder Woman scenario won’t work. But what about the original popular suggestion of simply going on the defensive and wearing the other fellow out?

We’ve already shown how, at the tactical level, this is a non-starter. These defensive systems are built around defense-in-depth and premised on counter-attacks because the initial enemy assault generally succeeds. An army that resolved itself never to counter-attack, could be levered off of one good defensive position after enough by bits and pieces until its entire line was compromised (probably by the loss of key railroad junctions in the rear when they came within range of enemy heavy artillery and were thus rendered unusable). Pure tactical defense was never an option; enemy attacks needed to be answered by counter-attacks because the entire line could not retreat indefinitely.

Via Wikipedia, a British 8 inch Howitzer Mk V, an example of heavy artillery in the First World War, capable of devastating long-range indirect fire. This gun could fire a 200lbs shell approximately six miles.

But what about an operational defensive, designed to wear thew enemy down by attrition? Well, here the problem is two-fold. The first problem is casualty ratios. Consider: at the Somme (1916), the British and French attacked and the Germans defended; the allies took 620,000 losses, inflicted 445,000 (a ratio of about 4:3 favoring the defender) and got basically nowhere. At Verdun (also 1916), the Germans attacked and the French defended; the Germans took 355,000 losses to the French’s 400,000 (a ratio of 7:8 favoring the attacker) and got basically nowhere. Over the whole of the German Spring Offensives (1918), the Germans took 688,341 casualties and inflicted 863,374 (a ratio of about 3:4, again favoring the attacker), knocked huge salients in the allied lines, didn’t break through and thereby lost the war.

I think here it is worth really noting how high the defender’s casualties are in these battles; I keep noting this but I want to stress: defenders suffered high casualties in trench warfare. Being on the defensive operationally did not save you any more than being tactically on the defensive did. You were just as likely to be killed in your trench by an enemy shell or grenade as you were on the offense machine-gunned trying to cross no man’s land. If the latter holds a larger place in the Anglophone consciousness (e.g. 1917 and Gallipoli) that has more to do with the British and Commonwealth forces being more often on the attack than the defense, not on the casualty implications of attacking or defending. You easily could take more losses defending a place than attacking it.

The point here is that casualty ratios didn’t reliably favor the defender in World War I. They did reliably favor the Germans who were often, but not always, the defenders in the west (in part because the Germans held the best ground over the entire western front almost without exception), though not by enough to off-set the German inferiority in manpower and materiel compared to the entire coalition arrayed against them.

War of Wills

Well, perhaps you say, that is a bit simplistic; what if we go on a strategic defensive – adopting a strategy of attrition? Note we are fairly far now from the idea that the easy solution to trench warfare was “don’t attack,” but this is the first time we reach was appears on its face to be a workable strategy: accept that this is a pure war of attrition and thus attempt to win the attrition.

And here is where I, the frustrated historian, let out the primal cry: “They did that! Those ‘idiot’ generals you were bashing on a moment ago did exactly this thing, they did it in 1916 and it didn’t work.”

As Robert Doughty (op. cit.) notes quite effectively, after the desperate search in 1915 for ways either around the trench stalemate or through it (either way trying to restore a war of maneuver), Joseph Joffre, French chief of the army staff, settled on a strategic plan coordinating British, Italian, French and Russian actions designed around a strategy of ‘rupture’ by which what was meant was that if all of the allies focused on attrition in each of their various theaters, eventually one theater would break for lack of resources (that’s the rupture). He was pretty damn explicit about this, writing about the war as a “struggle of attrition” in May, 1915 and setting a plan of action in December of 1915 to “do everything they can to attrit the adversary.”

Joffre’s plan did not go perfectly (the German offensive at Verdun upset the time-tables) but it did, in fact mean lower French losses in 1916 than in 1915 or 1914 and more severe German losses. Meanwhile, the German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn would at least subsequently claim to have been trying to do the same thing: achieve favorable casualty ratios in a war of attrition, with his set piece being the Battle of Verdun, designed to draw the French into bloody and useless repeated counter-attacks on ground that favored the Germans (there remains a lot of argument and uncertainty as to if that attritional strategy was the original plan, or merely Falkenhayn’s excuse for the failure to achieve meaningful strategic objectives at Verdun). In the end, the Verdun strategy, if that was the strategy, failed because while the Germans could get their favorable ratio on the attack, it slipped away from them in the inevitable French counter-attacks.

But as Clausewitz reminds us (drink!) will – both political and popular – is a factor in war too (indeed, it is one of the factors as part of the Clausewitzian trinity!). Both Joffre and Falkenhayn had to an extent seen that the war was going to run until one side ran out of soldiers and material and aimed to win that long, grueling war; for which they were both promptly fired! The solution to the war which said that all one needed to do was sacrifice a few more million soldiers and wait 2, or perhaps 3 or maybe even 4 more years for the enemy to run out first was unacceptable to either the political leaders or the public. 1917 came around and both sides entrusted the war to generals who claimed to be able to produce victories faster than that: to Robert Nivelle and Erich Ludendorff, with their plans of bold offensives.

And to be clear, from a pure perspective of ‘how do we win the war’ that political calculation is not entirely wrong. Going to the public, asking them to send their sons to fight, to endure more rationing, more shortages, more long casualty lists with the explanation that you had no plans to win the war beyond running Germany out of sons slightly faster than you ran France out of sons would have led to the collapse of public morale (and subsequent defeat). Telling your army that would hardly be good for their morale either (the French army would mutiny in 1917 in any event). Remember that in each battle, casualties were high on both sides so there was no avoiding that adopting an attrition strategy towards the enemy meant also accepting that same attrition on your own troops.

And, as we’ve discussed endlessly, morale matters in war! “Wait for the British blockade to win the war by starving millions of central Europeans to death” was probably, in a cold calculus, the best strategy (after the true winning strategy of “don’t have a World War I”), but it was also, from a political perspective, an unworkable one. And a strategy which is the best except for being politically unworkable is not the best because generals must operate in the real world, not in a war game where they may cheerfully disregard questions of will. In short, both sides attempted a strategy of pure attrition on the Western Front and in both cases, the strategy exhausted political will years before it could have borne fruit.

And so none of these easy solutions work; in most cases (except for ‘recruit a lost Greek demi-god’) they were actually tried and failed either due to the dynamics (or perhaps, more truthfully, the statics) of trench warfare or because they proved impossible implement from a morale-and-politics perspective, violating the fundamental human need to see an end to the war that didn’t involve getting nearly everyone killed first.

Next time we’ll take a look at the solutions that actually did disrupt this trench stalemate and consider the degree to which such solutions could have been implemented any earlier than they were.

  1. Direct fire here means the guns fire on a low trajectory; you are more or less pointing them where you want the shell to go and shooting straight at it, as you might with a traditional firearm
  2. The problem with direct-fire artillery here is that you cannot effectively hide it in a trench (because its direct fire) and you can’t keep it well concealed, so in the event of an attack, the enemy is likely to begin by using their artillery to disable your artillery. The limitations of direct-fire guns hit the French particularly hard once the trench stalemate set in, because it reduced the usefulness of their very effective 75mm field gun (the famed ‘French 75’ after which the modern cocktail is named). That didn’t make direct-fire guns useless, but it put a lot more importance on much heavier indirect-fire artillery.

179 thoughts on “Collections: No Man’s Land, Part I: The Trench Stalemate

  1. As I was reading this I vaguely wondered why they wouldn’t try tunnelling under enemy trench lines and coming up in the rear. At a guess, the answer is that doing this in an area which was under continuous bombardment wasn’t feasible with the technology available, and that if it had been done, infantry and artillery couldn’t be moved through in great enough numbers, rapidly enough, to be successful?

    1. They did try digging tunnels to set off mines beneath the enemy trenches. This seems to have been useful – a stationary pile of explosives can be a much bigger boom than an artillery shell – but also very slow. Digging a tunnel for a mine could take up to a year.

      To move soldiers through efficiently, you’d probably need an even bigger tunnel that takes even longer to dig, and you’d be attacking through a very narrow choke point when you finally arrived.

  2. The thing is, recruiting an ancient greek demigod could work- Wonder Woman is functionally proof against any and all harm. The issue is that the best strategy wouldn’t look good on film- she could be effectively used as a more modern indirect fire to knock out the enemy artillery across a vast swathe of the enemy line. This is because she can fly, sure, but also because she can sprint at about the speed the flash jogs, and, to be clear, the flash sprints at relativistic speeds, up to and exceeding light speed. So she could likely knock out every artillery piece on the german side of the western front in around 0.0043seconds by running through them. This would be somewhat anticlimactic for the film though, so i see why they instead went with an ultimately doomed push over the top.

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