14 September 1914 – Trench Warfare

When British and French troops attacked the German Togoland colony five weeks ago, they encountered defenders in trenches. Sixteen days ago, British officers and Nigerian troops suffered a disaster while attacking entrenched Germans in present-day Cameroon. Three days ago, Australian troops fought a sharp action against Germans and native troops who were manning trenches on the Pacific island of Neupommern. These are not coincidences.

Entrenchment had already been a basic element of German defensive doctrine for years when the Kaiser’s men marched to war in 1914. Eight days after the allies threatened to turn their right flank at the Marne, the Imperial German Army is dug into the north side of the Aisne River, and the wisdom of this doctrinal choice becomes crystal clear when they stop French and British attacks with contemptuous ease.

The classical war of movement was expected to be bloody, but also short. The new military technologies which were expected to violently abbreviate the war have instead turned out to favor the prepared defender, a process that more or less unfolds the same way on all fronts: periodic fits of trench warfare take place on the Eastern Front, and a phase of trench warfare is currently breaking out right now in Serbia.

But unlike the Western Front, other theaters of war will see the Central Powers achieve breakthrough and decisive action. The allies win the war because unlike everywhere else, they do not break here.

Helmuth von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown from the weight of his responsibility

Helmuth von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown from the weight of his responsibility

The order to “dig in and hold” came from the Chief of the Kaiser’s General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, who is removed from his position today and replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn. No man in the world has done as much as Moltke to make this war happen, but his failure to achieve the quick victory Germany planned has caused something inside him to snap.

Having allowed his generals to deviate from the planned encirclement of Paris in search of a final, decisive battle with the French army, and then shrinking from that battle to dig in and defend a line short of the victory that would prevent a conflict on two fronts, Moltke is a broken man. He has been noted pacing endlessly, his decisions are questionable, and his paranoia is evident.

He dies alone in 1916, unmourned by his country — and treated without mercy by his biographers.

German trenches were designed for endurance on the defensive

German trenches were designed for endurance on the defensive. Defenders are protected from most fire, but their heads are left vulnerable; a year from now, every man on the front lines will wear a steel helmet

Yesterday, Sir John French ordered his men across pontoon bridges over the Aisne in pursuit of General von Kluck’s First Army. Shy of putting his small army at risk of destruction, and stung by hard losses on the retreat from Belgium, he has hardly raced to get here. Upon encountering well-entrenched defenders he orders his own men to dig in, whereupon an ironic scene takes place.

Like all of these armies, the British have overloaded their men on the march during mobilization; the average man started out carrying 61 pounds, a total that he would naturally seek to lighten at any point, but especially during a retreat with the enemy at heel. Having tasted trench warfare in the Boer Wars, the British army understands the importance of digging in and does have entrenching tools, but the BEF has mostly left theirs behind on the roadside as they fell back through France in the face of German advances. Now they are forced to requisition farm tools and store supplies in order to dig their own trenches.

A graphic of German layered defenses

A graphic of layered defenses as invented by Germany and copied by the allies. Rather than restore mobility to the conflict, aircraft deepened the defender’s advantage

Whereas German entrenchment is highly-advanced — with regimes of constant maintenance and improvement, layered defenses with overlapping zones of fire, occasional electric wiring, and even semipermanent fortifications built of concrete — the allies refuse to improve their defenses very much. French resolve to maintain their doctrinal emphasis on the offensive as the only acceptable posture is only deepened by the insult that German troops deliver when they dig into French soil. The French trenches are therefore less engineered, less permanent, and less comfortable.

But for France, the worst aspect of trench warfare is that their main field artillery weapon becomes less useful. Though revolutionary, the 75 millimeter gun has a flat trajectory that proves far less effective against entrenched defenders than it has against waves of infantry in the open field. Plunging mortar fire is much better for attacking trenches, but France has relatively few of those guns. Despite this, and the fact that most of her industrial base is in the occupied territories, France nevertheless continues to place great faith in the 75, producing them at a faster rate every year.

Yet the biggest problem faced by all sides now is a shortage of shells. Trench warfare absolutely swallows up artillery ammunition, and none of the combatants have developed the necessary procurement infrastructure to sustain high rates of fire over a prolonged conflict, so the Guns of August are soon starving for something to shoot.

In contrast, the allies did not want to establish permanent trenches because it would give the 'wrong message'

In contrast, the allies did not want to establish permanent trenches because it would give the ‘wrong message.’ French trenches had the poorest construction because generals wanted the men to think of them only as temporary defenses