This is a really interesting photo of a group of Italian soldiers charging an Austrian position. The date of this photograph is not known but it is likely early in the war, since there are no visible trenches. Early on both sides relied on tactics of maneuver and movement, often charging enemy positions head on with fixed bayonets. Military doctrine held that these charges would sweep the enemy away. Courage and fighting spirit were considered more effective weapons than guns and steel. But in fact these charges often resulted in the attackers being massacred, as they were mowed down by machine gun fire.
Contrary to the military doctrine developed by the generals, in actual practice the weapons of world war 1 favoured defence over offence. Barbed wire, trenches, land mines, and machine guns allowed entrenched troops to hold out against attacks and inflict heavy losses on the attackers. Soon both sides realized this and there came into being a vast network of trenches stretching all along the western front and the Italian front.
It is also interesting to note that these Italian soldiers are not wearing any helmets or protective gear. And they are advancing in a very close formation, making them easy targets for a well placed mortar shell or a machine gun nest.
Poison gas was one of the more appalling weapons developed during world war 1. First used by the Germans, gas killed or maimed soldiers in horrific ways: it burned their lungs and eyes and those who survived suffered lifelong effects and disabilities. To avoid it, soldiers were equipped with gas masks but they could not be warn at all times, so survival depended on being able to put on the mask soon enough, to avoid lethal exposure.
The soldier in this photograph is manning an alarm station. At the first sign of a gas attack, it was his job to sound the alarm by cranking a loud siren which would warn his fellow soldiers that they only had seconds to get their gas masks on.
American Red Cross bring in wounded
An American stretcher party is pictured bringing in a wounded soldier. Collecting the wounded was extremely hazardous, and the medics often became casualties themselves.
Medical care, especially on the battlefield was extremely rudimentary. The wounded might have their wounds bandaged and attempts would be made to stop the bleeding, but even basic tools such as IV were not available. The wounded would be carried on stretchers by foot because the terrain was too rough for vehicles, and so they would be jostled constantly, aggravating their injuries and causing extreme pain.
The French drew on their colonial empire to defend their homeland. Troops from the far corners of the French empire were recruited and shipped to France to fight and die for their colonial masters. Troops from Africa as well as French Indochina (present day Cambodia and Vietnam) fought for France.
In this picture a contingent of Vietnamese troops is getting off a transport train en route for the Western Front. About 90,00 Vietnamese men fought in the French army during World War 1 and of these about 30,000 were killed, representing a far higher rate of fatal casualties than experienced by French and British troops. This may have been due to a number of factors, including inferior training afforded to colonial troops, or to the French tendency to use their colonial Vietnamese troops as cannon fodder, in order to spare their own men.
The casualty figures suffered by the Vietnamese are even more appalling when one considers that the majority of the Vietnamese troops were not actually combat troops. Only about 4,500 were actual combat soldiers, the rest served in labour and support battalions, which theoretically ought to have kept them out of the main fighting.To put the casualties in perspective, look closely at the picture above and then realize that every third man in that picture died, so far from home.At the end of the war, the allies adopted a policy of granting ethnic groups the right of self determination. They applied this policy with rigour in dismembering the Austrian Empire and even parts of Germany. But what was good for the goose was not good for the gander. There was never any thought given to granting Indochina self determination or independence and any dissent or nationalist activities were ruthlessly suppressed by the French authorities. A young Ho Chi Minh journeyed to the Versaille Peace Conference hoping to gain concessions for his people but he was rebuffed.Later the French would wage a costly and losing war against their Vietnamese subjects in an effort to keep their overseas empire. The French defeat in the 1950s would lead to the partition of Vietnam and eventually America’s painful experience with the Vietnam war.