Trenches have become almost synonymous with world war 1, as millions of soldiers faced each other in a network of underground warrens, launching futile attacks across no man’s land. However the war did not start that way. Initially both sides planned to make fast thrusts into the enemy’s territory and the high commands believed that the war would be over in a few months.
Outmatched by the initial German onslaught, the French and British began to did in to stiffen their defences. Initially these shelters were no more than fox holes or short trenches to guard important points. But as time went on, they developed into a vast network – soon mirrored on the German side – of trenches stretching from the English channel in the north to the Swiss border in the south.
Trenches were also used on the Italian Front but because of the terrain and larger distances, trenches never became as prevalent on the Russian front.
Trenches were effective in protecting soldiers when they were in them, but they also created a bloody stalemate. Neither side was content to simply hunker down and wait for the other to attack and so both sides launched repeated attempts to break through the enemy’s trench system. These attacks usually failed to make substantial break throughs because the trench system, buttressed by barbed wire, mines and defended by artillery and machine guns usually managed to repulse the attackers and inflict great losses.
The carnage of these back and forth attacks in which thousands of men went over the top to their deaths finally began to change back into a mobile war of movement when the allies began to effectively use tanks to spearhead their attacks, as well as coordinating with their air forces to attack German trenches from above, the direction from which they were most vulnerable.
The photograph above shows the trench system in its early stage of development. You can plainly see a shovel in the foreground which has been used by the soldiers to dig the small ditch that they are using for shelter. As time went on these trenches became deeper and more elaborate, with connecting trenches, underground living quarters, barbed wire entanglements and second and third line of trenches to allow the defenders to fall back in case their first line of trenches was overrun.