Trench warfare

Trench warfare is a form of warfare whereby conflicting troops fight one another from trenches facing each other. This style of warfare is characterized by a plot of land in between two opposing trenches commonly referred to as no man’s land. The opposing forces would fight from theses trenches crossing no man’s land trying to break through the enemy’s front line. In ancient times forms of this style of warfare were used they were not seen on such a large scale.

Ancient and medieval trench warfare had not been developed to the extent it was following the development of firearm technology in the mid-nineteenth century. It was during the American Civil War that the changes can be seen. By the end of the American Civil War the style of fighting became more like the trench style of warfare seen in the First World War. It was during the First World War that trench warfare was used on such a large scale.

There were two major factors which lead in part to the trench warfare seen during the First World War. The first was the use of the breech-loading loading firearm which significantly increase the ability of a small force to hold off a larger force if they were entrenched or had a barrier in which to conceal themselves. The other major impact on warfare was the introduction of the machine gun, this rapid firing weapon allowed small troops to keep larger forces at bay as long as they were concealed. These two inventions, rapid-firing small arms and machine guns made the traditional style of infantry fighting impossible. Another invention barbed wire paid a role in the use of trench warfare. Barbed wire was placed in no-man’s land and along the top of my trenches and it significantly slowed down the advancement of the opposing forces. Breech-loading high velocity artillery was another development which impacted the use of trenches during war.

It was the use of these weapons which basically immobilize the infantry, forcing them to build defences (trenches). Once built the trenches provide the infantry with a form of defence away from the rapid-firing small arms and artillery. World War One was the first major trench warfare as both sides reached a stalemate.

Introduction of the various rapid-firing arms and artillery which made the infantry have to dig in, building an elaborate trench system which stretched for miles across the various military fronts. Both sides began to utilize means such as gas to attempt to infiltrate the opposing army’s trenches. Tanks were brought in to try to eradicate the other army’s trenches. Meanwhile both sides were attempting to produce better and better weapons to fight trench warfare. Greater forces of artillery were brought in by both the German and Allied forces to try to breach the opposing forces defensive line.

The trenches on the Western Front of the WWI essentially started out as small shallow dips in the land which later evolved into large holes in the ground with an elaborate system of tunnels and trenches joined together. This allowed the soldier to move without exposing themselves to the barrage of artillery rained down on them from the opposing forces.

The barrage of attacks by the artillery on the conflicting forces meant that no man’s land became a sea of churned up land and mud. This slowed any attempts by the conflicting forces to attack the others trenches and left the advancing forces exposed to the enemy’s barrage of machine gun fire, artillery and small arms fire.

Large frontal attacks by the opposing sides would result in enormous losses with trivial territorial gains. Poisonous gas and massive artillery barrages were used to try and soften up the enemy prior to placing a frontal attack were also introduced during this time. These huge frontal

attached produced large casualties and troop sizes began to dwindle. The Allies began to impose ever-harsher conscription laws and troops were brought in from the British colonies and eventually even the United States, in the hope that one more attack and artillery barrage would finally overrun the enemy’s trench lines.

Trench lines were breached by the opposing forces but they never seemed to last long as reinforcements would be brought up threw the elaborate trench and tunnelling system. This pattern would continue in the hopes that one of these breaches would finally have the desired results; trench life for the soldiers was very frightening with large period of rest followed by short intense periods of fighting. The trenches themselves evolved from being unconnected holes in the ground to an elaborate system laid out in a zigzag pattern to decrease the impact of the artillery barrages.

The World War One trenches became an elaborate system of zigzagging holes in the ground with a secondary line behind the front line. The zigzagging not only decreased the impact from the artillery barrages but also meant that in a section of the trench was breached they couldn’t just shot down a straight line. Trenches were dug into the ground 4 to 5 feet with a topper of sandbags added to give an additional 3 feet. Wooden boards would be placed to form a walkway over the sludge of mud and steps were placed to allow the soldiers to see over the parapet of sandbags to fire on the advancing enemy. Periscopes were used to watch the opposing side without exposing themselves to enemy fire. Dugouts were used to shelter the troops but the trenches were not only within the range of fire by the artillery but also by enemy snipers. These conditions along with the infestation of rats and other pests made the trenches, especially the front line one of the most nerve racking places to be assigned.

While in the trenches the soldiers were relatively safe but forays were made against the enemy lines, sometimes only involving a few men anther times would involve hundreds of soldiers attacking in multiple groups all at once. The endless waiting and tension in the front line trenches caused great stress amongst those in the front line trenches therefore troops were rotated in and out of the front line to give them a relief from the high tension front line.

When the troops were ordered to attack they poured out of the trenches going over the top and began to advance towards enemy lines in through the crater and muddy no man’s land. This slowed the troops down and some losses by some units were extremely high in just a few hours.

The introduction of rapid-fire weapons and mass-produced barbed wire in part responsible for the end of trench warfare and it could be argued the introduction of the tank. Tanks were available early in the conflict but it was not until later in the war that they became more commonly used as the number of tanks available increased and generals began to see the advantages of deploying them to fight against the enemy trenches. Although the tank certainly assisted in the death of trench warfare it was not the only tactic that was utilized. Surprise attacks on the enemy’s weakest points while by-passing his strongest points and the ability to achieve tactical surprise was also a contributing factor in trench warfare’s demise. In fact it was a combination of various tactics that made trench warfare obsolete. The combination of closer cooperation between the infantry, light artillery, air support and if possible tanks all lead to making trench warfare obsolete.


“trench warfare.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2012. (November 22, 2012).

John Whiteclay Chambers II. “Trench Warfare.” The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. (November 22, 2012).

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Library and Archives Canada, Military and Peacekeeping :Oral Histories of the First World War

Faryon, Cynthia J. Mysteries,Legends And Myths Of The First World War: Canadian soldiers in the trenches and in the air. James Loimer & Company Ltd. Publishers Torotnto

Dyer, Gwynne. WAR: The New Edition. Vintage Canada Edition, 2005

Shephard, Norma Hillyer. Dear Harry: The Firsthand Account of a Worl War I Infantryman. Brigham Press. Canada. 2003.


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