Birth of Modern Warfare
The European summer 1914 was a very productive one before the onset of World War One. International exchange and co-operation fueled the belief that war was impossible to come. In 1910 the author of The Great Illusion, Norman Angell, demonstrated that the breaking of international credit caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it to a quick close (the first world war, ebook location 272). However, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria Hungry and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, started a war the likes of which the world had never seen. The rise of imperialism, militarism, and a network of alliance gave way to World War One which began on July 28, 1914. By August 6, more than eight countries were brought into conflict. The countries involved in World War One bought to bare massive armies and equipped with new technology that would revolutionize the way war would be fought from then on. Along with these new technologies came new strategies like armored warfare, the use of aviation, and the use of artillery drastically changed the scope of land warfare. The First World War would also be known for use of trench warfare and attrition warfare which would characterize and give the face of the dark dismal scenes of war we all remember to this day.
Although many people think of the long lines of trenches that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea, World War One began very much as a war of mobility and movement. The Germans utilized the Schlieffen Plan, which quickly mobilized German forces using the built up rail system in their country to move troops to the western front and then march troops up through Belgium in an attempt to overwhelm France. The German’s master plan wasn’t without its faults. The plan was built for quick victories and didn’t account for delays in movement time, how many troops would be needed to occupy the right flank in Belgium, or how fast the French could mobilize. The German advance was stopped on September 5 when the first battle of the Marne was fought. The French were able to successfully make the German army retreat northeast, but left the armies in a stagnate position, where trenches would begin to take form and last thorough the war.
Although trench warfare has been utilized in many other conflicts; none of them stand out so much as the use of trenches in world war one. The trench systems built stretched for miles from the North Sea of Belgium’s coast to southern France and lasted the entirety of the war. The trench systems typically had at least three lines of trenches with intermediate trench lines running in between. With the development of the trenches came the emplacement of machine gun bunkers, heavy use of artillery, and the laying of mine fields between axis and allied positions which became known as no-mans-land.
Life in the trenches is painted as a dark and horrible existence. The soldiers who served in the trenches felt long periods of cold and wet boredom with intense periods of horror and fear caused by enemy artillery and chemical attacks. The trenches had poor if any drainage systems, so they were often filled with thick mud and water up to soldiers knees. Soldiers also described huge infestations of rats and mice that would snuggle up in the soldiers’ blankets at night and would chew on the webbing and equipment they carried. A German soldier described the trenches in a letter home “Darkness alternates with light as bright as day. The Earth trembles and shakes like jelly…and those men who are still in the front line hear nothing but the drum-fire, the groaning of wounded comrades, the screaming of fallen horses, the wild beating of their own hearts, hour after hour, night after night. Even during the short respite granted them, their exhausted brains are haunted in the weird stillness by recollections of unlimited suffering. They have no way of escape, nothing is left them but ghastly memories and resigned anticipation….The battle-field is really nothing but one vast cemetery.” (Gerhard Gurtler, German soldier written in a letter home)
Attrition warfare quickly came about after the building of the trenches. Wave after wave of soldiers would move from trench to no-mans-land in an attempt to advance position and take back occupied enemy ground. The French believed that a large swift attack on an enemy position would overwhelm any force and cause them to back down and retreat. These practices which the French high command used left thousands wounded and killed; easily cut down by machine gun emplacements and artillery. Artillery during this time was highly valued on the battlefield. With the rise of the industrial came a massive rise in military might and power. Artillery became more mobile and more powerful. One soldier described the artillery in a diary “Any dent in the ground you’d stick your head down as far as you could ram it. There might be a shell-hole. There might not be, but you had to lay flat on the ground when these creeping barrages came, and they were terrible things. You don’t think you’re coming out of it. There’s the blast of them, you know, and you can hear the steel, awful sound, piece of steel as it goes by you. It would cut you in half, a piece of that shell. You can’t imagine it- every night, every night, every night”.(private w.b Bell, 9th battalion army cyclist corps) Artillery would be used primarily to soften up enemy positions before a wave of men would assault forward in attempt to advance position. Artillery also became the delivery system for a new kind of weapon called chemical warfare. Chemical warfare was explored by both sides of the conflict. The Germans utilized chlorine which is a powerful irritant to the eyes, nose, lungs, and throat. The first British use of chemical warfare ended in disaster as it relied on the wind as a delivery system. As the wind shifted, the gases came down to bear on the English and caused many casualties. The trenches were huge problems in both sides ability to advance and effectively fight the war. Infiltration tactics were quickly developed in order to traverse no-mans-land and assault the enemy’s position. German general Oscar Von Hutier developed his own tactics for assaulting the allied trenches. After heavy use of artillery to suppress the allied lines, German elite infantry units called storm troopers would advance to enemy weak points in the trench. Heavily armed with mortars, flamethrowers, machine guns, and highly trained; the storm troopers would surprise the allies giving enough time for regular German infantry to assault forward. These tactics allowed the German army to recreate the mobile warfare on the western front in the spring of 1918. These infiltration tactics had great success in operation Michael during in March 1918. The Germans planned a surprise offensive to divide the French and British forces on the Western Front. The German army launched the offensive on 21 March, on a front south of Arras. German divisions attacked over 60 miles of the front held by 26 British divisions, overwhelming British defenses and driving them west. The Germans concentrated on infiltrating strongly in one central area, whereas the British expected that the attack would be spread out, and that the Germans would attempt to outflank them in the Somme woods. The British 3rd Army and 5th Army were taken by surprise, divided and forced to retreat. Another important development in world war one was the introduction of armored tanks into the battlefield. Tanks were developed to break the static nature of the war and begin to move towards one of mobile warfare again. The age of horse cavalry was quickly being replaced by trains for mass movement of supplies and troops, motorcycles and telegraph systems quickly replaced mounted communication runners, and tanks took up the mantel of maneuvering and breaking through enemy lines and defenses. Tanks were first utilized in force by the British at the battle of Cambrai. Colonel John Fuller was in charge of the operation where he placed over four hundred tanks in front of infantry units to protect them from machine guns while they traversed no-man’s-land. They began the assault without using artillery, so the German positions wouldn’t be altered to the incoming attack. The tanks rolled through the barbed wired defenses and the British army advanced in places almost five miles. Church bells rang in England to celebrate the victory at Cambrai. However, the British forces were not without their losses. The British armies lost over one hundred tanks due to inability to negotiate through the hostile terrain of massive craters and entrenchments. Also, the Germans were able to reorganize and use their own Hutier infiltration tactics to reclaim much of their lost ground during the British offensive. (Battle, R.G. Grant)