This is Trench Warfare. Photo taken by an official British Photographer during WWI, c.1917 [800x599]


Yes, WWI trench warfare ended up being a nightmare that is total. /u/recreational actually gave a explanation that is brilliant why it was so terrible some time ago on reddit. Definitely worth the read if you're interested. There's ...



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  • Yes, WWI trench warfare was a total nightmare. /u/recreational actually gave a brilliant explanation on why it was so terrible some time ago on reddit. Well worth the read if you are interested. There's a lack of appreciation in this and other comments, I think, for why WWI was so traumatic for soldiers. There's an ebb and flow over military history between the offense and the defense having the upper hand. In the last major European war before WWI, the Franco-Prussian War, the offense had the edge; Germany won via its decisive and swift march onto Paris, disabling France before it could really even get in the fight. Decades later, however, by the time WWI began, technology had changed; advances in artillery, machine gun, railway systems, fortifications, etc., and even the adaptation of some low-tech stuff like barbed wire, made the defense much more powerful than the offensive technology that existed at the time. But the mindset that everyone was operating under was still based on that last major war. This was the rationale behind Germany's invasion of France through Belgium- it believed it had to move quickly to disable France, or it would lose a two-sided war against France and Russia. Likewise, the cult of the offensive dominated French thinking; there was a strikingly testosterone-driven belief that a fervent charge of bayonets was enough to overcome any machine gun fire. And let's not even get started on cavalry. This was the first war in history where cavalry was finally and completely rendered obsolete, and the generals did not adapt well, they were still sending cavalry out to be massacred by machine gun fire even by the time the war ended. The point is, you have this dynamic where the technology of the time says, "Sit and defend," and the generals say, "Go out and charge!" And the shocking thing is how long it takes the military leadership, especially of the Entente, to adapt; and how frequently they relapse. Really why the war dragged as long as it did; the Germans were better, although by no means perfect, at learning not to bleed themselves dry (culminating ultimately in the intentionally flexible Hindenburg line, while the French were still ordering their men to never yield an inch of ground.) So there's this cycle of long squalid tedium, guys sitting in mud holes getting eaten alive by bugs and fungi and their own bodies, eaten cold food out of tins, interrupted by the occasional pointless but massive bloodletting as whoever's in charge this month initiates another stupid offensive that he sells back home as being decisive and sure to break the stalemate, but maybe, at best, gains a few square miles of territory- as often as not lost again six months later. And meanwhile the artillery. WWI has lots of poison gas, although it's not very effective in the final tally, and snipers and machine guns, and sappers that explode a line from underneath you; but all together none of them take near the toll that the artillery does. WWI was the war for artillery, dominated by the big guns, with tanks and functioning bombers still in the future. The industrial countries blow through millions of tons of artillery shells, cratering and re-cratering the landscape, first indiscriminately and then in creeping waves as they learn how to use them; the entire peace-time reservoirs of shells are expended in months at the start of the war, and they churn out more, the later battles often using in a matter of days as many shells as even existed in the world in 1912. Being on the frontlines usually meant being surrounded by the constant shock and roar of the big guns, always meant living in fear that you could be snuffed out in an instant by them; and besides the pure psychological terror, meant exposure to literal shockwaves that were constantly facking with your brain in ways we're just coming to grips with today as we deal with combat veterans who've been exposed to IEDs. So to recap; if you're a soldier in WWI, you're spending your time in a squalid trench- German trenches were constructed better but made up for it with the severe shortages of pretty much everything caused by the British naval blockade, so that almost everything you ate or wore was a poor substitute made from something else; paper shoes and acorn coffee. Most of the time is a constant tedium undergirded by the fear that at any second a massive offensive could be launched, or even just a random burst of artillery fire, that reduces you to powder without your ever hearing or seeing a warning of it. This is the best case scenario. Worst case scenario you're in an offensive and your general is sending you out to get ground up against the enemy's defenses, with deserters getting shot or hung, trying to crawl through shell-blasted mud and barbed wire into a nest of machine gunners. Slightly luckier and you're on the defense, which is great as long as you don't get gassed or an artillery shell doesn't land on you, or sappers don't blow up the entire ridge you're sitting on, or snipers don't see your head sticking up, or just caught at the hammer point of an all-out offensive that might peter out a few miles forward but is going to sweep you aside through sheer mass of numbers. And this just goes on. And on. That's what drives people mad. All this thunder and blood and mud and nothing changes. Some of the battles themselves drag on for months of near-constant murder. Maybe if you have a good general you get rotated through so you're not constantly living under the guillotine, but more likely your commander has you or a bunch of your buddies killed for a few worthless square miles you have to give up again when he realizes he can't defend them effectively. The "Stabbed in the Back" myth that Hitler would use later to help rise to power held that the German army was never defeated in the field, that it lost to politicians at home. The first part is actually kind of true though. Even on the run at the end, the Germans inflicted about as many casualties as they took. The thing is they were never really victorious in the field, because battles during WWI just weren't winnable, really. To either side. The technology meant that both sides were just slowly, painfully bleeding each other until someone gave up. To the soldiers this meant there was no hope of victory- but also no hope even of defeat. Just sitting there, waiting to die. And all war is barbaric, but it's not hard to see why WWI was so unusually tormenting to the mental well-being of those who fought it.
  • To put it even further in perspective - go dig a hole in your backyard, about 3 feed wide, 5 feet deep, and 6 feet long. Then get in it and stay in it for a month. Sleep there, hsit there, eat there, etc. To get an even better picture of trench warfare, do this in winter. And that's not even with bombs, bullets, gas, dead bodies, etc.
  • To put it further in perspective, the Battle of Verdun during WWI was one of the most costly battles in human history, the death toll almost reaching one million in that battle alone. There was a ridge next to Verdun that was so heavily shelled by artillery that an estimated 10 shells fell on every square centimeter in certain places. The ridge was hacked and ploughed by a total of 32 million shells, turning the ground into a hellish mixture of tossed mud and rotting human remains. Corpses left in the open turned to mush and were mixed into the soil the rest of the men huddled in. This went on for 10 months and at the end of the battle both armies stood a hundred yards from where they had started.
  • Please bear in mind that "casualties" are not equitable with "deaths". The Battle of Verdun was no doubt was one of the mostly costly battles in history in terms of human life. However casualty figures represent any men who are wounded, incapacitated, killed, or missing; and the former two always tend to outweigh the latter. According to those figures there, approximately 300,000 men died in Verdun. Also, it's important to note that Falkenhayne's effort in that offensive was not specifically to take ground (although this is always strategically desireable should the opportunity present itself), but to literally turn the Verdun salient into a cauldron of such carnage that it would "bleed France white" from attrition. Much to Falkenhayne's chagrin, and contributing to his downfall and replacement, the effort largely failed, and German casualties were comparitively high.
  • That is actually a very valid point, English isn't my first language so I misinterpreted the word, automatically linking it with deaths. Good correction.
  • No worries, a lot people with English as their first language get that mixed up as well.
  • Like me, thanks to you I just learned that casualties doesn't just count deaths
  • 300,000 is by no means a petty sum. Speaking of sum, wasn't the Somme near a million (or over) as well? Nasty "battle".
  • J.R.R. Tolkien fought at the Somme. The no man's land between the trenches he saw there were his inspiration for the Dead Marshes in TLotR.
  • Britain's best poets came out of the conflict, and Wilfred Owen gave his life during The Great War. I wish we Americans would refer to it as such.
  • Some of America's best writers also came out of it. Ernest Hemingway for instance. He is also the one who popularized the term "The Lost Generation" when referring to the generation that fought in the war.
  • Don't forget dos Passos. He's largely forgotten, nowadays, but Three Soldiers and the USA trilogy are brilliant!
  • That's facked up.
  • Here is a good picture of what you're talking about.
  • Hoorah! Let's give Jerry what for!
  • 'Cept those look like frogs.
  • Yeah, that helmet spine and all, but ma francais she sucks.
  • Read more comments


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