So the world as people know it is going to Hell in a handcart, and the pace of scary change is accelerating all the time. Some kind of big, global endgame is surely imminent, and local or regional endgames are already blowing away political certainties unchallenged in decades, even centuries. In case you’re in any doubt, I’m talking about the middle of 1918.
Tsarist Russia was gone, and the Habsburg Empire was all but gone. The Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its outlying provinces, and had finally given up its attempt to expand into the Caucasus when it made peace with Armenian nationalists in May. On 11 June, in a belated attempt to spark nationalist outrage at the Empire’s failure to gain more from the Treaty of Bucharest (7 May, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy), the Young Turk government in Constantinople gave up on the strict press censorship it had imposed throughout the War, releasing a torrent of internal criticism that would soon tear apart a corrupt and reckless regime.
Germany, the other major player destined for defeat, was screeching towards economic collapse and political revolution, while those big hitters with better immediate prospects – France, Britain and the USA – were in the throes of momentous (if often temporary) internal change, self-consciously on the brink of a victory they expected to create a new world order.
Wherever you lived in the world at war in June 1918, except possibly Japan, a peep over the local parapets meant a disquieting glimpse of a bigger picture in rapid flux. The old certainties were evaporating and the prospects kept shifting. In that context, and without providing much in the way of reassurance, trench warfare had become something of a constant by 1918, if only because it had been around for almost four years and didn’t seem to have changed. For ordinary people in major belligerent nations, the static horrors of trench warfare had become a relatively well-established fact of modern life. Reported and debated at enormous length and in great detail by press and politicians, war in the trenches had become the conflict’s principle and most consistent narrative strand, a status it has maintained ever since.
The wartime trench narrative was, of course, a mythic creation, a rolling propaganda tapestry of constant victories that made no difference to anything, side-lit by the ghastly, first-hand evidence of trench veterans. These days, the heritage industry’s core narrative still resides in the trenches and is still steeped in mythology, but presents an anti-propagandist picture of constant defeats amounting to nothing, heavily arc-lit by memoirs of personal suffering. Both pictures have conspired to turn our view of Western Front trench warfare into a collection of one-dimensional snapshots that stress lack of change during the course of four years. Fair enough on one level; the Western Front trenches were static in terms of geographical movement, and the human suffering they inflicted remained the same – but the snapshot obscures the basic truth that trench warfare itself went through plenty of changes.
Trench warfare wasn’t completely new in 1914 – it had, for instance, been a terrible feature of the American Civil War half a century earlier – but the world had never seen anything to compare with the long lines of opposing, massively defended trench systems, invulnerable to flank attack, that were established across northeastern France and western Belgium during the War’s first months. Although the Western Front was by no means the only theatre to experience trench warfare at its most gruesome, it was generally the test-bed for new weapons, defences and techniques, and after a brief phase of desperate improvisation both sides geared up for what they defined, quite understandably, as a gigantic form of siege warfare.
The first requirement of a siege, heavy artillery, was ranged behind the lines to destroy enemy earthworks, kill any troops in the open and take out enemy artillery, all tasks particularly suited to high-trajectory howitzers. As I’ve mentioned before, wartime developments in the use of big trench guns involved increasing their size, trying (with little success) to find ways of moving them around efficiently, and improving their support mechanisms with advances in ballistic science, ammunition technology and aviation techniques (12 April, 1916: Crater Makers).
At closer quarters, whether across the narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’ or in direct combat, reliance on the rifle as the soldier’s basic weapon never changed, with refinements of existing designs again the main thrust of wartime development (31 August, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen). More radical progress was made in the development of heavier anti-personnel weapons with greater killing potential, such as machine guns and mortars.
Universally pigeonholed as trench warfare’s great defensive weapon, the machine gun was a bulky, cumbersome, unreliable piece of kit in 1914. Guns weighed between 40kg and 60kg – not counting carriage, mounting, ammunition or (sometimes) an armoured shield – and required a crew of between three and six men. Generally mounted on a flat-trajectory tripod, they could fire 400-600 rounds of small-calibre ammunition per minute from a fabric belt or metal strip, but they were apt to overheat and needed cooling with air vents or a water bag to prevent buckling and jamming. Water bags often needed changing every couple of minutes but machine guns still jammed all the time, so they were usually deployed in sections of three or more for defensive purposes.
Even when put on wheels or broken down for haulage the machine guns of 1914 couldn’t keep up with advancing infantry, so they were of little use when attacking and most wartime development was concerned with finding ways to turn them into viable offensive weapons. They were attached to armoured cars for use on roads or in flat conditions, and eventually mounted on tanks for use in all ground conditions, at least in theory – but neither solution provided reliable direct support for advancing infantry on a regular basis, and the big change in wartime use of machine guns for trench conditions was a general shift to lighter weapons.
Light, portable machine guns existed in 1914 – a few Danish Masden models were in Russian service when war broke out – but were soon being churned out in large numbers by all the world’s arms manufacturers, and had become standard additions to all infantry units by 1918. Weighing between 9kg and 14kg, they could be carried by one man and fired at a rate comparable with heavy models. Ammunition still had to be carried on belts, drums or magazines, and was still heavy, but by late 1917 aircraft were being used to drop ammunition for attacking machine-gunners. The War’s last year saw the appearance in the trenches of automatic rifles and sub-machine guns that were even lighter but often carried only 10- or 20-shot magazines.
Light machine guns could also be fitted to aircraft, for use against ground troops (and other aircraft) when weather conditions permitted, and became standard after the German invention of interrupter gear in 1915 enabled pilots to shoot through their propellers. The mushrooming threat to trenches from the air meanwhile gave heavy machine guns a new role as high-trajectory anti-aircraft weapons, sometimes mounted on lorries.
No army enjoyed any great advantage over its rivals in the design and development of machine guns. Among the most commonly used heavy weapons, the British Vickers and the German Maschinengewehr 08 – both derivatives of the original machine gun design, the American Maxim, as was the Russian standard Pulemyot Maxima – were generally more reliable than the French Hotchkiss and fired more quickly than the Austro-Hungarian Schwarzlose.
The British Lewis and the German Maschinengewehr 08/15 were similarly well-matched light machine guns, although the former’s incompatibility with interrupter gear meant British planes mounted stripped down Vickers guns, but the most commonly used French light gun, the Chauchat, was notoriously unreliable. The United States produced some 57,000 Browning guns after April 1917, along with a slightly smaller number of Browning automatic rifles, but although both were reliable, rugged weapons they didn’t enter service until the autumn of 1918 and the AEF fought most of its battles using borrowed French guns.
When it came to mortars – portable high-trajectory artillery, designed to launch the heaviest possible projectile from its stubby barrel – the German Army began the War with an enormous head start. Mortars had been a feature of siege warfare in the 18th century, but had fallen out of use until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when they were deployed with some success by Japanese troops. This was ignored by most European armies but noticed in Germany, which had about 150 of its own Minenwerfer design in service by August 1914. Production was stepped up once trench warfare became established on the Western Front, and they served throughout the War in light (76mm), medium (170mm) and heavy (245mm) versions. Grouped in specialist engineering companies, they all had a maximum range of about 1,000 metres, and during the first year or more of trench warfare on the Western Front they made an important contribution to German tactical superiority.
By contrast, British and French forces entered the War with no modern trench artillery, and relied on antiquated siege weapons, improvised catapults or other crude projectors for a very long time. Allied forces could seldom deploy anything with an effective range of more than about 250 metres until the British Stokes mortar became widely available to trench fighters in early 1916. Probably the most successful Allied design, the Stokes was a very light weapon and easy to construct, but it was relatively inaccurate and its effective range was only 750 metres. By 1917 a full spectrum of French and Belgian mortars was also available, but though the Allies enjoyed an increasingly obvious numerical advantage during the War’s last year they never produced anything to match the Minenwerfer.
The arc of machine gun and mortar development was matched in almost every technical aspect of trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, and nobody seeing the entire Western front campaign from the inside could possibly have called it static. Barbed wire, grenades, camouflage, ammunition, communications and trench design spring to mind as undergoing important changes, but the list could be a lot longer with a bit more effort on my part and might get some proper attention another day. For now, this has been a small reminder that, no matter how often posterity freeze-frames them, the First World War’s trench fighters were experiencing the same tsunami of change that was sweeping the world beyond their shrunken horizons.