Trench Warfare was hell on earth. It came early in the Great War, by the middle of October a war-torn system of trenches, bunkers, and machine guns ran down through the European continent from the Belgian North Sea to the Swiss Alps. The next four years of the war on the western front would be locked in a stalemate with neither side able to break through.[1] This type of warfare was new to military commanders who were familiar with ‘war of movement’ and tried again and again to break through the enemy line past the trenches.

Their strategy for breaking the trenches was unimaginative, “There seemed to be no solution to the stalemate except increasing masses of shells and men.”[2] The public at home could not understand the failure of their commanders, and after demands of success failed to meet their expectation, war government choose new military leaders whose only solution was firing more shells of artillery and sending more men into the trenches. [3]


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Artillery, Chemical Weapons, and Hell-scape of the Trenches


Apart from the horror of machine guns and millions of shells of artillery, chemicals weapons were used. Tear gas shells were first used by the French, and later the Germans started to use a more lethal chlorine gas.[4] The death toll of the Great War is staggering, especially when compared to all previous wars in world history. At the battle of Verdun both the French and Germans were determined to use an increased number of men and arms to break through the trenches, “over 400,000 died on both sides”, or 1,500 men were killed a day for ten months.[5]

Fighting in Passchendaele saw miles of deep mud that would trap men who had the misfortune of taking a misstep leaving them vulnerable to enemy fire. Upon seeing the aftermath of war on this mud filled battlefield a British staff officer is reported to have broken down into tears crying “My God, did we send men to fight in that?”[6]


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War on the Homefront


In many ways, World War I was the first modern war as it required mass mobilization of the citizen body to either fight or to assist in war production. Britain would mobilize 3 million men for the front, and France called up 20 percent of its total population, about 8 million men.[7] The participation of soldiers in the trenches was matched by the civilians in the munitions plant, and the reliance on trade to acquire raw materials brought the war past Europe and into the oceans and seas.

With the absence of men, women were called in to fill out positions in munitions factories and other jobs that had previously been excluded to only male labor.[8] Britain enacted a blockade on Germany, and German U-boats imposed a blockade on any trade into Europe, much to the ire of the United States. Germany would eventually call for unrestricted submarine warfare on any ship be it military, trade, or civilian. As civilians became essential to war’s success, they became vulnerable to enemy attacks.


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The Totality of Modern War


The dangers soldiers faced in the trenches were mirrored by dangers civilians faced on the homefront. With the advent of aircraft came the bombing of enemy cities foreshadowing the bombing raid of the second world war to come. 1,414 English civilians and 746 Germans were killed by aircraft bombing raids in War World I.[9]

The blockade on trade proved to be most detrimental to Germany. The ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-1917 saw average caloric intake drop to 1,000 and some 750,000 Germans died of hunger.[10] Stress form lack of food and supplies cause discontent and unrest at home in all countries. War government reacted with increased police power, using force and fear to quiet criticism or an anti-war movement.[11] Even in countries associated with democracy and liberalism, personal liberties fell aside to the necessity of war.


Sources cited