The front, the trenches and the offensives

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For four years the regions of Artois and Flanders experienced a war of position characterized by trench warfare. The general staffs of both sides were quick to adapt their modus operandi to the new combat situation, essentially a defensive war punctuated by occasional attacks on the enemy, and this required a considerable mass of men and materials.

History books are right to focus on the huge carnage wrought by the great offensives in 1915 and 1917 on the Artois front; however the horrors of life in the trenches should not be overlooked. Although the fighting was never constant in one particular place, every tour of duty on the front line was a terrible ordeal for the soldiers of both sides because of the permanent and unpredictable threat posed by artillery. They were also subjected to the occasional targeted attack or raid to test their defences. Even in a sector described by the soldiers themselves as a "quiet front" men died every day, most of them killed by an exploding shell.

In an attempt to attenuate the psychological and physical strain borne by the combatants, the armies did their utmost to have the men relieved on a regular basis so that an infantryman could have his tours of duty on the front punctuated with brief rest periods in the rear where he would be expected to participate in exercises and training marches but also have some free time.

In the trenches, when things were quiet, servicemen carried out regular chores such as transporting supplies (drinking water, food, munitions) and bringing in wood and other materials to consolidate the defences. Any movement between the front and rear lines was done through narrow, winding and muddy communication trenches, mostly at night. Night-time was also the best time for carrying out reconnaissance missions and raids on enemy lines, the purpose of the latter being to take prisoners who might be able to provide useful information.

A soldier's days were marked by physical and mental suffering. Injuries caused by shrapnel were frequent and a direct consequence of innovations in weapon technology. Soldiers suffered from all sorts of diseases linked to the precarious conditions in the trenches (especially lung infections), and some of these were a direct result of this new type of warfare, such as trench foot. First described in the winter of 1914–1915, trench foot was a painful condition caused by prolonged immersion in the muddy waters of the trenches and sufferers often went on to develop gangrene. Soldiers also suffered psychological trauma linked, for the most part, to the omnipresence of death and danger. It was often triggered by the loss of a comrade or the proximity of some anonymous corpse which lay next to them in the mud for days on end (burying the dismembered bodies of shell victims could cost the gravedigger his life so many corpses were left to lie in or near the trenches). Accounts by soldiers of the Great War always include references to the smell of rotting bodies, an atrocious memory by any standard. Another principal source of trauma was the shelling which the soldiers could do little to avoid. All the combatants developed a keen sense of hearing when it came to determining the calibre and the destination of the shells. The nerve-wracking wait for the next shell, which could come at any moment, provoked mental disorders linked to stress which British doctors first described as "shell-shock" in 1915. Victims of the condition would go on to feel its effect for a very long time afterwards, suffering a range of disorders from insomnia to serious psychosomatic problems.

From the spring of 1915 onwards, offensives were preceded by systematic heavy shelling to destroy the enemy's first lines of defence and disrupt its supply lines. For example, prior to the French attack in Artois in May 1915 one thousand guns fired 30,000 shells in just one day (9 May). On a completely different scale, the Canadian attack in the same sector in April 1917 used 938 guns to fire almost one million shells on the German lines...

The preparation of an offensive also required a massive logistics effort to transport people (bringing in reserve troops, evacuating the wounded) and supplies (food, munitions). At the moment of attack every infantryman would be carrying enough food for one day, maybe more (for example, in May 1915 the men of the Alpine Division commanded by General Ernest Barbot carried with them "two days'' worth of reserve rations, plus chocolate, sardines and cheese"). They also received a tot of brandy before going over the top. For the front line troops a major consideration was the supply of drinking water and depots of water in tanks or barrels were established to the rear of the trenches. Transporting munitions was also a complex problem because huge quantities of bullets and shells had to be carried from the rear bases to advance depots behind the second line. For the first part of their journey the munitions would be transported by rail, then moved on to road transport (either motor or horse-drawn vehicles) before being carried by hand to the trenches. Slowly but surely the belligerents mechanized the transport process by installing narrow-gauge railways which ran as closely as possible to the front.

Bringing reserve troops to the front line was also a major problem and, because of insufficient preparatory measures, one that prevented the French breakthrough of May 1915 at Souchez and Vimy from being exploited to the full. Also logisticians had to consider moving troops in the other direction, to evacuate the wounded. When a soldier was wounded on the front line, he would first be collected up by the stretcher-bearers and medical officers of his unit before being moved to the Regimental Aid Post, situated near the front, where emergency medical care would be given to stop, for example, heavy bleeding. Next he would be taken to an ambulance (a mobile hospital following the army) to have the seriousness of his wounds assessed and undergo emergency surgery if necessary. Finally, if he survived, he would be taken by train or lorry to one of the military hospitals (on the coast, if he was an Allied soldier, or in the towns of the department of Nord if he was a German). The military logistics of 1915 were characterized by chaos and improvisation however by 1917 the British had become remarkably well organized. To complement their stretcher-bearing teams the belligerents of both sides called upon prisoners of war and these were usually very well treated, in accordance with the laws of war. 

 Yves LE MANER,
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France