The trenches


December 1914 saw the beginning of what Pierre Miquel called "the men's winter" (l’hiver des hommes) characterized by a long winter, a war of position and attrition, and the trenches. By that time the front had become a continuous line of defence comprising firing and communication trenches.

Intent on conserving their territorial gains, the Germans were quick to establish defensive trenches and the first of these were dug on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge. The German soldiers made good use of the natural relief of the countryside by installing their defences on high ground which made for ideal observation posts. In strategic terms, the trenches gave firepower supremacy over troop momentum.

In his book Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger gave a vivid description of the German trenches at Monchy-au-Bois, to the south of Arras: "the front line described a semicircle around the village and was connected to it by an array of communication trenches. It was divided into two sectors, Monchy South and Monchy West. These in turn were formed into six company sections from A to F... To reach the front line, the firing trench, we took one of the many covered trenches which afforded us some protection from the enemy's fire. These trenches which led to the enemy were often several kilometres long and so had to be dug in zigzags or gentle curves to prevent enfilade fire. After a quarter of an hour's walk we would arrive at the support line, parallel to the first line, a position to fall back on if the firing trench were ever taken."

For a description of the French trenches, we shall turn to an account given by former combatant Jacques Meyer: "In the beginning the French just dug individual holes, linking them together as best they could. Confronted with the German blockhouses, they started building deeper positions in parallel and in zigzags to ensure that a single bombardment would not affect two lines of trenches simultaneously. The nature of the ground played an important role [in determining how the defences were built]. When they could not dig down very far, they built up a parapet on the side facing the enemy. In wet ground, the walls of the trenches were shored up with fascines and frames. The upper part of the parapet was consolidated with bags of earth. The [firing] trench was protected by rows of barbed wire entanglements and chevaux de frise. The area between the front lines of the belligerents was called no man's land and never very wide, up to a maximum of one kilometre on a plain. A second and even a third line would be dug to the rear. At first soldiers had only individual shelters, nicknamed [by the French] "doghouses" (niches à chien), to protect them; but later deeper dugouts were excavated on the side facing the enemy so the soldiers could avoid enemy fire. On the reserve line the shelters became veritable tunnels which required staircases to reach them."

The Allies' trenches would never equal those of the Germans in terms of construction. In 1915 a soldier described the German installations thus: "I was walking alone in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire that, only this morning, the enemy had occupied. Ah, the nice clean trenches, narrow and well shored, and lovely lookout posts! We saw deep shelters where the troops opposite would sleep... while in our trench the frozen statues [of men] kept watch."

Recent historical research has shown that the trenches were a social system which not only comprised human constructions but also conditioned a way of life and imposed a particular way of dealing with death. Life in the trenches was all about survival. The infantrymen in the trenches had many enemies: shells and shrapnel, bullets, mines... They lived in fear of artillery fire from the opposite trenches. Men on both sides of the divide suffered from the cold, from rats and other vermin, but also from the mud which sometimes forced them to leave the trenches to seek refuge on the parapet. In such an event, both sides made a silent agreement not to fire on the other. The title of Pierre Chaine's book about the life of an infantryman in the trenches sums up their living conditions with laconic eloquence: The Memoirs of a Rat...

Didier PARIS,
Professor of History