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Trench System

Trench System

After the Battle of the Marne in September, 1914, the Germans were forced to retreat to the River Aisne. The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, decided that his troops must at all costs hold onto those parts of France and Belgium that Germany still occupied. The Allies soon realised that they could not break through this line and they also began to dig trenches.

After a few months these trenches had spread from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier. As the Germans were the first to decide where to stand fast and dig, they had been able to choose the best places to build their trenches. The possession of the higher ground not only gave the Germans a tactical advantage, but it forced the British and French to live in the worst conditions. Most of this area was rarely a few feet above sea level. As soon as soldiers began to dig down they would invariably find water two or three feet below the surface. Water-logged trenches were a constant problem for soldiers on the Western Front.

Frontline trenches were usually about seven feet deep and six feet wide. The front of the trench was known as the parapet. The top two or three feet of the parapet and the parados (the rear side of the trench) would consist of a thick line of sandbags to absorb any bullets or shell fragments.

In a trench of this depth it was impossible to see over the top, so a two or three-foot ledge known as a fire-step, was added. Trenches were not dug in straight lines. Otherwise, if the enemy had a successive offensive, and got into your trenches, they could shoot straight along the line. Each trench was dug with alternate fire-bays and traverses.

Duck-boards were also placed at the bottom of the trenches to protect soldiers from problems such as trench foot. Soldiers also made dugouts and funk holes in the side of the trenches to give them some protection from the weather and enemy fire.

The front-line trenches were also protected by barbed-wire entanglements and machine-gun posts. Short trenches called saps were dug from the front-trench into No-Man's Land. The sap-head, usually about 30 yards forward of the front-line, were then used as listening posts.

Behind the front-line trenches were support and reserve trenches. The three rows of trenches covered between 200 and 500 yards of ground. Communication trenches, were dug at an angle to the frontline trench and was used to transport men, equipment and food supplies.

The fortification consists of breastworks, built up high to the front, with just a little shallow trench dug behind. The reason is that drainage is so difficult. These breastworks are made of millions of tightly-made sandbags laid one upon the other, packed well together. Every eight yards there is an island traverse, a great mound of earth and sandbags strengthened by rivetting, round which the trench winds. This is to localise the explosion of shells or prevent an enemy who might reach the flank being able to pour fire right down the length of a trench. There are communication trenches back every few yards and innumerable succeeding lines for the main army. The whole network extends in most places for three or four miles. The dug-outs are all in lines, but mostly along the communication trenches.

When there is no excitement there are about two sentries to every sector of say 9 yards on watch, and one officer for the company. The rest are in the dugouts. When a bombardment comes or there is a gas alarm, everyone rushes out and takes what cover one can in the front trench, awaiting developments. Against the front breastwork we have a step, about two feet high, upon which men stand to shoot. When there is a bombardment nearly everyone gets under this step, close in against the side.

With pick and shovel we dug trenches through beautiful fields of grain, fully realising what damage we were doing to the farmers' hopes of reaping small harvests that would enable them to stem hunger during the coming winter. The patriarch with his ox-drawn plough, the matronly gleaner, and the young woman gathering grass and leaves, roots and truffles, stood arms akimbo, wordlessly, helplessly, hopelessly watching. The depressing effect on the morale of the men - to many of whom raising grain on the Western prairie also meant their livelihood - could not be easily dismissed.

The soil is soft clay, admirably suited for entrenching, tunnelling, and mine warfare - when it is dry. As an outside observer, I do not see why the war in this area should not go on for a hundred years, without any decisive result. What is happening now is precisely what happened last year. The only difference is that the trenches are deeper, dug-outs better made, tunnels are longer, and the charges of explosives heavier.

Everywhere there are trenches, barbed wire, machine guns where they are least expected, and all the complicated arrangements for defence. The trenches are very deep, very narrow, and very wet. Streams of water run at the bottom.

The nearer one gets to the front the more mysterious and wonderful become the methods of defence. You are allowed to peer through an observation post towards the German trenches a few hundred yards away. You see absolutely nothing but a mass of brushwood, broken trunks of trees, hanging branches and barbed wire.

The guns were always at work. On my day of my visit to this area there was an almost continuous bombardment going on. The shells were hurtling over our heads. You heard the sharp discharge, and then the exploding of the shell. You saw nothing. The sound re-echoes through the woods and valleys like rolling thunder. The French fire six rounds to the enemy's one. The object of the cannonading is to disturb any work going on behind the enemy lines.

This was the winter when the trenches gave way and fell in. What a state they were in; they were two or three feet in water and mud. We were always soaked well above the knees, and plastered in mud. We had to sleep and stand about all day in this condition. The discomforts at this time were terrible, and can hardly be realized by those who were not there.

It was hard work going up the trenches while they were in this condition, the water swishing above your knees, and your boots slipping about in the slime underneath. We used to get on the parapet when we got the chance, as it was slow moving down in the water and mud, but the order came through that no one was to walk on top of the parapet. This they made a crime.

What is life like in the trenches, well, muddy, and cramped, and filthy. Everything gets covered with mud; you can't wash, for water has to be fetched for a mile. There is no room, and if you walk upright in many of the trenches, you run grave risks; and you sleep, huddled together, unable to stretch. All day long shells and rifle bullets go banging and whistling, and from dark to midnight the Huns fire rifle-grenades and machine-guns at us.

An extraordinary sensation - the first time of going into trenches. The first idea that struck me about them was their haphazard design. There was, no doubt, some very excellent reason for someone making those trenches as they were; but they really did strike me as curious when I first saw them.

It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches. Everything was strange and wet and horrid. First of all I had had to go and fix up my machine guns at various points, and find places for the gunners to sleep in. This was no easy matter, as many of the dug-outs had fallen in and floated off down stream.

My memories are of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. They knew they were going to lose a leg. Memories of lice in your clothing driving you crazy. Filth and lack of privacy. Of huge rats that showed no fear of you as they stole your food rations. And cold deep wet mud everywhere. And of course, corpses. I'd never seen a dead body before I went to war. But in the trenches the dead are lying all around you. You could be talking to the fellow next to you when suddenly he'd be hit by a sniper and fall dead beside you. And there he's stay for days.

We visited the trenches of the 4th Army, which are held on their left by the 7th Cavalry Corps. In front is the first line of all, which is an outpost line held by a small number of men and a few machine guns just to check the enemy and to split up an attack. All these trenches are protected by wire, mostly barbed, but not altogether so; and as it is the order in the 4th Army to add two yards of depth to one or other of the lines of wire entanglement every week, the result is a perfect sea of wire.

After leaving the low ground we reach the chalk, where the trenches are extremely good. The chalk, of course, stands up almost perpendicularly when frost and thaw do not crumble it.

In the lower ground the trenches have still much water in them, but there are duck-boards which allow one to get along dry. Further up, the trenches are very dry and clean. Units remain in these trenches for ten days.

The dug-outs are very deep, with good wooden bunks, one above the other, for the men to sleep in. There are blankets and straw in the bunks. Each dug-out has at least two entrances, in case one is blown in by a shell. The approaches to the advanced lines are zig-zags, but each bit of the trench is defended by parapets or traverses with loop-holes for rifle fire, so that not much progress can be made by the enemy along the trench, even if he gets into them.

It is devilish cold at 3.30 a.m. in the trenches. I am on duty from 2 to 5 this morning and am supposed to be patrolling the trenches, but have taken an interval to write in the officers' mess. A temporary affair, 3 sides sandbags and canvas, top corrugated iron and sandbags.

Yesterday we had a bad shock. Poor old Russell, I don't think you know much of him, was killed. He was an awfully good fellow was Russ, real stolid stuff. I don't mean he was a rough diamond, for he was a gentleman by birth as well as by nature. I had been showing him where I had patrolled the night before in front. Then I went to my dugout and he went to fetch some field glasses - he was using them over the parapet foolishly. He had hardly been up 10 seconds before a bullet went straight through the glasses, knocking the back of his head out. He was dead when I got to him and in fact never spolce, poor boy. It makes mv heart ache to think of his poor mother. I know he ivas so fond of her and, except for her, a woman hater by nature.

I have to take over the Company, it is a great responsibility. There I am with 200 men immediately under me. Times are bound to come where one feels incapable of facing it and would like to consult an older head or simply obey. One will feel, I know, `Have I done everything to safeguard accidents if an attack comes' etc. etc. All that part is the gloomy side, it remains that I have a Company and with the responsibility goes the opportunity. I am the youngest Company Commander by 7 or 8 years!

Today we go into a Rest Camp some miles from here. It will be a pleasant change, although I should like a few more nights here as I have a job to finish. Last night I and a Sergeant (an exMetropolitan Police Force man) went out to the German lines. We crawled out slowly, listening, and got right up to the German parapet and reconnoitred their wire. Apparently they are starting a most elaborate system of wire defence. The part we were opposite was completed and I was dying to go tonight and find out details and especially how far the new system went and if they were working on it now.

I would have gone last night, only a damned ass of a Sergeant has apparently gone off his head and went wandering out this morning without leave. When he came in I blew him up and in the afternoon he calmly sent a message to his platoon officer to say he was going and went at about 3 p.m. and hasn't been seen since. it is now 4.30 a.m. I couldn't very well go out when he was about as I don't want to get shot by m, own man by mistake and he would probably shoot at sight.

Trench railways

Trench railways represented military adaptation of early 20th century railway technology to the problem of keeping soldiers supplied during the static trench warfare phase of World War I. The large concentrations of soldiers and artillery at the front lines required delivery of enormous quantities of food, ammunition and fortification construction materials where transport facilities had been destroyed. Reconstruction of conventional roads (at that time rarely surfaced) and railways was too slow, and fixed facilities were attractive targets for enemy artillery. Trench railways linked the front with standard gauge railway facilities beyond the range of enemy artillery. [1] Empty cars often carried litters returning wounded from the front.

9 thoughts on &ldquo History of Trench Warfare in World War I &rdquo

On a side-note, and most here probably already know this, but Veteran’s Day (today) used to be Armistice Day.

It morphed from being a day honoring a peace truce to a day honoring those who were willing to participate in unjust wars. One Eighty, for sure.

Thanks Angel, great repost that I originally missed.

People say, “Thank you military for defending our freedom”. Anybody sick to their stomachs yet?

Could be why so many vets are suiciding or suffering. They learned the truth. Gotta be a hard pill to swallow, especially when you thought you were doing the right thing.

Henry, Laura and I took that river boat ride months ago, the operator of the boat was a wannabe hotshot, before we started out, he says, “let’s all clap for our military and the great job they are doing protecting our freedom”, we just sat there, with our hands in our laps, Henry said something, forgot what it was. We were the only ones that didn’t respond.

Amazing Henry stayed as composed as he did. Grin. There could have been a “Man Overboard!!” issue. Grin again.

I will one day do that river boat ride. Then I can say I sailed on the same waters as Schumacher and Shivley’s.

Trench warfare re-emerged during the horrific 10 year Iraq-Iran conflict, a US/UK/French arms dealers effort to destroy Iran. The real horror of WWI was it could have ended sooner. The critically important areas of Briey and Thionville were left untouched despite the fact that the highest levels of the French military had plans to attack and capture them as a matter of utmost strategic urgency. The arms merchant of death Basil Zaharoff (ne Manel Sachar) the main Rothschild rep (for Vickers Arms, the Rothschilds being the primary owners of stock) demanded that Briey was to be left alone and the French government was persuaded ‘somehow’. German publications postwar stated the conflict would have ended in weeks if the French had attacked. French public hearings after the war went nowhere, as Zaharoff/Rothschild owned the newspapers and killed inquiries at the government level. Even French pilots returning from bombing missions during the war with unloaded ordinance who dropped a few bombs on Briey recognizing it as a valuable military target, while unaware of the corrupt political fix, were punished when they landed.

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Trench Maps from WWI Digitized

Many war documents have been digitized since the beginning of the WWI centenary, and now that list of documents has been expanded to include trench maps. Using a system which works similar to Google Earth, viewers can click and drag to explore the expanse of WWI battlefields and see just how much ground they covered in comparison to what the land looks like today. There are over one hundred trench maps digitized so far.

The battlefields which can now be explored by internet users are primarily located in Belgium and France. Many aspects of each war zone can be examined, from the locations of troop placements and the names of surrounding terrain features. The size of the no man’s land between the trenches can also be accurately gauged by the trench maps. These are designed with their own method for referencing, which is unique from the referencing used by other forms of cartography. Analysis of these systems in comparison to more modern ones illustrates that the landscape has changed greatly since the First World War.

World War I changed the way in which wars were fought, and it was incredibly necessary for military officers to use these documents to ensure careful strategic planning. Literally millions of trench maps were made, which helped officers to assess possible battle strategies as well as estimate the possible locations of land mines. These maps are highly detailed, and the new viewing system allows users to organize them by location while deciding which mapping system they would like to use.

This digitization effort will provide users with an in-depth look at how important conflicts, such as the Battle of the Somme, were arranged. The use of these heavily detailed trench maps allowed armies to see where the enemy might have been hiding. Looking at them today allows people to see how attacks would have been planned based on this information, as well as how armies would have set up their defenses based on the enemy’s position, the Mail Online reports.

Trench maps were an important part of the formation of military stratagem during the First World War, but never before have so many of them been available for online perusal. This is a big part of the general increase of informative materials regarding WWI which has been on the rise since the beginning of the centenary. These trench maps allow viewers to see how the battles of the war were enacted from the viewpoint of those who actually planned them, which is important to understanding how the war was fought.

Organization and conduct of defense using a trench system

Post by Art » 03 Apr 2020, 15:27

Organization and conduct of defense using a trench system (from experience of defense of the 49 Army during the winter 1943-44).

I. General conditions and progress of defense works.
During the winter 1944-44 the 49 Army defended a broad frontage. The length of the Army’s sector until January 1944 was 56 kilometers, beginning from January – 86 kilometers. This sector was defended by the following units: until January 1944 5 rifle divisions and one fortified region (total 48 battalions), from January to February – eight rifle divisions and one fortified region (total 75 battalions), from March 1944 – four rifle divisions and one fortified region (total 39 battalions). Average length of the divisional sector was 12-15 kilometers, regimental sector – 6-7.5 kilometers.
Terrain in the area of the Army was mostly completely opened plain with no forests, intersected by ravines, valleys and streams and small rivers, the entire area was accessible for operations of large forces of all arms. The frontline except single sectors passed along banks of rivers and gullies.
Transition to positional defense was made by the Army in the course of autumn offensive operations of the last year. The forward edge of defense was determined by the line reached during the general offensive of the Army in August-September and local operations conducted in October-November 1943.
In this connection there were some sectors where terrain was unsuitable for defense. Such sectors were, for example: GORMANY, ZASTENOK YURIEV, KOZIYANSKIYE or KOZLY, LENINO, POLYASCHITSA. In this areas as a result of the autumn operations troops of the Army captured the forward edge of hostile positions and advanced to eastern slopes of high ground occupied by the enemy. These sectors presented no advantages from the point of view of defense because hostile areas there dominated our forward lines.
The experience of defense has demonstrated that in some sectors it is expedient to leave combat outposts on the line reached during the offensive, and transfer the main battle line backward to a more profitable defense position.
Lack of forests and the onset of cold season, lack of motor and draft transport in supply units for transportation of wood, insufficient supply of engineer equipment (wire, mines), small personnel strength of units (600-700 men in a regiment) and a large width of defense front – all that influenced tempo of defense works.
Works on development and improvement of defense lasted the entire winter season and are still in progress at the present moment.
Development of defense positions proceeded in the following order:
a) foxholes of rifle companies were connected into a continuous trench of full profile
b) After that shelters and dugouts for personnel were built.
c) Finally, communication trenches were constructed by orders of battalion commanders (one or two communication trenches per a battalion).
Trench shelters and niches for ammunition were built simultaneously with construction of firing positions of light and medium machine guns.
Overall volume of engineer defense works made by the army during the winter period is presented in the table in appendix 1.
Simultaneously with building the main defense position reserve positions of divisions and intermediate positions of corps and the Army were reconnoitered.
The main position was built by units of the first echelons, reserve positions – by second echelons of divisions. The rear defense lines were built by the second echelons of the corps and partly by the army replacement regiment.
The table reproduced in the appendix 1 shows that although the volume of the work was very extensive, still the plan wasn’t fully carried out. The reasons for failure to carry out the plan were:
- large shortfall of personnel in rifle units, as a result instead of 800 riflemen stipulated by the plan, only 500-600 were actually employed on construction daily
- large number of men were distracted to clearing trenches of snow (in average this work demanded 200 men in each division daily)
- a number of local operations connected with regrouping of our forces
- terrain devoid of forests and a need to transport wood from distant regions sometimes led to pauses in work.

II. Brief characteristic of engineer defense works
The main defense belt in most sectors consisted of two trench lines (in some sectors – of three lines) connected by communication trenches (1-2 per a battalion).
The first trench line was continuous, interrupted only by recessions (swampy hollows) which were covered by snow walls and vertical masks made of available materials (timber, soil).
The most common profile of the trench in the Army’s area was 130 centimeters deep, 90 centimeters wide at the top and 60 centimeters wide at the bottom. In some sectors by building of snow parapets the trenches were made 1.9-2.1 meters deep. Revetment of trenches was in most cases absent.
The second trench line was situated 200-400 meters from the first line.
The third trench line was not built except single sectors. The third trench line of 3 kilometers length constructed east of POLYASCHITSA (700-800 meters from the first line) was covered with snow during the winter and stays unoccupied.
Second trench line was cleared of snow only for deployment of small garrisons – battalion reserves.
The first and second trench lines were outfitted with open emplacements for all types of infantry weapons – main and alternative positions (usually 2-3 per each piece of weapons) and adapted for internal defense (machine gun emplacements for fire along trenches, adaptations for fire to the rear etc).
In most tactically important sectors platoon and company strong points and battalion centers of resistance were created. In these sectors additional works for development of combat and communication trench network were made. Such strong points can be illustrated by the BOBROVA, KOVSHICHI-BAYEVO, and MEDVEDOVKA strong points (see the appendix 2).
Defense of strongpoint was organized as all-around, anti-tank, anti-artillery and anti-air defense.
In the sector of the 154 Fortified Region strong points are reinforced with anti-tank areas.

Layout of firing positions
Trenches of the first and second lines were outfitted with open emplacements for all types of infantry weapons – main and alternative emplacement (2-3 per each firing position). In many cases emplacements are of universal type which can be adapted for all types of weapons (medium and light machine guns, anti-tank rifles, light mortars). Overhead cover made of one layer of logs is made above some emplacements where terrain permits and good camouflage can be made. Up to 30% of emplacements are equipped with revetment.
All main and alternative firing emplacements are adapted for flanking and oblique fire and only single emplacements have a frontal field of fire, mostly for fire along ravines and hollows. In those cases where machine gun emplacement embedded in a trench doesn’t provide flanking fire it is advanced forward and connected with the combat trench by a communication trench 5-8 meters long.
Experience of defense suggests effectiveness of firing positions of so-called “redan” type, when the weapon emplacement is protected from the front by high parapet and has open sectors on sides for flanking fire along the front. Employment of this type of firing positions requires especially elaborated system of fire. It is necessary to have a position for frontal fire at 8-10 meters from such a position.
For internal defense of trenches 2-3 “hedgehogs” made of wire or cheval-de-frise braided with wire are prepared at the rear parapet near every weapons emplacement which can be dropped rapidly into a trench.
In the first and partly in the second trench lines there are up to 40-60 rifle pits, 4-5 main and 5-10 alternative machine gun positions per every kilometer of front. For sheltering of the gun and storage of ammunition each weapon emplacement has a niche, and there are also trench shelters for crews with overhead cover of 1-2 layers of logs and personnel shelters for 8-12 men.
Firing positions of batteries consists of a combination of the following elements: gun emplacement, circular parapet, shelter for the crew and for 45-50-mm guns, ammunition bunkers – at the firing position itself and at a distance of 50-75 meters from it, living shelters for personnel, and shelters for draught.
In view of employment of battalion and regimental guns for direct fire their firing positions were built in close proximity to combat trenches (depending on natural defilades at a distance from 200 to 500 meters) and connected with them via communication trenches. Firing positions of guns were connected with shelters for crews via trenches.
A large part of anti-tank guns was positioned between the first and the second trench lines, having 2-3 alternative positions for point-blank fire in the most important sectors.
Firing positions of 82-mm mortars are situated behind the second trench line (sometimes by batteries of 4 mortars), on reverse slopes and in hollows and consist of trenches, ammunition pits and shelters for personnel. Each mortar has 2-3 positions. Living shelters for personnel are built in close proximity to firing positions.
Communication trenches.
In the defense system of the Army a network of communication trenches was developed in all directions. Full-profile communication trenches connect combat trenches of the first, second and third lines, and also main, alternative and additional emplacements for weapons, living shelters, ammunition pits, observation and firing positions of artillery and mortars.
The most common profile of communication trench has a depth of 110 centimeters, width at the top – 90 centimeters, width at the bottom – 60 centimeters.
A branched network of communication trenches enables hidden maneuver of weapons and personnel, conduct of combat, protection of personnel from small arms fire and shell splinters, hidden delivery of food and ammunition to the first line etc. In some sectors dimensions of communication trenches differ from normal to the smaller values. In these sectors maneuver of weapons is limited. In some sectors communication trenches connected with terrain defilades (ravines) provide hidden communications from command posts of battalion and regimental commanders, thus staff officers can be present at the decisive point in combat. Some sections of communication trenches are adapted for fire in a requisite direction (fire on approaches to combat trenches, defense of flanks and junctures, fire to the rear etc).
Observation and command posts.
Observation posts of platoon and company commanders are situated in the first trench, some 5-10 meters from their living shelters. In most cases they are opened pits for a paired picket. Only the small part of them has overhead cover or shields. In some sectors (154 Fortified Region) OP of company commanders are situated 200-300 meters behind the first trench line and are equipped with dug-outs having an overhead protection of 3-4 log layers.
OP of battalion commanders are usually situated 300-400 meters from the first trench line. OP of rifle and artillery battalion commanders are more strongly constructed and equipped with shelters, and in some places with work and rest spaces.
Communication between platoon OP and platoon commanders is carried out in most cases by sound signaling, mostly using a rope or wire connected with an empty case installed in the commander’s shelter, or by tolling a case installed on the observation post.
Communications between company or battalion observation post and company or battalion command post – mainly by telephone and runners.
Most company and battalion OPs are supplied with scout periscopes and partly with binoculars. Artillery OPs have stereoscopic periscopes.
A liaison sergeant or officer from a supporting battery is placed at the company observation post with schemes and tables of prepared fires in the company sector.
In most cases OPs of rifle battalion and artillery battalion commanders are collocated.
Artillery OPs (battery, battalion) are connected with OPs of infantry commanders (company, battalion) by telephone lines.
Altogether not counting platoon and company OPs there are in average four observation posts per 1 kilometer of the front.
Command posts of battalions and regiments are equipped with dugouts having anti-splinter overhead cover and are situated: battalion CPs – 1-1.5 kilometers, regiment CPs – up to 2 kilometers, division CPs – 5-6 kilometers from the forward line.
Sanitary and utility facilities in trenches.
Dugout shelters are built to provide rest to personnel manning the forward line. There situated in close proximity to firing positions (5-10 meters) and can accommodate one section (in the fortified region - 1-2 weapons squads). Shelters have overhead cover of 3-4 log layers, revetment of walls, most have floors and all of them – furnaces.
In trenches there are water supply wells, sinkholes and latrines. In the area of command posts – field bathes, and gas cameras.

In general the trench system built in the Army’s area is the only possible means in open terrain to provide protection for troops, camouflage of fire system, and owing to extensive system of communication trenches it enables hidden maneuver of personnel and weapons, command and control of troops and their supply and sanitary servicing.
Experience of building the trench system and its maintenance in winter conditions provides the following conclusions:
1) The trench system should be built on the basis of the commander’s decision. In practice this elementary proviso of manuals frequently wasn’t followed. Often trenches were built on lines reached as a result of combat by connecting open foxhole, and the depth of the defense was developed from combat formations built in the process of offensive.
Therefore, construction of defense works should be preceded by a tactical decision of commanders of regiments, battalions, companies, and platoon. In accordance with this decision weapons and personnel should be distributed both along the front and in depth. Only after that construction of trenches should be proceeded with.
2) If defense positions were occupied in autumn, all the principal defense works should be completed before snowfall. A combination of continuing construction of fortifications with snow clearance is beyond capabilities of units, which have a large shortfall of personnel, and troops hardly have enough time to clear the first line of trenches of snow.
To equip the defense positions with shelters and dugouts under conditions of deficit of woods in the Army’s area, it is efficient to procure elements (doors, frames, furnaces) in a centralized fashion on the level of the army (corps, division) and supply units with standard sets.
3). Experience has demonstrated that intensive hostile fire on the forward line of our defense demands engineer reinforcement of artillery observation posts and firing positions, first of all – those situated on the forward line and in close proximity. For example, in the sector of the fortified region such reinforcement of artillery OP and FP was made by deepening them by 60-90 centimeters, constructing stronger parapet (30-40 centimeters high and 3,5-4 meters wide), constructing ammunition pits and Г-shaped shelters, increasing thickness of overhead cover in pits and shelters to 4-5 layers of logs, and laying mines on approaches to the observation posts.
4) In case of deep snow cover it is expedient to employ snow walls using them as combat and communication trenches, which strongly reduce volume of defense works.
5) Local civilians should be employed for clearing trenches of snow.

Bird's-eye view of war

Some of the worst fighting in World War I occurred along the Western Front in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, where Allied troops and German forces launched deadly attacks from their respective trenches. The region became a moonscape during the four grinding years of battle, but post-war reconstruction occurred rapidly. Many traces of the war were left intact, and are often buried less than a foot below today's surface.

To understand how this warscape developed, and what sites remain, Stichelbaut and other researchers use aerial archaeology. World War I saw aerial photography as a new tool for surveillance on enemy positions, and now thousands of these historical images comprise the oldest aerial records for the region. Stitched together, they offer a bird's-eye view—more accurate than contemporary maps made on the ground—of how trenches and other military installations were constructed and changed over time.

To complement the historical images, archaeologists rely on modern aerial imaging. Cropmarks captured in photographs during periods of drought can provide stunning maps of buried century-old trench networks, where water pools under today's farmland. In the last ten years, archaeologists have also been employing LiDAR, a technique that uses lasers to "see" through surface vegetation.

LiDAR surveys reveal just how much of the landscape in Western Europe is still marked by zig-zag trenches, shelling craters, and other remnants that may not be obvious on the ground. For example, LiDAR images from a stretch of the Western Front between Kemmel and Wervik in Flanders reveal that 14 percent of the land—more than expected—is still visibly scarred by the war, according to Traces of War, a book Stichelbaut compiled to accompany an exhibit last year at the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres.

In using historical and modern aerial images, "you suddenly get a different perspective, you're seeing the totality [of the war], you're seeing patterns and you're seeing sites that even if you would be standing on the site today, you wouldn't see that it's a trench," Stichelbaut says.

The Germans

On the Western Front, the German forces were the most defensively focused. Although they had been the ones to make advances at the start of the war, other areas of combat forced them to concentrate on holding what they had.

Fighting a war on two fronts, the Germans could not pour all their men into the Western Front. Instead, they put as much effort as possible into the more fluid Eastern Front, hoping to knock Russia out of the war. Once completed, they could turn their attention west.

German Trenches on the Aisne during the First World War. The photograph is undated. The men are not wearing helmets so this is early in the war, possibly 1914 or 1915.

The Germans on the Western Front, therefore, knew they were there for the long haul. The shorter length of the front meant it could be held with fewer men than in the east. Their job was to hang on.

General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered the Germans to build strong entrenchments along the whole front line. Shell-proof shelters provided somewhere for the troops to take cover during artillery bombardments. Where the soil permitted it, as in the Somme’s chalk hills, there were deep dugouts. These could become relatively comfortable barracks, with electric lights and floorboards.

German Stormtroopers in training

As time passed, the Germans deepened their layers of defense, building a second and then a third line, in case the first was overrun. Far back from the fighting, it was easier to create strong defenses in these lines, including pillboxes and dugouts. The Hindenburg Line, which they fell back to in the spring of 1917, was particularly well fortified.

Offenses by the British became part of the German defensive strategy. If the line was breached, they made swift counter-attacks to block the hole and maintain the integrity of the defensive system. This was achieved by securing the flanks of the broken area to prevent the line further unraveling, then moving troops into the gap.

The trenches were muddy, cold with miserable conditions. Many soldiers died from simply being exposed to the cold, as the temperature was often below zero within the trenches in winter. The rain often filled the trenches sometimes, the trenches would fill with water up to the soldiers’ waists.

The bottom of the trench was usually covered with wooden boards called duckboards. The duckboards were meant to keep the soldiers’ feet above the water that would collect at the bottom of the trench. The trenches weren’t dug in one long straight line, but were built as more of a system of trenches.

The Evolution of Cooperation

Sometimes cooperation emerges where it is least expected. During World War I, the Western Front was the scene of horrible battles for a few yards of territory. But between these battles, and even during them at other places along the five-hundred-mile line in France and Belgium, the enemy soldiers often exercised considerable restraint. A British staff officer on a tour of the trenches remarked that he was

astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own line. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over such things should not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of “live and let live.” (Dugdale 1932, p. 94)

This is not an isolated example. The live-and-let-live system was endemic in trench warfare. It flourished despite the best efforts of senior officers to stop it, despite the passions aroused by combat, despite the military logic of kill or be killed, and despite the ease with which the high command was able to repress any local efforts to arrange a direct truce.

This is a case of cooperation emerging despite great antagonism between the players. As such, it provides a challenge for the application of the concepts and the theory developed in the first three chapters. In particular, the main goal is to use the theory to explain:

  1. How could the live-and-let-live system have gotten started?
  2. How was it sustained?
  3. Why did it break down toward the end of the war?
  4. Why was it characteristic of trench warfare in World War I, but of few other wars?

A second goal is to use the historical case to suggest how the original concepts and theory can be further elaborated.

Fortunately, a recent book-length study of the live-and-let-live system is available. This excellent work by a British sociologist, Tony Ashworth (1980), is based upon diaries, letters, and reminisces of trench fighters. Material was found from virtually every one of the fifty-seven British divisions, with an average of more than three sources per division. To a lesser extent, material from French and German sources were also consulted. The result is a very rich set of illustrations that are analyzed with great skill to provide a comprehensive picture of the development and character of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I. This chapter relies upon Ashworth’s fine work for its illustrative quotes and for its historical interpretation.

While Ashworth does not put it this way, the historical situation in the quiet sectors along the Western Front was an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a given locality, the two players can be taken to be the small units facing each other. At any time, the choices are to shoot to kill or deliberately to shoot to avoid causing damage. For both sides, weakening the enemy is an important value because it will promote survival if a major battle is ordered in the sector. Therefore, in the short run it is better to do damage now whether the enemy is shooting back or not. This establishes that mutual defection is preferred to unilateral restraint (P>S), and that unilateral restraint by the other side is even better than mutual cooperation (T>R). In addition, the reward for mutual restraint is preferred by the local units to the outcome of mutual punishment (R>P), since mutual punishment would imply that both units would suffer for little or no relative gain. Taken together, this establishes the essential set of inequalities: T>R>P>S. Moreover, both sides would prefer mutual restraint to the random alternation of serious hostilities, making R>(T+S)/2. Thus the situation meets the conditions for a Prisoner’s Dilemma between small units facing each other in a given immobile sector.

Two small units facing each other across one hundred to four hundred yards of no-man’s-land were the players in one of these potentially deadly Prisoner’s Dilemmas. Typically, the basic unit could be taken to be the battalion, consisting of about one thousand men, half of whom would be in the front line at any one time. The battalion played a large role in the life of an infantryman. It not only organized its members for combat, but also fed, paid, and clothed them as well as arranged their leave. All of the officers and most of the other soldiers in the battalion knew each other by sight. For our purposes, two key factors make the battalion the most typical player. On the one hand, it was large enough to occupy a sufficient sector of the front to be “held accountable” for aggressive actions which came from its territory. On the other hand, it was small enough to be able to control the individual behavior of its men, through a variety of means, both formal and informal.

A battalion on one side might be facing parts of one, two, or three battalions on the other side. Thus each player could simultaneously be involved in several interactions. Over the course of the Western Front, there would be hundreds of such face-offs.

Only the small units were involved in these Prisoner’s Dilemmas. The high commands of the two sides did not share the view of the common soldier who said:

The real reason for the quietness of some sections of the line was that neither side had any intention of advancing in that particular district. If the British shelled the Germans, the Germans replied, and the damage was equal: if the Germans bombed an advanced piece of trench and killed five Englishmen, an answering fusillade killed five Germans. (Belton Cobb 1916, p. 74)

To the army headquarters, the important thing was to develop an offensive spirit in the troops. The Allies, in particular, pursued a strategy of attrition whereby equal losses in men from both sides meant a net gain for the Allies because sooner or later Germany’s strength would be exhausted first. So at the national level, World War I approximated a zero-sum game in which losses for one side represented gains for the other side. But at the local level, along the front line, mutual restraint was much preferred to mutual punishment.

Locally, the dilemma persisted: at any given moment it was prudent to shoot to kill, whether the other side did so or not. What made trench warfare so different from most other combat was that the same small units faced each other in immobile sectors for extended periods of time. This changed the game from a one-move Prisoner’s Dilemma in which defection is the dominant choice, to an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma in which conditional strategies are possible. The result accorded with the theory’s predictions: with sustained interaction, the stable outcome could be mutual cooperation based upon reciprocity. In particular, both sides followed strategies that would not be the first to defect, but that would be provoked if the other defected.

Before looking further into the stability of the cooperation, it is interesting to see how cooperation got started in the first place. The first stage of the war, which began in August 1914, was highly mobile and very bloody. But as the lines stabilized, nonaggression between the troops emerged spontaneously in many places along the front. The earliest instances may have been associated with meals which were served at the same times on both sides of no-man’s land. As early as November 1914, a noncommissioned officer whose unit had been in the trenches for some days, observed that

The quartermaster used to bring the rations up. each night after dark they were laid out and parties used to come from the front line to fetch them. I suppose the enemy were occupied in the same way so things were quiet at that hour for a couple of nights, and the ration parties became careless because of it, and laughed and talked on their way back to their companies. ( The War the Infantry Knew 1938, p. 92)

By Christmas there was extensive fraternization, a practice which the headquarters frowned upon. In the following months, direct truces were occasionally arranged by shouts or by signals. An eyewitness noted that:

In one section the hour of 8 to 9 A.M. was regarded as consecrated to “private business,” and certain places indicated by a flag were regarded as out of bounds by the snipers on both sides. (Morgan 1916, pp. 270-71)

But direct truces were easily suppressed. Orders were issued making clear that the soldiers “were in France to fight and not to fraternize with the enemy” ( Fifth Battalion the Camaronians 1936, p. 28). More to the point, several soldiers were courtmartialed and whole battalions were punished. Soon it became clear that verbal arrangements were easily suppressed by the high command and such arrangements became rare.

Another way in which mutual restraint got started was during a spell of miserable weather. When the rains were bad enough, it was almost impossible to undertake major aggressive action. Often ad hoc weather truces emerged in which the troops simply did not shoot at each other. When the weather improved, the pattern of mutual restraint sometimes simply continued.

So verbal agreements were effective in getting cooperation started on many occasions early in the war, but direct fraternization was easily suppressed. More effective in the long run were various methods which allowed the two sides to coordinate their actions without having to resort to words. A key factor was the realization that if one side would exercise a particular kind of restraint, then the other might reciprocate. Similarities in basic needs and activities let the soldiers appreciate that the other side would probably not be following a strategy of unconditional defection. For example, in the summer of 1915, a soldier saw that the enemy would be likely to reciprocate cooperation based on the desire for fresh rations.

It would be child’s play to shell the road behind the enemy’s trenches, crowded as it must be with ration wagons and water carts, into a bloodstained wilderness. but on the whole there is silence. After all, if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations, his remedy is simple: he will prevent you from drawing yours. (Hay 1916, pp. 224-25)

Once started, strategies based on reciprocity could spread in a variety of ways. A restraint undertaken in certain hours could be extended to longer hours. A particular kind of restraint could lead to attempting other kinds of restraint. And most importantly of all, the progress achieved in one small sector of the front could be imitated by the units in neighboring sectors.

Just as important as getting cooperation started were the conditions that allowed it to be sustainable. The strategies that could sustain mutual cooperation were the ones which were provocable. During the periods of mutual restraint, the enemy soldiers took pains to show each other that they could indeed retaliate if necessary. For example, German snipers showed their prowess to the British by aiming at spots on the walls of cottages and firing until they had cut a hole ( The War the Infantry Knew 1938, p. 98). Likewise the artillery would often demonstrate with a few accurately aimed shots that they could do more damage if they wished. These demonstrations of retaliatory capabilities helped police the system by showing that restraint was not due to weakness, and that defection would be self defeating.

When a defection actually occurred, the retaliation was often more than would be called for by TIT FOR TAT. Two-for-one or three-for-one was a common response to an act that went beyond what was considered acceptable.

We go out at night in front of the trenches. The German working parties are also out, so it is not considered etiquette to fire. The really nasty things are rifle grenades. They can kill as many as eight or nine men if they do fall into a trench. But we never use ours unless the Germans get particularly noisy, as on their system of retaliation three for every one of ours come back. (Greenwell 1972, pp. 16-17)

There was probably an inherent damping process that usually prevented these retaliations from leading to an uncontrolled echo of mutual recriminations. The side that instigated the action might note the escalated response and not try to redouble or retriple it. Once the escalation was not driven further, it would probably tend to die out. Since not every bullet, grenade, or shell fired in earnest would hit its target, there would be an inherent tendency toward de-escalation.

Another problem that had to be overcome to maintain the stability of cooperation was the rotation of troops. About every eight days, a battalion would change places with another battalion billeted behind it. At longer intervals, larger units would change places. What allowed the cooperation to remain stable was the process of familiarization that the outgoing unit would provide for the incoming unit. The particular details of the tacit understandings with the enemy were explained. But sometimes it was quite sufficient for an old timer to point out to a newcomer that “Mr. Bosche ain’t a bad fellow. You leave ‘im alone ‘e’ll leave you alone” (Gillon n.d., p. 77). This socialization allowed one unit to pick up the game right where the other left it.

Still another problem for the maintenance of stable cooperation was the fact that the artillery was much less vulnerable to enemy retaliation than was the infantry. Therefore, the artillery had a lesser stake in the live-and-let-live system. As a consequence, the infantry tended to be solicitous of the forward observers from the artillery. As a German artillery man noted of the infantry, “If they ever have any delicacies to spare, they make us a present of them, partly of course because they feel we are protecting them” (Sulzbach 1973, p. 71). The goal was to encourage the artillery to respect the infantry’s desire to let sleeping dogs lie. A new forward observer for the artillery was often greeted by the infantry with the request, “I hope you are not going to start trouble.” The best answer was, “Not unless you want” (Ashworth 1980, p. 169). This reflected the dual role of artillery in the maintenance of mutual restraint with the enemy: the passiveness when unprovoked, and the instant retaliation when the enemy broke the peace.

The high commands of the British, French, and German armies all wanted to put a stop to tacit truces all were afraid that they sapped the morale of their men, and all believed throughout the war that a ceaseless policy of offense was the only way to victory. With few exceptions, the headquarters could enforce any orders that they could directly monitor. Thus the headquarters were able to conduct large battles by ordering the men to leave their trenches and risk their lives in charging the enemy positions. But between large battles, they were not able to monitor their orders to keep up the pressure[1]. After all, it was hard for a senior officer to determine who was shooting to kill, and who was shooting with an eye to avoiding retaliation. The soldiers became expert at defeating the monitoring system, as when a unit kept a coil of enemy wire and sent a piece to headquarters whenever asked to prove that they had conducted a patrol of no-man’s-land.

What finally destroyed the live-and-let-live system was the institution of a type of incessant aggression that the headquarters could monitor. This was the raid, a carefully prepared attack on enemy trenches which involved from ten to two hundred men. Raiders were ordered to kill or capture the enemy in his own trenches. If the raid was successful, prisoner would be taken and if the raid was a failure, casualties would be proof of the attempt. There was no effective way to pretend that a raid had been undertaken when it had not. And there was no effective way to cooperate with the enemy in a raid because neither live soldiers nor dead bodies could be exchanged.

The live-and-let-live system could not cope with the disruption caused by the hundreds of small raids. After a raid neither side knew what to expect next. The side that had raided could expect retaliation but could not predict when, where, or how. The side that had been raided was also nervous, not knowing whether the raid was an isolated attack or the first of a series. Moreover, since raids could be ordered and monitored from headquarters, the magnitude of the retaliatory raid could also be controlled, preventing a dampening of the process. The battalions were forced to mount real attacks on the enemy, the retaliation was undampened, and the process echoed out of control.

Ironically, when the British High Command undertook its policy of raiding, it did not do so in order to and the live-and-let-live system. Instead, its initial goal was political, namely, to show their French allies that they were doing their part to harass the enemy. Their image of the direct effects of raiding was that it increased the morale of their own troops by restoring an offensive spirit and that it promoted attrition by inflicting more casualties on the enemy in the raids than the raiding troops themselves would suffer. Whether these effects on morale and casualty ratios were realized has been debated ever since. What is clear in retrospect is that the indirect effect of the raids was to destroy the conditions needed for the stability of the tacit restraints widely exercised on the Western Front. Without realizing exactly what they were doing, the high command effectively ended the live-and-let-live system by preventing their battalions from exercising their own strategies of cooperation based on reciprocity.

The introduction of raids completed the cycle of the evolution of the live-and-let-live system. Cooperation got a foothold through exploratory actions at the local level, was able to sustain itself because of the duration of contact between small units facing each other, and was eventually undermined when these small units lost their freedom of action. Small units, such as battalions, used their own strategies in dealing with the enemy units they faced. Cooperation first emerged spontaneously in a variety of contexts, such as restraint in attacking the distribution of enemy rations, a pause during the first Christmas in the trenches, and a slow resumption of fighting after bad weather made sustained combat almost impossible. These restraints quickly evolved into clear patterns of mutually understood behavior, such as two-for-one or three-for-one retaliation for actions that were taken to be unacceptable. The mechanisms of the evolution of these strategies must have been trial and error and the imitation of neighboring units.

The mechanisms for evolution involved neither blind mutation nor survival of the fittest. Unlike blind mutation, the soldiers understood their situation and actively tried to make the most of it. They understood the indirect consequences of their acts as embodied in what I call the echo principle: “To provide discomfort for the other is but a roundabout way of providing it for themselves” (Sorely 1919, p. 283). The strategies were based on thought as well as experience. The soldiers learned that to maintain mutual restraint with their enemies, they had to base that restraint on a demonstrated capability and willingness to be provoked. They learned that cooperation had to be based upon reciprocity. Thus, the evolution of strategies was based on deliberate rather than blind adaptation. Nor did the evolution involve survival of the fittest. While an ineffective strategy would mean more casualties for the unit, replacements typically meant that the units themselves would survive.

The origins, maintenance, and destruction of the live-and-let-live system of trench warfare are all consistent with the theory of the evolution of cooperation. In addition, there are two very interesting developments within the live-and-let-live system which are new to the theory. These additional developments are the emergence of ethics and ritual.

The ethics that developed are illustrated in this incident, related by a British officer recalling his experience while facing a Saxon unit of the German Army.

I was having tea with A Company when we heard a lot of shouting and went out to investigate. We found our men and the Germans standing on their respective parapets. Suddenly a salvo arrived but did no damage. Naturally both sides got down and our men started swearing at the Germans, when all at once a brave German got on to his parapet and shouted out “We are very sorry about that we hope no one was hurt. It is not our fault, it is that damned Prussian artillery.” (Rutter 1934, p. 29)

This Saxon apology goes well beyond a merely instrumental effort to prevent retaliation. It reflects moral regret for having violated a situation of trust, and it shows concern that someone might have been hurt.

The cooperative exchanges of mutual restraint actually changed the nature of the interaction. They tended to make the two sides care about each other’s welfare. This change can be interpreted in terms of the Prisoner’s Dilemma by saying that the very experience of sustained mutual cooperation altered the payoffs of the players, making mutual cooperation even more valued than it was before.

The converse was also true. When the pattern of mutual cooperation deteriorated due to mandatory raiding, a powerful ethic of revenge was evoked. This ethic was not just a question of calmly following a strategy based on reciprocity. It was also a question of doing what seemed moral and proper to fulfill one’s obligation to a fallen comrade. And revenge evoked revenge. Thus both cooperation and defection were self-reinforcing. The self-reinforcement of these mutual behavioral patterns was not only in terms of the interacting strategies of the players, but also in terms of their perceptions of the meaning of the outcomes. In abstract terms, the point is that not only did preferences affect behavior and outcomes, but behavior and outcomes also affected preferences.

The other addition to the theory suggested by the trench warfare case is the development of ritual. The rituals took the form of perfunctory use of small arms, and deliberately harmless use of artillery. For example, the Germans in one place conducted “their offensive operations with a tactful blend of constant firing and bad shooting, which while it satisfies the Prussians causes no serious inconvenience to Thomas Atkins” (Hay 1916, p. 206).

Even more striking was the predictable use of artillery which occurred in many sectors.

So regular were they [the Germans] in their choice of targets, times of shooting, and number of rounds fired, that, after being in the line one or two days, Colonel Jones had discovered their system, and knew to a minute where the next shell would fall. His calculations were very accurate, and he was able to take what seemed to uninitiated Staff Officers big risks, knowing that the shelling would stop before he reached the place being shelled. (Hills 1919, p. 96)

The other side did the same thing, as noted by a German soldier commenting on “the evening gun” fired by the British.

At seven it came – so regularly that you could sat your watch by it. It always had the same objective, its range was accurate, it never varied laterally or went beyond or fell short of the mark. There were even some inquisitive fellows who crawled out. a little before seven, in order to see it burst. (Kipper 1931, pp. 135-37)

These rituals of perfunctory and routine firing sent a double message. To the high command they conveyed aggression, but to the enemy they conveyed peace. The men pretended to be implementing an aggressive policy, but were not. Ashworth himself explains that these stylized acts were more than a way of avoiding retaliation.

In trench war, a structure of ritualised aggression was a ceremony where antagonists participated in regular, reciprocal discharges of missiles, that is, bombs, bullets and so forth, which symbolized and strengthened, at one and the same time, both sentiments of fellow-feelings, and beliefs that the enemy was a fellow sufferer. (Ashworth 1980, p. 144)

Thus these rituals helped strengthen the moral sanctions which reinforced the evolutionary basis of the live-and-let-live system.

The live-and-let-live system that emerged in the bitter trench warfare of World War I demonstrates that friendship is hardly necessary for cooperation based upon reciprocity to get started. Under suitable circumstances, cooperation can develop even between antagonists.

Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation , Basic Books, NY 1984, pp. 73-87 (Ch. 4).

About the location

Trench Italy is located in the village of Cairo Montenotte, in the northwest of Italy near the town of Savona and approximately 80 km from Genoa harbor. The Company was founded in 1919 under the name of Scarpa e Magnano. In 1965 came the merger with Magrini and the whole enterprise was acquired by Merlin Gerin in 1984, before being integrated in the VATECH group in 2001 and finally in the Trench Group in 2006. Since the production start of oil insulated instrument transformers as early as 1919, Trench Italy has a high competence in the design and manufacturing of high voltage instrument transformers. The European production of oil insulated voltage and current transformers, capacitor voltage transformers, grading capacitors and special instrument transformers of the Trench Group is concentrated in Cairo Montenotte on a 63.500 m² total surface. Significant investments in production and testing facilties since 2015 as well as the outstanding technical expertise allowed Trench Italy to introduce state-of the art manufacturing processes that are leading to high quality products and a proven reliability.