The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 143rd installment in the series.
September 15, 1914: The Birth of Trench Warfare
Throughout the “war of movement,” which unfolded in August and September 1914 and reached its climax at the Battle of the Marne, there were already hints that the Great War would be very different from previous conflicts. As the German armies swept through Belgium and northern France, horrific massacres at Liege, Charleroi and Mons, Le Cateau, and the Marne highlighted the savage power of modern weapons like machine guns and fast repeating rifles. But it wasn’t until the Battle of the Aisne that the world witnessed the birth of a totally new form of warfare, shifting the balance of power from the attacker to the defender.
After the Allies found a gap in the German line in the “Miracle on the Marne,” from September 10 to 12 the German armies withdrew about 30 miles north to the River Aisne, a tributary of the River Oise flowing roughly parallel to the Marne. The exhausted Allied troops could only manage a slow pursuit, giving the Germans time to regroup, and on reaching the north bank of the river they entrenched themselves in advantageous positions (see image above) along a ridge behind the Aisne called the Chemin des Dames (“Road of the Ladies,” named for a road built by Louis XV for his daughters).
For the French and British troops who stumbled upon the German positions it was like running into a brick wall, as they were subjected to withering fire from well-concealed machine guns and artillery as soon as the fog lifted on the morning of September 13. Heavy early autumn rains made the experience even more miserable for both sides.
It didn’t help that the British Expeditionary Force was sorely lacking in machine guns and heavy artillery, the key weapons for the new form of warfare. For their part the French were well supplied with field artillery, in the form of the famous 75mm gun, but also lacked heavy artillery, reflecting the pre-war focus on bayonet charges. Meanwhile the Germans were well supplied with heavy artillery, which they used to break up enemy formations as well as destroying artillery and cutting communications and supply lines.
Arthur Anderson Martin, a doctor serving with the British Expeditionary Force, described the beginning of the German bombardment:
Dawn was breaking and shafts of grey light and shadow were thrusting through the darkness. Then, like a clap of thunder, the German batteries opened up… The noise was deafening, ear-splitting, the bursting of shells, the mighty upheaval of earth where the shells struck, the falling trees, falling masonry, crashing church steeples, the rolling and bounding of stones from walls struck by these titanic masses of iron travelling at lightning speed, the concussion of the air, the screeching, whisking, and sighing of projectiles in their flight, made an awful scene of destruction…
From September 13 to 28, around 3000 British troops were killed and another 10,500 wounded, while the French suffered an unknown (but very large) number of casualties. Now another horrifying aspect of the new warfare was revealed, as retreating troops were forced to leave their wounded comrades to suffer and die on the field of battle, and survivors on both sides were sickened by the smell of decomposing bodies. A few weeks later Irvin Cobb, a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post, met a German officer, who described
a stretch four miles long and half a mile wide that is literally carpeted with bodies of dead men. They weren’t all dead at first. For two days and nights our men in the earthworks heard the cries of those who still lived, and the sound of them almost drove them mad. There was no reaching the wounded, though, either from our lines or from the Allies’ lines. Those who tried to reach them were themselves killed. Now there are only dead out there – thousands of dead, I think. And they have been there twenty days.
After a series of fruitless attempts to storm the German trenches, on September 14 the British commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, ordered the British Expeditionary Force to begin digging in, while to the east the French Fifth Army did the same. A second line of trenches soon came into being, running parallel with the German trenches and leaving a “no man’s land” a few hundred meters wide in between. In just a few days the strategic doctrine of the offensive, which had prevailed since the time of Napoleon, was rendered obsolete—although it took some time for generals on both sides to get the message.
Although trench warfare was indeed a new phenomenon, some historians argue there were enough precedents that the generals should have seen it coming. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the famous “Charge of the Light Brigade” had shown the vulnerability of units advancing over open ground to field artillery, a lesson reinforced by the bloody defeat of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Additionally, trenches had been used before in the American Civil War, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War; the latter also saw the employment of machine guns and barbed wire entanglements. Finally a Polish banker, Jan Bloch, had synthesized recent developments in a book titled Is War Now Impossible?, published in 1898, arguing that modern weapons rendered attacks over open ground futile and predicting that war would become a stalemate between entrenched armies along a stationary front.
But European generals, still wedded to the doctrine of the offensive, found reasons to dismiss these warnings. First of all they believed defensive field artillery would be neutralized by superior “counter-battery” fire, which would also break up entanglements, take out machine guns, and force defenders to keep their heads down, giving attacking infantry a chance to storm their positions. Meanwhile they dismissed Bloch’s writings, if they noticed them at all, as the musings of an eccentric (Jewish) amateur. Above all, they continued to put their faith in intangible qualities of “spirit” and “valor,” which would somehow allow attacking infantry to surmount trivial obstacles and decide the issue with their bayonets.
Needless to say, these expectations were not born out by the Battle of the Aisne, where officers “on the ground,” surveying acres of corpses through improvised periscopes, quickly recognized the futility of valor. However both sides kept up a steady harassing fire with artillery, which failed to produce any decisive change in the strategic situation, but did manage to sow terror in the opposing ranks. This revealed yet another tribulation of trench warfare, as victims were maimed or killed without warning, leaving their compatriots traumatized and demoralized. Men saw family members and lifelong friends blown to pieces, and knew they could be next. A German infantryman, Julius Koettgen, described one horrifying scene:
[S]uddenly the sergeant… was hit by a shell and torn to pieces, together with his horse. His own brother was watching all this. It was hard to tell what was passing through his mind. He was seen to quiver. That was all; then he stood motionless. Presently he went straight to the place of the catastrophe without heeding the shells that were striking everywhere, fetched the body of his brother and laid it down. Part of the left foot of the dead man was missing and nearly the whole right leg; a piece of shell as big as a fist stuck in his chest. He laid down his brother and hurried back to recover the missing limbs. He brought back the leg, but could not find the foot that had been torn off.
Perhaps the most terrifying and disorienting part of the new warfare was the randomness of death: as the adversaries rained shells on each other sight unseen, the individual’s fate hung on tiny decisions whose outcome could never be predicted, encouraging an attitude of fatalism verging on nihilism. One anonymous British soldier described seeing an officer resting against a tree when “a large piece of shell casing … buried itself in the ground a few inches from his leg. The jagged piece was hot and heavy. ‘Good Heavens,’ [the officer] said to himself, ‘what curious things Chance and Fate are. If I had stretched my leg out! Why didn't I?’” Similarly a French soldier, Maurice Genevieux, was saved when a bullet was deflected by part of his uniform: “But suppose the bullet had not struck the button, and my belt had not been precisely behind that button? Ah well, my friend, these are vain speculations.”
By late September the feeling prevailing on both sides was sheer unalloyed misery, as supply shortages and unceasing rain left troops wet, cold and hungry when they weren’t cowering in fear. One anonymous French soldier wrote his mother from the Aisne:
It is suffering beyond what can be imagined. Three days and three nights without being able to do anything but tremble and moan, and yet, in spite of all, perfect service must be rendered. To sleep in a ditch full of water has no equivalent in Dante, but what can be said of the awakening, when one must watch for the moment to kill or to be killed! Above, the roar of the shells drowns the whistling of the wind. Every instant, firing. Then one crouches in the mud, and despair takes possession of one’s soul. When this torment came to an end I had such a nervous collapse that I wept without knowing why – late, useless tears.
Unsurprisingly, some men began to break under the strain, leading to desertion, which was ruthlessly suppressed by officers who feared any show of leniency might result in a total breakdown of authority and discipline. In all armies the standard punishment for a soldier abandoning his post during battle was execution by firing squad, generally after a brief trial with no legal advocate representing the accused (or no trial at all, in many cases). A British brigadier general, E.L. Spears, recalled a disturbing encounter between the French general Louis de Maud’huy and a deserter about to be executed at the Aisne:
He asked what he had been condemned for. It was abandoning his post… The General then began to talk to the young man. Quite simply he explained discipline to him… He spoke of the necessity of example, how some could do their duty without prompting but others, less strong, had to know and understand the supreme cost of failure. He told the condemned man his crime was not venial, not low, and that he must die as an example, so that others should not fail. Surprisingly the wretch agreed, nodded his head… Finally de Maud’huy held out his hand: “Yours also is a way of dying for France…”
Meanwhile, generals on both sides, searching for a way to regain the initiative, turned their attention to the open ground of Picardy, the Pas de Calais, and Flanders, where there was still a chance of outflanking the enemy. Thus the Germans dissolved the old Sixth and Seventh Armies along the French frontier and formed new armies bearing the same numbers in the west, while leaving small army detachments (named Strantz, Falkenhausen and Gaede, for their commanders) to guard the border. Similarly, on the other side the French chief of the general staff, Joseph Joffre, formed a new Second Army north of Paris, leaving First Army and the small Army of the Vosges to guard the frontier with Germany.
With the formation of these new armies the stage was set for a series of attacks and counterattacks extending the line of battle north through France and Belgium all the way to the coast. The “Race to the Sea” was about to begin.
Austro-Hungarian Military Debacle
As stalemate loomed on the Western Front, a thousand miles to the east Austria-Hungary was already teetering on the brink of military collapse following multiple defeats by Russian forces in the northeastern province of Austrian Galicia.
While the German Eighth Army destroyed the Russian First Army at Tannenberg in East Prussia, on the southern half of the front the fortunes of war were very different: from August 23 to September 11, 1914, the Russians mauled Hapsburg armies in the Battle of Galicia (actually four separate battles at Krasnik, Komarow, Gnila Lipa, and Rawa Ruska, the first two indecisive Austrian victories) and by mid-September the Austro-Hungarian troops were in a wholesale retreat. The Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, withdrew the Second Army from Serbia to stem the tide but to no avail: the Russians captured the Galician capital of Lemberg and were soon within a day’s march of the Carpathian Mountains, threatening the empire’s heartland.
The Hapsburg armies were further afflicted by the breakdown of supply lines, due to a combination of inadequate infrastructure in rural Galicia and sheer incompetence. Mina Macdonald, an Englishwoman caught in Hungary who volunteered at a hospital, noted: “Letters at this time… from the Galician front were very spiritless, and described a hopeless struggle against fearful odds. They had no munitions, they wrote, while the Russians lacked for nothing. The Austrians who had gone towards Lublin suffered terribly from want of food, and disease spread very rapidly among the troops.”
As on the Western Front, this opening “war of movement” on the Eastern Front resulted in huge numbers of casualties, with 250,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed or wounded and another 100,000 taken prisoner, versus Russian losses of 210,000 killed or wounded and 40,000 taken prisoner. In short the Austrians had already sacrificed almost half of their starting total of 800,000 troops—and while they could call up millions of trained reserves to replace them, none of the new troops would be of the same quality.
The Hapsburg defeats left the Germans no choice but to divert troops to prop up their feeble ally. On September 18, Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg, was named commander of the new Ninth Army being formed in Silesia, near Germany’s frontiers with Austria-Hungary and Russian Poland, with troops drawn from Eighth Army. The Germans also created a new army detachment composed of Landwehr (militia) troops under Remus von Woyrsch to guard the Polish frontier; the Woyrsch Corps, as it was called, would play an important role in the German offensives of 1915. On the other side the Russians were forming a new Tenth Army to fill the gap left by the destruction of Second Army, now slowly rebuilding itself in northern Poland.
Although German aid gave Austria-Hungary a new lease on life, the truth was it would never recover from the massive losses inflicted in the first days of the war. Indeed it was around this time that Hindenburg’s brilliant chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, supposedly expressed his contempt for the decaying empire: “Ally? Ha! We are shackled to a corpse!”