The Birth of Trench Warfare

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. 



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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!”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

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- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.