Trench warfare

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As trench warfare is called in contrast to the war of movement , a defensive form of warfare , which is characterized by static front curves. A characteristic feature here is usually the securing of the fronts by extensive systems of field fortifications , which is why many trench warfare was involved in trench warfare .

The first trench warfare is the Crimean War (also the War of the Orient) from 1853 to 1856, in which the Russian fortress Sevastopol was besieged for almost a year with the help of fortified positions . Modern weapons such as guns were used. Around 150,000 people died, but only around a third of them were killed directly in combat. About 100,000 men perished from diseases , epidemics and insufficient supplies. Trench warfare also shaped the late phase of the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905).

During the First World War , the adversaries paralyzed each other over long phases of trench warfare - which probably reached its climax and end here - on all fronts. A possibility of avoiding trench warfare only arose when the breakthrough of front lines as a result of the motorization and the interaction of different branches of arms no longer had to be done by the infantry alone . The most important factors in this context were the further development of armored weapons and the air force, as well as changed tactical deployment concepts.

A post of the Cheshire Regiment in a trench near La Boisselle during the Battle of the Somme , July 1916


The emergence of trench warfare was favored by the introduction of large conscript armies in the course of the 19th century. Before that, the armies were too small to defend large areas in the long term. Battles were therefore comparatively short or developed into sieges. Large armies also made it more difficult to outmaneuver the enemy and attack the flanks , but it was still possible to break through with massive cavalry or infantry attacks.

However, with the development and improvement of firearms in the mid-19th century, this tactic became increasingly risky. The American Civil War was initially fought with tactics from the Napoleonic era; its final phase already showed some of the characteristics of the First World War. So winning field fortifications increasingly important. These comprised Spanish riders or crow's feet made of pointed wooden stakes , which were used like the barbed wire invented later . With the Gatling Gun , a forerunner of the machine gun was also used. The Second Battle of Petersburg (June 1864), towards the end of the Civil War, with its trenches stood in marked contrast to early battles such as the Battle of Bull Run . Attacks like " Pickett's Charge " at the Battle of Gettysburg clearly showed how pointless an attack on a concentrated line of defense had become.

Two main factors were responsible for this change: first, the introduction of new handguns - first the drawn Minié front end loader and ultimately the rear loader , which allowed small forces, greater firepower to much greater distance to unfold. With the introduction of the breech loader, horizontal reloading was also possible. While the infantry had to reload standing upright and thus exposed themselves to enemy fire, the shooters were now much better protected. Already in the Civil War, cavalry attacks caused enormous losses due to the precise fire at great distances. As soon as the soldiers were able to develop this previously unknown firepower while lying down, even infantry attacks were very dangerous. Another important factor was the introduction of smokeless powder towards the end of the 19th century. The detection of a firing defender was made even more difficult. This way, a small group of defenders, behind appropriate cover, could repel attackers much more easily. Machine guns were increasingly used for this purpose. They gave the defense a clear advantage over the attack, especially with flanking fire (for development - it began around 1885 - more here ). With the introduction of the machine gun, every frontal attack turned into a loss-making suicide mission, even if this realization was only very slowly accepted by the commanding officers. Together with the increasingly precise and destructive artillery (see below), machine guns were essentially responsible for the enormous losses in the first years of the First World War, in which the commanders stubbornly adhered to long-term useless Napoleonic tactics and sometimes literally sent their men shoulder to shoulder into machine gun fire .

In addition, barbed wire obstacles were erected, which stopped the attackers and thus exposed them to fire from the defenders for longer.

Another important innovation came after the Civil War in the form of modern artillery . Modern guns with the new explosive grenades quickly became one of the deadliest weapons on the battlefield. As early as the 1860s, Alfred Krupp had succeeded in considerably increasing the range, accuracy and rate of fire of his guns (see 6 pounder field cannon C / 61 , 4 pounder field cannon C / 64 , 4 pounder field cannon C / 67 ) . This contributed significantly to Germany's quick victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871 .

During World War I it quickly became apparent that the combination of artillery, barbed wire entanglement and machine gun fire gave the defender an enormous advantage and that attackers, even with the most massive artillery preparation, could only break into the increasingly well-developed defensive positions with high losses. This fact initially surprised the army command of all participating states and led to heavy losses, especially in the early months of the war.


After the beginning of the First World War , the German and Allied troops realized that even a small amount of cover made it possible to repel an attack with relative ease. Frontal attacks were associated with dramatic losses. Different strategies and tactics were tried by both sides to overcome the trench warfare, which, however, usually did not show any lasting success. The opponents wanted to "bleed themselves strategically" through massive use of people and materials. One tactic was to force a breakthrough with a local assault and thus enable subsequent flank attacks. The storm was preceded by diversionary attacks, barrages , gas attacks and the mine war . However, the successes were limited at best, because the opposing front lines had several parallel lines of defense, which could be reinforced by rapid troop shifts. In addition, the defender had a very large defensive advantage in the trenches, due to the machine guns and additional cover, which made an attack costly. On the western front , the war of movement ended in a series of encircling maneuvers in 1914 after the Battle of the Marne . They ended when the opponents in the so-called race to the sea reached the Channel coast in Flanders . The rift system of the western front then extended from West Flanders to the Swiss border in Upper Alsace . The trench warfare in northern France and Belgium made World War I the longest and bloodiest trench warfare in history. The trench warfare on the Western Front continued until the German spring offensive ( Operation Michael ) in March 1918.

On the Eastern Front , the conditions for offensive operations were much more favorable than in Western Europe, in particular because of the large spatial extent and some other factors (weaker traffic and infrastructure, sparsely populated). The trench warfare was limited to shorter periods of time, was waged with significantly less material and, in contrast to the western front, was not generally influential for this theater of war.


Trench warfare arose as a result of the formation of mass armies, the development of new, fast-firing weapons, and the mass production of armaments. New technologies, especially the use of tanks , gradually put an end to trench warfare. Tanks only appeared in large numbers at the front on the Entente side towards the end of the First World War . They still had major technical deficiencies and were often used incorrectly, as there was also a lack of experience in using this weapon. These early tanks were not yet able to break up trench warfare and move on to warfare of movement. The gain of territory near Cambrai achieved by a massive British tank advance at the end of 1917 was quickly lost again after a counter-offensive by German intervention divisions. The tanks of the First World War reached maximum speeds of 8 km / h and could be fought with flamethrowers , artillery and sometimes with machine guns (provided their fire was concentrated on one point).

After the war, both sides exaggerated the effect of the tank on trench warfare. The Germans sought and found in him the reason for their defeat. For the aspiring Allied officers who would have liked to see a large, standalone tank corps (including JFC Fuller and George S. Patton ), highlighting the tank was a way of accomplishing political goals. For the analysts, the tank offered an explanation where all the other changes in the weapon systems did not seem sufficient. It was impossible to imagine that any of the other weapons (planes, artillery and gas or improved communications) could have brought about this change.

However, the tank was only partially an explanation for the fact that trench warfare had become obsolete. The relatively modest successes of the Allies in 1917 were achieved without or with very few tanks; German troops also gained territory in the spring offensive of 1918 without a significant tank force. The most important lesson, which the German military leadership had learned all too well and which clearly demonstrated its Allied opponents with the Blitzkrieg of 1940, was not of a technological but of a tactical nature. Militaries like Fuller , Hart , Guderian and de Gaulle and the creation of armored divisions undermined the defensive advantage of the infantry and enabled the resurgence of war on the move. The decisive factors were the interaction of tank units, motorized infantry, combat aircraft and infantry and the so-called focus on a limited section of the front. The key to breaking the static warfare in the trenches was to gain the tactical surprise of attacking the enemy line's weak points, bypassing the fortifications, and breaking away from the notion of having a comprehensive plan for every situation to have. Instead, small autonomous groups of highly trained soldiers were used (the so-called storm troops ), in which the respective officers could act independently. The more extensive introduction of motorized individual means of transport was also essential, since rail connections cannot follow a rapid advance quickly enough to supply it adequately.

The uselessness of trench warfare was not recognized by all armies, so the French built the Maginot Line , which accordingly also proved to be useless in World War II. Germany built further lines of defense parallel to the Maginot Line ( West Wall ) and on the eastern border with Poland ( East Wall ). The Stalin Line was built in the Soviet Union from 1929 . All defenses, which were built with enormous expense and effort, could only hold off enemy attacks for a few days.

Even though World War II was more agile than the first, a legacy still remains: the massive firepower available from a large, now mobile, front. In addition, the tactical innovations that made trench warfare superfluous had an immense impact on warfare . Even today, the basis of the modern land war is a small, quasi-autonomous unit, the so-called Fire Team , and smooth communication is the key to gaining and maintaining the initiative over the enemy. Despite everything, especially on the Eastern Front during World War II, the front temporarily froze into positional warfare, as the bulk of the Wehrmacht consisted of infantry divisions and only the armored and armored infantry divisions were motorized. Here again extensive defensive positions with trenches, gun emplacements and buried tanks were built. This led to the infantry running after the tanks during the attack and being encircled in retreat after unsuccessful defense.


  • Regulation D 102, The Infantry in Trench Warfare, 1937.