Industrial Revolution (1800’s-1940’s)
Imagine your sergeant emphatically screaming to all the soldiers in you vicinity causing you to recognize a string of dark silhouette figures in the distance. Without a second thought, gunshots begin violently erupting all around you as if a surround sound of whip-like snaps are piercing your ears. As you try to raise your rusted weapon, you struggle to pull the trigger due to the accumulation of frost on your fingers. You quickly duck down to avoid bullets flying through the sky faster than any creature known to man. As you glance to your left then right, all that is coherent is the surplus of rat infested corpses that lay limp on the flooded, swampy ground. This was the inevitable life of trench warfare in WW1.
What is trench warfare? Ultimately, location and circumstance affect the denotation of trench warfare; however, it is most often defined as a tactical war strategy “in which opposing armed forces attack, counterattack, and defend from relatively permanent systems of trenches dug to one another” (Trench Warfare, 2019). The origin of this tactical strategy can be traced back to French engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban in the 17th century, where he designed them to aid in approaching fortifications’ artillery fire without casualties. The structure of these trenches was “dug parallel or concentric to the perimeter of the defense
and connected by radical zig-zag trench designs” (Trench Warfare, 2019). Despite its origin, the prominence of this war tactical strategy was not introduced until the First Battle of the Marne in WW1 by German forces as Germany’s push on Paris was halted. General Erich von Falkenhayn, fearful of losing the German-occupied parts of France and Belgium, instructed his troops to “dig in”, which led to allied forces implementing the same tactic. This sparked the beginning of the formation of the famous Western Front. The successful use of trench warfare in this battle led to its popularity and spread throughout Europe during this time, resulting in other countries taking on this innovative war tactic. This approach to battle can be examined in the context of Science, Technology, and Society because it was an innovative practice that came from “the social, political, legal, economic, and cultural environment” (Stanford University, 2017) at that time and was a “creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge – including knowledge of humankind, culture, and society – and to devise new applications of available knowledge” (UNESCO, 2017). In order to understand the innovative practices involved with trench warfare and its impact on society; one must take into consideration its practical uses, its impact on the physical and mental health of the soldiers, and how it impacted the overall forecast of the first world war.
Trench Construction, Strategic Use, and affordability
Prominently in the Western Front but also in other parts of Europe, there were three rows of trenches at any given point: the front-line trench, the support trench, and the reserve trench (Simkin, 2014). All three rows spanned a distance between 200 and 500 yards and were followed up by long-range artillery 10km behind the front-line trench. The trenches were usually 6 feet wide and around 8 feet deep in the ground. In addition to this, they were constructed in a zig-zag pattern, which limited the visible distance of soldiers (Simkin, 2014). This unique pattern was vital because it prevented enemies in the trenches from effortlessly firing at soldiers in a straight line. Along with this, most trenches consisted of duckboards, fire steps, sandbags, and barbed wire. The duckboards were placed 1.5 feet off the ground at the bottom of the trenches. They allowed for various liquids like rain and urine to be drained into the sump, which was located under the duckboards. These duckboards allowed soldiers to move through the trenches while out of sight from enemies; however, they prevented a solider’s ability to fire at enemy soldiers. This is why fire steps, which were cut out portions of the trench wall 1.5 feet higher than the duckboards, were implemented into trenches. This step allowed soldiers to shoot at enemy soldiers when needed. In addition to this, as an extra layer of protection, the trenches often consisted of 2-3 feet of sandbags on both sides of the trench. The sandbags at the front of the trench were called parapets and the back called parados (Simkin, 2014). These sandbags proved to be effective at stopping bullets and the shrapnel pieces of grenades and artillery shells that would otherwise kill soldiers. In addition to this, in order to prevent enemy soldiers from charging the trenches one to three layers of barbed wire was set up in front of the trenches. This deterred any thought in the enemy’s mind of charging as these entanglements were virtually impassable (Simkin, 2014). Despite the complex nature of the trench’s design and the layout of its components, the cost of constructing these trenches was quite affordable. The main resource needed in building them was just pure man-power. Besides this, all that was required was various cheap resources: barbed wire, shovels, wood, and sandbags. However, most of the time, sandbags were filled with whatever ground material was present (Simkin, 2014). Not only was the construction of these trenches fairly affordable, but they were also able to be built in a short amount of time. On average, it took 450 men 6 hours to build about 820 feet of trenches in the right proportions, which is about 137 feet per hour (Nelson, 2019).
Physical and mental state of soldiers
Although the trenches provided soldiers with a new, reliable form of protection, it came with a cost. The overall design of these trenches helped in preventing the exposure of soldiers from the enemy; however, its unforeseen dangers were not taken into consideration. Surprisingly, Mother Nature proved to be one of their own worst enemies as rain often accumulated in the trenches, resulting in flooding. The soldiers’ constant exposure to water in the flooded trenches led to trench foot, which is a type of tissue damage caused by prolonged exposure to damp conditions. This medical condition often led to blisters, numbness, swelling, amputation of feet, and even death. In World War 1, over 75,000 British troops and 2,000 American troops died of trench foot (Atenstaedt, 2006). Arthur Savage, a British soldier in World War 1, reminisced on his experience of encountering this condition by voicing “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.” (Simpkins, 2014) However, water was only a part of the soldiers’ worries. One of the deadliest threats in the trenches was something that was not visible to them: diseases, which included influenza, malaria, tuberculosis, venereal, and trench fever (Adhikari, 2019). The influx of these diseases was due to the surplus amount of bacteria that resided in the trenches. This bacteria often originated from the rats and lice, who feasted off of the bodies of the living and dead soldiers. More often than not, men killed in the trenches were buried right where they were killed or were not buried at all, leaving them “exposed to the sun for several days” (Simpkins, 2014). This environment proved to be ideal for rats as it consisted of food, water, and shelter. Over time, the rodent infestation in the trenches got so bad that rat-catchers had to be hired in some trenches because the soldiers feared falling asleep. Captain Lionel Crouch accounts of this in a letter written to his wife in 1917 by declaring, “I can’t sleep in my dugout, as it is over-run with rats” (Simpkins, 2014). All of these factors contributed to the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the trenches.
While trench life often tolled the soldiers physically, it also affected the mental state of mind of most soldiers. With a constant presence of dead bodies residing in the trenches, many of which were their comrades, the presence of these corpses damaged the soldiers’ psychological mentalities. In addition to this, a surplus of corpses dwelled in no man’s land, which is the slip of land between two opposing trenches (Simpkins, 2014). The corpses inhabiting this area added onto the psychological effect of trench life as soldiers often saw their friends every time they went to fire upon the enemy. However, the most common psychological toll of trench warfare on the soldiers was shell shock. Shell shock resulted from a soldier’s constant exposure to the sound and chaos of artillery cannons, guns, and grenades. It often left soldiers tired, irritable, giddy, and sometimes with a lack of concentration. Doctors later discovered that shell shock was caused due to the fact that “a bursting shell creates a vacuum, and when the air rushes into this vacuum it disturbs the cerebra-spinal fluid and this can upset the working of the brain” (Simpkins, 2014). Nonetheless, this condition affected nearly 80,000 British soldiers from 1914 to 1918. As a result of shell shock, soldiers would often desert or disobey orders, resulting in them getting shot on the spot or being court-martialed. Over 304 British soldiers were court-martialed and later executed (Simpkins, 2014). In addition to this, this condition even drove some soldiers insane to the point where they committed suicide; however, for others, it gave them PTSD, which affected their social life and more importantly their family life.
Forecast of World War I
The track of World War 1 was like no war before. Not only was it the first worldwide war involving numerous countries, but it also was the first major war in which trenches were implemented as strategic tactics. This simple implementation changed the entire strategic forecast of World War 1. For instance, at the beginning of this war, key defensive tactics related to which side had the higher ground or the best protection in the form of cities and towns. This idea to “dig in” provided armies with new ways to defend certain geographical locations that beforehand were deemed as easily accessible to attacks from the enemy. Although these trenches proved to be extremely beneficial in relation to defense, they affected the longevity of World War 1. This defensive strategy often resulted in stalemates between opposing sides that lasted for years. The Western Front is a prime example of this as French and German forces utilized trench warfare from 1914-1918 with neither side gaining any progress, resulting in a stalemate; however, over those 4 years, the French and Germans suffered a combined 400,000 casualties (Western Front, 2019). This was a major problem with trench warfare as neither side really gained any ground; however, both sides still lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers, resulting in blood baths. At the time of World War 1, these trenches seemed almost indestructible; however, their impassable nature forced armies to re-think their invasion strategies, which lead to the invention of new weaponry like heavy artillery, machine guns, and tanks. Each of these advancements in technology resulted in the technological innovation of trench warfare.
Missing Voices: The Harlem Hell Fighters
Innumerable times throughout history, important narratives and voices are lost to obscurity. These missing voices are often omitted from textbooks and other publications though they offer a view of history from a completely different lens. The Harlem Hell Fighters, a brave regiment of Black men that contributed greatly to Trench Warfare efforts during World War I, embody this idea of “missing voices.” Not only did the Harlem Hell Fighters contribute physically, but the cultural and societal impact of their efforts can still be observed today. In St. Nazaire France, during the December of 1917, a group of Black National Guard soldiers from
Harlem, New York learned they would perform “essential duties” for the Allied Front in World War I, building roads and bridges, preparing docks and railway lines, and digging trenches; but these men had much more to offer. Initially considered “cheap labor,” these men continued to advocate for their right to join in combat, opposing Jim Crow Laws and discrimination until they were finally granted the opportunity to fight alongside French forces (who were accustomed to many races and ethnicities already serving in the French colonial army). After undergoing combat training & learning the intricacies of Trench Warfare from their French counterparts, the regiment would go on to demonstrate their combat acumen in operations throughout the rest of the war, ultimately receiving France’s highest military honor the Croix De Guerre (along with 171 individual decorations for heroism). Despite this group of men
earning a new regiment number as the 369th Infantry Regiment, and a new nickname, The Harlem Hell Fighters, they still carried their nickname from New York, “The Black Rattlers” and flew their home flag of the 15th New York Infantry throughout their tour in France.
Horace Pippin, one of the brave men in this regiment, documented his deployment in a war journal. Within it, he details life in “them lonely, cooty, muddy trenches,” where lice and rats were “constant companions”, water had to constantly be bailed from trenches to avoid drowning and trench foot, and constant German bombardments meant the constant presence of death. Pippin vividly details a “Germen gas attack” in which the poison gas “were so thick it
looked like fog.” Pippin was one of the many Hell Fighters that returned home with PTSD,
and though his right arm was paralyzed on his last mission, he became an accomplished
painter (teaching himself to guide his right arm with his left) and was awarded the Purple Heart shortly before he died.
Cultural and Societal Impact
In addition to combat, the Harlem Hell Fighters presented morale in the form of Black American jazz, playing for French and American audiences at hospitals and rest centers in the European Theatre “like they were in a jazz club back in Harlem.” They were lauded as the best band in the entire WWI Expeditionary Force and are widely credited with introducing jazz music to France during the war. Despite all these contributions, these men were met with a cold reality back at home. Upon their immediate return they were celebrated with “praise”
and parades, but Jim Crow Laws and increased discrimination were alive and real; lynchings were increasing in the South and segregation was normalcy in the North. Still, these men fought for change on their home soil, laying the foundation for the civil rights movement that came soon after with their postwar actions. Many of the civil freedoms that disenfranchised groups now enjoy can be traced back to the contributions of this exemplary group of men.
Furthermore, trench warfare’s presence in World War 1 was truly pivotal; however, in order to understand the impact of this innovative practice on society, one must consider its practical uses, its impact on the physical and mental health of the soldiers, and how it impacted the overall forecast of the first world war. Its simple yet effective design allowed for it to be adopted by numerous countries in the first world war. Not to mention, this innovative practice became even more appealing as it required minimal resources to construct, resulting in it being relatively affordable. However, the trenches tended to accumulate surplus amounts of water, rats, lice, and corpses, which led to the presence of various diseases. Each of these components affected the physical health of soldiers in the trenches, making their life miserable. In addition to this, the presence of corpses and artillery fire, which caused shell shock, affected the mental health of the soldiers, forcing them to commit suicide or perform outlandish acts. All of these factors contributed to the hellish like nature of life in the trenches for soldiers. In addition to this, more often than not stalemates were imminent with the usage of trench warfare, resulting in little to no progress but hundred of thousands of deaths. Advancements in weaponry like heavy artillery, machine guns, and tanks were invented as a result of the indestructible nature of the trenches in World War 1.
Adhikari, S. (2019, November 20). Top 10 Diseases That Were Common in World War I. Retrieved from https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/world-war-1/top-10-diseases-that-were-spread-in-world-war-1/.
Atenstaedt, R. L. (2006). Trench foot: the medical response in the first World War 1914-18. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17219792.
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Nelson, Ken. (2019). World War I: Trench Warfare. Ducksters. Retrieved from https://www.ducksters.com/history/world_war_i/trench_warfare.php
Simkin, J. (2014, August). Trench Warfare: Sandbags. Retrieved from https://spartacus-educational.com/FWWsandbags.htm.
Smith, A. (n.d.). Box 1 Trench Warfare. Retrieved from https://www.aprilsmith.org/box-1-trench-warfare.html.
Stanford University. (2017). What is the Study of STS? Retrieved from https://sts.stanford.edu/about/what-study-sts.
Trench warfare. (2019, November 7) Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/trench-warfare.
UNESCO. (2017, October). Measuring Scientific and Technological Services (STS): Draft Paper for Consultation. Retrieved from http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/measuring-scientific-technological-services-consultation-2017-en.pdf.
Western Front (World War II)(2019, November 17). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Front_(World_War_II).
(February 1, 2018 Thursday). AFRICAN AMERICAN TROOPS FOUGHT TO FIGHT IN WORLD WAR I. CQ Federal Department and Agency Documents REGULATORY INTELLIGENCE DATA. https://advance-lexiscom.libproxy.clemson.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5RJ8-WB21-JBRM44GD-00000-00&context=1516831
Janssen, M. S. & V. (2018, May 25). A Harlem Hellfighter’s SEARING Tales from the wwi trenches. History.com. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/harlem-hellfightershorace-pippin-tales-from-wwi-trenches
Balkansky, A. (2019, February 12). Harlem hell FIGHTERS: African-american troops in World War I. Harlem Hell Fighters: African American Troops in World War I | Headlines and Heroes. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/02/harlem-hell-fighters-africanamerican-troops/
- Multiple Choice: Who Invented Trench Warfare in the 17th Century?
A) Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban
B) Erich Von Falkenhayn
C) Adolf Hitler
D) Albert Einstein
- Multiple Choice: In what battle did the usage of trenches gain prominence in WW1?
A) The Battle of somme
B) The Battle of Marne
C) The Battle of Verdun
D) The Battle of the Frontiers
- Short Response: Name 5 conditions that caused soldiers to die or get sick in the trenches that were discussed in this chapter.