“Toter Sapenpost” (1924) (Dead Sapenpost) by Otto Dix
A man in a trench was almost invulnerable to rifle and machine-gun fire. To kill or wound him with a shell required a lucky shot; by one contemporary estimate, it took 329 shells to hit one German soldier. To clear the trench a hand grenade had to be thrown or shot into it. But to get within range—60 to 120 feet—required crossing no-man’s-land alive, possible only for small groups mounting nocturnal trench raids, and not for masses of men advancing in daylight against a “storm of steel” from machine guns and artillery. Mobility and mass had ruled warfare since antiquity. Opponents were either flanked or crushed. Trench warfare mocked these principles. If, trying to defeat the Allies before the million-man American Army took the field, the Germans had not raised up out of their trenches and taken the offensive in the spring of 1918, the war would have lasted a year or more longer.
Mud was the soldiers’ shield. European man tried to cheat death by submerging himself in the “greasy tide” of rainy, thin-soiled Flanders and Picardy. Three French soldiers speak for millions.
“The front-line trench is a mud-colored stream, but an unmoving stream where the current clings to the banks,” one wrote. “You go down into it, you slip in gently … At first the molecules of this substance part, then you can feel them return together and hold on with a tenacity against which nothing can prevail.”
“Sometimes the two lips of the trench come together yearningly and meet in an appalling kiss, the wattle sides collapsing in the embrace,” another observed. “Twenty times over you have patched up this mass with wattles, yet it slides and drops down. Stakes bend and break … Duckboards float, and then sink into the mire. Everything disappears into this ponderous liquid: men would disappear into it too if it were deeper.”
To yet another, writing in a soldier-edited “trench paper,” the mud seemed alive—and hungry: “At night, crouching in a shell-hole and filling it, the mud watches, like an enormous octopus. The victim arrives. It throws its poisonous slobber out at him, blinds him, closes round him, buries him … For men die of mud, as they die of bullets, but more horribly. Mud is where men sink and—what is worse—the soul sinks … Look, there, there are flecks of red on that pool of mud—blood from a wounded man. Hell is not fire, that would not be the ultimate in suffering. Hell is mud!”
On his first night in the trenches, Robert Graves “saw a man lying on his face in a machine-gun shelter.”
I stopped and said: “Stand-to, there.” I flashed my torch on him and saw his foot was bare. The machine-gunner beside him said: “No good talking to him, sir.” I asked: “What’s wrong? What’s he taken his boot and sock off for?” I was ready for anything wrong in the trenches. “Look for yourself, sir,” he said. I shook the man by the arm and noticed suddenly that the back of his head was blown out. The first corpse I saw in France was this suicide. He had taken off his boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with his toe; the muzzle was in his mouth.
The mutual siege warfare of the trenches was a psychic Calvary. “All poilus have suffered from le cafard,” a poilu, the French “grunt,” testified, using an expression for overmastering misery “which has no precise linguistic equivalent in the English vocabulary of the Great War.” To be alive was to be afraid—of snipers, shells, mines, and gas; of drowning in mud, burning in liquid fire, and freezing in snow; of the enemy in front of you and the firing squad behind; of lice and rats, pneumonia, and typhus; of cowardice, hysteria, madness, and suicide.
Graves’s great fear was of being hit by “aimed fire” traceable to a marksman’s malevolent intent. The least likely way to die in the war, the bayonet thrust in the gut, was the most terrifying. More rational was the terror instilled by “the monstrous anger of the guns,” as the poet Wilfred Owen personified artillery. Unaimed shellfire was the major killer in the trenches. Under saturation bombardment, there was no escape. For nine straight hours, on February 21, 1916, at Verdun, eight hundred German artillery pieces fired forty shells a minute on the French positions. “I believe I have found a comparison that conveys what I, in common with all the rest who went through the war, experienced in situations like this,” Ernst Jünger wrote. “It is as if one were tied to a post and threatened by a fellow swinging a sledgehammer. Now the hammer is swung back for the blow, now it whirls forward, just missing your skull, it sends the splinters flying from the post once more. That is exactly what it feels like to be exposed to heavy shelling without cover.”
Jünger’s image captures the emotional trauma specific to trench warfare. In his 1918 book War Neurosis the psychiatrist John T. MacCurdy hypothesized that industrial warfare was uniquely stressful because soldiers were forced to “remain for days, weeks, even months, in a narrow trench or stuffy dugout, exposed to constant danger of the most fearful kind … which comes from some unseen force, and against which no personal agility or wit is of any avail.” Nor, unless in hand-to-hand combat, could the men “retaliate in any personal way.” Their memories were seared with inadmissible fear and inexpressible rage. The worst sufferers from war neurosis or “shell-shock,” as a Lancet article labeled it in early 1915, were the defenseless artillery spotters who hung over the battlefield in balloons while the enemy fired shot after unanswered shot at them. “Medical officers at the front were forced to recognize that more men broke down in war because they were not allowed to kill than collapsed under the strain of killing,” observes the historian Joanna Bourke. To spare himself, perhaps Graves’s barefoot suicide needed to turn his death-will on a German.
Soldiers could look away from terrible sights; there was no escape from the pounding nightmare of the guns. Of the firing of a giant mortar, an American correspondent with the German army in Lorraine reported: “There was a rush, a rumble, and a groaning—and you were conscious of all three at once … The blue sky vanished in a crimson flash … and then there was a remote and not unpleasant whistling in the air. The shell was on its way to the enemy.” What did it sound like to him? “You hear a bang in the distance and then a hum coming nearer and nearer until it becomes a whistle,” a British soldier remembered. “Then you hear nothing for fractions of a second until the explosion.” “The lump of metal that will crush you into a shapeless nothing may have started on its course,” wrote Ernst Jünger, recalling the thought that filled his mind while he “cower[ed] … alone in his hole” during a bombardment. “Your discomfort is concentrated on your ear, that tries to distinguish amid the uproar the swirl of your own death rushing near.” Paradoxically, the shells that couldn’t be heard, those fired from trench mortars just across no-man’s-land, were the likeliest to kill. Terrifying as the din was, men had more to fear from the silence.
Artillery broke men; it could not break the trench barrier. A rain of shells might bury a stretch, but not men guarding it. Carrying their machine guns and rifles, they could ride out the bombardment in deep dugouts built into the inner walls of the trench, then surface in time to decimate the attacking infantry. The machine gun, which had necessitated the trench, could not break it. The grenade was “an excellent weapon to clear out the trenches that assaulting columns are attacking,” in the words of Tactics and Duties for Trench Fighting, a U.S. Army manual. Of flamethrowers, exploited by the Germans in their 1918 breakout attacks, Tactics and Duties bleakly concluded: “It is impossible to withstand a liquid fire attack if the operators succeed in coming within sixty yards” of the trench. “The only means of combating such an attack is to evacuate.” Grenades and flamethrowers were tactical weapons. Gas was potentially strategic.
In April 1915, the Germans released a 150-metric-ton cloud of chlorine along a seven-mile front near Ypres. The cloud slowly wafted across no-man’s-land, turning from white to yellow-green as it crept closer to the two divisions of Franco-Algerian soldiers holding the line. Choking for life, they panicked and ran, German infantry in pursuit. “We had seen everything—shells, tear-gas, woodland demolished, the black tearing mines falling in fours, the most terrible wounds and the most murderous avalanches of metal—but nothing can compare with this … death-cloud that enveloped us,” one poilu wrote in a trench paper. The Germans captured two thousand prisoners and fifty-one guns but had not accumulated the reserves to convert this tactical success into a breakthrough, a failure that gave rise to the myth of the “missed opportunity.” (“After the war, many of the experts felt that the Germans could have dealt a decisive blow on the western front if they had made the necessary deployments.”) Far along in their preparations to deploy and defend against gas, the Allies rapidly adapted. Within months both sides were using it, especially to deny mobility to the other side. Thus “poison gas, which was supposed to bring an end to trench warfare,… became the strongest factor in promoting the stasis of the war,” and intensifying its horror.
What finally broke the barrier was the tank used in combination with artillery and infantry. “The turning point of the war,” according to a postwar German government commission, was the emergence from out of an early morning mist of French tanks counterattacking the German lines at Soisson on July 18, 1918—tanks that rolled over obstacles vital to the defenders’ sense of security. “Tank fright” ramified. It colored what General Ludendorff called “the black day of the German army,” the August 8 attack at Amiens of four hundred British tanks (and eight hundred planes) that punched an eight-mile bulge in the German lines. The British took eighteen thousand prisoners, batches at a time surrendering to single tanks. And whereas eight thousand Germans were killed on August 8, the tank-accompanied British troops, attacking in the open, recorded half that number of fatalities over four days. By neutralizing the machine gun, the armored tank lifted the “storm of steel” fatal to attacking infantry.
Ten Australian and Canadian divisions crossed no-man’s-land with those tanks at Amiens. Leaving the protection of the trenches, the men went “over the top.” Henri Barbusse evoked that moment: “Each one knows that he will be presenting his head, his chest, his belly, the whole of his body, naked, to the rifles that are already fixed, the shells, the heaps of ready-prepared grenades and, above all, the methodical, almost infallible machine-gun—to everything that is waiting in silence out there—before he finds the other soldiers that he must kill.”
The Germans collapsed at Soissons and Amiens because they had lost one million irreplaceable men who had gone over the top in their last-ditch “peace offensives” between March and July. The nearly four years since the Battle of Flanders had proved the axiom that he who attacked lost heavily in men whatever few yards he gained in territory. On the relative safety of the trenches, consider the contrast between the casualties suffered by the German army in February 1918, when it stood on the defensive, and in March, when it attacked. Manning the trenches in February found 1,705 soldiers killed, 1,147 missing, and 30,381 wounded. Attacking in March the figures were 31,000 killed, 19,680 wounded, 180,898 missing.
Amiens showed how far tanks could shift the odds to the attacker. However, while the tank could break into the German lines, with its vulnerability to shells, liability to breakdown, and short range it could not break through them. Of the 414 tanks in the August 8 attack at Amiens, just 38 were usable on the 11th and only 6 on the 12th. As the supple of tanks ran down in September and October the British high command reverted to the high-casualty infantry-artillery assault. Thus when the British “Tommy” took the offensive in the fall of 1918 he had grim occasion to look back on the “victory of the spade” as a victory for life over death.
In licensing the spade, the generals licensed survival, a biological imperative that sapped the appetite for aggression. The trenches spawned a live-and-let-live solidarity between enemies sharing the same mud, enduring the same privations, and resenting in equal measure the same callousness toward their sufferings found at headquarters, in rear billets, on the home front, and in the patriotic press—a solidarity feared by the brass on both sides, who, sensing in it the makings of a politics of life stronger than nationalism, strove to break it.