History Friday: Trenches Don’t Work Well If They Aren’t Messy

I recently purchased Trench Warfare 1850-1950 by Anthony Saunders. I know of no other book that covers the topic over this span of time. We all know about the American Civil War and its premonitions of the Western Front trench works in its later stages, e.g. before Petersburg. Also, I was struck when reading the Memoirs of Lord Wolseley by his depiction of the fighting before Sebastopol during the Crimean War, and how much it sounded like World War I.

Upon receiving the book, I opened it at random and found this:

The quality of the British trenches varied according to which battalion had been responsible for their original construction and the attitude to trench maintenance of those who came afterward. One aspect that was universal in the early days was was uniformity and neatness, much prized initially as evidence of soldierly bearing and professionalism. Uniformity and neatness were soon discovered to be the worst possible qualities in an entrenchment. Indeed, they came to symbolize inexperience and lack of skill in trench fighting. Such trenches were killers because even the slightest movement or change that broke the neat orderliness were instantly seen; and German snipers soon learned the locations in the Allied trenches where men were careless. Almost from the start of trench warfare, German snipers made British parapets dangerous places for the unwary and they took a steady toll of the incautious. Ideally, trenches not only blended into their surroundings, but the parapet was disordered, uneven and camouflaged, all of this designed to hide the location of the trench and prevent movement in it from being noticed. There are few straight lines of the sort so favoured by peace-time sergeant-majors to be found in nature. Such military orderliness had no place in the trenches of the Western Front.

Nicely put. It appears I am in good authorial hands.

3 thoughts on “History Friday: Trenches Don’t Work Well If They Aren’t Messy”

  1. Sounds like an interesting book.

    After Zen posted his primer on losing wars, I was looking up wars in the Middle East, and came across the World War I Palestine Campaign.

    Even though trench warfare largely rendered cavalry charges obsolete, the Australian Light Horsemen launched a successful attack against Ottoman trenches in Gaza in 1917


    The Ottomans didn’t fortify with barbed wire, and the Australians outran their machine gun fire

  2. Cavalry was used extensively in both World Wars in places where the front was not well defined and where the volume of fire was not overwhelming. Actually using mounted troops to charge with edged weapons rarely happened, of course. But, on a few occasions in World War II, even that happened. (On this subject, I recently got this one, which is mostly pictures.)

    I will be turning to Trench Warfare as soon as I finish The Victorians (1960), by Sir Charles Petrie, which is good though it has a few deficiencies. Neal Stephenson quoted Petrie at the beginning of The Diamond Age, as I noted here.

  3. I’ll have to change my pace up and check out trench warfare.

    I’m usually too ambitious with my reading and sometimes end up in the middle of two or three books at once. One usually prevails, so I have to return sporadically to the other half-finished books.

    One that I chip away at now and then is Eumeswil by Ernst Junger.
    It’s more about stoic philosphy than a novel, so I don’t feel so bad stretching it out.
    Very dry but he has some great lines, one of which is a discussion about which troops are most reliable:

    They were discussing the reliability of the troops; the prize,
    they said, went to the foot soldiers. Next came the cuirassiers; there was no
    banking on the hussars. These comparisons extended to the sailors and the
    aviators. The Domo, in charge of security, had obviously also pondered this
    issue in theoretical terms.
    “The faster someone can move, the more closely he has to be watched.”

Comments are closed.