Think of the Western Front as a great metropolis, whose chief industry was not production but destruction. From 1914 until 1918 it was the largest city on earth.
We live in an age defined by its fierce boundaries, military and political: Has any affected our lives more conclusively than the Western Front? The Great War trench line that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border gave us a modern metaphor for senseless slaughter, for stalemate without hope. It added indelible words and phrases to our language: the trenches, over the top, no man’s-land, three on a match. Here was the barrier on which were shattered traditions of humanism and refinement nurtured over centuries–not just a physical presence but one of the genuine dividing lines of history.
At a time when urbanization was be coming the dominant mode of civilization, was it an accident that the Western Front adhered to that mode and even turned into something of a paradigm for its rise and decline? “Unreal city under the brown fog,” T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land. He was describing London just after the war, but his words might have fit another recent unreal city just as well. Aviators flying along the Western Front were struck by the brown haze compounded of mist and dust, an inversion caused by constant shellfire, that reached a height of several thousand feet above the trenches.
The Western Front. The name evokes an image of physical devastation, surpassed only by Hiroshima. It is the obsessive landscape of our nightmares, the apparition of hell on earth. The English artist Paul Nash captured the stylized essence of horror that it has come to represent:
No glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes evilly yellow, the shell-holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease….annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast upon it the poor dead.
Those who experienced the Western Front strained to find comparisons, as they rang the sour changes on the wasteland that confronted them. There were intimations of biblical calamity in the words of an Irish subaltern, who saw it as “an ocean floor suddenly exposed and tensed for a crashing re-engulfment.” Sometimes men resorted to noisome similes. The front after a rainstorm, a French aviator commented, looked like “the humid skin of a monstrous toad.” The comparisons could be remarkably similar. The front was like “a man’s face after smallpox or a telescopic view of the moon,” wrote Lance Corporal Roland Mountfort in 1916. Wilfred Owen merged the same image in verse: “Grey, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,/And pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues.”
An American named James Mc Connell, flying with the Lafayette Escadrille, was reminded of “Gustave Dore’s picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante’s ‘Hell.’ ” In a letter home, written before his own death, he spoke of “that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered nature. It seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a black board; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears….”A German infantryman, Alfred Hein, added (about the same Verdun sector): “A cold mathematical monstrosity had usurped the place of nature.” You might call the Western Front, in the scientific jargon of doomsday, a premature ecological s ink- and, indeed, I have seen photographs of places like Passchendaele used to conjure the image of coming environmental disaster. The Western Front always seemed larger than the life it denied.
There was nothing new about trenches. They were as old as city sieges. Archaeologists recently found evidence of one outside the walls of ancient Troy; it dates back to the 13th century B.C., when the Trojan War is supposed to have taken place. Its function may have been more to impede attackers and their siege engines than to protect defenders, but it was a trench nonetheless. Caesar’s legions dug trenches, and they were incorporated into Hadrian’s Wall. Approach trenches, which sheltered be sieging troops from cannon fire, were common in the 1500s, if not earlier. The first notable continuous defensive line in which trenches were a significant feature was the so-called Great Wall of the Dutch Republic. A combination of wooden redoubts and earthen ramparts, it was built in 1605 in an effort to hold off an expected Spanish invasion; the Spanish broke through it anyway. When Swedish armies invaded Poland in the 1620s, Polish propagandists scoffed at their siege techniques as “mole’s work” and manifestations of a “grave-digger’s courage”–while Polish military engineers hastened to copy them.
As that violent century progressed, continuous trench lines became some thing of a military fashion, spreading over large areas of France and the Low Countries. “Such lines,” the military historian John A. Lynn tells us, “used river and canals as wet-dike barriers whenever possible, buttressing these barriers with redoubts and where necessary running between water courses with entrenchment representing a high state of military engineering.”
They were mainly single-line affairs, and their purpose was not to repel invading armies but to protect valuable territory from raiders. “It is almost impossible that the enemy par ties could carry out their designs beyond these entrenchments,” wrote Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, that supreme artist of siegecraft, in 1678. Time and again he tightened a noose of trenches around a citadel or city, and he also oversaw the digging of numerous extended lines. It was one of those coincidences of history that so many crossed the Flanders plain south of Ypres–and to compound the irony, Vauban also built the walls of Ypres and the fortress of Verdun. His handiwork would have done the Western Front proud.
Not until the Great War would the pick and shovel earn more prominence than they did in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). The lines of Brabant, which the French dug at the beginning of the war, stretched 130 miles from Antwerp to the Meuse River. The French proclaimed another extended fortification (much of it aboveground, but so were parts of the Western Front) as Ne Plus Ultra “Nothing further is possible.” Begun in the winter of 1710-11, it passed close to Vimy Ridge, Arras, and Cambrai household names two centuries later and reached the English Channel. It was about as long as the lines of Brabant, but its undoing made it better known. With linked entrenchments, fortifications, and inundations, all backed by a system of lateral roads, this most elaborate of the continuous lines of the period was designed to block not just marauders but the duke of Marlborough’s army. Call it the Maginot line of the 18th century, which may explain the consternation in Paris when he breached its supposedly impenetrable defenses. English politics may have saved France that time: Marlborough was recalled, and his innovative campaign sputtered.
Increasingly, maneuver became the rule and digging the exception. Though we do not think of the shovel as a primary implement of the Napoleonic Wars, it did figure in one notable episode: the defense of the Torres Vedras lines. In 1810 in Portugal, the future duke of Wellington’s outnumbered army constructed a triple line of 114 re doubts connected by trenches. The strongpoints were about a mile apart and allowed for crossing fire by artillery–what might be called one of the earliest experiments with defense in depth. Torres Vedras worked: The French retreated, without even an at tempt at Marlborovian dazzle. At the beginning of the Civil War, the defenses around Washington, D.C., were a copy of Torres Vedras, as were those that Robert E. Lee dug around Richmond in 1861. For his efforts he earned the nickname “King of Spades.” Digging was considered unmanly.
That attitude did not long survive the unprecedented range and intensity of Civil War battlefield fire. During the 1862 Peninsula campaign, fully one third of General George McClellan’s Union army was engaged in digging. By the final year of the war there could be no doubt about it: As the saying went, “Spades were trumps.” The defenses of Petersburg, the historian Gerald R. Linderman writes, “were so complex as to seem permanent.” The mortar, with shells weighing up to 300 pounds, became a favorite weapon, and the threat of high-explosive under ground mines kept the Confederate defenders on edgy alert. The lament of one Virginian officer was already an old one: “This mole-like existence was killing the men.”
Trenches were everywhere in the Civil War, in all theaters of operations, and they should have been an omen. They were an omen disregarded. So were the futile Russian charges against the Turks dug in along the ridges of Plevna and the suicidal, if ultimately successful, Japanese attacks at Port Arthur. Positional warfare had returned with a vengeance. But the message most Western observers brought home from Manchuria was that the Japanese had won by a fanatic reliance on the offensive. It seemed beside the point that the losers, badly generaled as they were, had exacted an enormous price with weapons that would become basic to the Western Front: hand grenades, machine guns, mines and countermines, barbed wire, and even some primitive experiments with poison gas.
While some of those observers went around counting bayonet wounds in corpses to prove the efficacy of the attacker’s cold steel, at least one group, the combat engineers of the German Pioneer Corps, recognized the Russo-Japanese War for the dress rehearsal it was. They began to prepare for the kind of large-scale siege warfare they believed to be inevitable. By 1913, as the tactical historian Bruce I. Gudmundsson has pointed out, contractors were developing improved grenades, trench mortars, and flamethrowers.
It is true that none of the belligerents, including the greater part of the German army, were prepared for trench warfare. Both sides at the beginning of August 1914 expected that a decision would be reached in a month or so–”before the leaves fell,” as the saying went. But it is also true that be fore many days of the war had passed, men were digging trenches. They were meant only for temporary protection, but they were trenches nonetheless. Many of the more offense-minded officers disdained them. On August 21, the French general Charles Lanrezac ordered his troops to dig in before the Battle of Charleroi; some officers simply disregarded the order or had their men throw up a token parapet. The British army had not been involved in siege warfare since Sevastopol, in the Crimean War, 60 years earlier.
But the Germans’ edge in siege warfare may have been their undoing. Instead of regrouping after the reverses of the Marne and resuming the drive for Paris, large parts of their army simply burrowed in the earth and waited for the enemy to come at them, while the rest headed north in an attempt to seize the Channel ports, leaving windrows of new trenches to mark the limits of their final surge, the “race to the sea.” For the record, the last gap in the Western Front seems to have closed on October 15, when patrols of the Royal Scots Greys and the English 3rd Cavalry Division met at Kemmel, a few miles south of Ypres.
By that time the Western Front had congealed into what was in effect a solid line. Soldiers on both sides began to connect rifle pits and scattered lengths of shallow freestanding trench. The digging not just of front line trenches but of reserve trenches signaled that something different was happening. A system was taking shape, and one that soon had marks of permanence. Parapets were built up with sandbags–which rarely contained sand–and rough shelters appeared. So, on the German side, did steel observation plates. The first wire was strung up, often as an obstacle in the empty spaces between trenches. “We did not yet have American barbed wire, only a plain strand without points, such as was used in the country to hang doorbells or to train wires up walls.” The writer was a historian turned soldier, Sergeant Marc Bloch of the French 272nd Reserve Infantry Regiment. At the beginning of October, Bloch (who was serving in the Argonne) noted that quartermasters were handing out woolen underwear to the men in the trenches. Now they knew the truth: They would not be home before the leaves fell.
It was hardly as if the phenomenon that was the Western front had emerged spontaneously, going in a single leap from mud-hut cluster to metropolis without intermediate experiments in military urbanization. What was different about this new world-class city was its length, depth, and variety, as well as its complexity of military and social organization.
The length of “that sinister brown belt” was about 470 miles–the most trustworthy estimates of the line that was established by midautumn range from 466 to 475 miles. Even with detailed trench maps, a finite reckoning is well-nigh impossible. What date would you pick for the measurement? Would it be before or after this major offensive or that series of raids? Would you measure from the German or the Allied side? Protuberances did not always correspond with indentations. Attacks inevitably produced (the words are those of the marvelously dogged Australian official historian C.E.W. Bean) “here or there a slight local bulge, or a hardly perceptible dint.” Through 1916, the largest bulge, the result of the Battle of the Somme, would be just seven miles deep. But essentially the line might as well have been cast in concrete– and in places it was.
The Western Front would contract by about 25 miles in March 1917, when the Germans made the premeditated withdrawal to the Hindenburg line–and would expand considerably when they made their gamble for victory in the spring and early summer of 1918. During those months the Western Front would briefly reach a maximum length of some 600 miles, as mobility (though not true maneuver) returned to the war.
More numbers: On the average, 200 to 300 yards separated the opposing trenches, though that mean distance narrowed to 150 yards in Flanders. The exceptions to the average were too numerous to be considered curiosities. Near the North Sea, the polders that the Belgians had inundated in the autumn of 1914 kept the lines as much as three miles apart. In other sectors, the dead zone of no-man’s-land could be a mile wide or more.
That gap could shrink to 10 yards or less, about the width from sidewalk to sidewalk of an ordinary city street. It was not unheard-of for the two sides to share the same trench, with only a barricade of barbed wire and sandbags keeping them apart. At Lingekopf in the Vosges, there were only a few yards be tween the opposing trenches, which were protected by antigrenade screens angled acutely: Grenades burst upward. (The Germans finally resorted to flamethrowers to dislodge the French.) A young English officer, Edwin Campion Vaughan, told of returning in the spring of 1917 to a trench he had occupied some months earlier at Biaches, just south of the Somme. He discovered that at one point only a cellar wall had separated him from a German dugout. The saying went that the adversaries were close enough to shake hands–0r to cross bayonets. But the following exchange, which Bloch recorded, may put the situation somewhat more in perspective: “The Germans are only thirty meters away from us,” cries a panic-stricken soldier. “Well,” a noncom answers, “we are only thirty meters from the Germans.”
Accident, as well as determination not to give up an inch more of ground, initially accounted for the narrowness of no-man’s-land. It was as if men in the midst of an open rural landscape were engaged in the sort of close com bat normally associated with cities. Too, tacticians thought that an abbreviated interval between lines would make possible an assault in a single bound. But in the early months of the Western Front, that interval was a measure of an enthusiasm and intensity, a hankering for sacrifice, that amounted to a generational death wish. Once the grenade was introduced in quantity and became the infantryman’s weapon of choice, the trenches tended to retreat beyond throwing range. But it was also difficult to shell an enemy trench if it was hard by. As the war grew longer, so did the distances.
The basic frontline systems ordinarily consisted of three trenches. The outer one was called the fire trench. Ideally, it was a ditch deep enough for a man of normal height to stand erect, and wide enough for him to pass another man without difficulty. Laziness or local conditions did not always permit the ideal: In part of Flanders you could not dig down more than a couple of feet without striking water. Parapets built up with prodigious heaps of sandbags made up the height difference. (A parapet had to be 20 inches wide to stop a rifle bullet fired from a trench 200 yards away.) By the end of 1915 the British army estimated that it needed 30 million sandbags per month.
Neither fire trenches nor the ones behind them ever ran as straight as they look on most military maps. The French favored a saw-toothed pattern to their trenches; the British and Germans, a crenellated one, like teeth on a jack-o’-lantern. The teeth were called firebays, and the brief backward stretches, traverses. Their purpose was to prevent an attacker who had gained a foothold from shooting down a long, unobstructed alley-enfilade fire. (It was a principle of self-protection already old when Vauban employed it. ) The fire trench was actually not the most forward extension of the system, for narrow saps were thrust out into no-man’s-land, like suckers sprouting from a gnarled branch. At their ends were listening posts, often uncomfortably close to the enemy wire (and to his own saps). They were usually occupied only at night.
A support trench formed the second line, although sometimes a so-called travel trench would intervene. Counter attacks would issue from the support trench if the first line was overrun. Support trenches were sited from 70 to 100 yards behind the fire trench. Military doctrine ordained that distance early in the war: The first two lines should be dug far enough apart so that they could not be bombarded at the same time. The murderous sophistication of the artillery took care of that illusion before long. Still, support trenches were relatively safe, and the real life of the front was spun out along their winding, jagged thorough fares. Field kitchens were located there, as well as the deep dugouts that housed command posts, supplies, and sleeping quarters.
Finally, several hundred yards to two miles back, was a reserve trench. Reserve trenches were in fact not always trenches but loosely connected lines of dugouts and sandbagged shelters, preferably situated behind a hedge to hinder enemy observation; regimental aid posts were generally located here. (Even farther back, there might be another vague line, to be deepened and garrisoned in an emergency, and at key points such as river crossings there might be a last line of posts, also ungarrisoned.)
Communication trenches–boyaux–completed the effect of a dement ed spider’s web. They zigzagged cross country, roughly at right angles to the frontline system; some were miles long. The busiest never stopped being busy, especially at night, as fresh troops and supply and work parties moved up in them, passing weary detachments re turning from the front, and the wounded and the dead being carried back. Between the first two lines, the communication trenches were even more numerous, dug at intervals of about 75 yards. Again, if an attack captured a length of the first trench, it could be contained within a pocket formed by two communication trenches and the support line. With a little help from machine guns, this was one theory that generally did work.
By the end of the first year of trench warfare, the average combined width of the frontline systems, including no man’s-land, was between one and two miles. Yet the belt that constituted the Western Front was still more green than brown, eerily so. A German soldier standing on the ridgeline of Passchendaele–to pick a spot later swept famously clean of nature–could see beyond pleasantly wooded slopes an un domesticated vista of deserted cottages and barns, a bit battered perhaps but still standing , underbrush discreetly creeping up on them, and fields now sown with shell holes and plowed by erratically spaced furrows of upturned earth that crisscrossed a widening band of new wilderness in which not a single human being was visible. Those trenches concealed thousands of men, and under cover of darkness they would come alive. It was only in the latter half of the war, when artillery became a contagion, that the shattered trees that be came associated with the Western Front began to dominate. Even in 1918 you could find stretches of the line that had been roughed up but not ravaged.
In places, peasants continued to farm almost to the reserve lines. When their children went out to play, they carried gas masks and seemed oblivious to the shells bursting a couple of fields away. The fall of 1915 was mild, and men would crawl “into the long grass of no man’s-land, when off duty,” a former English subaltern remembered, “to smoke and read their home letters undisturbed.” This was near the end of what you might call the Arcadian period of the war, and one day late in December another English officer, an artilleryman named P.H. Pilditch, looked out from an observation post at “the almost green strip . . . sloping up” toward the ”high chalk German parapet.” He noted what looked like “a flock of sheep grazing all over” the no-man’s-land of the recent battlefield of Loos. “It seemed very weird, but with a telescope one saw clearly what they were. They were hundreds of Khaki bodies…destined to remain there between the trenches till one side or the other advanced, which seemed unlikely for years.” Pilditch was more prescient then he probably imagined.
Gradually the front grew broader, and the brown–or the dead white of up turned chalk–spread across the landscape. The excavating intensified. Side trenches accommodated kitchens, latrines, trench mortars, and stacks of duckboards. Wired-in defensive strong points, connected to the main system by diagonal switch lines, were constructed to the rear, as well as added trench lines in case of future emergencies. You have the feeling that sometimes all this compounded effort was just digging for digging’s sake, to keep thousands of men occupied. (British military engineers estimated that 450 men needed six hours to dig 250 yards of frontline trench; the factories of the empire rose to the challenge by providing the army with 10,638,000 spades and shovels during the 51 months of the war.) Both the French and the British experimented with gasoline–powered trench–digging machines. But these noisy and conspicuous devices were apparently used only in back areas, out of sight of enemy artillery. Manpower was still more reliable. The German trench system tended to be far more intricate than the Allied one, and it was known to reach a depth of 10 lines. It was not just that the Germans were better prepped in siege warfare techniques; as long as they had to fight a two-front war, they were at a numerical disadvantage. By nature and necessity they became more defense minded than their adversaries–whose staffs insisted that trenches that looked too permanent detracted from the spirit of attack. But the habits of the mole were hard to shake. When the Germans made their retreat to the Hindenburg line in 1917, the Allied pursuers who emerged from the trenches were so bewildered by their first taste of open warfare, and so overcautious, that they let the enemy slip clean away.
As much as anything, continuous fighting , concentrated in a single sector, accounted for the growing width of the Western Front. The Prench might take two lines; the Germans would dig three more–and then the process would start afresh. No one remembered who, or which side, had dug some of the oldest trenches: They seemed as ageless as the war itself.
Pilditch, in July 1917, took in the view from the summit of the Flanders hill called, somewhat grandiloquently, Mont Kemmel (it was barely 500 feet high). Below, a “hideous six-mile-broad scar” stretched “brown and loathsome” as far as his eye could see. (That was before the Passchendale offensive, which widened the scar in the crescent around Ypres by another five miles.) The sector that could probably boast the greatest width of trenchworks was in Champagne, roughly between two geographic nonentities , the village of Tahure and the Ferme de Navarin fields. There, the combined width of the opposing systems reached 12 miles. On the Somme at the beginning of 1917, the trench lines approached a similar width–and if you add to that desert the intentional devastation bequeathed by the Germans retreating to the Hindenburg line, you have a band of wasteland more than 30 miles across.
Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu takes these figures a step further. (Le Feu meant “the front” or “up front,” a bit of soldier slang that the translator of the English version, Under Fire, was either ignorant of or chose to ignore.) In the Barbusse novel, played out during the Artois offensives of 1915, one of his soldier characters, Cocon, makes some calculations–and provides a memorable picture of the trench system in the process. Barbusse’s “Man of Figures” begins:
In the sector occupied by our regiment there are fifteen lines of French trenches. Some are abandoned, invaded by grass, and half leveled; the others solidly upkept and bristling with men. These parallels are joined up by innumerable galleries which hook and crook themselves like ancient streets. The system is much more dense than we believe who live inside it. On the twenty-five kilometers’ width that forms the army front, one must count on a thousand kilometers of hollowed line–trenches and saps of all sorts.
He goes on to estimate that on the French front alone there are about 10,000 kilometers–6,250 miles–of trenches, “and as much again on the German side”–12,500 miles in all. He doesn’t add in the totals for the British and Belgians and their German opponents, facing one another on what was that year the final tenth of the front. Tack on another 2,500 miles–which gives the Western Front something like 15,000 miles of trenches, an extraordinary figure.
But it would seem that Cocon/Barbusse may have vastly underestimated: At the end of 1915, French army statisticians calculated that there were 20 miles of trench for every mile of front. By summer’s end, 1916, that had increased to 30 miles. Can we believe the figures? It would mean that there were almost 15,000 miles of trenches just on the Allied side of the Western Front. But we can’t simply accord the Germans, those consummate moles , an equivalent 15,000 miles. A reasonable estimate might credit them with a third again as many trenches–5,000 miles–at least. That would bring the total to perhaps 35,000 miles of “hollowed lines”–and the war was only half over.
What was the final total? We can make a reasonable guess. In an address delivered on June 19, 1920, the president of France, Raymond Poincare, estimated that “265,000,000 cubic meters of trenches had to be filled up” on French soil alone. Since the average trench was dug down about a meter and a half (and then thick parapets of sandbags or raised earth were thrown up), with a mean width from top to bottom of a couple of meters, it seems safe to calculate three cubic meters for every meter of trench–and that would include deep fire trenches as well as connected shell holes and the hen scratchings that passed for reserve lines. You come up with a kilometric figure that translates to about 55,000 miles. Add to that the intensely entrenched Belgium, and the total for the entire Western Front might have been 60,000 miles–almost two and a half times the circumference of the earth!
Think of the Western Front as the first strip city in history–not as long, as wide, or as thickly populated as what urbanologists call Bosnywash on the East Coast of the United States; still, immense enough. This perception came to me independently some years ago, but I have discovered since that I hold no monopoly on the urban analogy. “That strange over-populated city,”John Keegan called it. “After all, the Western Front was genuinely a place, however suddenly settled, however swiftly depopulated, with its own street plan, place-names, backwaters, dangerous turnings, local patriotisms, and emotional geography”–sectors such as the Ypres salient or Verdun having a heightened emotional charge for both sides. C.E.W. Bean spoke of a system where men lived “as in the streets of a city”:
The elaborately constructed machine-gun and trench-mortar positions, headquarters, observation and sniping posts, and dumps were the industrial establishments, and the nightly fatigue parties, dodging the light of flares and the stream of machine-gun bullets along the trench tramways, were the transport.
These “workers of war” (the phrase was coined by one of them, the German novelist Ernst Junger) were the proletariat of a true revolution. War in its modern incarnation required a vast work force recruited to meet the needs of the assembly lines of mass destruction set up along the entire extent of the Western Front. Indeed, by 1916, military commentators were speaking of the “material battle.” But the millions of men and the machines they serviced could exist only in a concentrated urban setting, a martial version of the Ruhr or the Midlands.
Unreal the Western Front may have been–its total maleness, if nothing else, made it so. But a city it surely was. It had its boroughs and arrondissements (the army sectors), its distinct neighborhoods that ran the gamut from serene to perilous, from slummy to plush (but that were apt to go down hill precipitously), its suburbs in the rear areas, including those ultimate bastions of privilege, the chateaus where the staffs had their rooms at the top. (The peculiarly rigid urban design of the trenches encouraged a social and command structure that was hierarchical in the extreme, one that increasingly insulated the captains of this vast military industry from the workaday world they presided over.)
The strip city had its “avenues,” the communication trenches which could extend for miles, with side streets and cul-de-sacs branching off. They took on names that were alternately picturesque–Dead Dog Avenue, Panama Canal, Queer Street–or grandly prosaic–Devon Avenue, Savile Row, Boyau d’Evian, Unter den Linden names that recalled places that so many would never see again. The strip city had its long and intricate underground systems: One that the British occupied was an elaboration of existing coal mines and ran some twelve miles from Loos to Arras. It had dugouts up to forty feet deep that could be for officers like the London clubs of St. James’s or for enlisted men like the Berlin tenements of Neükolln. The German writer Ludwig Renn described one tunnel on the Somme front where tiers of wooden bunks lined a narrow passageway 70 yards long: “Down below there hung a cold damp fog of wet clothes, tobacco smoke, and soot, making the candles burn reddish-brown. . . .” But the German dugouts could also exhibit a degree of luxury unknown on the Allied side of the line, with electric lights and ventilation pumps, water tanks, stoves and ovens, and varnished wood paneling, wallpaper, and rugs for the officers’ quarters.
The strip city had its distinctive nighttime illumination, not neon but the rockets called Verey lights. Those were the hours when the activity of the trenches became positively bazaarlike. It had its nearby and all-but-built–in entertainment centers-towns like Lille and Laon and, until 1916, Verdun, where you could find cinemas, restaurants, and bordellos. (Directly behind the lines off Armentieres, the British army had converted a brewery into a bathhouse, and once they emerged from the vats turned hot tubs, soldiers could wander back to browse in shops that were, in the first year of the war, still brightly lit.) The diseases of filth and exposure that men suffered from were the urbanlike maladies endemic to their way of life: trench foot (mud and wet and cold), trench fever (lice), scabies (nits), the liver ailment called Weil’s disease (rats). For every two men brought into casualty clearing stations with battle wounds, three reported in with serious illness.
There was an undeniably cosmopoli tan quality about the Western Front experience, and one that only great cities possess. In 1917, my father, an American Field Service volunteer, billeted behind the lines in the Chemin des Dames sector, observed a sight that he would recall to me 70 years later:
Sometimes for three days at a time, a column of men and guns wound through the village where we were quartered. Chasseurs slouching along in their dark-blue uniforms, canteens and helmets banging against their hips; a regiment of Senegalese, huge men with blue-black faces…Behind them, dust rose from an interminable line of seventy-fives drawn by great bay horses, with very blond Flemish artillerymen riding the caissons….Then, in horizon blue, an infantry regiment from Provence, three thousand men with sullen features.
Looking on with the American college boys like my father were Annamite road menders–as the laborers from the French colony of Indochina were then called. “The long parade of races was a spectacle which it was our privilege to survey, a special circus like the exhibition of Moroccan horsemen given for our benefit on the Fourth of July….”
How many men populated this strip city? Erich von Falkenhayn, the German chief of staff, estimated that early in July 1916 the combined total for both sides was 6.1 million. That would have made the Western Front the largest metropolis in the world.
Was this short-lived conurbation at any time a truly continuous and unbroken web? Could you have traveled its entire length, strolling from trench to trench, without once having to expose your entire body aboveground? Would you have chatted with the left-hand man of the Allied army, behind stacked barrels and rubbish piles on the North Sea beach at Nieuport-Bains, before plunging irrevocably inland? How often would you have mounted a fire step to peer into no-man’s-land through a periscope or the pear-shaped loophole (large enough to fit a rifle) in a steel plate? Would you have wriggled inside the hollow metal trunk of a dummy tree, complete with a pollarded top for authenticity? Looking across that unkempt expanse of weeds, brush, and barbed wire at the facing line of upturned earth, sinisterly empty of movement, would you catch so much as a single blurred glance of an enemy soldier during your entire journey? (The German word for no man’s-land was Vorfeld–roughly, “the area in front of you.”) Would you take apprehensive notice of a toy airplane on a stick that acted as a weather vane, wondering if the breeze was favorable for an enemy gas attack? Could you ever become oblivious to the fetid smell that same wind carried–don’t ask, don’ t tell–or the thud of bullets penetrating sandbags beside your head? How many hurried windy pauses would you have taken in the side trenches where latrines were located, knowing that aerial photos had a tendency to make them look like mortar pits?
How many opportunities, too, would you have had to admire from some fortunate elevation, such as Notre-Dame de Lorette or the Meuse highlands, the tantalizing view of green trenchless land that beckoned just beyond the opposing lines? Or would you have found yourself mostly overcome by the monotony of those narrow walls, where only the character of the soil, the architecture of revetment, or the color of the sky changed? How often would you have had to struggle through muddy water up to your waist (did you remember to pack rubber waders in your knapsack?), or duck sniper fire where the trenches were shallow, or avert your eyes from a booted foot jutting out from the parapet, or shrink behind a traverse as a shell burst in the next bay and then dodge stretcher-bearers? One of them could have been the Jesuit intellectual Pierre Teilhard de Chardin–who, in a calmer moment, might have observed that “what is decisive is not always where one is looking, but where one is looking from.”
Not a bad epitaph for the Western Front.
I am surprised that no journalist–the like likeliest candidate–attempted the stunt. But until the arrival of American Front Page types like Floyd Gibbons (who lost an eye at Belleau Wood), journalists on the Western Front were a singularly unenterprising lot. I’m surprised, too, that no one has yet thought to write a novel about such a journey. It is one of those romantic speculations whose very implausibility attracts. “I used to wonder how long it would take me to walk from the beaches of the North Sea to that curious end of all fighting against the Swiss boundary,” wrote the archaeologist Stanley Casson, remembering his days in an earlier excavation, “to imagine what would happen if I passed a verbal message, in the manner of the parlour game, along to the next man on my right to be delivered to the end man of all up against the Alps. Would anything intelligible at all emerge?” You can even pick an optimum time, the fall of 1915, and preferably on the German side: In theory, the Germans had by then completed at least two lines of field fortifications along the whole Western Front. The walk would have required a couple of months under ideal conditions, of course.
That mythical adventure never happened. It would have been impossible. Forget the bureaucratic difficulties, the endless questioning and producing of papers; they would have been daunting enough. A stranger who couldn’t properly identify himself would have been arrested as a spy. Paranoia ruled.
Consider instead the obstacles created by nature and man, sometimes working hand in hand. The trenches were never in fact continuous, and there is no way they could have been. The terrain in many sectors was unsuitable, not just for uninterrupted trench systems but for any trenches whatever. Where the water table was high and shellfire had obliterated drainage ditches and canals, producing instant quagmires, deep digging was out of the question. Breast works of dirt and sandbags–the British called them command, or parapet trenches had to be erected from the ground up. Even these were apt to sink down, disappearing into the bogs on which they had been built.
It was not always feasible to connect such redoubts, and there could be no communication between them except at night. As late as the summer of 1915, a time when the war still seemed an excuse for solitary bold escapades, German marksmen took advantage of the same darkness to slip through those gaps and, like big-game hunters in an unfriendly wilderness, stalk the enemy in the open country far behind the front. The spreading labyrinth of trenches to the rear made such exploits increasingly difficult. Later on, gaps that could not be filled were covered by the ferroconcrete emplacements known as pillboxes.
Weather as much as high water tables hampered the creation of unbroken trench lines. This was especially true in the late fall and in the winter; then the invariably heavy rains flooded long stretches, often forcing both sides to abandon them temporarily or–as happened during the winter of 1914-15 in southern Flanders, where an un spoken truce of common misery prevailed–to work in the open repairing collapsed parapets.
Rivers presented a watery interruption of a more permanent kind. A token line was maintained by footbridges out of view of the enemy or by wire entanglements concealed beneath the surface. Where streams widened into marshes, the opponents limited their defenses to a scattering of outposts hidden in the reeds. On the Somme during the winter of 1916-17, the fens border ing the river produced a gap in the lines of about three miles. One night the British dispatched a patrol on the ice. It poked around villages behind the German lines, then returned without either being molested or finding anything unusual.
The notion of continuity disintegrated completely in the forgotten southern end of the front. Along the border of Lorraine, topography hardly figured; after the terrible battles of 1914, the war settled down to a mutual holding action in an area that had no strategic importance. In places, trenches didn’t exist. Small garrisons were scattered in widely spaced “centers of resistance” protected by deep bands of wire. (An acquaintance served here with the French army as an 18-year-old in 1918; his unit shared with the Germans a mill that was relatively intact, one side occupying it one week, and the other the next.)
In the Vosges Mountains, however, physical considerations were again the principal ones: The steepness of the terrain–many of the summits are over 4,000 feet–made uninterrupted entrenchment impractical except in the few valleys. Like sundered lengths of a long chain, hill forts and linked out posts ran only along the crests; after the terrible forgotten struggles of 1915, they became little more than suburbs of the main line. The sharply plunging intervals between them were plugged with wire and other obstacles. One fact is worth noting: The trenches really did go right up to the Swiss border.
Continuity further succumbed to the increasingly wanton sophistication of weaponry, diminishing reserves of man power, and the changing nature of combat. Take the disruptive effects of mine warfare. On Vimy Ridge, early in 1916, the Germans set off so many large explosive charges under the opposite front line that the British simply pulled back most of their troops, leaving the battered fire trench to be manned by a handful of unlucky pickets. Of another operation at that time, Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief on the Western Front, reported that the fighting “consisted in repeated attacks by both sides on more or less isolated mine craters, the trench lines having been destroyed by shellfire.”
In places such as Verdun or Passchendaele, where men clung to vaguely connected shell holes or clustered in concrete bunkers, firm lines existed only on paper, or perhaps in the imaginations of staff officers and the cartographers who prepared trench maps for them. As Colonel Leon Rodier, who oversees the Verdun museum and battlefield, once told me: “If you ask about trenches, you know nothing of this battle.” That, too, was the conclusion of a British officer at the Somme: “The war of trenches is a comfortable, out-of-date phase, to be looked upon with regret….The war of today is a war of craters and potholes–a war of crannies and nicks, and crevices torn out of the earth yesterday, and to be shuttered into new shapes tomorrow.” Those words, it is worth noting, were written in August 1916.
Changing tactics, more than anything, made continuous lines obsolescent. Defenders, especially on the German side, were no longer tied to their fire trenches; reluctantly, the Allies began to imitate them. Everyone was running perilously short of manpower, and it was not until the middle of 1918 that the Americans would arrive in numbers large enough to tip the balance. Elastic defense of a zone replaced rigid defense of a line, a deadly “invitation to walk right in,” as the Germans put it.
Until open warfare returned in 1918, there were of course sectors that would have made veterans of the old-time volatile stability feel at home. But major urban redevelopment was fast altering the look of the strip city. A close examination of that belt of metropolitan scar tissue would have revealed widely spaced outpost networks, machine gunners concealed in shell holes, counter attack troops sheltered in pillboxes, deep dugouts, or fortified localities, and more defenders lurking behind vast successive bands of barbed wire. (The Australian military historian and battlefield archaeologist John Laffin has estimated from examination of aerial photographs that one of those bands in the Hindenburg line was as much as 200 yards wide.) The Germans even dug trenches that they left empty on purpose: When outposts gave the alarm for an Allied attack, reserve detachments could leave their comfortable reserve billets and march up in plenty of time to man the prepared lines.
The reverse of elastic defense was what you might call elastic offense, and as much as anything it brought the trench stalemate to an end. Again, the Germans were the innovators, relying on a combination of intensive artillery fire and elite units known as storm troops to penetrate forward defenses. Armed mainly with grenades, portable backpack flamethrowers, and light machine guns, the storm troops were trained to go around strongpoints rather than to waste men and time in head-on attacks. In the spring of 1918, German offensives gobbled up unimaginably huge chunks of Allied territory. They demonstrated that the biggest problem was no longer the tactical one of how to cross no-man’s-land but the strategic one of what you did once you got beyond it. The Germans never did solve that.
The pattern of urban decline in the Western Front strip city was one that has become increasingly familiar. Decay, blight, ghettoization, anomie: All the trademark symptoms were present, even the brown inversion of smog. They were weirdly accelerated that final year. Old neighborhoods disappeared as a flight outward to new margins of action took place. Its purpose accomplished, the machinery of war that had given the city its brief squalid eminence ground to a halt. Its factory hands, that great underclass of cannon fodder who lived in its dugout tenements, would soon be out of work. But its dangerous toxic dumps, its fields seeded with poison-gas and high-explosive shells, would remain.
Left behind, too, South Bronx-like, were the desert areas of former battle fields. Early in the fall of 1918, as the Western Front receded eastward, P.H. Pilditch wandered over the recent no man’s-land in the Aubers Ridge sector of south Flanders. Here, the lines had hardley budged for most of the war. Pilditch found that he could trace
the various battles amongst the hundreds of skulls, bones and remains scattered thickly about. The progress of our successive at tacks could be clearly seen from the types of equipment on the skeletons, soft cloth caps denoting the 1914 and 1915 fighting, then respirators, then steel helmets marking attack in 1916. Also Australian slouch hats….
Pilditch’s image leads us to a final point. During the 1,563 days of fighting on the Western Front, the average daily loss for all combatants in killed, wounded, captured, or missing was 8,000–a total of about 12.5 million men. That figure exceeds the combined 1914 populations of London, Paris, and Berlin.
As the dark satanic mills of the Western Front shut down, the skeletons in the weeds waited to be collected. They were the true products of a new industrial revolution, an industrial revolution of war, and the ultimate reality of that unreal city. MHQ
ROBERT COWLEY was previously the editor of MHQ.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1994 issue (Vol. 6, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Unreal City
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