Part C: World War I Trench Warfare

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1 Part C: World War I Trench Warfare Trench Warfare is a type of fighting where both sides build deep trenches as a defense against the enemy. These trenches can stretch for many miles and make it nearly impossible for one side to advance. The area between trenches was called no man s land and it was filled with barbed wire and craters from shells. During World War I, the western front in France was fought using trench warfare. By the end of 1914, both sides had built a series of trenches that went from the North Sea and through Belgium and France. AS a result, neither side gained much ground for three and a half years from October 1915 to March Trenches were dug by soldiers. The trenches were dug straight into the ground and often had bunkers. Trenches were sometimes built by building a tunnel first then removing the roof. They were reinforced with wood beams and sand bags. The bottom of the trench was covered with wooden boards called duckboards to keep the soldiers feet above the water that would gather at the bottom of the trench. There were systems of trenches that were in a zigzag pattern. Conditions in the trenches were terrible. There were all sorts of pests living in the trenches including rats, lice, and frogs. The rats were everywhere and got into the soldiers food. They would eat just about anything. Lice caused horrible itching and a disease called Trench Fever. Trenches were often wet and muddy and soldiers could get Trench Foot, a serious condition that could lead to amputation. Source: 9

2 Machine Guns Firing several hundred bullets per minute, machine-guns were devastating weapons, especially when used against enemy troops on open ground. Early Doubts Machine-guns pre-dated the First World War by half a century and were in widespread use by 1914, but doubts about their role and effectiveness limited the use of machine-guns in most pre-war armies. Most early war machine-guns were heavy and relatively immobile, requiring a team of soldiers to use. A Dominant Weapon At first, only the Germans appreciated the power of machine-guns when used on the defence from prepared positions with overlapping fields of fire. All armies would soon learn this lesson, as the machine-gun, perhaps more than any other weapon, drove soldiers from the battlefield and into relatively safe trenches, dug-outs, and fortifications. Overcoming the stalemate created by the dominance of firepower would challenge armies for the rest of the war. 10

3 Artillery Artillery dominated the First World War battlefield and inflicted the majority of casualties. The Gunner s War The number of artillery guns expanded enormously during the war. Larger-calibre guns, and more of them, allowed the Allied armies to fire a nearly limitless supply of shells by the midpoint of the war. Ammunition The artillery used different shells for different purposes. Shrapnel shells were timed to explode over enemy lines, sending down hundreds of tiny metal balls. This rain of metal, which exploded outward in a shotgun blast, caused terrible injuries to soldiers caught in the open. Trenches helped to protect against shrapnel, but even trenches were vulnerable to high explosive shells that burst like dynamite, leaving large craters in the ground and killing and maiming anyone caught in the blast. The explosive charge also shattered the shell creating jagged shell splinters. Gunners used high explosive shells to collapse trenches and lightly protected shelters, but only the larger siege guns could destroy deeper enemy shelters or prepared defences. 11

4 Chemical Weapons The first large-scale use of lethal poison gas on the battlefield was by the Germans on 22 April 1915 during the Battle of Second Ypres. Results of Gas at Ypres At Ypres, Belgium, the Germans had transported liquid chlorine gas to the front in large metal canisters. With the wind blowing over the French and Canadian lines on 22 April, they released the gas, which cooled to a liquid and drifted over the battlefield in a lethal, green-yellow cloud. The gas shocked but, while some troops fled in panic, the Canadians held their ground. After several days of chaotic and brutal fighting, the Ypres position remained in Allied hands. Responding to Gas With the introduction of poison gas, many contemporaries feared that the Germans had discovered a war-winning weapon. But the introduction of increasingly effective gas masks and other precautions helped counter the German advantage. The British responded with their own chlorine attacks in September 1915, during which a change in wind direction resulted in more than 2,000 British soldiers being gassed by their own chemicals. 12

5 Tanks Barbed wire and machine-guns stopped many Allied attacks with heavy casualties in 1915 and early The British turned to armoured vehicles as one way to cross No Man s Land and break through the enemy trench system. Secret Weapon: The Tank The First World War tank developed from the interest of some military officers in the marriage of tractors with caterpillar tracks as a means of crossing trench obstacles and breaking through barbed wire. After a successful field demonstration in 1915, Britain established a secret Landships Committee to study the military prospects of the vehicle, at first seen more like a warship than a land weapon, hence the name landship. The initiative was codenamed the tank because its hull resembled that of a water carrier. The first prototypes were completed in early 1916, and the first several dozen machines were at the front by mid The tank was not decisive during the war, but it added an important weapon to the Allied arsenal, especially when used in a combined-arms role with artillery, infantry, machine-guns, mortars, and tactical air power. The development of the tank helped lead to the end of trench warfare. 13

6 Trench Warfare Use the reading on Page 9 of this guide to complete the graphic organizer below. What is trench warfare? Type of fighting where both sides build deep trenches as a defense against the enemy. They stretched for miles. What is the area between trenches called? No-Man s-land. It was filled with barbed wire, craters, and dead bodies. Who built the trenches? Soldier s built the trenches. How did they build the trenches? Trenches were dug straight into the ground and often had bunkers. They sometimes built tunnels first then removed the roof. Trenches were reinforced with wood beams and sandbags. They built duckboards on the bottom to keep soldiers out of the mud. They were dug in zig zag or curved patterns. What were conditions like in the trenches? Filled with pests rats, lice, frogs. Rats got into food and would eat anything, they were attracted to dead bodies. Lice caused itching and a condition known as Trench Fever. Trench Foot: an infection that could lead to amputation. 14

7 Technology: Machine Guns, Artillery, Chemical Weapons, Tanks Use the reading on Page of this guide to complete the graphic organizer below. Weapon: Describe Use: Impact on War: Machine Gun Fired hundreds of bullets at a time Useful on the defense from prepared Devastating on open ground Early ones were heavy needed teams to run them positions Drove soldiers from the battlefield into trenches-fortifications Led to stalemate Artillery Large caliber guns Inflicted the majority of casualties Shrapnel shells filled with metal Used to collapse trenches destroy enemy position Caused terrible injuries not seen before in war Inflicted the majority of casualties Chemical Weapons Liquid gas was released and drifted over enemy lines in a green/yellow cloud Transported to front in metal canisters Tanks A way to cross noman s-land and break through enemy trench system Broke through trench obstacles Used minimally until later in the war Was felt to be a war winning weapon but the development of gas countered German advantage Wind could change direction and blow back over own troops Considered one of the most horrifying weapons of war Important weapon of the allied arsenal when used in combination with artillery, infantry, machine guns, mortars, and air power 15

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