The trench dilemma

Artillery barrage

Artillery barrage

"Done for"

The First World War, as any other war, was defined by factors that were both technological and cultural . Artillery and automatic fire are, without a doubt, the two fundamental technological elements in order to understand the war of attrition, the experience of the trenches and the consequences they had on European history and culture.

To put it simply, their combined action made defense much easier than offense. The soldiers were forced to look for shelter in the ground and trench warfare, a new phenomenon in human history, began. Artillery and machine guns forged, literally, the landscape of war, making the space between the opposing trenches a “no man’s land”, devoid of life, covered in corpses and riddled by craters.

The destructive efficiency of modern artillery and guns was amplified by military doctrines that were unable to take technological innovation into account. The massacres we associate with the First World War - men in a desperate run against machine gun flurries - are a direct consequence of this gap between technology and culture.

The theory of trench warfare was simple. An artillery bombardment should have neutralized the enemy machine gun nests and the barbed wire that protected them. Afterwards the soldiers should have crossed no man’s land, protected by “barrage fire” (artillery shots precisely coordinated with the troops movement). The ultimate goal was to conquer the enemies’ trenches and, more in general, to open a breach that would have allowed the troops to cross the front line and invade the enemy territory. The objective remained, for the whole length of the war, to return to a mobile war.

In the vast majority of cases the reality was very different. The artillery was not efficient in destroying the enemy’s positions, but it worked just fine in alerting him of the imminent attack. The soldiers, once in an open field, found themselves running against machine guns that were still intact. Communication problems made the barrage often imprecise and sometimes lethal to the attackers themselves. The soldiers that made it to the opposing trenches often found the barbed wire still standing, twisted but not neutralized by the shells. The defenders, that during the bombardment found shelter in the rear trenches, returned to their places and, more often than not, fended off the attack.

This, in few words, was the techno-cultural dilemma of trench warfare. Many of the innovations (real or imagined) that are shown in this exhibit are attempts to solve it. But a deus ex machina never arrived. The end of the war came for the exhaustion of the Central Powers’ moral and material resources, not thanks to the greater ingenuity or heroism of one of the adversaries.

The first trenches

The first trenches

Technology v. Culture

In August 1914 the last conflict fought on European soil was the franco-prussian war. Between 1870 and 1871 Prussia defeated France thanks to a lighting-fast attack that brought the battle well inside the French national territory.

The consequences of this victory for European history were enormous: a united German state was born in Versailles. The humiliation suffered by the French was a fundamental element in the rivalry between France and Germany that sparked the beginning of the First World War. But cultural consequences were equally deep. The Prussian victory reinforced the idea that a fast and overwhelming attack was the key for victory in every war. In every army military doctrines and manuals  taught frontal attack as the only way to defeat the enemy and to prove national superiority.

Infantry charge

Infantry charge

"Maori warriors at bayonet exercise"

Bayonet training

This vision was summarized by the expression “élan vital” (vital impetus or vital force), taken by philosopher Henri Bergson and improperly applied to national bodies.[1] The people that would have demonstrated a stronger “élan vital” would win a darwinian competition between nations. And the only way to prove one's vital impetus on the battlefield was attacking to the bitter end, through a cavalry or bayonet charge. The French War Ministry preached in 1913 that "Only the offensive can shatter the will of the adversary and [...] defense never leads to victory"[2]. Despite having had one whole year to observe the massacres on the Western Front, Luigi Cadorna, Italian Commander in Chief, wrote in 1915 that there were only two ways to achieve victory: "Fire superiority and the irresistible forward movement. The second one is more important (winning is going forward).[3]

Unfortunately this fantasy, that saw war as a struggle of will rather than a struggle of means and resources, clashed with a technical reality that made defending easier and less expensive than attacking. Automatic fire allowed a few men in fixed positions to mow down hundreds of charging enemies. Arttillery fire could devastate the assailants' compact formations. Cavalry, the epithome or heroic and dynamic war, was soon made obsolete and it was gradually replaced by airplanes and tanks.

But military doctrines changed at a surprisingly slow pace. Despite some innovations (the elastic defense [4] and infiltration tactics [5]) the frontal charge remained the norm during the whole conflict.

"Rencontre nocturne au coin d'un bois"

Tradition v. Modernity

[1] Henri Bergson, L’évolution créatrice (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1991), 

[2] République Francaise Ministère de la guerre, Décret du 2 décembre 1913, portant règlement sur le service des armées en campagne (Paris: L. Fournier, 1914)

[3] Luigi Cadorna, Attacco frontale e ammaestramento tattico. Circolare n.191 del 25 febbraio 1915 (Roma: Tipografia editrice La Speranza, 1915)

[4] The use of multiple parallel trenches, so that losing the most advanced did not lead to the collapse of the front and soldiers could move according to the contingent necessities during the attack

[5] The renounce to conquering the enemy trenches in favor of the penetration of small task forces behind the enemy lines