Marine Corps Base Quantico -- Near the modern-day golf course on Marine Corps Base Quantico, remnants of the trenches dug for training during WWI can be seen. Roughly 30,000 Marines passed through early Quantico while en route to the Western Front. Whether infantrymen bound for the front lines or clerks who tracked the company’s supply requests, all received training at Quantico to prepare for their survival in Europe.
What would the American Doughboys find when they arrived in Europe in 1917? Trench warfare. A phrase which brings to mind miles of trenches, masses of men huddled together in muck and foolish generals repeating tactical failures to the point of insanity. The First World War brought the concept of trench warfare to its paramount achievement, while showing the world the destruction capable of an industrially-backed war machine. No theater of the First World War epitomized these tactics and strategy more than the Western Front.
In the late summer of 1914, each of the wars’ belligerents believed it would be a “short and sharp” conflict, with the troops coming home by Christmas. None were ready for the quagmire it became. Owing to Germany’s opening offensive through Belgium, the war very nearly became that “short and sharp” conflict desired. The Schlieffen Plan, the German war plan’s name, envisioned a giant sweeping motion designed to cut off and encircle Paris by crossing through comparatively (to the Franco-German border) undefended Belgium. After encountering stiffer than expected resistance while crossing through Belgium, the plan fell behind the preconceived timetables of Germany’s General Staff. This gave the British and French time to stage holding actions against the German offensive to the northeast of Paris.
With a stationary frontline in existence, the digging of trenches commenced. Each side began the process of digging down, sideways, backwards, and in parallel for the next four years. These trenches would come to be the home and deathbed of countless men in a war that would claim more than 37 million casualties.
The standard trench was typically between 6-10 feet wide and around the same in depth. Parapets along the trench, spaced at regular intervals, served as machine gun nests or sniper/guard posts. Grenade sumps were also dug into the trench bottoms for extra protection from enemy grenades. A zigzagging pattern was common along much of the front line trenches for extra protection from falling explosives and to aid in slowing down enemies should they infiltrate the lines. Along the front of a trench would also be barbed wire to impede the enemy in the event of attack. Laid at night, the wire regularly needed repairs from enemy raids cutting it.
Dugouts, below and behind a trench, were built to protect from falling enemy artillery. Their effectiveness relied on the munition type (shrapnel or high explosive), and if they were direct or indirect hits. In the event of a direct hit, men were buried alive or killed outright with powerful enough shells. As the trenches grew more permanent, concrete pillboxes were built for extra protection. Like the lookout parapets and dugouts, they were regularly spaced and had fixed, interlocking, fields-of-fire with the other pillboxes nearby, some of which were buried for protection.
Between the opposing armies’ trench systems lay No Man’s Land, named because no man was believed to be able to survive there. The land between trenches was to be coated with dead men and artillery craters before the war was over from endless attacks and counterattacks.
Running from trench lines would be communication trenches. These allowed troops to rapidly move from rear to front and back without ever leaving the trench and making themselves a target. The trench lines to the rear of the front would also house ammunition, quarters, headquarters sections, and artillery batteries.
In many cases when an enemy attack occurred, troops on each side would fall back from their position, leaving behind supplies and personal items, only to regain them when the inevitable counterattack occurred. For the duration of the war, the trench system ensured that front lines would never move very far, often only hundreds of yards at a time.
Warnings for attacks would typically come from aerial observation being performed by early aircraft or observation balloons. As the war progressed, the balloons were used less owing to their being virtual sitting targets for enemy aircraft or anti-air artillery. This aided in the growth of the airplane in warfare. The pilots on both sides of the conflict would try and keep eyes on the enemy positions to look for major buildups of men and supplies which telegraphed attacks before they occurred. As the war wound on, control of the skies became of paramount importance, leading to the skies above becoming as deadly for pilots as the trenches for the men below.
Gas was a problem for those in the trenches. Initially used near the modern Belgian city of Ypres, Chlorine gas kicked off chemical warfare in the twentieth century and ensured hundreds of thousands would die or be injured. Many survivors suffered from neurological issues for the remainder of their lives.
Tanks were also pioneered during WWI. Often breaking down during attacks, economically inefficient to operate, and extremely slow, the first tanks were developed to allow men to cross No Man’s Land in “land battleships” impervious to harm. While effectiveness grew from their initial deployment in 1916, it would take the next conflict for the tank to truly mature.
Despite the daily early morning trains leaving Quantico, it was not until 1918 enough Marines were in Europe to establish a dedicated Marine Brigade. The 4th Marine Brigade, composed of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Marine Machine Gun Battalion, were key in the American effort in the war. In the Chateau-Thierry Sector of the Marne Valley, the 4th Marine Brigade ensured its immortalization. Germany’s final offensive of the war relied on their skill and force size, and being able to advance fast enough against Allied positions to win the war outright or place Germany in an advantageous position to negotiate peace. Thanks to Marine actions in places such as Belleau Wood, the German offensive was halted and the offensive passed to the Allies.
Now nicknamed Teufelshunde (Devil Dogs) by their German adversary, the 4th Marine Brigade, as a part of the 2nd US Division (commanded by Marine General John A. Lejeune), would spend the remainder of the war on the offensive. From Blanc Mont Ridge to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 4th Marine Brigade led the way against remaining German resistance. The 4th Marine Brigade was later part of the Allied forces who marched to the Rhine and later still sent further east into German territory when German delegates were resistant at the Paris Peace Conference. America’s and its Marines’ contribution to WWI was key to the eventual Allied victory. Had America not entered, the odds of the war lasting longer with more loss of life was assured. American power ensured the war’s end, though it could not prevent the litigious vengeance of the Treaty of Versailles.
Trench warfare was nearly a unique phenomenon to the First World War. Being caught at a crossroads of technology and warfare theory, the trenches were the result of tactical and strategic innovation not matching technological. Though appearing before the First World War, in particular the American Civil and British Boer Wars, extensive trench use ensured such an effective defensive strategy commanders had no offensive recourse to counter with. In the Second World War, however, commanders were able to employ their technological capabilities to avoid the stalemate of the First. Unfortunately, technology had advanced enough to ensure that the death toll of the First World War was a pale shadow to that of the Second.