Stand by for a barrage of centennials. For some years to come, we will be facing very regular commemorations of the various horrors of World War I and its aftermath, so expect a great many books, documentaries, and newspaper pieces on Sarajevo, the Armenian massacres, the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and on through the 2020’s. And it would be very surprising indeed if this coverage failed to recycle the standard myths of the era, those oft-recited tales that are generally accepted, however hard serious historians try to demolish them.
One cliché that we can expect to hear very frequently is “trench warfare,” a phrase that has come to summarize the military history of the time. According to a common stereotype, World War I generals were utterly lacking in imagination or creativity, and forced their troops literally to dig themselves into holes in the ground from which they hardly ever emerged. They and their enemies took turns in repeatedly launching futile attacks against impregnable fortifications, with inevitably dire consequences. “The trenches” are fundamental to the view of the war as an exercise in futility, and ultimately a classic object lesson in the virtues of pacifism. So thoroughly have subsequent generations rejected the patriotic interpretations prevailing during the war itself that, in 2001, Great Britain unveiled a Shot at Dawn Memorial to commemorate soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion in those years, who presumably were martyrs for decency and good sense.
Trench warfare has, rightly, left ghastly memories, but it was the result of neither incompetence or despair, nor a stupid refusal to contemplate innovation—nor was it a synonym for immobility. Partly, it resulted from the war’s strategic realities. In 1914 Germany had grabbed significant areas of France and Belgium, giving the Reich a massive strategic advantage that threatened the continued existence and independence of those countries, not to mention Great Britain. The Germans would win the war just by maintaining those positions, and the Western Allies had somehow to drive them out.
The strategic imperative was clear, but armies now faced desperate difficulties on the ground. The rise of the machine gun had decisively shifted the always delicate balance between offense and defense to the massive advantage of the defender, who could hold his position indefinitely. It would take two or three years for the combatants to devise weapons and tactics sophisticated enough to reverse that balance, and once more give the advantage to attackers. Hence the trenches, which in themselves were an excellent idea: In the face of shot and shell, a hole in the ground is an excellent place to shelter, a truth well known to Robert E. Lee, the King of Spades. The war thus became one of siege and reduction rather than movement and maneuver.
Actually, those elaborate trench systems themselves were heroic triumphs of engineering and mining, which we should properly regard as monuments to scientific achievement quite as significant as the aircraft that would later dominate the skies above them. Some of the war’s most dramatic battles occurred deep under the ground, as rival teams of miners and tunnelers sought to outflank each other and plant charges under enemy positions. The moles’ greatest success came in 1917 when British forces took out German positions at Messines with the largest man-made nonnuclear explosion in history, killing ten thousand Germans.
Above the ground, meanwhile, technological innovation surged, to a degree that makes nonsense of the familiar cliché of the army commanders as hidebound reactionaries who could not wait to get back to the cavalry charges they knew and loved. By 1917, several armies had developed aggressive tactics for raiding and seizing enemy trenches, using well-armed elite shock forces. Such storm warfare was a specialty of the Canadian and Australian armies, as well as the Germans. At long last, these storm troops had the potential to destabilize the agonizingly static warfare of the previous years. The Allies also devised combined arms tactics integrating aircraft, armor, and infantry in a radical package that the Germans would later appropriate under the name of Blitzkrieg. The Great War ended when Allied armies used their notorious trenches as the basis for triumphant assaults that drove the German armies to collapse, in what some scholars claim as the greatest military achievement in a millennium of British history. Although not well known by a single familiar name, such as Waterloo or Gettysburg, the Hundred Days campaign deserves to be remembered among the most important battles in human history.
As we approach 2018, though, be aware that British authorities currently have no plans to commemorate their greatest victory. Oh, World War I: That was all just trench warfare!