On the Western Front of the war, it was the trenches that defined almost everything in the lives of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict. An English officer and poet later wrote that “when all is said and done, this war was a matter of holes and ditches.” While they began as improvised, hastily-dug ditches, the trenches involved into vast networks of fortified rifts that stretched from the English Channel in the north to the Swiss Alps in the south. Behind the trenches lay the artillery batteries, capable of hurling enormous shells for miles, and farther back still lay the command posts of the high-ranking officers who fruitlessly conceived of new variations on a constant theme: hopeless charges against the impregnable enemy position.
The tactical problem facing both sides was due to the new technologies of war: whereas in past wars the offensive strategy was often superior to the defensive strategy, things were entirely reversed in World War I. Because of trenches, machine guns, mines, and modern rifles, it was far more effective to entrench oneself and defend a position than it was to charge and try to take the enemy’s position. It was nearly impossible to break through and gain territory or advantage; the British phrase for an attack was “going over the top,” which involved thousands of men climbing out of their trenches and charging across the no man’s land that separated them from the enemy. While they were charging, the enemy would simply open fire with impunity from their trenches, and without exception not a single offensive captured a significant amount of territory between 1915 and early 1917. As a single example, one British attack in 1915 temporarily gained 1,000 yards at the cost of 13,000 lives.
In turn, and in stark contrast to the early dreams of glory to be won on the battlefield, soldiers discovered that their own competence, even heroism, had been rendered irrelevant by the new technology of warfare. Because warfare was so heavily mechanized, the old ideal of brave, chivalric combat between equals was largely obsolete. Men regularly killed other men they never laid eyes on, and death often seemed completely arbitrary - in many cases, survival came down to sheer, dumb luck. No amount of skill or bravery mattered if an artillery shell hit the trench where a soldier happened to be standing. Likewise, if ordered to “go over the top,” all one could hope for was to survive long enough to be able to retreat.
Thus, the experience of war in the trenches for the next three years was a state of ongoing misery: men stood in mud, sometimes over a foot deep, in the cold and rain, as shells whistled overhead and occasionally blew them up. They lived in abject terror of the prospect of having to attack the enemy line, knowing that they would all almost certainly be slaughtered. Thousands of new recruits showed up on the lines every month, many of whom would be dead in the first attack. In 1915, in a vain attempt to break the stalemate, both sides started using poison gas, which was completely horrific, burning the lungs, eyes, and skin of combatants. The survivors of poison gas attacks were considered to be the unlucky ones. By 1917, both sides had been locked in place for three years, and the soldiers of both sides were known to remark that only the dead would ever escape the trenches in the end.
Individual battles in World War I sometimes claimed more lives than had entire wars in past centuries. The Battle of Verdun, an enormous German offensive that sought to break the stalemate in 1916, resulted in 540,000 casualties among the French and 430,000 among the Germans. It achieved nothing besides the carnage, with neither side winning significant territorial concessions. The most astonishing death count of the war was at the Battle of the Somme, a disastrous British offensive in 1916 in which 60,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day alone – there were more British soldiers killed and wounded in the first three days of the battle of the Somme than there were Americans killed in World War I, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Ultimately, the Battle of the Somme resulted in 420,000 British casualties (meaning either dead, missing, or wounded to the point of being unable to fight), 200,000 French casualties, and 650,000 German casualties. One British poet noted afterwards that “the war had won” the battle, not countries or people.
In this context of ongoing carnage, even the most stubborn commanders were forced to recognize that their dreams of a spectacular breakthrough were probably unachievable. Instead, by 1916 many of the war’s top strategists concluded that the only way to win was to outspend the enemy, churning out more munitions and supplies, drafting more men, committing more civilians to the war effort at home, and sacrificing more soldiers than could the other side. At its worst, commanders adopted an utterly ruthless perspective regarding their own casualties: tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths were signs of “progress” in the war effort, because they implied that the other side must be running out of soldiers, too. This was a war of attrition on a new level, one that both soldiers and lower-ranking officers alike recognized was designed to kill them in the name of a possible eventual victory.