Stalemate in
a sea of mud

The harsh winter of 1914-15 turned the battlefield into a quagmire.
The harsh winter of 1914-15 turned the battlefield into a quagmire.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

A European war that began on both Western and Eastern Fronts with rapid movements and a series of decisive battles after five months had subsided into stalemate and static siege. During the harsh winter of 1914-15 all the armies engaged were preoccupied fighting the cold rather than each other. The demand for winter clothing and shelter took precedence over the need for ammunition. Sand bags and timber for duckboards and reveting were as much priorities for front-line infantry as bully beef and biscuits. The Great War had become a war of trenches and dug-outs: men lived underground like moles.

How had this transformation taken place? To understand the unprecedented nature of much of the European war of 1914-18 it is necessary to appreciate its demographic scale. Since the last major continental war, the Franco-Prussian of 1870-1, there had been a dramatic increase in population numbers. Even since 1880 Britain’s inhabitants had grown by 12 million to more than 45 million, Germany’s by 22 million to nearly 67 million. By 1913 there were 161 million Russians, 51 million living in Austria-Hungary and 35 million in Italy. Only the French nation had not multiplied so rapidly: the 30 million of 1821 had risen to only 37 million by 1913.

Mass populations explain mass armies. In August 1914 about six million men went off to war, most of them by rail. On the continent, where conscription was the norm, both sides mobilized, transported and supplied a staggering number of uniformed soldiers. Eventually, 11 million Germans were recruited, 16 million Russians and, amazingly, nearly eight million French men, 20 per cent of France’s total population. Britain’s peacetime regular army numbered fewer than a quarter of a million in August 1914, but after wartime enlistment and conscription the United Kingdom had 5.7 million in uniform and its empire a further three million.

Such colossal armies explain why the war was so lengthy and so costly.

Secondly, modern technology explains how these huge forces were carried by road, rail and ship, fed, clothed and supplied with weapons and ammunition. The key to the initial mobilization and movement of millions of men, horses and their supplies was the railway. By 1914, Europe was covered with 180,000 miles of railroad track. Though the Russians had retained their 5ft gauge, everywhere else the European norm was 4ft 8½”. Many of these lines had been built purposely to carry and serve troops rather than civilians.

Germany’s Schlieffen Plan depended entirely on the rapid carriage of 1½ million soldiers along 13 lines all heading towards Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. In August 1914 the French brought their railways under military control and in Britain bank holiday excursion trains were used instead to take reservists to their depots and Territorials back home from their summer training camps. Only by use of French railways was General Joffre able in September 1914 to transfer large numbers from south to north and thereby defeat the Schlieffen Plan on the river Marne.

After the Germans dug the first trenches on the heights above the river Aisne, both sides extended their lines northwards, the so-called “Race to the Sea”. By Christmas 1914, the Western Front ran for 475 miles from Nieuport on Belgium’s North Sea coast between Ostend and Dunkirk all the way to the Swiss frontier.

Though it appears so on maps, the front lines facing each other were not continuous: in many places there were gaps where the land was flooded, swampy or too steep-sided. But effectively there were no open flanks to by-pass the enemy’s positions and the longer the stalemate lasted the greater the strength of the defences on both sides.

Railways had brought mass armies up to the battlefield, but not across or around it. Horses pulled guns and ammunition up to the fire zone, but they could not carry cavalry over no-man’s land. Against the terrible killing power of rapid-firing, accurate artillery and machine guns, horsed cavalry had become obsolete. Russian Cossacks, Magyar horsemen, German, French and British lancers might ride to battle and even provide vital reconnaissance intelligence, yet nowhere did they ever overrun entrenched infantry behind barbed wire.

Until the much later arrival of mass-produced tanks, there was no offensive answer to the defensive effectiveness of barbed wire, machine guns and heavy artillery. In the popular imagination the machine gun, whether Maxim, Lewis or Vickers, is still regarded as king of the Western Front battlefield, but it was artillery that caused the greatest loss of life and limb. Of all casualties inflicted on British troops throughout the war, 58 per cent were by shell or trench mortar bomb and 39 per cent by machine gun or rifle bullet.

What the front-line British infantryman in his trench feared most of all was not the sniper’s bullet or even poison gas, but Jerry’s “coal boxes” or “Jack Johnsons”, his heavy howitzer shells. To survive a direct hit from one of them you needed the armour of at least 10 feet of earth and sand. The machine gun was lethal only to attackers in the open, whereas soldiers were exposed to long-range shell-fire as far back as their rest billets.

So the problem facing the generals and their political superiors at the beginning of 1915 was unprecedented. How could they break the deadlock? To adapt one of Churchill’s memorable phrases: whereas “in the West the armies were too big for the country, in the East the country was too big for the armies”. The Russian goliath had suffered a devastating defeat by the Germans in East Prussia, but German advances on Warsaw and Austrian assaults on Belgrade had been repulsed.

Having failed to knock out either France or Russia and aware that time was against them, the German high command resorted to two new unorthodox weapons of warfare, at sea, the U-boat, and, on land, poison gas.

In contrast, despite all the experience and evidence of the 1914 battlefield, the Anglo-French leaders clung to the belief that they could still break through and beat the German army in the West by frontal infantry attack.