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Welcome To The Dirt – The Beginning of Trench Warfare I THE GREAT WAR – Week 8

August 29, 2019


September 18th 1914 This week, we see the mobile and fast paced
war of the past six weeks turning into something never imagined that would prove more sinister
and deadly than even the bloodiest battles of the war’s beginning. This week began
the war in the trenches. I’m Indy Neidell. Welcome to the Great War. At the beginning of the week, the Germans
were retreating from the Marne River, having been stopped by the French and the British,
but they were far from beaten, while on the eastern front the Austro-Hungarian army was
in disarray, retreating from the advancing Russians and seemingly on the verge of collapse. Here’s what happened next:
On September 13th, there was a meeting in France at General Joseph Joffre’s headquarters.
Joffre had been in large part responsible for the French disasters of August, but he
was now getting a lot of credit for the success of September. The meeting was full of optimism,
and what was being discussed was how long it would take to push the Germans back across
the border. Some though four weeks, some thought only three. Once again, people were talking
of a war that would be over by Christmas. However, in practical terms, the French were
running low on ammunition and were not really able to exploit the German retreat, and though
the British were also advancing, they were advancing very slowly. As for the Germans,
their brand new Chief of Staff Erich Falkenhayn, Prussian Minister of War was a shot in the
arm after his predecessor’s nervous collapse. And on September 13th, a bloody month of fighting
began as the Germans stopped their retreat on what is one of the best defensive positions
in France- the Aisne River. The river itself is about 30 meters wide, with flat low-lying
ground stretching out for nearly 2km on either side with no possibility of concealment. Then,
there’s suddenly a ridge over 100m high that levels off to a plateau. The Germans dug in on the north side of the
river, a couple of miles from the ridge in a dense forest, but commanding a huge field
of fire. That night, the British crossed the river
and advanced under a heavy fog, but in the morning the fog cleared and they were raked
with fire and suffered heavy losses. By that morning of September 14th, though, they were
established on the northern bank, but the troops were in a terrible state. Many hadn’t
eaten for days and they were soaked, exhausted, and overlooked along the entire line by the
German army. Not good. But for the next few weeks they gamely struggled to mount the ridge
while the Germans tried to drive them back to the river. Despite thousands of casualties
each day on both sides, neither succeeded. Nobody was planning on retreating though,
and on September 14th 1914, British Commander John French gave the first orders for the
British to entrench. The Germans were digging in as well, and this was the beginning of
trench warfare. See, the battle of the Aisne was the start
of something different. The British troops who fought there reported that it was far
worse than the earlier battles at Mons or Le Cateau, for the simple reason that the
battle was so interminably long, and this was very much the nature of the new style
of warfare- battles no longer lasted an afternoon, but could go on uninterrupted for weeks, with
artillery barrages lasting for hours and hours, and the only way for a man to survive in this
war was to make himself invisible, digging himself into the ground. Nobody was really prepared for digging trenches,
though- the Germans had spades, which they used to dig small holes for individuals when
under artillery fire, but the German equipment was all designed to fit German battle plans-
which involved a highly mobile war that could be won in a matter of weeks. They did adapt
fairly quickly, though, producing things like rifle grenades and converting things like
periscopes and flares for trench warfare. Initially, the trenches were not connected
in trench lines and were not particularly deep, but they soon became more and more advanced.
Front line troops would live in underground dorms with storehouses that were built into
the wall facing the enemy so they couldn’t be shelled. There were communication trenches,
backup trenches in case of retreat, eventually a whole network across the entire front- with
enemies that were often only 100 meters apart. Commander French described the suddenly new
situation on September 16th as “a stalemate in our favor but he realized and said even then that in this war, a spade was as useful as a rifle. But stalemate it was in the west; as the battle
raged on day after day for a month. The weather was abysmal and spirits on both sides were
at a low, but think how much lower they may have been had they known that the front at
which they were fighting would remain virtually unchanged for the next four years. In the
east, though, it was anything but a stalemate. By mid September, the Germans realized they
had to do something to save Austria-Hungary’s bacon. German General Ludendorff went to visit the
Austrian army Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf. Conrad was one of the chief architects of
the whole war, though he proved to be a terrible leader, but still he managed to convince Ludendorff
that the Austrian army was in such a terrible state because they’d been holding off the
Russians so the Germans could tackle the French. And Conrad’s army was indeed in a terrible
state; they’d already lost 500,000 men, 100,000 of them captured and the army was
shutting itself in to the fortress of Przemsyl of the slopes of the Carpathians with 120,000
men. You’d think it would have collapsed as all the other fortresses did to modern
artillery, but the mud was too thick there to get artillery into place. The war in the east, though, was really a
logistical catastrophe. The space to cover was so large and communications so awful,
then the autumn rains came and turned everything to mud. There weren’t enough railways and
there were just too many men to supply. In some units, only the men in the very front
had rifles, and you had to wait until someone was killed before you could get one. But they had men. Certainly Russia did- men
by the millions. Over in the west, though, one of the main British problems had been
that her army was very small compared to those of France or Germany, but Britain had just
engaged in one of the most famous advertising campaigns in history …and on September 12th, Britain announced
that in in only six weeks 478,000 men had volunteered. She had managed to raise an army
without any of the mandatory service the continental armies all used. However, there were some
issues with that army. Professional British soldiers despaired of the quality of the new
units, going so far as calling them ridiculous and pointing out that it had taken the Germans
40 years of hard work and conscription to create their army. One curiosity of the new recruits is that
they were mostly formed of “pals battalions” which were entirely people from the same town
or the same profession. This led to a little side note- the British didn’t think at the
time that without units being geographically mixed, the entire male population of a whole
town could be wiped out in a day in a single battle. They would learn this the hard way. Rarely has a mood changed in war as quickly
as it did on the western front this week in 1914. At the beginning of this week, optimism
was high in the British and French armies as the Germans retreated from the Marne, but
this was before the armies all reached the Aisne, entrenchment began, and the war of
weeks long continuous battles and bombardments began. What we see by the end of the week, is that
the quality and ingenuity of the armies was increasing, even as the death toll mounted,
but in spite of all the new advances designed to give an advantage, none was gained by either
side, and the war of rapid victories was over for good. The excruciating stagnant war in
the mud had begun on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. It would remain in the mud
for the next four years. If you just joined our show and you wonder how the whole thing started. Check out our three prelude to war specials and our very first episode right here.
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