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In September, 1914, the German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered his men to dig trenches that would provide them with protection from the advancing French and British troops. As the Allies soon realised that they could not break through this line, they also began to dig trenches.
As the Germans were the first to decide where to stand fast and dig, they had been able to choose the best places to build their trenches. The possession of the higher ground not only gave the Germans a tactical advantage, but it also forced the British to live in the worst conditions. Most of this area was rarely a few feet above sea level. As soon as soldiers began to dig down they would invariably find water two or three feet below the surface. Along the whole line, trench life involved a never-ending struggle against water and mud. Duck-boards were placed at the bottom of the trenches to protect soldiers from problems such as trench foot.
Captain Alexander Stewart pointed out that: "Mud is a bad description as the soil was more like a thick slime than mud. When walking one sank several inches in and owing to the suction, it was difficult to withdraw the feet. The consequence was that men who were standing still or sitting down got embedded in the slime and were unable to extricate themselves."
Much of the land where the trenches were dug was either clay or sand. The trenches were hard to dig and kept on collapsing in the waterlogged sand. As well as trenches the shells from the guns and bombs made big craters in the ground. The rain filled up the craters and then poured into the trenches.
Bruce Bairnsfather recorded his experiences in the trenches: "It was quite the worse trench I have ever seen. A number of men were in it, standing and leaning, silently enduring the following conditions. It was quite dark. The enemy were about two hundred yards away, or rather less. It was raining, and the trench contained over three feet of water. The men, therefore, were standing up to the waist in water. The front parapet was nothing but a rough earth mound which, owing to the water about, was practically non-existent. They were all wet through and through, with a great deal of their equipment below the water at the bottom of the trench. There they were, taking it all as a necessary part of a great game; not a grumble nor a comment."
J. B. Priestley wrote a letter to his father describing what it was like on the Western Front: "The communication trenches are simply canals, up to the waist in some parts, the rest up to the knees. There are only a few dug-outs and those are full of water or falling in. Three men were killed this week from falling dug-outs. I haven't had a wash since we came into these trenches and we are all mud from head to foot." Vyvyan Harmsworth, the son of Lord Rothermere, added: "Hell is the only word descriptive of the weather out here and the state of the ground. It rains every day! The trenches are mud and water up to one's neck, rendering some impassable - but where it is up to the waist we have to make our way along cheerfully. I can tell you - it is no fun getting up to the waist and right through, as I did last night. Lots of men have been sent off with slight frost-bite - the foot swells up and gets too big for the boot."
Guy Chapman was another soldier who was troubled by the mud: "Rain had made our bare trenches a quag, and earth, unsupported by revetments, was beginning to slide to the bottom. We hailed the first frost which momentarily arrested our ruin. Saps filled up and had to be abandoned. The cookhouse disappeared. Dugouts filled up and collapsed. The few duckboards floated away, uncovering sump-pits into which the uncharted wanderer fell, his oaths stifled by a brownish stinking fluid."
The mud was especially hated by the stretcher-bearers. As Harold Chapin pointed out in a letter to Alice Chapin in May 1915: "It took six of us to carry one man. You have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve stone man a thousand yards across muddy fields."
The trenches were wet and cold and at this time some of them did not have duckboards or dug-outs. The battalion lived in mud and water.
Our trenches are... ankle deep mud. In some places trenches are waist deep in water. Time is spent digging, filling sandbags, building up parapets, fetching stores, etc. One does not have time to be weary.
The trench, when we reached it, was half full of mud and water. We set to work to try and drain it. Our efforts were hampered by the fact that the French, who had first occupied it, had buried their dead in the bottom and sides. Every stroke of the pick encountered a body. The smell was awful.
The communication trenches are simply canals, up to the waist in some parts, the rest up to the knees. I haven't had a wash since we came into these trenches and we are all mud from head to foot.
It was quite the worse trench I have ever seen. There they were, taking it all as a necessary part of a great game; not a grumble nor a comment.
Last night we had the worst time we've had since we've been out. A terrific thunderstorm broke out. Rain poured in torrents, and the trenches were rivers, up to one's knees in places and higher if one fell into a sump. One chap fell in one above his waist! It was pitch dark and all was murky in the extreme. Bits of the trench fell in. The rifles all got choked with mud, through men falling down.
Rain had made our bare trenches a quag, and earth, unsupported by revetments, was beginning to slide to the bottom. The few duckboards floated away, uncovering sump-pits into which the uncharted wanderer fell, his oaths stifled by a brownish stinking fluid.
Hell is the only word descriptive of the weather out here and the state of the ground. Lots of men have been sent off with slight frost-bite - the foot swells up and gets too big for the boot.
I have been up to my eyes in work (at the main dressing station in " ----- ") since Sunday morning when the British and French attack began (or rather when its fruits in wounded began to reach us. The actual attack began on Saturday night). Nominally I have been on night duty in the operating tent, but naturally with wounded and wounded and wounded flowing in neither night nor day duty means anything. I had had eight hours sleep in three days, when heavy fighting out here developed and the message came down for more bearers, so out I came with a dozen others by horse ambulance (time two a.m.) and going on on foot just as day was breaking, found a Regimental M.O. in a room in a gutted house with some half dozen wounded and two or three dead on the floor about him. His own regimental stretcher bearers were carrying and carrying the long mile down to a spot where an ambulance could meet them, in comparative safety. I gave a hand with my party of six and between us we carried down two: you have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve stone blessé a thousand odd yards across muddy fields. Oh this cruel mud! Back in " ----- " we hate it (the poor fellows come in absolutely clayed up), but out here, it is infernal.
It clings and sucks at your boots; weighs you down; chills you and, drying in upper garments, makes them chafe. The dead lie in it in queer flat - jacent - attitudes. They nearly always look flung down rather than fallen, their feet turned sideways lie flatter than a living man's could, and the thighs splayed out lower the contours of the back. An unrelieved level of liquid mud seems to be the end of war.
The whole place was a sea of mud, and the scene still remains incoherent in my memory, plunging about for overworked stretcher bearers, falling into shell-holes, losing our way, wet and tired, we felt all the time rather impotent. But the work was done. All the wounded, including some of the Scots Guards who had lain out for forty-eight hours, were brought in and most of the dead buried. Some (I think it was three) died before we could get stretchers to take them back to the dressing station or on their way there. You see it takes four men to carry one wounded man and each journey to the dressing station could not be accomplished under four hours. This sounds rather incredible but no one realizes the difficulty of getting about, even for a man unhampered by anything. One mile an hour is good going in the mud for an officer, and you will always find yourself on the right when something has to be done on the left. No light can be shown, and you feel your way for about thirty yards as a rule before falling into a ditch or a shell-hole.
This part of the line was up to then the worst in which I had been. I refer more particularly to the mud and water. All the land had been very churned up by shell explosions, and for many days the weather had been wet. It was not possible to dig for more than about a foot without coming to water. Mud is a bad description as the soil was more like a thick slime than mud. The consequence was that men who were standing still or sitting down got embedded in the slime and were unable to extricate themselves. As the trenches were so shallow men had to stay where they were all day. Most of the night we had to spend digging and pulling men out of the mud. It was only the legs that got stuck; the body being lighter and larger lay on the surface. To dig a man out the only way was to put duck boards on each side of him and then work at one leg, digging poking, and pulling, until the suction was relieved. Then a strong pull by three or four men would get one leg out and work would be begun on the other. Back to Battalion Headquarters was about 800 yards. At night it would take a “runner” (i.e. an orderly taking messages) about two hours to get there. Going to and from Battalion Headquarters from the line, one would hear men who had missed their way and got stuck in the mud calling out for help that often could not be sent to them. It would be useless for only one or two men to go to help them, and practically all the troops were in the front line and had, of course, to stay there. All the time the Boche dropped shells promiscuously about the place. He who had a corpse to stand or sit on was lucky.
The fifth act of the great drama in Flanders opened on the 22nd October. Enormous masses of ammunition, such as the human mind had never imagined before the war, were hurled upon the bodies of men who passed a miserable existence scattered about in mud-filled shell-holes. The horror of the shell-hole area of Verdun was surpassed. It was no longer life at all. It was mere unspeakable suffering. And through this world of mud the attackers dragged themselves, slowly, but steadily, and in dense masses. Caught in the advanced zone by our hail of fire they often collapsed, and the lonely man in the shell-hole breathed again. Then the mass came on again. Rifle and machine-gun jammed with the mud. Man fought against man, and only too often the mass was successful.
We go in to the trenches for four days, while the weather becomes atrocious. It is notorious that French trenches are seldom good and these are no exceptions. Because there is no revetting, walls of fire and communication trenches fall in, so-called dugouts collapse, and telephone wires connecting companies and brigade become non-effective, consequent on the landslide. The men are up to their waists in mud and water. Rats drown and rations cannot be got up.
'He who had a corpse to stand on was lucky'
This part of the line was the worst - I refer particularly to the mud and water. All the land had been very churned up by shell explosions, and for many days the weather had been wet. It was not possible to dig for more than about a foot without coming to water.
Mud is a bad description: the soil was more like a thick slime. When walking one sank several inches in and, owing to the suction, it was difficult to withdraw the feet. The consequence was that men who were standing still or sitting down got embedded in the slime and were unable to extricate themselves. As the trenches were so shallow, they had to stay where they were all day.
Most of the night was spent digging men out of the mud. The only way was to put duck boards on each side of him and work at one leg: poking and pulling until the suction was relieved. Then a strong pull by three or four men would get one leg out, and work would be begin on the other.
Back to battalion headquarters was about 800 yards at night it would take a runner [an orderly taking messages] about two hours to get there. One would hear men who had missed their way and got stuck in the mud calling out for help that often could not be sent to them. It would be useless for only one or two men to go, and practically all the troops were in the front line and, of course, had to stay there. All the time the Boche dropped shells promiscuously about the place. He who had a corpse to stand or sit on was lucky.
The History of the Trench Lighter
The Western Front of the First World War was an unpleasant place, to say the very least. The chalky French soil would fall apart at the lightest rainfall, compromising trench integrity from the start. Belgian soil held water like a sponge, meaning you couldn’t dig without flooding everything with dark, peaty mud. Disease and vermin were rampant and soldiers were covered in lice. Then the war would restart and artillery shells would smash down, shattering whatever shelter soldiers and laborers had managed to construct.
Supply lines in Europe were reliable, but only up to a point. Railroads could only get so close to the front and horse drawn carriages and early 20th century cars weren’t enough to fill in the gaps. There were frequent supply issues that left soldiers to fend for themselves, usually spending what time they had scavangening in the many, many, many abandoned villages, farmsteads, homes, and villas.
Part of this need for scavenging came out of the army’s inability to predict and meet the evolving demands of trench warfare. When the men started hunkering down in the trenches, pillboxes, and dugouts, they encountered problems few soldiers ever had before, to the point where their standard issue uniforms didn’t measure up to the job. For example, the ubiquitous trench coat, an article of clothing so well-suited for the environment it was renamed after the war, was something soldiers had to purchase for themselves.
Some of the most iconic examples of trench improvisation were the weapons. Soldiers would cobble together maces, blades, clubs, bludgeons, firearm attachments, and explosives from whatever they had lying around in the trench, since that’s what the fighting often devolved into anyway. Improvised weapons could be anything from a simple nail stuck through a board to fully smithed knives made from scrap metal. Soldiers would also sometimes hammer random bits of metal into the end of wooden clubs, just to make their swing that much more damaging.
A story of improvisation that gets passed around frequently is that of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) forces in Gallipoli. Their landing was ill-advised and ill-equipped and the soldiers knew it, so they took it upon themselves to improve their chances in anyway they could. One way was supplying their own grenades. Assembly lines of soldiers built hundreds of jam tin bombs to supplement an inadequate and dwindling number of standard hand grenades. For shrapnel, soldiers would pack the tins full of any kind of metal they could get their hands on, including nails, brass from spent shells, and bits of barbed wire. They would even copy a hand grenade’s design by packing explosives in a second, smaller tin, placing it inside the big tin and surrounding it with shrapnel.
Though, as much as people like to dwell on the ingenuity of the weapons, most of the improvisational energy went into making the trenches more livable. Before long, trench dugouts began to reflect the lives of the people in them, with souvenirs from battle, pictures of home, letters from loved ones, even wallpaper and electricity, especially as the war dragged on. By war’s end, soldiers on both sides, though German in particular, were living in dugout and trench complexes that would make some modern renters jealous. Only for the space though, not the constant threat of death by high explosive.
Soldiers had plenty of free time (even if you wouldn’t think of boredom being a major factor in the First World War), so small models of homes and towns began to pop up, as well as a vibrant trench art community, where soldiers repurposed spent ammunition, spare change, scrap metal, and souvenirs captured from the other side.
All of this is a really long way to say that if soldiers wanted to enjoy the amenities of home, they were going to have to provide it themselves, even in things as small as lighters. Lighters aren’t anything we’d think of as rare or hard to come by, but there soldiers didn’t exactly have a bodega they could pop into whenever they found themselves lacking a light for their cigarette. Or explosive’s fuse.
Their solution was to piece a lighter together out of spent bullet casings, thereby creating the cartridge case lighter. The ones you’ll see more often, and the ones that have instruction videos on YouTube, are made from the British .303 round. Essentially, you’d need two casings, where one acts as a windscreen for the flame, while the other holds the cotton and fuel. You could slide the windscreen up, light the flame, put it to whatever it was you needed to ignite, then slide everything back into place. It’s arguably a better lighter than we currently have in gas stations and convenience stores across the country.
It’s also a testament to the stubbornness of the men in the trenches. They weren’t going to let a little thing like the German invasion of France stop them from eking out some creature comforts. They knew they weren’t going to get lighters from their high command, so they put their heads together and invented an ingenious way to bring themselves a bit more relief.
Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare
Trench warfare is a type of land warfare using occupied fighting lines consisting largely of military trenches, in which troops are well-protected from the enemy&rsquos small arms fire and artillery. Trench warfare has become synonymous with stalemates, attrition, and futility.
Trench warfare occurred because a revolution of weapon technology was not matched with advances in mobility, resulting in an arduous conflict in which the defender had the advantage. The area between opposing trench lines, known as No Man&rsquos Land, was fully exposed to artillery fire and attacks often sustained severe casualties.
During the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties. In the Battle of Verdun, the French army suffered 380,000 casualties. This travesty is attributed to narrow-minded commanders who failed to adapt to the new conditions of weapons technology. World War I generals are often portrayed as callously persisting in repeated hopeless attacks against enemy trenches.
British soldiers in a trench in France make merry with paper hats from Christmas crackers while a sentry uses a mirror to keep watch on no man&rsquos land, 1916. Buzzfeed Indian soldiers digging trenches, 1915. Buzzfeed Looking out across a battlefield from an Anzac pillbox near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders in 1917. When German forces met stiff resistance in northern France in 1914, a &ldquorace to the sea&rdquo developed as France and Germany tried to outflank each other, establishing battle lines that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Allies and Central Powers literally dug in, excavating thousands of miles of defensive trenches, and trying desperately to break through the other side for years, at an unspeakably huge cost in blood and treasure. [Editor&rsquos note: Photographer James Francis Hurley was known to have produced a number of WWI images that were composites of pieces of several photos, and it is possible this image is a composite as well.] The Atlantic Six German soldiers pose in a trench with a machine gun, a mere 40 meters from the British line, according to the caption provided. The machine gun appears to be a Maschinengewehr 08, or MG 08, capable of firing 450-500 rounds a minute. The large cylinder is a jacket around the barrel, filled with water to cool the metal during rapid fire. The soldier at right, with gas mask canister, slung over his shoulder, is peering into a periscope to get a view of enemy activity. The soldier at the rear, with a steel helmet, holds a &ldquopotato masher&rdquo model 24 grenade. The Atlantic Cleaning up German trenches at St. Pierre Divion. In the foreground, a group of British soldiers is sorting through equipment abandoned in the trenches by the Germans when St Pierre Divion was captured. One soldier has three rifles slung on his shoulder, another has two. Others are looking at machine-gun ammunition. The probable photographer, John Warwick Brooke, has achieved considerable depth of field as many other soldiers can be seen in the background far along the trenches. National Library of Scotland Soldier&rsquos comrades watch him as he sleeps, near Thievpal, France. Soldiers are standing in a very deep, narrow trench, the walls of which are entirely lined with sandbags. At the far end of the trench, a line of soldiers is squashed up looking over each other&rsquos shoulders at the sleeping man. National Library of Scotland &ldquoWe can see a small group of soldiers coming out of a trench, over the protective sandbag wall. They have their bayonets fixed, ready for an attack. It is not clear whether this is a staged photo or not. The works of official photographer Charles Hilton DeWitt form an important record, [but] their documentary value must be assessed with caution. Girdwood&rsquos was an explicitly propagandist role on behalf of the war effort in general and the India Office in particular.&rdquo &ndash The British Library A sentry of the 10th Gordons at the junction of two trenches. Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August. Trenches came into widespread use in 1914 as a way for soldiers to protect themselves against the firepower of modern weaponry. Over time, they developed into huge networks. As shown here, trenches were given names to help identify them. Sometimes these names related to familiar places from home. International War Museum Colonel Philip R Robertson returning from a tour of his unit&rsquos positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier 1915. Water and mud could be a problem in the trenches, particularly in the autumn and winter months. Wooden âduckboards&rsquo were used to line the bottom of trenches and the sides were reinforced with sandbags. International War Museum Dispatch rider of the Royal Naval Division Signal Company returning through a communication trench from Brigade Headquarters. Trench conditions varied across different fronts. In Gallipoli in Turkey, mud was less of a problem but rocky and mountainous terrain posed different challenges. Soldiers also suffered from the heat. International War Museum Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Croix du Bac, near Armentieres. Hot food was not supplied to front-line soldiers until late 1915 and even then it wasn&rsquot always a regular occurrence. Troops in the front line had a repetitive diet of tinned food, sometimes served cold. International War Museum Soldiers of &lsquoA&rsquo Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench. This photograph shows an infantryman on sentry duty, whilst some of his comrades snatch a few moments of sleep behind him. They are in what was previously a German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme, July 1916. International War Museum Men resting in sleeping shelters dug into the side of a trench near Contalmaison. When able to rest, soldiers in front-line trenches would try and shelter from the elements in dugouts. These varied from deep underground shelters to small hollows in the side of trenches. International War Museum Four Canadian soldiers, sleeping and writing letters in the trenches near Willerval. Most activity in front-line trenches took place at night under cover of darkness. During daytime, soldiers would try to get some rest but were usually only able to sleep for a few hours at a time. International War Museum Men of the 10th Brigade who had been in the front line trenches for several days have a foot inspection at Dragon Farm. Soldiers in wet and muddy trenches were at risk from trench foot, caused by continually wearing tight, cold and wet boots. If untreated, trench foot could lead to gangrene, but it could be prevented by regular changes of socks and foot inspections. International War Museum An officer of the 9th Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap during the spring battles of 1917. Life in the front line always carried an element of danger. The threat could be from snipers, shellfire or from taking part in a trench raid or a major offensive. This rare photograph shows the moment when the first men go over the top during a raid in spring 1917. International War Museum A group of armed Indian soldiers in a trench, wearing gas masks. Buzzfeed A New Zealand soldier in a trench examining his shirt for lice. International War Museum An explosion near trenches dug into the grounds of Fort de la Pompelle, near Reims, France. San Diego Air and Space Museum Barber in a French trench in 1916 or 1917. Archive photo, Imperial War Museum
A chain of volcanoes that rise above the ocean waves to form the Mariana Islands mirrors the crescent-shaped arc of the Mariana Trench. Interspersed with the islands are many strange undersea volcanoes.
For example, the Eifuku submarine volcano spews liquid carbon dioxide from hydrothermal vents similar to chimneys. The liquid coming out of these chimneys is 217 degrees Fahrenheit (103 degrees Celsius). At the Daikoku submarine volcano, scientists discovered a pool of molten sulfur 1,345 feet (410 m) below the ocean surface, something seen nowhere else on Earth.
Life in the Trenches
Trenches and life within those trenches have become an enduring topic from World War One. Throughout the war millions of soldiers experienced and endured the horrors of trench warfare. Some wrote down for posterity what these experiences were and as time has moved on from World War One more and more of these written documents – frequently in the form of a diary – have come to light. Others wrote about their experiences in book-form. On the British side “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves is considered a classic. For the Germans, “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich von Remarque was considered to be such a potent anti-war book that Hitler banned it. Over the years both books have sold in large numbers. In recent years “The Last Fighting Tommy” by Harry Patch gave an evocative account of trench life at Passchendaele. Others who wrote about their lives in the trenches did not achieve the fame of Graves or Remarque but their accounts are equally as valid. As recently as 2006 a trench diary kept by Private Bert Camp was discovered by his grandsons while the letters written home from the trenches by Private Freddie Noakes were published for the first time in 2010.
However, regardless of who wrote what about the trenches, all have one consistent theme – the horrors experienced by the men who had to live in them.
All of the soldiers who fought in trenches would have had a good idea of what a good trench was like and what constituted a bad trench. Frank Richards wrote about his experiences in trenches:
“A good standing trench was about six foot deep, so that a man could walk upright during the day in safety from rifle-fire. In each bay of the trench we constructed fire-steps about two feet higher than the bottom of the trench, which enabled us to stand head and shoulders above the parapet. During the day we were working in reliefs, and we would snatch an hour’s sleep, when we could, on a wet and muddy fire-step, wet through to the skin ourselves.
If anyone had to go to the company on our right in the daytime he had to walk through thirty yards of waterlogged trench, which was chest-deep in water in some places.
The duckboard track was constantly shelled, and in places a hundred yards of it had been blown to smithereens. It was better to keep off the track when walking back and forth, but then a man had to make his way sometimes through very heavy mud…..wet snow had begun to fall, which turned into rain and some parts of the land were soon a bog of mud to get drowned in.”
Bruce Bairnsfather experienced trench life in the early stages of World War One.
“It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches. Everything was strange, and wet and horrid. First of all I had to do and fix up my machine guns at various points, and find places for the gunners to sleep in. This was no easy matter, as many of the dugouts had fallen in and floated off downstream.
In this, and subsequent descriptions of the trenches, I may lay myself open to the charge of exaggeration. But it must be remembered that I am describing trench life in the early days of 1914, and I feel sure that those who had experience of them will acquit me of any such charge.
To give a recipe for getting a rough idea, in case you want to, I recommend the following procedure. Select a flat ten-acre ploughed field, so sited that all the surface water of the surrounding country drains into it. Now cut a zig-zag slot about four feet deep and three feet wide diagonally across, dam off as much water as you can so as to leave about one hundred yards of squelchy mud delve out a hole at one side of the slot, then endeavour to live there for a month on bully beef and damp biscuits, whilst a friend has instructions to fire at you with his Winchester every time you put your head above the surface.
Well, here I was anyway, and the next thing was to make the bets of it. As I have before said, these were the days of the earliest trenches in this war days when we had none of those “props” such as corrugated iron, floorboards, and sand bags.
When you made a dug-out in those days you made it out of anything you could find, and generally had to make it yourself.”
Some British soldiers found that captured German trenches were better built than British ones – as H S Clapham wrote after a successful attack on a German trench in Y Wood.
“When I dropped into the Hun trench I found it a great place, only three wide, and at least eight feet deep, and beautifully made of white sandbags, back and front. At that spot there was no sign of any damage by our shells, but a number of dead Huns lay in the bottom. There was a sniper’s post just where I fell in, a comfortable little square hole, fitted with seats and shelves, bottles of beer, tinned meats and a fine helmet hanging on a hook.”
August Hope wrote about the horrors he experienced.
“It was 9 a.m. and the so-called trench was full of corpses and all sorts of equipment. We stood and sat on bodies as if they were stones or logs of wood. Nobody worried if one had its head stuck through or torn off, or a third had gory bones sticking out through its torn coat. And outside the trench one could see them lying in every kind of position. There was one quite young little chap, a Frenchman, sitting in a shell-hole, with his rifle on his arm and his head bent forward, but he was holding his hands as if to protect himself, in front of his chest in which there was a deep bayonet wound. And so they lay, in all their different positions, mostly Frenchman, with their heads battered in by blows from mallets and even spades, and all around rifles, equipment of all kinds and any number of kepis. The 154 th had fought like furies in their attack, to revenge themselves for the shellfire.
A heap of five corpses lay just this side of the barrier we were constantly having to tread on them to try to squash them down in the mud, because, in consequence of the gunfire, we couldn’t get them out of the trench. Our feelings gradually became quite blunted.”
A History Of The Trench Coat – A Military Garment With Origins Far Older Than WWI
Few items of 20th century military apparel are more iconic than the trench coat. Associated in pop culture with everything from tough private detectives, rugged outdoorsmen, intrepid adventurers, iconic sci-fi characters from movies such as Bladerunner and The Matrix, to vampire hunters and, of course, military men, the trench coat is one of the few items of fashion to have changed little in form or style over the past hundred years.
While it is true that the garment as we know it originated in the trenches of the First World War (hence the name “trench coat”), where it was initially worn by British officers, the item of clothing that would become a trench coat was developed around a hundred years before WWI.
The origins of the modern day trench coat (and the style of the trench coat used in WWI) can be traced back to the early 19th century. In 1820, an English inventor, Thomas Hancock, and a Scottish chemist, Charles Macintosh, created a type of waterproof garment by coating long jackets with rubber. The resulting garment was called a mack, and was marketed in Britain to men of the upper classes.
Charles Macintosh (left) and Thomas Burberry (right).
The mack worked well when it came to keeping rain out, but it also kept sweat in, and macks soon developed a reputation for getting rather smelly, pretty quickly. The fabric was improved as technology advanced throughout the nineteenth century, and marked improvements were made by John Emary in 1853 and by Thomas Burberry in 1856.
Both Emary’s and Burberry’s coats were more breathable than the earlier macks, and repelled water just as effectively. Emary named his company Aquascutum (Latin for “water shield), while Burberry simply gave his company his own name.
Burberry invented a fabric (gabardine) in 1879 of which the individual fibers of material were waterproofed prior to the construction of the garment. This resulted in the best “trench coat” yet – although the name “trench coat” had yet to be invented.
Burberry advertisement for waterproof gabardine suit, 1908
In what had formerly been a neck and neck race, Burberry began to take the lead late in the 19th century. Burberry coats were worn by British officers in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and at this time Burberry patented a coat design called the Tielocken.
The Tielocken’s features were essentially those of what we would recognize as a trench coat: it was knee-length, double breasted, and had a broad collar and a belt.
Thus, the garment that was later christened the “trench coat” was actually invented over a decade before the First World War broke out. Burberry’s company again came into the spotlight in the first decade of the 20th century when Roald Amundsen used his coats in his expedition to the South Pole, and then when Sir Ernest Shackleton led an expedition across Antarctica.
British Army officer in the First World War.
As Burberry’s company had become one of the official suppliers of clothing to Britain’s armed forces during the Boer War, it came as no surprise that his Tielocken coat was used by British troops. The WWI Burberry Tielocken had evolved for war use, featuring D-rings on the belt to attach equipment, a pistol flap in the breast, epaulets to display rank, and a storm shield.
An important point to note about these specific coats is that they were reserved for officers only. Enlisted men were not allowed to wear them, although they did have their own coats. Most soldiers, up to this point, had worn greatcoats.
While they appeared similar in design to Burberry’s trench coat, the old-style greatcoats, from a 19th century design, were nowhere near as practical. Greatcoats had generally been made of wool, or cheaper materials – often of poor quality – and were usually not waterproof, and were uncomfortable and poorly cut.
The seamstresses at Burberry’s of Basingstoke pose at their machines right at the end of the war (1918). Photo: Hampshire and Solent Museums / CC BY-SA 2.0
They were also generally quite heavy, and hindered soldiers’ mobility. While many troops of the First World War were issued with greatcoats, the greatcoats were often so long that the soldiers cut the bottoms off to prevent them dragging in the mud and soaking up trench water, which made them even heavier and more cumbersome.
When it came to stacking up Burberry’s Tielocken coat against a standard-issue greatcoat for an enlisted man, there really was no contest. Burberry’s waterproof, comfortable, stylish coat was both extremely well-made and immensely practical for life in the trenches – and thus his coats, worn only by British officers in the first stages of the war, became known as trench coats.
John G. Diefenbaker (future Prime Minister of Canada), John Einarsson, and Michael A. McMillan as Canadian soldiers in France 1916-17 wearing trench coats.
Of course, the fact that the trench coat was only worn by officers was not lost on enemy snipers. For German sharpshooters, identifying officers – who were important targets – in British trenches at a distance became quite easy, and thus the trench coat began to become more of a curse than a blessing to many a British officer who was picked off by a sniper’s bullet.
When America entered WWI in 1917, American officers took a few cues from their British counterparts, and soon enough they too were wearing trench coats.
Recognizing a great business opportunity, marketers soon began selling trench coats to the public, advertising them as items to be worn in solidarity with those fighting in France. Thus, the first civilian use of the trench coat was more of an expression of patriotism than a pure fashion statement.
Belgian machinegunner in 1918 guarding trench
After the war was over, many British officers kept their trench coats and wore them in civilian life. Trench coats thus attained an air of upper class association, seeing as most British officers came from the landed class.
However, the popularity of the trench coat began to spread on both sides of the Atlantic. While they often remained high price garments, cheaper versions began to be made.
Both WWII and the Golden Age of Hollywood went on to popularize trench coats further. Aquascutum, despite having earlier been less popular than Burberry, got back into the race in a big way during WWII, when it became one of the official manufacturers and suppliers of Allied military clothing.
HRH Crown Prince Olaf of Norway and the Commander in Chief Home Forces, at large scale exercises in England – wearing trench coats.
In the decades following the Second World War the trench coat went on to achieve worldwide popularity, becoming a classic icon with the sartorial staying power of blue jeans and tee shirts.
Today, you can find trench coats in any city on the planet – but most people you ask probably won’t know where the “trench” in trench coat comes from, or that this iconic garment was actually first developed for war.
Trench coats: from real mud to Nostalgia of Mud
‘Rustic’ linen smock-shirts were worn by farmhands well into the 19 th century. These garments were woven in such a way that they would shrink and tighten when damp, giving them a degree of water resistance: this is also the principle on which gabardine works. Gabardine was invented by Thomas Burberry, who patented it in 1879. With this fabric, the cotton yarn is also waterproofed with rubber before weaving. Gabardine is used, most famously, for trench coats.
Trench coats were intended primarily as practical wear, but are nowadays meat and drink to the fashion world. They became really fashionable after the First World War, having been introduced into towns and cities by demobilised soldiers returning from the trenches. They are an icon of 20 th century fashion, often associated with characters from film noir, though have also obtained a somewhat seamy reputation, worn often in film and fiction by disreputable types, such as journalists and private detectives. Recently, on a courier trip, I was asked by the truck driver why I was wearing a ‘flasher mac’, so I know first-hand that the association of trench coats with seediness has not abated.
The direct descendant of the trench is the greatcoat, a highly practical item of outerwear originally used by coachmen. Greatcoats have generous proportions and a similar arrangements of water-shedding flaps, cape etc., to the trench coat. Sometimes greatcoats would be coated with a layer of grease or oil to improve waterproofing (presumably at the cost of smelling nice). This type of coat was appropriated by some gentlemen, presumably drawn to the idealised notion of a swashbuckling, heroic night-rider.
Worsted overcoat, England, ca. 1800
Worsted, gilt metal chain, hand-stitched
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Famous outerwear brand Aquascutum (Latin for ‘water-shield’) supplied military coats to the British army during the Crimean War (1853-1856), a conflict in which many of the garment’s key details were developed, including the raglan sleeve, supposedly named after the First Baron Raglan or, (confusingly) Lord Raglan. Raglan sleeves reach right to the neck with long diagonal seams, covering the shoulder. Baron Raglan, who led the British army in the Crimea, lost an arm at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), and so devised a sleeve which would be easier for him to get into. Or, if you prefer this story, the second of the two aristocratic Raglans (the Lord), who was also present in the Crimea, invented a showerproof soldiers’ garment made from a potato sack. Other identifying features include big storm pockets, checked linings, a big collar and wrist straps. Other features reference the garment’s military heritage: epaulets for gloves or insignia, and metal D-rings on the belt, which were originally designed for hanging a sword.
Aquascutum and Burberry both supplied coats to British Army officers in the First World War. These coats were hard-wearing, warm and waterproof, and it was for these reasons they were carried over into civilian life. Another reason for their successful transition from the battlefield to the high street was their dashing and romantic, ‘officer-class’ look, as well as for their inevitable association with male bravery and the supposed ‘glory’ of warfare. Many former officers reportedly wore their same army coats for decades after the armistice, swearing on their durability and consistent water-resistance.
Trench coats fell out of favour with militaries in the Second World War, the preference being for shorter combat jackets which allowed soldiers greater mobility. However, sinister organisations such as the Gestapo utilised long coats for an intimidating effect. The disappearance of military customers meant brands had to focus on the appealing noir potential of trench coat. They became somewhat unfashionable during the later 1960s and 1970s, being ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s as silhouettes widened, and the moody and romantic signature of the garment was once again recognised. All through this time, the basic design of the trench coat did not significantly change, although the treatment sometimes has (a good example being a lace coat recently acquired by the V&A). In fashion terms, an owner of a trench coat is probably looking to capture some of the sense of romance provided through its cinematic portrayal.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren
Given by David Barber, in memory of Rupert Michael Dolan
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Representing the trench coat in the rainwear display, currently on show in the V&A fashion gallery, is this outsized ‘mac’ from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s final collaboration: the 1983 Witches collection. It is included to show the development of the form of the trench coat for a high fashion market. It is simply constructed from rectangles of waterproofed cotton, showcasing Westwood’s great skill at cutting patterns. It also reveals her interest in historical menswear, which was first explored in her 1980 Pirates collection. Perhaps appropriately it was purchased by its former owner from McLaren and Westwood’s outlet shop, Nostalgia of Mud: a fitting commentary on the fashion history of the trench coat?
A man in a trench…
A man in a trench was almost invulnerable to rifle and machine-gun fire. To kill or wound him with a shell required a lucky shot by one contemporary estimate, it took 329 shells to hit one German soldier. To clear the trench a hand grenade had to be thrown or shot into it. But to get within range—60 to 120 feet—required crossing no-man’s-land alive, possible only for small groups mounting nocturnal trench raids, and not for masses of men advancing in daylight against a “storm of steel” from machine guns and artillery. Mobility and mass had ruled warfare since antiquity. Opponents were either flanked or crushed. Trench warfare mocked these principles. If, trying to defeat the Allies before the million-man American Army took the field, the Germans had not raised up out of their trenches and taken the offensive in the spring of 1918, the war would have lasted a year or more longer.
Mud was the soldiers’ shield. European man tried to cheat death by submerging himself in the “greasy tide” of rainy, thin-soiled Flanders and Picardy. Three French soldiers speak for millions.
“The front-line trench is a mud-colored stream, but an unmoving stream where the current clings to the banks,” one wrote. “You go down into it, you slip in gently … At first the molecules of this substance part, then you can feel them return together and hold on with a tenacity against which nothing can prevail.”
“Sometimes the two lips of the trench come together yearningly and meet in an appalling kiss, the wattle sides collapsing in the embrace,” another observed. “Twenty times over you have patched up this mass with wattles, yet it slides and drops down. Stakes bend and break … Duckboards float, and then sink into the mire. Everything disappears into this ponderous liquid: men would disappear into it too if it were deeper.”
To yet another, writing in a soldier-edited “trench paper,” the mud seemed alive—and hungry: “At night, crouching in a shell-hole and filling it, the mud watches, like an enormous octopus. The victim arrives. It throws its poisonous slobber out at him, blinds him, closes round him, buries him … For men die of mud, as they die of bullets, but more horribly. Mud is where men sink and—what is worse—the soul sinks … Look, there, there are flecks of red on that pool of mud—blood from a wounded man. Hell is not fire, that would not be the ultimate in suffering. Hell is mud!”
On his first night in the trenches, Robert Graves “saw a man lying on his face in a machine-gun shelter.”
I stopped and said: “Stand-to, there.” I flashed my torch on him and saw his foot was bare. The machine-gunner beside him said: “No good talking to him, sir.” I asked: “What’s wrong? What’s he taken his boot and sock off for?” I was ready for anything wrong in the trenches. “Look for yourself, sir,” he said. I shook the man by the arm and noticed suddenly that the back of his head was blown out. The first corpse I saw in France was this suicide. He had taken off his boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with his toe the muzzle was in his mouth.
The mutual siege warfare of the trenches was a psychic Calvary. “All poilus have suffered from le cafard,” a poilu, the French “grunt,” testified, using an expression for overmastering misery “which has no precise linguistic equivalent in the English vocabulary of the Great War.” To be alive was to be afraid—of snipers, shells, mines, and gas of drowning in mud, burning in liquid fire, and freezing in snow of the enemy in front of you and the firing squad behind of lice and rats, pneumonia, and typhus of cowardice, hysteria, madness, and suicide.
Graves’s great fear was of being hit by “aimed fire” traceable to a marksman’s malevolent intent. The least likely way to die in the war, the bayonet thrust in the gut, was the most terrifying. More rational was the terror instilled by “the monstrous anger of the guns,” as the poet Wilfred Owen personified artillery. Unaimed shellfire was the major killer in the trenches. Under saturation bombardment, there was no escape. For nine straight hours, on February 21, 1916, at Verdun, eight hundred German artillery pieces fired forty shells a minute on the French positions. “I believe I have found a comparison that conveys what I, in common with all the rest who went through the war, experienced in situations like this,” Ernst Jünger wrote. “It is as if one were tied to a post and threatened by a fellow swinging a sledgehammer. Now the hammer is swung back for the blow, now it whirls forward, just missing your skull, it sends the splinters flying from the post once more. That is exactly what it feels like to be exposed to heavy shelling without cover.”
Jünger’s image captures the emotional trauma specific to trench warfare. In his 1918 book War Neurosis the psychiatrist John T. MacCurdy hypothesized that industrial warfare was uniquely stressful because soldiers were forced to “remain for days, weeks, even months, in a narrow trench or stuffy dugout, exposed to constant danger of the most fearful kind … which comes from some unseen force, and against which no personal agility or wit is of any avail.” Nor, unless in hand-to-hand combat, could the men “retaliate in any personal way.” Their memories were seared with inadmissible fear and inexpressible rage. The worst sufferers from war neurosis or “shell-shock,” as a Lancet article labeled it in early 1915, were the defenseless artillery spotters who hung over the battlefield in balloons while the enemy fired shot after unanswered shot at them. “Medical officers at the front were forced to recognize that more men broke down in war because they were not allowed to kill than collapsed under the strain of killing,” observes the historian Joanna Bourke. To spare himself, perhaps Graves’s barefoot suicide needed to turn his death-will on a German.
Soldiers could look away from terrible sights there was no escape from the pounding nightmare of the guns. Of the firing of a giant mortar, an American correspondent with the German army in Lorraine reported: “There was a rush, a rumble, and a groaning—and you were conscious of all three at once … The blue sky vanished in a crimson flash … and then there was a remote and not unpleasant whistling in the air. The shell was on its way to the enemy.” What did it sound like to him? “You hear a bang in the distance and then a hum coming nearer and nearer until it becomes a whistle,” a British soldier remembered. “Then you hear nothing for fractions of a second until the explosion.” “The lump of metal that will crush you into a shapeless nothing may have started on its course,” wrote Ernst Jünger, recalling the thought that filled his mind while he “cower[ed] … alone in his hole” during a bombardment. “Your discomfort is concentrated on your ear, that tries to distinguish amid the uproar the swirl of your own death rushing near.” Paradoxically, the shells that couldn’t be heard, those fired from trench mortars just across no-man’s-land, were the likeliest to kill. Terrifying as the din was, men had more to fear from the silence.
Artillery broke men it could not break the trench barrier. A rain of shells might bury a stretch, but not men guarding it. Carrying their machine guns and rifles, they could ride out the bombardment in deep dugouts built into the inner walls of the trench, then surface in time to decimate the attacking infantry. The machine gun, which had necessitated the trench, could not break it. The grenade was “an excellent weapon to clear out the trenches that assaulting columns are attacking,” in the words of Tactics and Duties for Trench Fighting, a U.S. Army manual. Of flamethrowers, exploited by the Germans in their 1918 breakout attacks, Tactics and Duties bleakly concluded: “It is impossible to withstand a liquid fire attack if the operators succeed in coming within sixty yards” of the trench. “The only means of combating such an attack is to evacuate.” Grenades and flamethrowers were tactical weapons. Gas was potentially strategic.
In April 1915, the Germans released a 150-metric-ton cloud of chlorine along a seven-mile front near Ypres. The cloud slowly wafted across no-man’s-land, turning from white to yellow-green as it crept closer to the two divisions of Franco-Algerian soldiers holding the line. Choking for life, they panicked and ran, German infantry in pursuit. “We had seen everything—shells, tear-gas, woodland demolished, the black tearing mines falling in fours, the most terrible wounds and the most murderous avalanches of metal—but nothing can compare with this … death-cloud that enveloped us,” one poilu wrote in a trench paper. The Germans captured two thousand prisoners and fifty-one guns but had not accumulated the reserves to convert this tactical success into a breakthrough, a failure that gave rise to the myth of the “missed opportunity.” (“After the war, many of the experts felt that the Germans could have dealt a decisive blow on the western front if they had made the necessary deployments.”) Far along in their preparations to deploy and defend against gas, the Allies rapidly adapted. Within months both sides were using it, especially to deny mobility to the other side. Thus “poison gas, which was supposed to bring an end to trench warfare,… became the strongest factor in promoting the stasis of the war,” and intensifying its horror.
What finally broke the barrier was the tank used in combination with artillery and infantry. “The turning point of the war,” according to a postwar German government commission, was the emergence from out of an early morning mist of French tanks counterattacking the German lines at Soisson on July 18, 1918—tanks that rolled over obstacles vital to the defenders’ sense of security. “Tank fright” ramified. It colored what General Ludendorff called “the black day of the German army,” the August 8 attack at Amiens of four hundred British tanks (and eight hundred planes) that punched an eight-mile bulge in the German lines. The British took eighteen thousand prisoners, batches at a time surrendering to single tanks. And whereas eight thousand Germans were killed on August 8, the tank-accompanied British troops, attacking in the open, recorded half that number of fatalities over four days. By neutralizing the machine gun, the armored tank lifted the “storm of steel” fatal to attacking infantry.
Ten Australian and Canadian divisions crossed no-man’s-land with those tanks at Amiens. Leaving the protection of the trenches, the men went “over the top.” Henri Barbusse evoked that moment: “Each one knows that he will be presenting his head, his chest, his belly, the whole of his body, naked, to the rifles that are already fixed, the shells, the heaps of ready-prepared grenades and, above all, the methodical, almost infallible machine-gun—to everything that is waiting in silence out there—before he finds the other soldiers that he must kill.”
The Germans collapsed at Soissons and Amiens because they had lost one million irreplaceable men who had gone over the top in their last-ditch “peace offensives” between March and July. The nearly four years since the Battle of Flanders had proved the axiom that he who attacked lost heavily in men whatever few yards he gained in territory. On the relative safety of the trenches, consider the contrast between the casualties suffered by the German army in February 1918, when it stood on the defensive, and in March, when it attacked. Manning the trenches in February found 1,705 soldiers killed, 1,147 missing, and 30,381 wounded. Attacking in March the figures were 31,000 killed, 19,680 wounded, 180,898 missing.
Amiens showed how far tanks could shift the odds to the attacker. However, while the tank could break into the German lines, with its vulnerability to shells, liability to breakdown, and short range it could not break through them. Of the 414 tanks in the August 8 attack at Amiens, just 38 were usable on the 11th and only 6 on the 12th. As the supple of tanks ran down in September and October the British high command reverted to the high-casualty infantry-artillery assault. Thus when the British “Tommy” took the offensive in the fall of 1918 he had grim occasion to look back on the “victory of the spade” as a victory for life over death.
In licensing the spade, the generals licensed survival, a biological imperative that sapped the appetite for aggression. The trenches spawned a live-and-let-live solidarity between enemies sharing the same mud, enduring the same privations, and resenting in equal measure the same callousness toward their sufferings found at headquarters, in rear billets, on the home front, and in the patriotic press—a solidarity feared by the brass on both sides, who, sensing in it the makings of a politics of life stronger than nationalism, strove to break it.
Tanks and World War One
The tank had an interesting role in World War One. The tank was first used at the little known Battle of Flers. It was then used with less success at the Battle of the Somme. Though the tank was highly unreliable – as one would expect from a new machine – it did a great deal to end the horrors of trench warfare and brought back some mobility to the Western Front.
A World War One tank
The idea of the tank came from a development of farming vehicles that could cross difficult land with ease by using caterpillar tracks. However, the British army’s hierarchy was dominated by officers from the various cavalry regiments that existed. At the start of World War One, the first engagement between the British and Germans had involved cavalry near Mons. This seemed to emphasise the importance of such regiments. However, trench warfare had made the use of cavalry null and void. Cavalry engagements fought in mud proved very costly and from a military point of view, hopeless. Despite this seemingly obvious fact, senior military commanders were hostile to the use of armoured vehicles, as they would have challenged the use of cavalry in the field.
The leading light in support of the tank was Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton. In 1914, he had proposed the development of a new type of fighting vehicle. In fact, it is a common misconception that no fighting vehicles existed in August 1914. The Germans, British, Austrians, Russians and French all had armoured fighting vehicles that could fight on ‘normal’ terrain. But these vehicles could not cope with trenches that were soon to dominate the Western Front. Caterpillar tracked vehicles were already in France as the British used them as heavy gun tractors.
Swinton had received some support from those in authority but many in the army’s General Staff were deeply suspicious. Swinton needed an example of the machine that he believed would alter warfare on the Western Front. By June 9th 1915, agreement was made regarding what the new weapon should be. It should:
- Have a top speed of 4 mph on flat land
- The ability to turn sharply at top speed
- The ability to climb a 5-feet parapet
- The ability to cross an eight feet gap
- A working radius of 20 miles
- A crew of ten men with two machine guns on board and one light artillery gun.
One supporter of the prospective new weapon was Winston Churchill. However, by the end of 1915, his name was not held in high esteem because of the Gallipoli fiasco.
As the stalemate on the Western Front continued, so the drive to find a weapon that could break this lack of mobility became more intense. Most of the original designs were based on designs from the Holt tractor company. However, their vehicles were designed to operate on muddy land but not the churned up landscape of the Western Front. The first ‘tank’ to have any form of caterpillar track was a vehicle designed by Lieutenant W Wilson and William Tritton called “Little Willie”. “Little Willie” was never designed to fight but to serve as a template for development. “Little Willie” developed in to “Big Willie” which started to bear a resemblance to the first Mark 1 seen in the photo. “Big Willie” was rhomboid in shape and had guns mounted in blisters on the sides of the hull.
The military failure in Gallipoli had pushed the emphasis of the war back to the Western Front – to the trenches and the lack of movement. Therefore, any new weapon that might seem capable of ending this stalemate was likely to be better received than in the past.
The start of life for the tank did not bode well. The first model came off the factory floor on September 8th 1915. On September 10th, its track came off. The same happened on September 19th when government officials were watching. However, these officials were impressed as they knew that any new weapon was bound to have teething problems and their recognised the potential that the new weapon had. Its main weakness was the track system. Tritton and Wilson designed a new and more reliable version and on September 29th a meeting took place in London that recommended the new weapon should have 10-mm frontal armour and 8-mm side armour. There would be a crew of eight and the large guns would be 57-mm naval guns mounted on the sides. The vehicle would have a speed of 4 mph. “Big Willie” ran with these specifications for the first time on January 16th 1916. Churchill had directly contacted Haig to convince him about the usefulness of the new weapon. Haig sent a major, Hugh Elles, to find out more about the machine and he reported favourably to Haig.
On January 29th 1916, “Big Willie” went through it first major demonstration – under the tightest of secrecy. On February 2nd, Kitchener, Lloyd George and McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, attended another demonstration. It was at this meeting that Kitchener described “Big Willie” as a “pretty mechanical toy”. However, those close to Kitchener said that he said this as a way to provoke the ‘tank team’ into defending their creation, i.e. that he was deliberately provocative to see what response he got. Whatever the case, by February 12th, 100 “Big Willies” had been ordered by the Ministry of Munitions.
The development of the tank when compared to other weapons was remarkably swift – a testament to the team surrounding the weapon and the drive of Wilson and Tritton. After February 12th, Ernest Swinton went into overdrive to develop a fighting technique for these new weapons. Swinton was very keen that both tanks and infantry worked in co-operation. However, in the early days, it remains clear that even Swinton saw the tank as supporting the infantry in their efforts to break the German front lines as opposed to the tank being a weapon that could do this by itself.
|“It seems, as the tanks are an auxiliary to the infantry, that they must be counted as infantry and in an operation be under the same command.”Swinton|
In April, Haig informed Swinton that he wanted tanks and crews ready for June 1st – the start date for the Battle of the Somme. This was an impossible request as there were no tanks in production and if there were no tanks, how could crews train on them? Finding crews was also a potential problem as very few people outside of the rich had had experience of mechanised vehicles by 1916. Those who did join the Armoured Car Section of the Motor Machine Gun Service (an attempt to disguise the new weapon) came from the Motor Machine Gun Service or from the motor trade – these people had mechanical skills but no military knowledge!
The abject failure of artillery at Verdun and the Somme meant that General Headquarters ordered the new weapon into use by September 15th 1916. The first tanks arrived in Europe on August 30th but the crews were faced with major problems. One tank commander wrote:
|“I and my crew did not have a tank of our own the whole time we were in England. Ours went wrong the day it arrived. We had no reconnaissance or map reading….no practices or lectures on the compass….we had no signaling….and no practice in considering orders. We had no knowledge of where to look for information that would be necessary for us as tank commanders, nor did we know what information we should be likely to require.”|
On September 15th, 36 tanks made an en masse attack at the Somme. Originally there had been fifty of these machines but these thirty ton machines could not cope with the harsh lunar landscape of the churned up ground and fourteen had broken down or got bogged down. Regardless of this a new era in warfare had started.