The First Winter
Events on the Western Front during the winter of 1914 - 1915
author Paul Boșcu, December 2015
During the first winter of the war, after heavy fighting in the previous months, the front stabilized. A series of trenches and fortifications were built by both sides all along the front. During this time the French launched a series of attacks against German positions, attacks which would ultimately prove to be costly in terms of casualties and tactically indecisive. A curious anomaly happened in some sections of the front during Christmas: in some places a ceasefire went in effect, with British, French and German soldiers crossing into No Man's Land and exchanging greetings, food and cigarettes, even playing football.

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By the end of the First Battle of Ypres, both the German and Entente forces were exhausted from heavy fighting and suffered from a shortage of ammunition and low morale. The combatants tried to consolidate their trenches as much as the winter weather and lack of supplies allowed. In December both sides tried exploratory attacks, often designed to straighten the line or to secure a tactically significant position, but to little real effect.

Christmas 1914 was marked by a spontaneous unofficial truce in Flanders, where German, French and British soldiers fraternized in No Man's Land, taking photographs, swapping souvenirs and even playing football. There was no real desire for compromise or negotiation: the Christmas Truce was an exercise in sentimentality and nothing more. As the war became increasingly bloody and impersonal, hardening attitudes ensured that such incidents on this scale would not recur.

Although by no means safe, the trenches enabled the troops to avoid the worst effects of artillery, machine gun and rifle fire. Only high explosives and shells from high-angle weapons dropped directly into the trenches posed a pressing danger. One thing was certain: a defending garrison tucked below ground level behind a tangle of barbed wire could deploy bolt action rifles and heavy machine guns to deadly effect against troops attempting to cross No Man’s Land. Anyone caught in the open was horribly vulnerable to artillery fire, so any attack was an intimidating prospect.

One improvement for the French soldiers was the gradual issue of new horizon blue uniforms gradually through the course of 1915. This was of course a massive undertaking and for a while the French soldiers presented an unprepossessing appearance in a bizarre mixture of old and new, although at least the light blue uniforms were less visible where it counted – on the battlefield.

By December 1914 there were major operations underway in five separate sections of the front, some of these overlapping with others begun in 1915. As a result there were always at least two and usually three French offensives going on in different sections of the front, while the Germans, usually regarded as passively defending their lines during this period, mounted half a dozen major operations as well. Any narrative of the fighting, therefore, ends up doing some violence to the chronology.

With the onset of winter, the deadlock became total. Continuous trench lines now extended from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier. The Germans had not yet constructed the formidable defensive systems which, for most of the war, their overall strategy in the west would dictate. Believing, in late 1914, that the building of a second position might weaken the resolve of troops in the front defences, the Germans depended at first on a single line, to be held at all costs. However, during the winter they revised this policy, adding depth to these defences with concrete machine-gun posts to the rear of the front line.

The Germans, whose decision to retreat from the Marne to ground of their own choosing allowed them to avoid the wet, low-lying, overlooked sectors they left to their enemies, were better established. Theirs had been a deliberate strategy of entrenchment, as reported by the commanders of the pursuing French formations which were stopped in sequence as they advanced from the Marne.

The Winter Battle in Champagne dragged on, with long pauses, until spring, costing the French 100,000 casualties and bringing them no gain in territory at all. There was also local and quite inconclusive fighting further south, in the Argonne, near Verdun, in the St. Mihiel salient, and around Hartmannsweilerkopf in the Vosges, a dominant point to which both sides sent their specialized mountain troops.

For the Germans, 1915 was a year of war that should not have been: their whole strategy had been based on a quick war. Now they found themselves embroiled in a two-front war, with two enemies – France and Russia – fully mobilized and another – Britain – slowly amassing her strength and standing relatively invulnerable behind her navy. The Chief of General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, faced a grim situation.

‘As a result of the unfortunately widespread catchword “the war must be won in the East,” even people in high leading circles inclined to the opinion that it would be possible for the Central Powers actually “to force Russia to her knees” by force of arms, and by this success to induce the Western Powers to change their mind. This argument paid no heed either to the true character of the struggle for existence, in the most exact sense of the word, in which our enemies were engaged no less than we, nor to their strength of will. It was a grave mistake to believe that our Western enemies would give way, if and because Russia was beaten. No decision in the East, even though it were as thorough as was possible to imagine, could spare us from fighting to a conclusion in the West. For this Germany had to be prepared at all costs.’ (Erich von Falkenhayn)

Falkenhayn’s personal preference was for a negotiated peace with one of Germany’s adversaries – preferably Russia – allowing Germany to concentrate on beating first France and then Britain – whom he had come to see as the ultimate enemy. There was a great deal of dissent in the German High Command, with an opposing school of thought rapidly coalescing around Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff who were far more confident that outright victory could be achieved over Russia in 1915.

Falkenhayn lacked the authority to enforce his will; indeed, there were widespread conspiracies against him across the German military and political hierarchy, involving the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Hindenburg – who sought the position of Chief of General Staff for himself – and the somewhat resentful Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. With the firm support of the Kaiser, Falkenhayn remained in post, but he was somewhat weakened in the process and was forced to send part of his reserves to the Eastern Front: this was a victory without power.

Austria-Hungary appealed for help after a series of terrible reverses against the Russians and Serbs left her teetering on the brink of military collapse. There were also rumbling noises emanating from Italy and Romania; it seemed that, rather than join the Central Powers as had been hoped, they were far more likely to join the Entente. This could only add to the pressure on Austria-Hungary. This combination of circumstances left Falkenhayn with no choice: he began to send his precious reserves to the Eastern Front, intent at first on stabilizing Germany’s faltering ally, then on making her secure from any future attack.

Having prepared for siege operations at the outset of the war, the Germans were comparatively well endowed with weapons suitable for trench warfare, including mortars, grenades, heavy guns and howitzers.

Falkenhayn's decision to stand temporarily on the defensive in the west – where he believed the war would ultimately be won – proved a huge mistake. A weakened and now inexperienced BEF might not have withstood further heavy blows during the winter. But the respite granted by the Germans allowed the Entente to reorganize, giving Britain, in particular, the chance to train Kitchener's New Armies and strengthen the BEF with additional Territorial and Dominion contingents.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff could claim that all the titanic efforts in the west had resulted only in deadlock, whereas they – with fewer resources – had twice frustrated Russian attempts to invade Germany and had also won territory in Russian Poland. Since both the Kaiser and his Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, agreed that the Eastern Front should be given priority, Falkenhayn found it necessary to stifle his own immediate strategic inclinations.

The French and British had little option but to attack on the Western Front. The Germans were poised only some sixty or so miles from Paris. The challenge facing British and French generals in early 1915 was immense. How could they get enough troops across No Man’s Land to overrun the German front line? In the first engagements the problem was largely seen as how to take the German front line; after which, the presumption was, things would just sort themselves out and all would be well. But there was far more to it than that.

French General Joseph Joffre was determined not to adopt a passive approach, which would hand the initiative to the Germans, allowing them to make their own unfettered plans for a devastating offensive on the Western Front, or to transfer troops en masse to the Eastern Front in order to seek a victory over Russia. There was also a political dimension: Joffre was under intense pressure to remove the invaders from the soil of France. Passively maintaining the status quo was not an option; the French wanted the invaders out of their country as soon as possible.

Joffre remained convinced that a breakthrough was possible, but conceded that a succession of preliminary attacks might be required to devour German reserves before the enemy line finally ruptured. In a phrase attributed to Joffre – Je les grignote ('I keep nibbling at them') – lay the embryo of three years of attrition.

Casualty rates in 1914 hit the BEF particularly hard. As a small, professional volunteer force it could ill afford the loss of 3,627 officers and 86,237 men. To compensate for the losses, the Indian Corps reached the Western Front, followed by the 8th, 27th and 28th Divisions – all formed from Regulars drawn from overseas garrisons. Twenty-three Territorial battalions also reinforced the BEF in 1914, and in February 1915 the 1st Canadian Division arrived.

The BEF was reorganized into two Armies: the First Army under Douglas Haig and the Second Army under Horace Smith-Dorrien. In Britain the Secretary of State for War, Herbert Kitchener, who foresaw a long and costly war, had begun a vast expansion of Britain's military forces, forming a series of 'New Armies', each of which duplicated the six divisions of the original BEF. More than 1,186,000 volunteers enlisted, but it would take time to train them.

The British compensated for the inferiority of their overlooked positions in Flanders by digging in duplicate and triplicate, an insurance both against sudden infantry assault and artillery damage.

Occupation was worse, however, than a violation of the national territory. It was a grave disruption of French economic life. The eighty French departments not directly touched by the war were largely agricultural. The ten occupied by the Germans contained much of French manufacturing industry and most of the country's coal and iron ores. If only to prosecute the war, it was urgent that they be recovered.

The French had a winter of heavy fighting as they sought to test the limitations of trench warfare with a series of major offensives. The first attack was by the Tenth Army in the Artois region, with the objective of gaining control of the heights of the Vimy Ridge that dominated the Lens–Douai plain. They had made only trivial gains by the time the offensive ended.

Many of the techniques associated with the siege warfare of a bygone age found new applications as they painstakingly dug trenches forwards across No Man’s Land, then connected them up to form jumping-off trenches as close as possible to the German lines. When the infantry attacked they fondly supposed there had been a devastating artillery preparation; they would very soon be disabused of that notion.

Since they were short of heavy artillery, the French had to stagger their attacks, allowing the Germans to concentrate their defensive firepower. Fog, rain and thick mud hampered operations and forced the French to end the Artois attacks. They had incurred nearly 8,000 casualties for meagre gains on the southern edge of Carency and north of Notre Dame de Lorette.

Further south, an offensive in the Champagne area opened up. The Fourth Army, commanded by General Fernand de Langle de Cary, was attacking along a 25-mile stretch from Auberive to Massiges in an attempt to break through to the vital Mézières rail junction, for which purpose some 258,000 troops had been amassed, backed up by over 700 guns. The Champagne fighting was starkly attritional, as tactically significant positions were taken, lost, taken, and lost again.

A preliminary bombardment to cut the German barbed wire was followed by a brisk bombardment of the trenches and then the infantry assault moving forwards in waves. They made minor gains but failed to break through: the artillery concentration may have seemed adequate but it was insufficient to break through well-established trench lines.

After a pause, the French launched the second phase of their offensive. By this time they had amassed even more guns, with a slightly higher proportion of heavier pieces. Their tactics involved a heavy emphasis on trying to maintain control in the chaos of battle: thus the artillery fired to a schedule and the infantry went over the top in accordance to an exact timetable. But when things did not go according to plan – and they hardly ever did – then the guns and infantry found themselves completely out of synchronisation.

The French attacks segued into German counterattacks of equal weight, with a particularly vicious battle being fought for the hitherto insignificant village of Perthes. Gradually the battlefield mutated into a sort of outdoor morgue littered with human remains. There may not have been enough guns to create a breakthrough, but soldiers on both sides were horrified by the terrible destruction wrought by artillery on the human body: ‘As we forced our way through the deep narrow trench, what a horrible sight met our eyes! In a place where a trench mortar shell had burst, there lay, torn to pieces, about eight of the Alpine Chasseurs – some of the finest French troops in a great bloody heap of mangled human bodies; dead and wounded. On the top a corpse without a head or torso and underneath some who were still alive, though with limbs torn off or horribly mutilated. They looked at us with bleeding, mournful eyes. The crying and moaning of these poor, doomed enemy soldiers went to our hearts. We couldn’t get out of the trench to avoid this pile of bodies. However much our hearts shrank from trampling over them with our hobnailed boots, we were forced to do it!’ (Lieutenant Walter Ambroselli, 3rd Battalion, 12th Grenadier Regiment)

The French had one advantage in their famous 75 mm guns that, notwithstanding their flat trajectory, could generate a reasonable bombardment through their sheer rapidity of fire. Ensign August Hopp would experience the awful reality of being caught in the centre of a French bombardment on the Heights of Combres. There was no romance in this mechanistic warfare in which human bodies were pitted against exploding shells: ‘It started at 3 o’clock, and at the same time they poured in a terrific flanking fire on our left. One after another my brave men met his fate, either from artillery or infantry fire. It was ghastly; I had to keep urging the men to stick it out, not to lose courage, knowing all the time that I might be hit myself at any moment. I crawled out to the flank position, where there was no cover at all and encouraged the men lying there – Corporal Seckinger and Privates Platzr and Plemmer – to keep a good look out, so that the enemy should not suddenly fall upon our flank. I had to shout in their ears, such a thunder was going on all around. Then, just as I had crawled down again into the trench I was thrown over by a fearful concussion. Up above, where the three were lying, a soft gurgling sound was heard; the legs of the one nearest me jerked convulsively once; then all was deathly still. And so came the turn of one after another.’

Diversionary attacks in support of the main offensives did not alleviate the gloom. On the Aisne, ground was won at Vauxrot and Crouy, but the French were pushed back to the left bank by a brutal German counterstroke.

In three months the French managed to slice off a roughly rectangular piece of the line about 1,000 meters by 8,000 meters, hardly enough to force the Germans to retreat. The cost came to a staggering one hundred thousand casualties. The Germans experienced the full horrors of rapid 'drum fire' from French 75mm guns yet only yielded a few scattered villages on the forward slopes of the hills. The Champagne offensive failed to disrupt the railway communications supplying the German center.

There had been a village on the butte of the Vauquois since the Middle Ages. The Germans lost no time in making their presence known. Since in 1914 the Vauquois butte was sitting astride a series of major road intersections, the Germans had a good piece of that as well. The butte was not a salient, but part of a continuous German defensive position. Nonetheless, the French Army would mount five separate attacks on the butte. The line across the top of the butte never moved. Essentially, except for a few square meters, it remained the same until the Americans took the Vauquois in 1918.

In 1914, there was a sturdy church, a triple row of stone houses, and a main street that ran roughly east-west, since the two small roads up the butte were at each end. On the north side, the slope was such that there were several approaches up to the village. But on the south side, the only access was — and still is — by rather steep paths, so it was a good hike to the top. Like all the villages in this region of France, the houses were solid masonry and stone structures, usually well provided with cellars.

The French attacked straight up the south side of the butte, without artillery support. Unfortunately for the attackers, the defending Germans had artillery and used it. The French waited for a month and tried the same approach once more. They attacked for three consecutive days, again with nothing to show for it except casualties.

Right before Christmas, the French General Staff suddenly noticed that the Germans had cut off all the main transportation routes into Verdun. Joffre drew ‘General Dubail’s attention to the situation created by the simultaneous advance of the Germans on the heights of the Meuse and in the Argonne. This advance showed how important were the operations of the French First Army in the Woëvre, and of the Third in the Vauquois district.’ Now that the French General Staff had finally noticed the damage, Joffre’s directive meant the next attack would be in force.

The third attack went in, finally with artillery support. But the French didn’t have guns capable of firing large high explosive shells at the high angles required by positions such as the Vauquois. Instead, they tunneled into the side of the butte and packed it with explosives. The actual attack began with the detonation of mines under the German positions. French troops managed to get up the hillside and hang on to the south edge. Once the French got up onto the butte, they had to fight their way into the village. The Germans emerged unscathed from the heavy stone buildings and counterattacked, ejecting the surviving French.

The French attacked the hill again. More artillery support had been promised. André Pézard, a platoon leader in the Forty-sixth Regiment comments: ‘With the great day commences a very feeble cannonade. Is that the “magnificent artillery preparation” of which the colonel spoke?’ But the bombardment strengthened, and the French were once again able to get into the village. By the evening of the 1st of March, the French had secured a hold on the houses closest to the French lines, the Germans holding the ones closest to their lines, as well as the church. That night the French were checked in their attempts to secure the remainder of the butte, and the lines stabilized.

The French kept trying. There was an attack in March. The French kept on. They attacked again in April to coincide with the grand offensive of the Woëvre, and then again in June as part of the aborted Argonne offensive. But the German defensive line across their side of the butte was beyond the capabilities of the attackers to break.

Les Éparges, a hillock to the southeast of Verdun, is roughly the companion butte to the Vauquois. But it is larger, higher, and more irregular. There was no village on top, nor does the butte dominate the region as does the Vauquois. The Crête de Combres, which the Germans had grabbed during the Bavarian offensive towards Saint-Mihiel, was 340 meters high, and only some 700 meters distant. The butte was roughly shaped like a kidney. The Bavarians had spent the fall entrenching themselves, with a bastion at each of the three key points of the kidney. From Point X, the east-end bastion, to Point C, the west-end bastion, there was a double line of trenches.

As on the Vauquois, the attack began with the explosion of a mine. The two attacking French regiments struggled up the slope, finding little ahead of them except shell-fire. The initial trenches were empty, because the Bavarians had developed a new defensive tactic. They would abandon the first line of trenches, so that when the French got to them, they found them empty except for a few corpses.

Once the French occupied the first line of the Bavarian trenches, the German artillery, which had zeroed in the target, annihilated them. The next attack went in, capturing a few hundred meters of trench and a few prisoners. Another attack was ordered, and, the French took a few more meters of trench and a few of their soldiers got all the way to Point X. The Germans again counterattacked, leaving the soldiers hanging on to some eighty meters of the trench line.

The attacks continued, and during the first week of the Woëvre offensive French troops got to Point C, the westernmost bastion, only to lose it to a German attack on the eighth. Troops from the Eighth Regiment of the Forty-Second Division were back clawing away at Point X. But in the face of eighteen separate German attacks against the troops who had reached the top of the butte, the French were never able to solidify their hold on it. And even that achievement faded during the general German attack of 24 April 1915, which effectively ended French hopes of taking back the Woëvre.

The Woëvre was critically important to the Germans, for it gave an easy approach to their own great fortress of Metz, and they had fought hard in the opening battles of 1914 to retain it. In late September they had actually secured the advantage of gaining a foothold across the Meuse at St. Mihiel, a salient that provided a bridgehead beyond the most important water obstacle on the Western Front and caused the French endless trouble. It would remain in German hands until retaken by the Americans in September 1918.

Today, one curious anomaly has attained great renown: the Christmas Truce. In some sectors of the line the opposing forces momentarily decided to abandon fighting. Although often represented as some kind of triumph of humanity, the truce can equally be seen as an indictment of men who were all too willing to return to the killing despite seeing for themselves that their enemies were men just like themselves. The reality was that many were willing participants in the war, a war that at this time still satisfied popular opinion among all the combatant nations.

This was the experience of Private William Quinton, who was in the trenches on the 24th of December: ‘All around us lay about 3 inches of snow, a typical picture-postcard Xmas. Things very quiet. That “peace and goodwill to all men” feeling seemed to be in the air. We could hear the Germans still strafing up Ypres way, but the next night, Xmas Eve, even up there was much quieter. Something in the direction of the German lines caused us to rub our eyes and look again. Here and there showing just above their parapet we could see very faintly what looked like very small coloured lights. What was this? Was it some pre-arranged signal, and the forerunner of an attack, or was it to make us curious and thus expose ourselves to a sudden raking of machine gun fire? We were very suspicious, and were discussing this strange move of the enemy when something even stranger happened. The Germans were actually singing! Not very loud, but there was no mistaking it. We began to get interested. The enemy at least were going to enjoy themselves as much as the circumstances would permit. Suddenly, across the snow-clad No Man’s Land, a strong clear voice rang out, singing the opening lines of “Annie Laurie”. It was sung in perfect English and we were spellbound. No other sound but this unknown singer’s voice. To us it seemed that the war had suddenly stopped! Stopped to listen to this song from one of the enemy. Not a sound from friend or foe and as the last notes died away a spontaneous outburst of clapping arose from our trenches. Encore! Good old Fritz!’

Through the action of courageous individuals risking their lives to test the good intentions of their enemies, a truce was arranged and together the two sides began to bury the corpses littering No Man’s Land: ‘As daylight crept in, we were surprised to see the Germans waist-high out of their trenches, gazing across at us with impunity. Imagine the position: whereas yesterday the mere sight of a bit of field-grey uniform would have caused a dozen British rifles to crack, here was the enemy in full view of us, gazing serenely across No Man’s Land at us, and we at him. To us in the front line the whole world had changed. We could take stock of our surroundings at our leisure. At 9 o’clock precisely, the German burying party climbed from their trenches, shovels and picks on their shoulders. They advanced about 10 yards in our direction and waited expectantly. A word from our company officer and our party were soon out. The officers looked on apparently conversing. The digging party soon lost interest in their task and before long were busy fraternising. Cigarettes were being exchanged and they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely! Needless to say, before very long we in the trenches were soon out on top, sauntering about in the snow, but keeping this side of our wire entanglements. Likewise the Germans. For the whole of that day and for many days to come, friend and foe mixed freely out on No Man’s Land. Except for the fact that a few of the enemy could speak a little English, we found the language difficulty a bar to conversation, but we made do with signs and gestures. I remember distinctly a German holding out an opened box of chocolates for me to take one! The Germans wanted to play us a football match on No Man’s Land, but our officers would not allow it!’ (Private William Quinton, 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment)

This truce was wider than many have imagined. The French and Germans also ceased fighting in some sectors: ‘Our four days in the trenches have been difficult because of the cold with a hard frost, but the Germans have left us alone. On Christmas Day, they made a sign that they wanted to talk to us. It was me that went to within 3 or 4 metres of their trench from which three of them emerged to talk. It was the Christmas Day holiday, a day of festivities and they wanted no shooting from us during the day and night, saying they themselves wouldn’t fire a single shot. They were tired of making war, they were married like me (they had seen my ring), did not want to fight the French but the English! They passed me a bundle of cigars, a box of gold tipped cigarettes, I gave them the Petit Parisien in exchange for a German newspaper. I returned to the French trench where I was soon robbed of my German tobacco! Our neighbours across the way kept their word better than we did! Not a shot. The next day, so they could see it was Christmas no longer, our artillery sent them a few well directed shells right into their trench.’ (Adjutant Gustave Berthier, 256th Infantry Regiment).

The strategic geography of the Western Front is easy to read now, was easy to read then and largely dictated the plans made by each side at the start of trench warfare and in the years that followed. The geographical advantage enjoyed by the French disposed them to attack. Geography did not, however, supply the only argument for such a decision. France, as the major territorial loser in the outcome of the campaign, was bound to attack. Germany, by contrast, was bound to stand on the defensive, since the setbacks she had suffered in the east, in its two-front war, demanded that troops be sent from France to Poland for an offensive.

Much of the front was unsuitable for the style of major operations both sides envisaged, in which the power of artillery would prepare the way for large-scale infantry assaults, to be followed by cavalry exploitation into open country. The Vosges was such a front, and was accepted to be so by both French and Germans, who held it with second-rate divisions, reinforced by mountain infantry who occasionally disputed possession of the high points. Indeed, south of Verdun, neither side was to make any major effort between September 1914 and September 1918 and this stretch, 160 miles long, became ‘inactive’. Elsewhere, the Argonne proved unsuited to offensives as, for different reasons, did the Flemish coastal zone.

Despite the absence of any supranational command organization, akin to the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee which so successfully coordinated Anglo-American strategy during the Second World War, the informal understanding between the British and French general staffs was working well. The Russian view was also represented through their liaison officers at both French and British headquarters. Joffre had but one thought: to drive the invader from national territory. French shared it, if for reasons less burningly patriotic and more calculatedly strategic.

The Western Front presented a strategic conundrum, not only militarily but also geographically. There was the initial difficulty of how to break the trench line; beyond that lay the difficulty of choosing lines of advance that would bring about a large-scale German withdrawal. During January the French operations staff at GQG, now located at Chantilly, began to analyse the problem. It turned on the rail communications which supported the German armies in the field.

There were three systems of rail communications that led back across the Rhine into Germany. The southernmost was short and easily defended. That left the two systems that supplied the Germans holding the great salient between Flanders and Verdun. If either, or preferably both, could be cut, the Germans within the salient would be obliged to fall back, perhaps creating once again those conditions of ‘open warfare’ which, it was believed, alone offered the chance of decisive victory.

It was evident that General Alfred von Schlieffen had been both right and wrong. He was right that if the war continued for a substantial time Germany’s enemies would use their sheer press of numbers to defeat her. But in seeking a swift victory the Germans had lost their best chance of maximising lesser tactical gains and then negotiating peace from a position of relative strength. In seeking outright victory in the summer of 1914 the Germans had in the end fallen short. Despite Joffre's assurances in March 1915 that French soldiers had 'an obvious superiority in morale', his winter offensives had been expensive failures.

The war was set on the grim path of attritional fighting, with all sides engaged in attempting to degrade the opposition forces to the level that they could no longer resist. With all sides able to draw on millions more men it was nigh on impossible to secure an easy victory. Far too many would die before the war would be resolved.

The soldiers on both sides were well dug in, although they only had simple defensive systems early in 1915. The trenches were over six feet deep, with the firing bays separated by solid earth traverses, a parapet in front and a parados behind, a fire step for men to stand on in action, wire or wood revetments holding up the sides, duckboards underfoot and simple drainage systems to hold back the water.

Zigzagging communication trenches ran back to a support line which was generally a sketchy notational line rather than real trenches. In front there was a barbed wire defence of one or two ‘double aprons’. Barbed wire, an invention of American cattle ranchers in the 1870s, had begun to appear, strung in belts between the opposing trenches by the spring. So, too, had underground shelters, ‘dugouts’ to the British, and support and reserve lines to the rear of the front.