Combat on the Western Front during World War One is justly infamous for its grim lethality. Soldiers on both sides dug deep trenches in the earth to escape murderous enemy fire.
With a reported first appearance as a term in 1887, ‘trench warfare’ was being used to describe Western Front fighting before 1914 was out. ‘This trench warfare in which we are now engaged,’ observed one British general that December, ‘is causing a demand for all sorts of things which are not recognised by regulation.’
Because of the unrelenting ferocity of trench warfare, the term has also come to mean a fierce, grinding contest of a non-military nature. ‘This … law was … struck down after years of expensive trench warfare in the courts,’ went one recent example.
Related phrases such as ‘in the trenches’, or simply ‘the trenches’, are also used to convey this latter sense of hard struggle.
Trenches had been seen long before the Great War, being employed during the American Civil War, by the army of Louis XIV, that of Rome, as well as a myriad of others. Today, however, they are most closely associated with the Western Front.
Protected by barbed wire and sandbags, trenches were an effective form of defence. An assaulting force would likely be cut to ribbons while moving over ground – No Man’s Land – lashed by machine-gun fire and pummelled by artillery shells.
Forward movement came to a halt and bloody stalemate ensued. Millions of Allied and German soldiers huddled in sinuous, squalid, and mud-clogged trenches that extended from the Franco- Swiss border to the North Sea.
Ghastly weapons were introduced to break the deadlock, including the flame thrower and poison gas, but these achieved negligible success. Repeated, ineffectual attacks on enemy trench systems resulted in appalling casualties for all participants.