Trench warfare is synonymous with World War I. Trench warfare is a type of land warfare that opposes enemy force by attacking, counterattacking, and defending from an array of permanent trenches dug into the ground. Trench warfare was first seen in the 17th century, and became more popular as time progressed, with trenches used in southern Virginia at the end of the Civil War. Trench warfare was introduced during WWI after the initial offensives between Germany and France demonstrated that advancements in weapons, with the introduction of rifles, machine-guns, and artillery, had surpassed improvements in mobility. Thus, both sides chose to dig in to protect their land, resources, and men, thus turning what many thought would be a quick war into a protracted conflict that would last four years and take countless lived.
During WWI, trenches were located from the Belgian coast, all the way through France and into Switzerland. The dotted line on this map shows the front line and the location of the trenches in Europe.
Trenches were roughly 12 feet deep and about a mile long. Soldiers dug them in a zigzag manner and there could be anywhere from two, three, or four trenches built parallel along the front lines. Communication trenches connected the trenches and allowed for the delivery of messages, food, ammunition, and more. As the war progressed, each side developed their trenches into more sophisticated structures.
Soldiers would spend anywhere between one day to two weeks at the front line trench at a time, adding up to about 15% of their year. This is where they would fire weapons and launch attacks. About 10% of their year would be spent in the middle support trench, and another 30% spent in the back reserve trench. There was an average of 100-200 yards between Allied and German trenches, often called “no-man’s land”. Barbed wire lay over the top of trenches to keep any enemies staging attack away.
Life in the trenches was less than ideal. Unclean soldiers, overflowing latrines, and dead bodies are just some of the scents that overwhelmed the trenches. This is not to mention the rats that infested the trenches and gorged themselves on human remains. Disease was rampant throughout the trenches, as soldiers dealt with the never-ending lice and the Trench Fever that followed. Most notable was Trench Foot, a fungal infection caused by the cold, wet conditions of the trenches. Gangrenous feet would lead to amputations, but the occurrence of this disease lessened as the war progressed. Death often occurred from shelling by the enemy, those who looked over into “no-man’s land”, and those shot by enemy snipers. In trench warfare, soldiers in the trenches are protected from small arms fire, but vulnerable to heavy shelling from artillery. By the end of the war, even service animals including dogs and horses had gasmasks for protection. Statistics vary, but some estimates show that one-third of deaths in WWI occurred in the trenches.
Once the US joined the Allies, American soldiers needed training on trench warfare. Several bases in the Washington, DC area, including Ft. Myer, Ft. Belvoir, Marine Corps Base Quantico, and Ft. Meade were training facilities for soldiers preparing to head to Europe.
Ft Myer, VA, named for the Civil War General Albert J. Myer, trained soldiers heading to the trenches in France. Where the Andrew Rader Health Clinic and Commissary are located today was once a trench system training ground that French officers used to teach American soldiers about trench warfare.
Camp A. A. Humphreys, a semi-permanent camp on Ft. Belvoir, was an active training camp for soldiers during WWI and the home to the U.S. Army School of Engineers during WWI. Located on modern day Ft. Belvoir, VA, it was one of several locations where soldiers learned trench warfare and field fortification techniques.
Marine Corps Base Quantico, located roughly 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., was established in 1917 and quickly became a training location for Marines during WWI. Like Ft. Myer, French, Canadian, and British officers from the trenches in Europe came to Quantico and taught the Marines how to lay out, dig, and successfully employ trench warfare. Unlike other bases, however, there are remnants of the trenches throughout Quantico that can be studied by archaeologists. A January 15, 2014 article by Mike DiCicco discusses the 2,000 feet of trenches that are present near the golf course and another 4,800 feet located near Purvis Road, both of which can be seen today and are the focus of archaeologists.
Trench warfare dominated the long four years of war, as the Allies and Axis futilely attempted to gain an advantage over the other with this defensive strategy. It took until 1918 for mobility to catch up with the advancements in weapons, but the Allies were able to do this with the introduction of the tank to the battlefield. As tanks were invulnerable to gun and rifle fire, they could cross “no-man’s land” without a great loss of life. In short order, the Allies were able to overrun the Axis powers, bringing a long and deadly war to an end.
DiCicco, M. (2014, January 15). WWI training history remains entrenched at Quantico. Retrieved from http://www.quantico.marines.mil/News/News-Article-Display/Article/518211/wwi-training-history-remains-entrenched-at-quantico/
Duffy, M. (2009, August 22). Life in the trenches. Retrieved from http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/trenchlife.htm
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (2015). Trench warfare. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/trench-warfare
IMCOM. (2010). Fort Belvoir: Host to history (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://www.belvoir.army.mil/history/101713-USA-R1.pdf