THE LANDSCAPE OF DEATH

Deeper and Longer Trenches Divide Europe into Two Armed Camps.

Little Changed in Nearly Three Years.

Special to The Great War Project

(4-8 January) With the coming of January a century ago, what does the global battlefield look like after more than two-and-a-half years of war?

“The face of the war at the beginning of 1917,” writes war historian Robert Keegan, “was little altered” from what the world looked like two years earlier in 1915.

French soldiers at Verdun, 1916.

French soldiers in the trenches at Verdun

The trench lines divide Europe into two armed camps, writes Keegan. In the East, the Germans have pushed the Russian trenches back 300 miles, from the Carpathian Mountains in central Europe to the Black Sea in southeast Europe.

The Russians still maintain a strategic position to the north, as far as the Baltic Sea.

In addition, the trenches have come to the frontlines between Italy and Austria. They have also sprung up at the Greek border with Bulgaria, which is allied with Germany and Austria).

Trench lines “have come and gone,” writes Keegan, from Gallipoli at the north western tip of Turkey, and from Kut in what then is known as Mesopotamia, now Iraq.

Similar trenches rest uneasily between the British and the Turks in the Sinai Peninsula not far from Cairo, and in the Caucasus on the cusp of western Asia. That is now more a landscape of “outposts and strong points,” reports Keegan, between the Black Sea and northern Persia.

None of this has much changed from this geography of battle two years earlier in 1915. Little has changed on these battlefields – the endless killing of all armies. In northern France, so devastated by trench warfare, nothing is changed, nothing whatsoever.

Helmet and rifle mark where a soldier fell, Verdun, 1916.

Helmet and rifle mark where a soldier fell, Verdun

Only the trenches are dug deeper and deeper.

By these moments in the war a century ago, “much digging and wiring, and excavation” have deepened the construction of the trenches. Especially on the German side, “which, Keegan reports, “sought to secure trenches against British assault.”

First there was but one line of trenches; then a second as the Germans dig in deeper. Then even a third.

By this time a century ago the trenches “are usually three belts deep,” writes Keegan, “and reinforced by concrete pill boxes,” for machine gun emplacements.

“The thicker the trench system grew, the less likely its course could be altered, even by the weightiest of offensive effort.”

Keegan writes: “The chief effect of two years of bombardment and trench-to-trench fighting across no-man’s-land was to have created a zone of devastation of immense length, more than four hundred miles long, but of narrow depth.” Defoliation and devastation for a mile or two on each side.

The landscape is utterly destroyed, he writes: “The transition from normality to the place of death was abrupt.”

All the more so because prosperity actually reigned in the rear areas; the Allied armies brought money and shops. Cafes and restaurants flourished, at least on the Allied side of the line.”

“In the zone of German occupation,” reports Gilbert, “the military government ran an austere economic regime,” driving the mines, mills, and iron works at full speed.

A dead German soldier in a French trench, circa August 1916.

A dead German soldier in a French trench

These are the conditions of trench warfare as January 1917 emerges. Keegan then asks what might seem to be a strange question: “Is destruction of life ever bearable? This was a question that lurked beneath the surface in every combatant country.”

“Soldiers at the front, subject to discipline, bound together by the comradeship of combat…whatever else they were paid, if badly, and fed, often amply.”

And in this he writes….

…there is a way in which soldiers on the battle field may actually have it better than those in the families they leave behind.

“The individual soldier knows from day to day, often minute to minute, whether he is in danger or not,” writes Keegan.

“Those he leaves behind – wife and mother above all – bear a burden of anxious uncertainty he does not.” That burden of uncertainty so often broken by the telegram delivered, that comes bearing the awful news of a loved one’s death.

 

  1 comment for “THE LANDSCAPE OF DEATH

  1. alex chadwick
    January 8, 2017 at 4:59 PM

    More excellent reporting and insightful analysis. Thank you, Mike – alex

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