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Helmets of the First World War Battle,Technology, and Culture

The Birth of Trench Warfare

When the war began in August 1914, most Europeans expected it would be quick and glorious. Drawing on the experiences of the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), European armies emphasized mobile offensive warfare. Infantry was supposed to advance in dense lines or by rushes towards enemy positions, then make a decisive bayonet charge. The French army in particular emphasized its soldiers’ offensive spirit (élan vital), which was considered more important than firepower. Artillery was supposed to accompany infantry closely and fire directly at visible enemies, so field guns in 1914 were light and mobile. Cavalry was supposed to scout hostile positions, exploit gaps in the enemy line, and pursue routed foes.

Such tactics underestimated recent advances in military technology. In the 1800s, soldiers with muzzle-loading firearms had averaged one shot per minute. By 1914, infantrymen were equipped with bolt-action rifles that could fire up to 15 rounds a minute at ranges up to 2000 feet. Heavy machine guns could fire 500 rounds per minute at ranges of more than a mile, while field artillery had ranges of 3-5 miles. These modern weapons inflicted enormous casualties on troops advancing in the open.

Most Europeans discounted the lessons of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), which had shown that entrenched defenders with rifles could repel much larger attacking forces. Colonial warfare and pre-war training maneuvers had shown the importance of concealment, but when war broke out in 1914, many European soldiers still wore conspicuous uniforms that featured bright colored fabrics, polished brass, and gleaming leather.

The Germans hoped to win quickly in Western Europe before the Russians could fully mobilize. Sweeping through neutral Belgium into France, they attempted to encircle the French and their British allies. Meanwhile, the French made an all-out assault into Alsace-Lorraine, but were repulsed with enormous casualties. By September, the German offensive had failed. The opposing armies then tried unsuccessfully to outflank each other. They spread out north and south until their lines ran from the North Sea to Switzerland. Soldiers began digging in to hide from bullets and shellfire. These improvised defenses soon became two continuous sets of entrenchments stretching across Belgium and France—the Western Front. The front line would move little until 1918.

Trench warfare also appeared in the Balkans, Italy, the Middle East, and Russia, but the Western Front has become an icon of the First World War.

The postcards depicted show the war as people imagined it would be fought. They were distributed by Santa Barbara’s H.R. Hitchcock department store in 1914. Postcards from the UCSB Library Special Research Collections (Bernath Mss 20, Box 14, Souvenir Album of the Great European War).