Contact Us

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

The Changing Face of Battle, 1914-1918

In August 1914, soldiers expected to see their enemies, but the trenches emptied the battlefield of visible life. Armies replaced conspicuous pre-war uniforms with drab colors and camouflage. Mud, lice, barbed wire, and snipers put an end to romantic notions of war.

The trenches grew and developed over the course of the war, from simple “scrapes” into multilayered defense systems. Because conditions were so difficult at the front, troops typically rotated through the trenches, spending only a few days at a time in the front line before being withdrawn to reserve trenches or being given a rest.

Artillery became the big killer, accounting for about 60% of all battle deaths. Armies deployed new heavy howitzers that hurled high-explosive shells up to a dozen miles away. To protect them from rifle and machinegun fire, artillery batteries (groups of guns) were emplaced far behind the front. Artillery emplacements were often fortified to protect the guns against enemy counter-battery fire and camouflaged to hide them from enemy scouting aircraft. Rather than firing directly at visible enemies, artillery now fired indirectly at enemy positions located by map coordinates. The need for accuracy led to rapid advances in military mapping, including the use of aerial photography. British doctors began employing the term “shell shock” to diagnose soldiers’ responses to combat trauma. The increase in head injuries from artillery fire spurred the introduction of steel helmets in 1915.

Attacks against entrenched defenders were difficult and costly. In a single October 1915 offensive, the French lost more than 140,000 men killed and wounded, with little result. Ever larger artillery bombardments were used in hopes of breaking through. Before the 1916 Somme Offensive, 1400 British guns fired a total of 1,700,000 shells in one week, but could not destroy the German defenses. During attacks, infantry sometimes advanced behind the protection of a “creeping” barrage—a continually advancing wall of shellfire. By 1916, armies also began using shorter surprise bombardments, followed by rapid attacks with specially trained “storm troops” or “shock troops.”

Trench warfare also led to the development of hand grenades, mortars, light machine guns, flame-throwers, and poison gas. Tanks were first used successfully in 1917 to break through trench defenses. Early tanks were slow and mechanically unreliable, and the war ended before their full potential was realized.

Part of a British Trench Map, February 1917.

This is a portion of a British 1:20,000 map (France, Edition 4A, Sheet 57D N.E., corrected to February 7, 1917).

Each numbered grid square is 1000x1000 yards. German trenches are in red, British in blue.

The map shows how elaborate the trenches had become by this point in the war. The information on maps such as this one came from aerial observation, observers on the ground, and trench raids.

Before 1916, British maps did not show their own trenches for secrecy, and even this map does not depict the British trenches in much detail. As this map reveals, “the trenches” were not a single line but rather an interconnecting network that included a forward firing trench backed up by support trenches. Communications trenches link the various lines and also lead back to the rear, while saps or slit trenches for patrols and observers lead forward into No Man’s Land between the two sides. Small red numbers along the German trenches may indicate machine gun positions or strongpoints, while some trenches are named. The trenches are dug with traverses or zigzags to minimize the effects of gunfire and artillery. Barbed wire entanglements are marked with rows of X’s. Notice that parts of the landscape are described as “damaged” or “obliterated” by shell fire. Not shown are the numerous underground dugouts hollowed into the trench walls, where troops slept and ate.

This map selection centers on the village of Gommecourt. The Gommecourt salient, sticking out into the British line, was an important position. It was the westernmost German position in France. More importantly, the salient enabled the Germans to enfilade (fire against the sides of) British troops attacking north or south of it. Notice how the Germans incorporated the village, its surrounding woods, and even its cemetery, into their defensive system.

On 1 July 1916, the British made a disastrous attack against the northwest and southwest faces of the salient. The preparatory artillery bombardment was ineffective, and German machine gunners massacred the attackers. More than 6700 British soldiers were killed or wounded (at least a third of the total attacking force), while the Germans suffered only about 1200 casualties. The British gained no ground. Soon after this map was printed in February 1917, the Germans abandoned Gommecourt in order to shorten their front.

Map from UCSB Library Special Research Collections (Bernath Mss3, Folder 1, no.8).