For most people the Trenches are the defining feature of the First World War, a notorious line of defensive positions that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss Border. The central argument of Bull's book is that the trench experience was actually rather more varied than most people now realise. The nature of the defences evolved steadily on both sides, with heavily manned front line trenches only really seen early in the war. By the end of the war both sides had developed a system of flexible defences, with well sited strong points providing interconnecting fire and widely separated multiple lines of defences. Bull examines the evolution of the defences, illustrating his point with a good selection of wartime illustrations and instructions for constructing defences.
Bull also examines the weapons and tactics developed in an attempt to break the deadlock on the Western Front, including the introduction of poison gas and the tank and the use of more traditional siege techniques such as the digging of mines under the enemy lines. The nature of the artillery bombardment, platoon tactics and even the kit being carried during the attack all developed tremendously during the war, and these changes are also examined.
One of the nicest features of the book is the inclusion of a series of wartime trench maps, showing the evolution of the German defensive during 1916 and 1917 when they were at their most potent. These maps make you realise just how difficult a task is was to break through the multiple lines of trenches, wire and strongpoints. Bull also has a good collection of wartime military manuals and has included some fascinating plans of idealised trenches and instructions for trench layouts from British and German sources.
This is a valuable study of the defensive networks that dominated the fighting on the Western Front, presenting a more nuanced picture of the trenches than is often the case, and one that matches up with the tome of the many Great War memoirs I have read.
The Armies of 1914 and the Problem of Attack
The Beginning of the Trenches
New Weapons and Tactics
Raiding and Sniping
Concrete and Stellungsbau
'Over the Top'
Author: Stephen Bull