Before I went on the battlefields trip I only knew about what trenches were like from what the text book told me. The text book is however a typical English view, and there is no emotion or understanding involved. Actually going on the trip has shown me what the soldiers would have experienced when fighting in the First World War. Appearance of the Trenches I learnt a great deal about the layout and appearance of the trenches specifically from Bayerwald and Newfoundland Park.
Because the trenches have been preserved exactly as they would have been we are able to look at the height, strength and cover given by them. This is in contrast to what I knew before, because from the text book all I had to look at was a cross section drawing made by an English soldier. This drawing may have been biased in his favour because it was aimed at his family and for others, to show the horrors and mistakes made, and try and glean some sympathy out of it. A first hand account of actually walking in the trenches lets you take in much more information, from the sights to the smells.
At Vimy Ridge, where the trenches have been preserved in concrete, you get a sense of disorientation and losing your way, and we are able to relate that to how the soldiers would have felt whilst in battle. This is something that you cannot learn from a textbook, and can only be experienced from being there. I also learnt that not all trenches were the same, but it depends on the country that built them. The British trenches at Newfoundland Park are different to those built by the Germans. This was primarily because of the use that the trenches were put to, for example the British trenches were sloped to be easy to climb.
This was useful for the British troops that would have attacked over no-man’s-land from these trenches. The German trenches however are deep and straight sided, to provide cover from the heavy artillery bombardment that would precede an assault. These things are in contrast to what I knew before, which was that the trenches started out as steep sided ditches with a firestep, and after years of rain and shelling they all turned into ditches filled with water. In the text book you get this idea because it is from a predominately British point of view.
However, while many of the British trenches were destroyed, many of the German trench systems were left intact at the end of the war, and with a little restoration to counter the affects of nature and time they now mimic the conditions in the trenches during the war. The mud is re-created perfectly at Sanctuary Wood, and the Bayernwald trenches also have patches of mud, and more importantly whole sections underwater. This high water level was a major problem in the trenches, which I learned from the text book.
Trench Foot, as I will explain later, was a chief dilemma to the soldiers who, whilst under heavy fire and stress, had to negotiate these muddy, wet ditches. Actually walking through the mud and puddles at Sanctuary Wood gives us a first hand experience of the soldiers’ paths around the battlefield. Not only was my factual understanding added to by this experience, but my emotional empathy with the soldiers was added to. Everyone present thinks about what each soldier individually would have had to go through, and having actually walked the areas that the long dead warriors did makes us feel lucky to be alive.
It is beyond our imagination to have to duck from sprays of gunfire and sniper shots, to feel terror at the sound of a falling bomb and to dive for cover and fight blind against an unknown enemy. We could not have gleaned this information from a text book, in fact it is impossible to experience this anywhere other than on a battlefield. Another fact I learnt from the Battlefields trip was that both sides tried to use the natural features of the landscape to help them succeed.
At Newfoundland Park the Y Ravine was used to give natural cover to the supply wagons and troops, instead of having to dig fresh trenches that would provide less cover. Something that is very evident from the visits to the sites is how the trenches were defended and attacked, i. e. the use of mines, pill-boxes and bunkers. At Tyncot there are still concrete bunkers where pill boxes were. They could not build trenches at Tyncot, as the water table was very high. Soldiers would have been standing knee deep in water, so the soldiers built the concrete bunkers and fought the same type of battle as the trenches but higher up.
At Bayernwald there are concrete bunkers, albeit filled with water that have been preserved perfectly by nature in the same way. My factual understanding of the appearance of the trenches has been increased by my visit to the battlefields. I now know that there is a monument at Newfoundland Park to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the Canadian Regiments. I also know that, for instance, at Vimy Ridge and La Boisselle the mines that were dug and detonated caused huge changes in the trench system, and new trenches had to be dug around them.
My emotional understanding has also been enhanced. I know what it must have been like to be a soldier in the trenches, losing my sense of direction and seeing the terrain of no-man’s-land that had to be crossed. I was very surprised by what I saw, as no text book could have conveyed the amount of information and detail that I learnt. None of us had any idea of the true circumstances that the soldiers were thrown into, and this was unforeseen by us. We are now able to appreciate and understand what really happened in more depth. Destruction
I learnt a great deal about the destructive nature of war from my visit to the battlefields, and one of the areas which I studied was the destruction of the terrain. The land upon which the battles were fought remains wrecked beyond recognition of how it looked before the war. The shell craters are evident everywhere, especially at Vimy Ridge, where although the grass has grown up and trees are everywhere the land is still pitted and bumped from the craters, big and small. Another huge factor which has destroyed the terrain is the mines that were used.
There are several at Vimy Ridge, but none is as evident as at Lochnagar, where lies the third biggest man made crater on Earth. At 300 feet across it would have killed an extraordinary number of soldiers when the 30,000 tonnes of explosives were detonated. These pictures show the crater at the end of the war, and now. As is clear, the crater was much larger than it is now, as weather and time have changed the landscape. This is all in contrast to what I knew before from the text book, as there was not one single mention of the terrain that is there now, it is all about what destroyed it.
Only by being there do you get a true sense of the sort of terrain that the soldiers had to run across and live in. This also increases my emotional understanding, and it is surprising to learn the true history of the area. The destruction of war also includes the trenches themselves, which have left huge scars on the land that will probably never be filled in by time and nature. At Bayernwald the trenches are 6 feet deep in places, and will not change for many years to come. We obviously knew about the trenches before the trip, but actually being there has shown us how much a blot on the landscape they are.
We cannot get this feeling at Sanctuary Wood trenches however, as we do not know how much the owner has changed the trenches for commercial use, and this is not a very good example. However, at Vimy Ridge it is easy to see the great marks in the hillocks, and as the trenches are preserved in concrete we can see how deep they were. Although this method of preservation may not be good for observing the appearance, it is of great use to see how the trenches were left: the depth and width and the cover provided.
The destruction of the First World War was not limited to the terrain. Hundreds of towns and buildings were destroyed as well, and Ypres was one of the worst affected cities. The four battles of Ypres almost totally obliterated the town, and not many buildings were left standing. Ypres was in a hole in the front line, and received artillery bombardment from three sides instead of the customary one side. The only information I had before the trip of the destruction of the towns was from old photographs like the ones on page 4, above, and on page 81 of the text book, source 2.
Visiting the places and seeing all the buildings that are different to the rest because they were bombed gives us an emotional understanding of just how many houses, factories and warehouses were ruined, and we can appreciate it in a different way to how we did before, which was simply reading a fact from a text book and learning it. Most of us will not forget much of what we have witnessed on the Battlefields trip, and this has increased our understanding and learning in a much more vivid way. The terrain and buildings were however not the only things that were lost or demolished in the War.
The destruction of human life was also one factor which is very evident when visiting the Battlefields. Starting with civilians, there are many civilian graves in the cemeteries, such as Langemark. There are field nurses, doctors, and residents of the nearby towns who were hit by shells. In Poperinge, Monsieur Coevoet of Talbot House (Toc H) set up his hostel in an abandoned Hop Store. The previous owner had fled, along with hundreds of other civilians to escape the war. These peoples’ lives were in their stores, and when fleeing they left it all behind.
Unable to find work in Europe, many of these people and their families will have starved. This is just one example from one city. A large amount of towns and cities were bombed solely because they were near the front line, and perhaps all of these civilians will have been killed or will have fled. In Flanders Field Museum the interactive storyteller told the true tales of civilians’ lives, how they lived during the war and what became of them. Three quarters of the stories ended with a civilian death from shelling and bombardment, or else with fleeing to America or Britain.
This shows the realities of life for the civilians on the front lines during the First World War. In the First World War the major loss of human life was from the soldiers. The scale of lives lost was incredible and never before seen by man. One way of telling of the destruction of war was the mass graves. Because of the heavy bombardment and shelling, many bodies of those men killed in no-mans-land were unidentifiable. These thousands of men were placed in mass graves, such as the one at Langemark cemetery.
Out of the 44,000 burials here in this German cemetery, 25,000 of them are in the Kameradengrab, or mass grave. There was no room in the plot of land given to them to bury each person individually, and, even though those in the Kameradengrab were unidentifiable, each individual grave has 5-12 people in it, which just shows the enormity of the loss of life. The cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette is one of the largest cemeteries in terms of land, holding 45,000 men, 23,000 unknown soldiers in 32 acres of land. It seems bigger as you walk around because of the fact that it is on the crest of a hill.
Divided in to religion (i. e. Muslim, Christian, Jew) and then by country, the graves are fairly impersonal, holding details of name, number, rank and age when killed. This is in contrast to, for instance, the Devonshire Cemetery, which because of its small size contains personal messages and family details. The impersonality of the graves shows how the men were buried quickly and methodically, suggesting that there was a lot of people to be buried. The sheer size of the cemeteries shows the scale of the destruction of human life.
Places such as Tyne Cot hold 12,000 gravestones, along with a further 35,000 names that could not fit onto the Menin Gate after its 55,000 names. These numbers are almost beyond belief. From the text book we get a general, blurred idea of actually how many men were killed, such as from page 33, source 52. I can be critical of this source as it is showing a sample of 24 names from Ba to Bl, taken from a small register for one battalion from one town. Only by visiting places such a Thiepval do we get the true emotional experience.
Only by walking under huge stone columns engraved with the names of 72,000 British men can we really understand the enormity of the loss of life in the First World War. Another view on the destruction of the First World War is the individual loss of life. We can look at the big picture, at the tens of thousands who gave their lives, but each of those people had a story. Poets such a Hodgeson of the 8th Devonshire Regiment and John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. wrote such moving poems as “In Flanders Fields” and “Before Action”, which are touching to those who delve deep into their lines.
It is emotional to see such graves as Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick, age 15, who was killed by a sniper in 1915. Hundreds of underage soldiers signed up, the youngest being Private John Cordon of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, who died 24th May 1915, aged just 14. To be this young and to be killed needlessly for no gain is deeply moving. It makes us appreciate the war in a totally new light, because learning about people like Joe Strudwick’s life only reminds us of their death. The destruction of the First World War can be seen in a few different ways. Firstly there was the devastation of the towns and cities.
Secondly there is the terrain, pitted with marks that will never fade. Subsequently there is the loss of civilian life, and finally there is the loss of the soldiers’ lives, on the grand scale and from an individual’s point of view. Tactics One of the most interesting things I learnt from the battlefields trip was the types of stratagem that both sides employed in order to gain ground, information and trenches on the enemy. When looking at the types of strategy used for defence by both sides, one of the tactics which is most obvious was the use of natural defences.
Hills and valleys were most important, giving space for an ambush, a sight over the enemy and making it harder for the enemy to attack. One such place was the valley where the Devonshire Cemetery lies. Guarded by a single machine gun, it was almost impossible to attack without the use of tank warfare or such diversions as attacking the post’s rear as well as from the front. This valley was employed by the Germans as a killing ground, and it proved fatal to the 8th and 9th Devonshire Regiments who were slaughtered in that valley.
The machine gun was a devastating weapon when used against charging troops, which was the main method of attack employed by the B. E. F. In contrast, hills were used, not only for the visionary bonus, but to make it harder for men to attack it. Vimy Ridge is on the top of a hill and trenches were dug here to give the attacking Germans difficulties. At Newfoundland Park, the gently sloping hill will have made it hard to counter attack the British. Some natural dips on a battlefield would have provided easy cover without having to dig down into the boggy ground.
Again at Newfoundland Park the Y Ravine would have been used for supply lines and to give troops cover before attacking. The German army was able to make use of this sort of natural advantage because the Germans were already in Belgium and had time to set up their defences. The British trenches were built much more hurriedly, sometimes under heavy fire. They were not as strong, and were easily taken. Sometimes the water table would be too high for good trenches to be built. The trenches therefore would be full of water, which would eventually collapse the section.
One way of getting around this problem was to build concrete bunkers above ground, the method used at Tyncot. These bunkers were easily destroyed by bombardment, and left dazed men to face an oncoming enemy. Therefore here the Germans had the upper hand. The tactics employed by the British whilst attacking were meant to incorporate several things: speed, ease of charging and previous destruction. The previous destruction was meant to be from bombardment – the guns would pound at the front line, destroying the barbed wire, demoralizing the enemy troops and leaving them disorientated.
The infantry would then run towards the enemy trenches, kill all troops, and then repair the trenches, fortifying them against a counter-attack. However, the factors needed for a successful raid did not sometimes come together. The first thing needed for a raid was the ability to move, both out of the trenches and in. To move out needed a firestep, one thing that the constant bombardment from the German guns almost totally destroyed. At sanctuary wood, a forward attack point, there is almost no firestep remaining, merely a steeply sloping bank.
This shows that it would have been difficult to get out of the trenches, especially under heavy fire. (This may not be a credible source of information however, as the owner of the trenches at Sanctuary Wood has tried to replicate the conditions in the trenches too much, turning it almost into a playground for children, and it is difficult to tell what is historical fact and what is commercialisation. ) The trenches at Newfoundland Park do have a firestep, however worn by nature it is.
This shows how this was a forward attacking post for the British Army. The downward slope would have helped in attacking this place as well. Another factor for a successful attack was the ease of getting across no-man’s-land. Attacking uphill towards Bayerwald, also with its superior trenches, would have been demoralizing, and most soldiers would have been killed or mortally wounded on the uphill attack. A downward slope, as I have mentioned At Newfoundland Park, would be a considerable burden lifted from the soldiers.
Newfoundland Park would probably have been the easiest out of the sites we have studied to attack, because it would not have been too muddy due to the type of earth here, and the downward slope would have meant the attackers would have been near the trenches very quickly. However, due to this ease the Germans defended the place very well. The barbed wire, meant to have been cut by the shelling, was not, meaning that troops were stranded in no-man’s-land, under fire from machine guns.
This happened at many places. “It got dark before we were halfway out and… almost had to give up. We would lose our way, get caught in barbed wire, step in holes… ” This extract is from the diary of Sgt. Robert R. Gustafson, 91st Division. I take this as primary evidence, and reliable information. It is useful to have seen all the places rather than studied them in a text book. The text book gave me the impression that every trench was the same, and the problems that the soldiers faced were all similar. The picture in my head was of a flat, muddy land, where trenches were straight sided and barbed wire stretched across the lot.
This picture was given to me by the text book, but actually being at the battlefields has shown me that there were many changeable factors and differences in the terrain and conditions at each site. With regard to both the attacking trenches and defending trenches, there is an evident difference of quality in them. For instance, the trenches at Vimy Ridge and at Bayerwald were both strong, deep trenches that provided maximum cover. Both were sites of defence, and these were much better built than the attacking trenches.
At Newfoundland Park the trenches were less imposing, suggesting heavy fighting and many men trampling the mud down. One tactic of war that was changed by the invention of the machine gun was the fact that if you threw thousands of men into the line of fire, the enemy would be worn down and eventually broken. The machine gun however destroyed this idea, as it was able to fire 600 rounds per minute at a range of 4,500 yards1, and against inexperienced Generals who pushed men forward the tactic did not work. Another tactic that has always been employed is holding ground.
Once a piece of land was taken, it was customary to fight and hold onto that land for as long as possible. This sacrificed many men. Letting the attackers come towards you meant that sometimes they chased you, and could be easily slaughtered by a well disciplined backup regiment. It is evident that these two failing tactics were employed during the First World War, because of the thousands of graves. If Generals and other leaders had recognized that warfare was changing, the lives of so many men could have been spared.