Trench War 100 Years Ago

History is a constant source of interest and new information for me. Since the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, there has been a constant supply of “new” books on the topics, most of them written long ago and reissued. One that attracted my attention was Trench Warfare 1914-1918 by Tony Ashworth and originally published in 1980 In Great Britain.

He told the story of how British soldiers lived in trenches across from Germans sometimes separated by no more than a few yards. The Christmas Truce which served as the basis for the movie Joyeux Noel, is part of this series. The author used interviews with veterans, letters, diaries, memoirs and reports of a variety of military units.

From his research there emerged a fascinating story of how enemy soldiers managed to get along mostly by ignoring one another. However, the longer they lived close to each other the more they managed to avoid conflict. When ordered to fire on the other side, they aimed high. When ordered to use trench mortars, they fired long. When they knew that artillery was to fire on the other side, they would shout that information over. Retribution was always in kind. Twelve long mortar shots would be replied to with twelve long shots.

Replacements were immediately clued in as to the way things operated in the unit. Officers were led to see the value of this approach, or were simply deceived. The German army was divided along “national” lines; Prussians, Saxons, etc and only the Prussians insisted on acting as if there were a war on. Even some Prussian units got their officers to look the other way.

The book has photographs showing French officers sitting at a small table in a trench with a table cloth and flowers having a meal presided over by the cook. Germans are shown at afternoon tea. Musical entertainment with one side serenading the other was quite common on all fronts.

In 1917 the French army in some places refused to attack. Officially this was described as a mutiny. Yet, units did not put down their arms and walk away. They simply refused to attack the Germans, who being left alone, left the French alone. Obviously, the war did go on. As reported in an earlier blog, casualties for this war were enormous. And, yet, in the midst of all the staff planning and general orders, common sense did rear its head.

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