The front line experiences of the average soldier on the western front in World War 1 are outside the realms of comprehension for almost anyone alive today. However, this doesn’t diminish our attempts to understand what it must have been like.
The experience of the First World War was remarkably similar for the soldiers of all nations involved. The letters from this young Australian soldier from Queensland put you right in his shoes.
It is incredible how similar the experiences of the average German infantryman on the western front are to their French or British and Commonwealth enemies. History Guild members can choose from a variety of iconic World War 1 personal stories in our library, including the classic Under Fire – The story of a squad, which gives the perspective of the French soldiers in the trenches.
The modern view of the French military is seen through the lens of the pivotal 6 weeks in the summer of 1940 where their defences crumbled before the point of the German spear. However this does a disservice to what is and has been a spectacularly successful, powerful, motivated military. For centuries France was regarded as having one of if not the best army in Europe. A great example of this fine record is the defence of Fort Vaux. Listen to the Fall of Fort Vaux, by The Great War Podcast.
The First World War saw significant changes both in terms of technology and tactics. This tends to be overlooked in the stereotypical view that the western front was nothing more than a meat grinder of static trench warfare. This ignores the development of combined arms warfare that was witnessed during 1917-18 on both sides. Military History Visualized provides and excellent exploration of how the German army went about developing their storm troop tactics here.
Members can also listen to the full length audiobook Between the Lines. This book provides a fascinating perspective of the front line. It uses newspaper reports such as “Detonated a mine under the enemy trench” and details what that was like for the soldiers on the line and the engineers who did the painstaking work to construct the mine.
While nothing will give you a full understanding of what it was like to be in the trenches, there are ways of getting a better idea. The last decade has seen the development of much more realistic computer simulations. Verdun is a game that does a good job of accurately recreating what it was like for a soldier on the front line. You have to stop, lie down or kneel and take careful aim to have any chance of hitting an enemy soldier. If you are shot anywhere it will almost certainly kill or incapacitate you. Have a look at it in action here.
Something that playing Verdun shows you is the absolute battlefield dominating power of artillery. When you are under bombardment you simply do not move from your position. To do so means certain death. According to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War 58% of German battlefield deaths were caused by artillery. This tends to be somewhat overlooked compared to the more personal stories of machine guns, grenades, rifle and bayonet. For a good overview of the role and employment of the artillery, here is the Artillery Chapter of the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
Military History Visualized provides a great exploration of artillery in the First World War here.
To return to the lot of the infantry soldier in the trench we hear from Corporal Len Jones about his experiences in the attack on Pozieres between the 22nd and 27th of July 1916. 126 men from Len’s Battalion were killed, a true decimation.
He describes being blown out of a trench, digging buried men out, holding a man who died in his arms, killing a German with the butt of his rifle and another with a bayonet.
History Guild members can also listen to the audiobook of the Night Operations For Infantry manual, compiled For The Use Of Company Officers (1916). This manual details how soldiers should be trained to have the best chance of success in night fighting.
One often overlooked aspect of the First World War is the enormous logistical effort involved in waging modern, industrial war. This process was a chain from the raw material mining or farming, through the massive increase in factory production to the transport to the front lines. On the Allied side a critical part of this was provided by the over 100,000 strong Chinese Labor Corps. The podcast below tells their story.
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