Contrary to population assumptions, the trench was by no means a new feature of warfare in 1914. Recognised in the 1909 Field Service Regulations as an essential element in defence, it had been employed for centuries, particularly in siege warfare. But the First World War differed in that the scale of the trench systems occupied by both sides was unprecedented, as was the length of time the armies would fight over them.
For the first two years of the war, the tactics employed by High Command commonly involved intensive artillery bombardment to destroy the impenetrable barbed wire defences and emplacements, coupled with attacks by infantry. The anticipation of going ‘over the top’ (sometimes termed ‘going over the bags’ as men would scramble over sandbags at the trench parapet before moving forward) inevitably filled men with a mix of fear and dread and the testimonies of those who survived such actions reveal what a chaotic experience it was, with smoke, noise and disorientation frequently confusing and thwarting the achievement of objectives.
British soldiers were instructed to attack by walking upright and steadily towards the enemy trenches with their rifle held across the chest. Furthermore, they were weighed down with equipment and kit including rounds of ammunitions, or even shovels. Pitted against the merciless machine gun, the casualties inflicted by following such methods were inevitably high and although some offensives were successful, taken trenches could often be quickly lost again through an enemy counter-offensive swiftly implemented while the new occupants were still busy making good the captured trench.
Despite a series of offensive and counter-offensives, and competing attempts by each side to find ways to break the deadlock, ground would not be significantly gained by either side until 1918 by which time advances were carried out in a much more flexible system incorporating movement and rifle fire, while creeping barrages allowed infantry some cover as they moved forward and tanks offered a solution to overcoming strong points.
Although offensives have come to define the warfare of the Western Front, the reality was that many soldiers might serve at the Front for a year or more without going over the top. Instead, they would spend their days largely on physical duties – fetching supplies up to the front or ‘fire’ trench, or helping with the ceaseless work of digging, improving and repairing the trench system.