chapter  3
6 Pages

Taking Stock

The military leaders might not have expected the defensive stalemate that emerged, but when it did, they, or more often the new men who replaced them, analyzed the unexpected dilemma with a good deal more acuity than the post-war legend about bone-headed generals would suggest. As Trevor Wilson points out (Wilson, 1986), they realized that there were essentially only two ways to bring back open and mobile warfare. One was to attack faster than the defence could entrench itself. Speed to achieve this came through the railway systems. For example, in the race to the sea in 1914, the battles between the Marne and Ypres took place where east-west spur lines delivered men who had been moved north on the main lines. Speed was constant for both sides because both were using the same railway network. Space was the other variable. The 475 miles of front might seem to present opportunities for open attack somewhere, but much of the territory was unsuitable for attacking, especially between Verdun and the Swiss frontier. In the flatter areas where manoeuvre was possible, the increase in firepower and manpower of the previous half-century ensured that both sides could pack in more than enough to stand their ground. Even before 1914, modern trenches had evolved far beyond being holes in the ground. Reinforced with barbed wire (one of the underrated basics of trench war), sandbags, deep dugouts, modern rifles, quick-firing field artillery and machine guns (one of the overrated basics of trench war), entrenched defences would yield only to infantry well supported by artillery. So artful manoeuvre and power drives were both impractical, at least for the moment. Moreover, by the end of 1914, everyone had run out of shells. Starting virtually from scratch, both sides converted to war economies to feed the guns. Yet the same artillery backstopped the defences. The more things changed, the more they were likely to stay the same, if only because the two sides had the same technological capacities, and whatever device one side lacked, it soon was able to copy.