from 'the War Illustrated' 28th September, 1918
'Trench Memories of Many Fronts'
by Hamilton Fyfe

Men and Cities of the War - the Hindenburg Line

attacking the Hindenburg Line as seen by illustrative artists in 'the War Illustrated'


I wonder what "the Hindenburg line" suggests to you ? Very few people, I find, have any clear idea of a battlefield or a defence system unless they have been on or in one. Most of us are wondering vaguely just now, I am sure, why the Hindenburg line should be safer for the Germans than any other line, why they expect it to be so stout an obstacle against our continued advance.

Well, the Hindenburg line — of which I can speak from experience, having stayed in the part of it that we held all last winter after the "Cambrai show" — is a system of trenches very much like other trenches, only more so. They are, in the slang phrase taken from Nietzsche, what we might describe as "super-trenches."

I have seen "trenches" of every degree of resistance. In the early battles of the war our unfortunate troops scraped out individual little holes to lie in. On the Rumanian mountain front there were shallow ditches, with the earth under the parapet dug out so as to form a sleeping- place. As one went through them and saw soldiers lying on these shelves of soil it was hard sometimes in wet weather to tell if they were men or mud-heaps. On the Danube front the trenches were shallower still, and had no dug-outs. They provided no shelter at all.

In Italy and Austria I saw trenches dug through ice and snow, blasted through stony soil, drilled through solid rock. The Russian trenches were generally very good. Peasants accustomed to build houses with axes put up excellent woodwork in them. They had comfortable underground billets — comfortable, that is to say, so long as the weather was not too wet or the bombardment too heavy. But they did not use concrete, any more than we have used it. It is in concrete that the strength of the Hindenburg line chiefly consists.


attacking the Hindenburg Line as seen by illustrative artists in 'the War Illustrated'


In Deep Dug-Out

In a concrete chamber thirty feet below the surface you can feel fairly secure, no matter how heavy the bombardment may be. I don't say they are pleasant to live in, these deep dug-outs. No light of blessed day ever gets into them. The atmosphere seems to be nearly always either chilly or stuffy. There is little enough space. Usually the battalion commander's mess shares his dug- out for meals and for sitting in of nights. It only includes three or four officers, or there would be too many. The company officers eat in their own cubby-holes. I have seen men who in their- homes or in restaurants are exacting or fussy about having everything "just so,", taking their meals in conditions of squalor which would repel a tramp, yet thoroughly enjoying them, as they never enjoyed food in "the days before."

In the men's dug-outs they are thick in the ground. If you tumble down the rough steps quickly to get out of the way of a sudden "strafe," you find the air, at first, mephitic, but the men, you notice, don't mind it, and after a little while you don't mind it either. Most troops, I think, used to prefer being in the front line, when they had such dug-outs as these, to being in support a few miles back with much poorer accommodation. For, whatever their drawbacks might be, such trenches as those of the Hindenburg line have great advantages, one of which is that they do enable troops to feel fairly safe.

Of course, if there is an attack, or even a raid, the depth of the dug-outs becomes a danger. The men in them cannot get out quickly enough to keep the enemy out by rifle fire. Often we. have been in Herman trenches, those of this very Hindenburg line, before the warning shots of the sentries had brought the troglodytes out of their caves. Then summonses to surrender are shouted down.


attacking the Hindenburg Line as seen by illustrative artists in 'the War Illustrated'


Anti-Tank Trenches

Sometimes there emerges a procession of shamefaced Huns with their hands up. Sometimes defiance is the reply. Then bombs or Bangalore torpedoes are thrown down, and the occupants of the dug-out cease to be.

The Germans, according to an Army Order which we captured lately, seem to be determined to keep their men more on the alert ; they are not to be more than eight feet below the ground. At that depth our shells can get at them, and the Hindenburg line becomes no more safe than any other.

It was supposed a year ago to be safer by reason of the width of its trenches. Tanks then had difficulty in crossing trenches wider than six feet. Those of the Hindenburg line were dug nearly double that distance across. But now our Tanks have learned to do better. Wide trenches cannot stop them.

To reach that part of the Hindenburg line which we held until March 21st last, one had to go through about a mile and a half of C.T. (communication-trench). There were "duckboards" all the way to walk on, and there was a great deal of "revetting" on the sides of the C.T. — that is reinforcing with wickerwork to keep the earth from slipping. The Germans do this kind of work thoroughly. We have never dug lines so elaborate, because we have always been hoping to go forward. When old Hindenburg had his system prepared he meant the troops to stay in it for a period of many months.

He had then just come back into favour, as he has come back now. Ever since 1915 German military policy has been a see-saw between Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Hindenburg was against the Verdun adventure. He said, "Go on in the east. We can break up Russia if we hammer away steadily for a little while." In spite of his advice, the attempt upon Verdun was made, and became one of the turning-points — history will perhaps say the most vital turning- point of the war.

Then Hindenburg said, "I told you so !" and he had his way for a time. He persuaded the German military authorities that in the west the fronts were too strong for either side to break through. He prepared an offensive against Russia which in the autumn was diverted into Rumania, and by Christmas he was able to cheer up the German people with the news that the Rumanian Army had been knocked out.


attacking the Hindenburg Line as seen by illustrative artists in 'the War Illustrated'


Hindenburg v. Ludendorff

Meanwhile, our Somme offensive had confirmed Hindenburg's opinion that no break-through was possible, though it cost the Germans dear, nevertheless; so dear that in the winter of 1916 he determined to shorten his front and withdraw to a strongly fortified line. He set many thousands of men — and, I believe, some women too — to work on this, and by the early spring it was ready. He retired his forces cleverly, and we let them get away undisturbed.

Thus was the Hindenburg line prepared and occupied, and there the German armies stayed for a year, save in the part which we took at the Battle of Cambrai and kept. During that year Russia collapsed, and, with the prospect of uniting on the Western front the whole of the German forces that were capable of hard fighting, there began to be talk again at German Headquarters of an offensive. Hindenburg still doubted, but he let his judgment be overruled. Ludendorff carried the Army authorities with him, and the Battle of St. Quentin began.

The German blows were well aimed, and the force behind them had been well prepared ; but they could not keep them up. They lost too heavily, and the German people became too restive. The-High Command hesitated — and was lost. While they debated Foch struck, and kept on striking. Once more old Hindenburg was able to say, "If you'd only taken my advice -- " He came to the top once more. And for the second time he gave the order, "Back to the Hindenburg line !"

see also : Building a German Bunker

attacking the Hindenburg Line as seen by illustrative artists in 'the War Illustrated'


Back to Index