from 'T.P.'s Journal of Great Deeds of the Great War' December 19, 1914
'The Catacombs of the War'
The Method of the Mole

A Description of Trench Warfare in 1914

a schematic view
see also : Trench Warfare in 1915


When one has begun to think that Life in the Trenches has become so monotonous and that the last word has been said upon it, either by oneself or by extracts from the letters of the soldiers who are living it, there comes at once a change of the kaleidoscope. Then one perceives that underneath all its monotony there is infinite variety. It is a little like the gambling rooms in Monte Carlo. There you see at the tables a number of silent, self-contained, impassive men and women; you hear scarcely a murmur, or even a whisper; the atmosphere is almost as decorous and as reticent as that of a Scotch kirk on the Sabbath. Yet you have only to think for a moment, and you know that, underneath all this superficial tranquillity, there are hearts beating with all the volcanic and devastating passions : greed, hope, despair; glowing visions of the paradise of boundless wealth; dark visions of ruin, the revolver shot, the grave.

The Superficial Monotony

Here, for instance, is how the trenches looked to the well-known English novelists, Alice and Claude Askew:

Around the trenches — the long battle front that extends for over thirty miles — the country wears a sombre and melancholy aspect, a grey, sickly pallor. The fields are bare — there is nothing left in them to ravage and rend; war — fierce, thundering war — is master and god of the soil; the trees are gaunt and leafless; the entire countryside is pockmarked with shells; the roads have become roads of ruts and furrows; there are rows on rows of graves.

The Silence of the Howitzer

"Eye-Witness," who has advanced to such prominence as a picturesque chronicler of the War, gives a description of an important change in the atmosphere of Life in the Trenches. "The air no longer throbs to the dull roar of heavy artillery and the detonating of great projectiles." He adds this vivid little sketch of the scene :

Of course, if an attack is in progress, there is again turmoil, but it is more local, and does not approach in intensity that which recently reigned on a large scale. The scene, as a whole, as viewed from one of the few commanding points in our front, is almost one of peace as compared with that of a week or two ago. The columns of black smoke vomited by the exploding howitzer shell are as rare as those from burning villages. The only generally visible signs of war are the occasional puffs of bursting shrapnel opening out above woods and villages and floating slowly away on the still air.


a photo series of French soldiers constructing a trench


A New Form of Fighting

But I recur to my Monte Carlo simile: underneath all this invisibility and comparative reticence, there goes on continually the feverish and passionate life of thousands of men hovering every second between the alternative of killing or being killed. Indeed, if anything, life is more feverish and more passionate than ever. For this new form of warfare has produced new methods of waging it. The passage, in which "Eye- Witness" describes the new methods, is too long for quotation in this column, but, roughly, I may sum it up by saying that these soldiers lead a life somewhat like, on the one side, the life of the early Christians in the Catacombs; and, on the other, the life of the prospectors who are opening a new mine. All day and through the watches of the night, they are digging, digging, digging. And with this purpose : that as they cannot get at each other without the deadly devastation of the frontal attack — our soldiers CAN shoot! — the two sides — and especially the Germans — are trying to get at each other underground.- It is, as it were, a war between moles, not between men. The Germans are doing this work wonderfully well : which reveals their strength and their weakness as fighters. The frontal attack, to which they have sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives, and which have had one long, unbroken record of ultimate and devastating failure, is at last abandoned.

War in the Catacombs

"Eye-Witness" gives an instructive and even thrilling picture of the new methods of what I may call warfare in the Catacombs. The methods depend on the character of the fighting : that is to say, whether it is fighting merely between the riflemen on both sides, or fighting in which the heavy shell of the deadly and gigantic howitzer is employed. "Where sniping or rifle fire alone is expected," says Eye- Witness, "the amount of the excavations behind the front line is limited." On the other hand, "when bombardment is or has been severe, everyone within range of the enemy's guns, the brigadier not excepted, will be found ensconced underground in 'dug-outs,' or 'funk-holes,' as they are familiarly called, for in the zone under fire houses are no better than shell-traps."


a sketch by an English officer


Trench Behind Trench

But even then we are not at the end of this world of modern Catacombs; for behind the trenches in the firing zone there are other trenches — partly for the men who are holding the line, partly for the men who are held back till their time comes to take the places of the men in front and relieve them.

These are more elaborate and comfortable than the fire-trenches, usually are roofed over, and contain cooking places and many conveniences. Some of these underground quarters have now become almost luxurious, and contain windows.

But, again, we are not at an end of the work of these human moles. For the impossibility of reaching each other in the trenches by attacking over-ground has suggested various expedients for getting at each other through underground approaches. And here is how the Germans try to accomplish this — I am still quoting from "Eye- Witness":

From the last position attained they sap forward. The approaches are excavated by German pioneers, which correspond to our sappers. Owing to the close range at which the fighting is conducted and the fact that rifles fixed in , rests and machine-guns are kept permanently directed upon the crest of the trenches, observation is somewhat difficult, but the "head," or end, of the approaching sap can be detected from the mound of earth which is thrown up.

The "Blinded" Sap

But German scientific ingenuity has met this difficulty, and they prevent detection of the tell-tale mound by what is called the "blinded" sap:

In executing this type of sap a horizontal bore-hole, about a foot in diameter and some three or four feet below ground, is bored by means of a special earth borer worked by hand. It is then enlarged by pick and shovel into a small tunnel, the roof of which is one or two feet below the surface.



How "Saps" Are Worked

Several of these saps having been driven forward; their heads are connected by a lateral trench, which becomes the front line, and can be used for stormers to collect for an assault. In some cases, usually at night, a sap is driven right up to the parapet of the hostile trench, which is then blown in by a charge. Amidst the confusion caused and a shower of grenades, the stormers attempt to burst in through the opening and work along the trench. They also assault it in front. As in their ordinary infantry attacks, machine-guns are quickly brought up to any point gained in order to repel counter-attack.

The Deadly Grenade

And here, again, there comes into play a special weapon of war, specially needed by warfare under such conditions. It is difficult to use either machine gun or rifle, for in such close quarters you are as likely to hit friend as foe. This is what has brought the hand grenade or small bomb, which can be thrown by hand. These bombs are often nearly as destructive as the howitzers. As "Eye-Witness" says, "they may be termed the 'Jack Johnsons' of the close attack of a siege warfare." We have followed the German example, and now have our "Jack Johnsons" of the trenches. And this heavy arming of both sides makes these fights in the trenches often the deadliest of all.

A Glimpse into the Inferno

Here, under its reserved language, is one of the most thrilling passages I have yet read of what warfare really means; it is a glimpse into the Inferno, such as might have affrighted Dante

The smaller bombs or grenades are thrown by hand from a few yards' distance, perhaps just lobbed over a parapet. They are charged with high explosive, and detonate with great violence, and since their impetus does not cause them to bury themselves in the earth before they detonate, their action, though local, is very unpleasant in the enclosed space between two traverses in a trench. These grenades of various types are being thrown continuously by both sides, every assault being preluded and accompanied by showers of them. In fact, the wholesale use of these murderous missiles is one of the most prominent features of the close attack now being carried on.

And then there is the final touch of Science once again, offering itself as the miserable slave of man-slaying by its newest devices. To meet the difficulties of discovering this new and stealthy form of attack, there has been invented a "hyperscope." It is the twin-sister of the periscope of the submarine; it enables a man to look over the top of a trench without raising his head above it.

Meetings in the Trenches

I close this article by one or two stories gleaned from my bundle of papers, which bring out some of the features of this new development of Fighting in the Trenches. Here is a grim story of how one of these mole-like expeditions ended; it was at the beginning of the War. There must have been many like it since :

We spent two days on a long mine out towards the German lines, and just when we were getting to the close of our job we heard pickaxes going as fast and hard as you like, and then the wall of clay before us gave way, showing a party of Germans at the same game ! You never saw men more astonished in your life, and they hadn't quite recovered from their shock when we pounced on them. We had a pretty sharp scrap down there indeed, but we got the best of it, though we had four of our chaps laid out. One German devil was just caught in time with a fuse which he was going to apply with the mad idea of blowing us all up!

An Overhearing which had Results

An astounding feature of War in the Trenches, even when the conditions are so terrible as those I have just described, is the mad feats of daring in which officers and men constantly embark — not under orders, not even with leave, but spontaneously; just out of the bravery of their own hearts, and the restless desire to strike a blow. Here is such a case:

The other evening a German officer, firmly and safely planted in a trench, exhorted his company to press forward to the attack of our trench, some fifty yards away. He was heard to say that our trench was only held by blockheads called Territorials, who would bolt at the first sound of the attack. The Germans, believing more in the prowess of our men than in the veracity of their officer, refused to budge, whereupon one of our officers, who had overheard what had been going on opposite, organised an attack on the reluctant ones, and, leading his men, attacked them in their trench. The Germans bolted with such speed that when our fellows reached their trench it was empty. The Germans were pursued, and a number of the older fellows, who, by reason of years and amplitude of girth, found it impossible to keep up the pace set by their younger fellows, were captured. The German officer himself, however, succeeded in getting away.

T. P.


building trenches

see also : Trench Warfare in 1915

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