Caption: As the war progressed, trench systems became much more complex, as seen in these examples from Belgium.

By early September 1914, the rapid manoeuvres and violent clashes of the first weeks of the war had begun to take their toll on the armies involved. Belgian forces were desperately defending Antwerp, the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force had been forced to rapidly retreat through Belgium and northern France, and the German’s advances stretched their supply lines more each day.

Soldiers on all sides were drained by fatigue and hunger, and the logistics of communication and co-ordination between the enormous groups in action were creating serious strategic challenges and dangers for their commanders.

At the first Battle of the Marne, the French and British forces finally managed to halt Germany’s advance and eventually forced them to retreat up to 40 miles, to the north of the River Aisne.

The northern side of the Aisne valley is dominated by a long ridge line, several hundred feet high and around 25 miles long, overlooking all the crossings of the wide river below. Running along the length of the ridge is the Chemin des Dames, an east-west road named after two of Louis XV’s daughters. The Germans had been ordered to take up defensive positions at the top of this ridge and stop the Allied counterattack. In doing so they transformed the war entirely.

The trench system the Germans dug along the Chemin des Dames ridge in 1914 was far from the first time such field defences had been used. In the century before the First World War they had played prominent roles in the US Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War. The British Army had past experience of the dangers of fighting against an entrenched enemy, having faced this during both the New Zealand Wars in the mid-1800s and the Boer Wars at the turn of the 1900s. 

Caption: Trench systems were also built within Scotland, to prepare troops for the front, as with this example near Invergordon, and to defend key locations.

Germany in particular had spotted the potential value of entrenchments. It had been training its forces in their creation and use for several years by the start of the war.

The trenches of the First World War were set apart by their sheer scale. When it quickly became clear that the Germans could not be dislodged from their positions on the ridgeline, the Allied forces began spreading north-west in an attempt to outflank the enemy positions, while the Germans in turn sought openings to advance south once more.

As each side pushed further to the northwest, the opposing forces rushed to stop them, digging new entrenched positions to defend each day. Now known as the “Race to the Sea”, it was instead an ultimately futile dash for either side to find a way around the enemy in front.

With the wide, open landscapes of Flanders becoming rapidly entrenched, both sides also began to entrench their positions to the southeast of the Aisne front, ensuring their hold on the territory they had secured in the opening weeks of the conflict and ending the initial war of movement on the Western Front. 

By the end of 1914, opposing fortifications stretched for almost 500 miles across northwest Europe, from the Belgian coast to the border of Switzerland. The trench warfare of the Western Front, which has formed such a dominant aspect of the history of the war in the 100 years since, had begun.

Image copyright: 

Header image and second image: Practice trenches in Scotland, copyright Canmore.

First image: Copyright Imperial War Museum.

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