On the Western Front, the warring armies burrowed into a vast system of trenches, stretching from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel. An underground network linked bunkers, communications trenches, and gun emplacements.
There, millions of soldiers roasted under the broiling summer sun or froze through long bitter winters. They shared their food with rats and their beds with lice.
Between the opposing trench lines lay “no man's land,” an empty tract, pocketed with shell holes. Through coils of barbed wire, soldiers peered over the edge of their trenches, watching for the next enemy attack. They themselves would have to charge into this man-made desert when officers gave the order.
Sooner or later, soldiers obeyed the order to go “over the top.” With no protection but their rifles and helmets, they charged across no man's land toward the enemy lines. With luck, they might overrun a few trenches. In time, the enemy would launch a counterattack, with similar results. Each side then rushed in reinforcements to replace the dead and wounded. The struggle continued, back and forth, over a few hundred yards of territory.
To break the stalemate on the Western Front, both the Allies and the Central Powers launched massive offensives in 1916. German forces tried to overwhelm the French at Verdun (vur DUN). The French defenders held firm, sending up the battle cry “They shall not pass.” The 11-month struggle cost more than a half a million casualties, or soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, on both sides.
An Allied offensive at the Somme River (sum) was even more costly. In a single grisly day, nearly 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded. In the five-month battle, more than one million soldiers were killed, without either side winning an advantage.
Some soldiers wrote about their experiences on the front lines:
The blue French cloth mingled with the German grey upon the ground, and in some places the bodies were piled so high that one could take cover from shell-fire behind them. The noise was so terrific that orders had to be shouted by each man into the ear of the next. And whenever there was a momentary lull in the tumult of battle and the groans of the wounded, one heard, high up in the blue sky, the joyful song of birds! Birds singing just as they do at home in spring-time! It was enough to tear the heart out of one's body!
—German soldier Richard Schmieder, writing from the trenches in France
Who do you think was in a better strategic position at the start of the war, the Allies or the Central Powers? Why?