Reader Tim asks if I know how and why trench warfare evolved. Tim, I’m not a military historian, but that won’t stop me from taking a stab at answering your question. From what I know, trench warfare simply “happened.” It was an outcome of the weaponry that was being used at the time. It’s often said of various wars that technical advances in weaponry were well ahead of the military tactics being used. As a rule that tends to be true, since senior officers are almost by definition old guys who tend to look to the past. If it worked then, it’ll work now. That way of looking at the world becomes less and less valid as the pace of technological advance increases.
And weapons technology was advancing pretty darn fast all through the industrial revolution. Military historians talk about the American Civil War as being especially deadly because the new guns shot big rounds that wreaked havoc on a human body, especially when troops engaged each other at close range (which they usually did). The good news for Civil War-era infantry is that the big round balls the guns shot tended to go every which way when they were fired. So the odds were decent that the guy taking aim at you would miss…even at a distance of fifty or sixty yards.
By the time World War I rolled around fifty years later, all that had changed. Advances in rifling made weapons much, much more accurate. Plus as I wrote last week, machine guns — accurate and highly portable machine guns — increased the rate of fire by, well…a lot.
So imagine you’re on a big open field (like the plains of Picardy), charging the enemy on foot. You discover in very short order that they have weapons capable of ripping you and you comrades to pieces in seconds. You have no hope of reaching their defensive line, which is hundreds of yards aways. What do you do? You can turn and run (giving the enemy a clear shot at you as you go), you can hide behind something, or you can dig a hole, get in it and hope some brilliant engineer invents the armored personnel carrier — quick!
That’s pretty much what both sides did in War War I. It was classic case of using yesterday’s tactics to fight today’s war. Trenches weren’t part of any plan, they were a logical outcome of the situation the troops found themselves in. Thanks for a really interesting question, Tim!