On the battlefield of Eylau, the Imperial guard of Napoleon 1st Bonaparte is under fire from Russian cannons. The cannonballs cut deeply through the lines, bowling over horses and riders. The survivors bunch together on their mounts. Just then, Colonel Major Louis Lepic calls out to his men with the now famous words: "Heads up! Grapeshot isn't horseshit!"
Whether these words were actually said or not is of little importance. What counts is that they were considered to be truthful at the time, and immortalized in 1893 in a painting by artist Edouard Detaille, Les Grenadiers à cheval à Eylau : haut les têtes. Part of the collection at the Musée Condé (Chantilly), this painting is a testament to a certain idea of combat that survived at the end of the 19th century: that of a man standing directly before his enemy, in a uniform that makes him look huge, as well as easily recognisable and identifiable. The Great War will quickly deal with such flights of fancy.
In 1914, trenches are nothing new. More recent conflicts, such as the Russian-Japanese war of 1905, demonstrated the benefit of having the combatants take to trenches in order to protect themselves from the powerful fire of modern weapons.
The trench, as of the "movement war"
When discussing the Great War on the western front, we generally distinguish the "movement war" (summer-autumn 1914) from the "position war" or "trench war" that began that same winter. This distinction is perfectly valid, but it can lead one to think that the trenches were some kind of innovation from the time of the Great War, which is not at all the case. This is not the case.
In previous centuries, trenches had often been used in order to lay siege to a city or stronghold. In the second version of La légende des siècles, Victor Hugo writes, echoing the French defeat of 1870: "Let us teach our sons to dig trenches, / Like the old ones did who came before us, / To load the guns, to roll the cannons, / To fight, to die, and let's read Homer to them" . These lines, that many students learn at the start of their edition of the Iliad, are sufficient proof that trenches were nothing new in 1914. More recent conflicts, such as the Russian-Japanese war of 1905, demonstrated the benefit of having the combatants take to trenches in order to protect themselves from the powerful fire of modern weapons. It's for that reason that most European soldiers carry a short shovel, generally a version of the Danish Linnemann shovel. A decoration, it isn't. On the eve of the Battle of Charleroi, for example, French soldiers dig trenches around their camp for protection against a surprise attack by the enemy. The terrible losses suffered in Belgium during the "battle of the frontiers", from Mons to Baranzy in Luxembourg province, were therefore not due to a lack of interest in digging trenches. They result simply from the guiding principle of plan XVII (the French army operations plan), that calls for all-out attacks.
The preoccupation for ensuring that the men are sheltered from enemy fire came quickly, especially in the Belgian army that is generally involved in defensive battle
The Belgian army, on the other hand, is on the defensive. As such, the digging of trenches is one of the major activities for Belgian soldiers, notably around the fortified positions of Liège, Namur and Antwerp, starting in August 1914. For example, the diary of soldier Florent Nicolas, a coalman from Presgaux (Couvin, Namur province), indicates that he's digging trenches with his comrades from the 8th regiment of the line as of his arrival at the front on 8 August. From 14 August and until the German attack on the 20th, they set up a network of barbed wire in front of their trenches: so effective for the rest of the war, this pairing of trench / barbed wire is in place only 15 days after the start of hostilities. Many engagements during this period therefore already result in an attacker coming up against an "entrenched" adversary. While the trenches are not yet as deep or complex as the one that will be seen on the Western front starting at the end of 1914, they clearly demonstrate that the preoccupation for ensuring that the men are sheltered from enemy fire came quickly, especially in the Belgian army that is generally involved in defensive battle. When it goes on the attack, for example during the two "sorties" by the Antwerp garrison in late August and early September 1914, it also comes up against entrenched German troops. The "trench warfare" in the winter of 1914-1915 can therefore not be characterized as the invention of this combat method, but as its generalization, its increasing complexity, and the stability of the front line.
Life in the trenches is often viewed, and for good reason, as particularly difficult: damp, dirty and demoralizing due to its immobility. One must recall that, first and foremost, a trench is a refuge and a guarantee of survival. Paired with a network of barbed wire, dug in uneven lines in order to avoid enfilade fire, trenches are the war's best defensive weapon. Thanks to trenches, several hundred shells are needed just to kill a single man. For the soldiers, it's the idea of leaving the trench – for a patrol, or raid, an offensive – that's problematic, and that seriously reduces life expectancy.
Fighting in an outdated uniform
Like the French army, the Belgian army entered the war with uniforms that hearkened back to the 19th century. But this observation sometimes leads to hasty interpretations: it is still frequently heard, for example, that the slaughters in the summer of 1914 can be blamed on the French army continuing to wear madder-coloured trousers! Suggestions of this type demonstrate a certain ignorance with regard to the nature of the battles during the Great War. That the red pants make the French infantrymen more visible is indisputable. However, it isn't their uniform that causes their terrible losses, but rather the fact that they are ordered to attack enemies who are superior in number, and who have modern weapons. While rifles certainly cause more deaths during the movement war than they will during the rest of the war, most of the losses are caused by artillery fire and machine guns. Indeed, these weapons don't target a specific enemy, but sweep across a portion of the battlefield, often blindly. In this context, the colour of the trousers is of little importance! The thoroughly comparable German losses are proof of this, when their soldiers, though equipped with feldgrau outfits, charge Belgian positions at Liège or English positions at Mons. Much later, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, thousands of English soldiers with very modern khaki uniforms will be killed by artillery or German machine guns… before having even reached the first British line!
While it mustn't be overestimated, the uniform's colour is nevertheless a subject of discussion even before the conflict, prompted by the wars at the start of the century. The French and Belgian armies are then testing new uniforms: for example, the Belgian army is trying a grey-blue described as "Belgian grey". But equipping an entire army with new uniforms, as was done in Great Britain (1900), in Germany (1907), in Austria-Hungary (1909) and in Russia (1910) is a very significant investment, one that is not taken lightly… At the same time, the idea also arises of providing the soldiers with a helmet, partly for protection against bullets, but mainly from shell bursts and stones projected by explosions. The Belgian army tests a somewhat conical helmet, somewhat reminiscent of the colonial helmets, and adorned with a lion's head… which gives it something of a look of a pointy helmet!
The hostilities interrupt this modernization process, and Belgian soldiers must therefore go into battle in outdated uniforms, fortunately in not very visible black. Very quickly, however, they dispense with their excessively heavy, excessively hot or excessively visible headgear (busbies, shakos and felt hats), which they replace with their much more practical police caps (off-duty headdress). They also conceal the more visible parts of their uniforms, notably anything that shines (certain leathers, the waxed canvas, any metal). More than its visibility, which is not excessive, it's the uniform's low degree of practicality that justifies its replacement. If apparently suitable for manoeuvres, the same cannot be said for operations: it's too hot in the heat of August, too cold as of the autumn, it doesn't protect sufficiently from bad weather, and it dries too slowly. In 1915, the Belgian army is therefore reequipped with new khaki uniforms, in a more earthy shade than that of the British army, and an Adrian helmet similar to the French model (but decorated with a lion, the national symbol).
Faced with the power of the artillery and machine guns, the soldier hunkers down, hunches over, lays flat on the ground into which he tries to crawl with the help of a shovel or just his hands, in an effort to present the smallest target to enemy fire.
The modern combatant, a man who goes to ground
Just like the trenches, the question of the uniform is anything but anecdotal: It indicates a profound transformation of combat and of its perception during the Great War. Back in the 19th century, combatants faced the enemy ramrod straight, head held high, surrounded by comrades as part of a compact group. A soldier must be visible and recognisable from afar. An indication of this can be found not only in the sometimes glistening colour of the uniforms, but also the materials that must shine, and the headgear that makes the men appear bigger and therefore more impressive.
The Great War definitively puts paid to this notion of battle, but not without some grieving. As such, Englebert Decrop is bitter when he notes how a patrol is carried out around his post in December 1917. Targeted along with his men by a German machine gun, he reacts in the only sensible way: "we threw ourselves onto the ground. When the volley ended, we got up but only just, and the Huns opened up with the machine gun again, forcing us back down. The shots came very close. Despite this luck, I was in a bad mood all day, reflecting on the instinctive movement of… fear that I felt, as I threw myself on the ground in the presence of the lower ranks" . E. Decrop has trouble doing away with the imaginary officer without fear and above reproach, whose apparent imperturbability serves as an example to his subordinates. Such behaviour, however, would only result in his death.
Faced with the power of the artillery and machine guns, the soldier hunkers down, hunches over, lays flat on the ground into which he tries to crawl with the help of a shovel or just his hands, in an effort to present the smallest target to enemy fire. His comrades do likewise and each one feels isolated, in the middle of a gigantic and deserted battlefield. The "baptism of fire" is no longer a right of passage into manhood, an occasion – horrible but real – to prove one's virility while demonstrating one's courage. On the contrary, it's a traumatizing and dehumanizing experience. It humbles the combatant by forcing him to face his extreme vulnerability, in the face of dangers that strike blindly.