Trench Fighting

By George Kennan

[The Outlook, February 10, 1915]

One of the first lessons learned by both Russians and Japanese in the Manchurian campaign was the great importance in modern warfare of the pickax and the spade. Soon after the desperate but unsuccessful assaults on Port Arthur in August, 1904, a Japanese soldier happened to notice in one of the abandoned Russian trenches a pickax which had been used so long and so continuously that the curved iron head had been worn down almost to the handle on both sides. Regarding it as a curiosity, the soldier picked it up and took it to the staff headquarters, where it attracted the attention of General Nogi. A few days later the Japanese Commander-in-Chief assembled a group of his officers, showed them the worn pickax, and said to them:

"Gentlemen, it is with this that the enemy has beaten us, and with this we must learn to beat him."

In the course of the next three months the Japanese worked almost incessantly with pickax and spade; dug in front of Port Arthur about thirty miles of trenches and parallels; and excavated and carried to the rear in baskets nearly five million cubic feet of earth and stones. By means of this work they approached the Russian lines so closely that they were able at last to attack the forts with saps, blow up their parapets with mines, and then take them by assault without great loss of life.

The example of the Japanese was soon followed by their enemies. North of Mukden, where General Kuropatkin made his final stand, the Russian armies dug a line of trenches which was almost continuous for a distance of fifty or sixty miles, When completed, this position had such defensive strength that General Oyama, with 700,000 men, declined to attack it unless the Japanese War Department would furnish him with ten more divisions. In reviewing, after the war, this gigantic work of intrenchment General Kuropatkin said:

"The spade, which, had been forgotten since the Turkish war, once more regained its position. With the volume and murderous effectiveness of modern fire, neither attack nor defense can be conducted without enormous losses unless proper and intelligent use is made of digging."

The present European war has taught, or is teaching, the same lesson that Nogi, Oyama, and Kuropatkin learned in Manchuria. The British, soldiers in France were very reluctant at first, Colonel Swinton says, to intrench; but disastrous experience soon taught them, as it had taught the Russians and the Japanese, that the pickax and the spade in modern warfare are quite as important as the rifle and the machine gun. In Poland and Austria the combatants are still maneuvering, to some extent, in the open; but in Belgium and France the armies on both sides have "dug themselves in," and are living and fighting in nearly parallel lines of trenches.

As I had an opportunity in Manchuria to see something of trench fighting, it may be worth while, perhaps, to describe briefly some of the methods and appliances which the Russians and the Japanese found most effective in this kind of warfare, and to compare them with those that have recently been adopted in Europe.

Most of the Japanese trenches at Port Arthur were intended to facilitate approach, and were therefore laid out in zigzags running back and forth at angles of from forty to fifty degrees. At irregular intervals they were crossed by parallels, which connected the zigzag lines, and also served as places of shelter in which troops could be massed for an assault. The trenches and parallels, as a rule, were four to five feet in width and five to five and a half feet in depth, and the walls were heightened in some places with sandbags, laid in such a way as to leave narrow crevices between them, for observation and "sniping." As the terrain had recently been a field of growing, corn, both sand-bags and trench margins were masked with cornstalks, so that at a distance they could not be distinguished from the rest of the surface. When, on one occasion, I looked back at the Japanese position from the center of the Russian line, I could not locate a single trench that was more than three hundred yards away. As a result of this skillful concealment, the Russian gunners were compelled to fire more or less at random, and if they succeeded in throwing a shell into a trench at a distance of a mile, it was wholly by accident. Even with shrapnel, they could not prevent the Japanese from moving large bodies of men to the front and massing them in advanced parallels. This comparative safety of movement in the trenches enabled the Japanese not only to send hot food to the fighting line, but to relieve exhausted men from time to time and bring them back to the rear to sleep. They had a few underground, splinter-proof sleeping chambers at the extreme front, and I visited one that was occupied by forty or fifty men; but as a rule, the fighting force was divided into day and night shifts, and the off-duty troops returned to sheltered camps for rest.

In Belgium and France, where night attacks in force are to be expected at any moment, a large number of men must sleep in underground chambers opening into the front trenches, so that they may be quickly available in time of need. On the long line of operations in France there are hundreds of these subterranean shelters, which are called by some of the soldiers "dugouts" or "funk-holes," and are humorously styled by others "'Hotel Cecil," the "Ritz Hotel," the "Billet-Doux Hotel," and the "Rue Dormir." Many of these excavated rooms are fairly spacious, and some of them, particularly on the German side, almost deserve the name of "furnished apartments." All of the Japanese chambers that I visited at Port Arthur were low and dark, and one had to crawl into them on hands and knees, over the bodies of sleeping men.

In the Japanese trenches there was a network of telephone wires, which kept the trench fighters constantly in touch with supporting batteries, as well as with the staff headquarters, and in many places along the front parallels there were periscopes, hyposcopes, and condensing mirrors mounted on long bamboo poles, which enabled the commanding officers to watch the movements of the enemy without exposing their heads to the fire of sharpshooters.

In trench fighting generally, the Japanese made more extensive use of what may be called defensive armor than has been made, apparently, by the combatants in France. They had, for example, steel shields of various types which they used in both defense and attack. One of them, which looked like a thin black gravestone with shoulders and head, was carried in front of the body by means of a leather harness. It was thick enough to stop a rifle bullet, and in the head part it was pierced with a narrow horizontal slit through which the wearer could look and aim. Its weight—twelve or fifteen pounds— might have made it cumbersome for marching and fighting in the open, but it was useful in firing from trenches. Another type of shield which was used in attack consisted of a slab of steel, about three feet square, which was provided with a prop, and which was pushed ahead, in a sloping position, by a man crawling up to a wire entanglement or to an enemy's trench. Sometimes, when the distance to be covered was short, fifteen or twenty men would crawl forward together, behind these shields, to remove obstacles or hurl hand grenades into the Russian lines. It is a question whether the Japanese body-and-head shield might not be used to advantage by the trench fighters in Belgium and France. The volume of rifle fire there is probably greater than it was over the Japanese trenches at Port Arthur; but defensive armor for head and hands, so made that small-caliber bullets would glance from it, might save a good many men. Attention has been attracted in Russia to the great and apparently disproportionate number of trench fighters wounded by rifle bullets in the left hand or arm. The explanation given is that the soldier, in pushing his rifle over the edge of the trench, exposes first the left hand and arm, with which he supports the barrel. If he were protected by a Japanese body shield, he might, of course, be hit, but he would be much safer than he is in firing over the edge of the trench without any protection at all.

To the Russians must be given the credit for the reintroduction in modern warfare of the grenade and the hand-thrown bomb. So far as I can remember, they were not generally used in our Civil War nor in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8. The Japanese apparently had never even thought of them, and were completely taken by surprise when the Russians began to use them at Port Arthur. They were quick to recognize the fact, however, that in trench fighting and in all cases where masses of men are brought into close contact or confined within narrow limits the grenade is the most deadly and destructive of missiles. They had at the beginning of the siege neither grenades nor material with which to make them; but Colonel Imazawa, who was General Nogi's expert in mines and explosives, conceived the idea of utilizing as a temporary substitute for iron the tin of empty provision cans, large quantities of which had been left by the Russians on the sites of their deserted camps north of the fortress. Details of soldiers were sent to collect the cans and bring them to Port Arthur, and in the little Manchurian village of Chokiatun, near General Nogi's headquarters, Colonel Imazawa's artisans unsoldered the cans and made out of the sheets cylindrical cases ten inches long and two in diameter, which, when filled with Shimose powder and provided with various exploding devices, made serviceable and effective grenades. At the suggestion of a member of the Japanese Diet who was watching the siege, I visited with him Colonel Imazawa's workshop and saw there, not only the tin grenades in process of manufacture, but wooden mortars bound with hoops of green bamboo which were used in throwing them into the Russian trenches and forts. A charge of two ounces of common powder, Colonel Imazawa told me, would throw one of these cans a distance of three hundred yards or more, and, as the high explosive contained therein was even more powerful than lyddite, the missile was very destructive, even though its walls were made of nothing heavier than tin.

In the course of the fighting a few days later I saw an intrenchment captured, lost, and recaptured no fewer than four times. It was occupied first by the Russians, was then taken by the Japanese, was recovered by the Russians, and was finally carried by storm and held permanently by the Japanese. When I visited the scene of the action, a short time afterward, I was told by the Japanese officer in command that the men on both sides fought almost wholly with hand grenades, and that his company was driven out, in the second engagement, only because its supply of grenades ran short.

General Kuropatkin predicted seven years ago that grenades and hand-thrown bombs would be extensively used in future wars, and his prediction has already been fulfilled. References to these missiles are scattered all through recent accounts of the fighting in Belgium and France, and Colonel Swinton, the Intelligence Officer of the British General Staff, reported in October last that a German ammunition train consisting of fourteen motor lorries had been completely destroyed by a single hand grenade.

In a later report, dated November 29, the same officer said:

"So far as the use of explosives is concerned, the greatest activity is found in local attacks with hand grenades and short-range howitzers.… The smaller bombs and grenades, thrown by hand, although local in action, are very unpleasant, particularly in the enclosed space of a trench. The grenades are thrown continuously by both sides, and every trench assault is first preceded and then accompanied by showers of these murderous missiles. This kind of fighting is very deadly."

Another innovation, first introduced by the Japanese at Port Arthur, is the improved modern method of dealing with wire entanglements. In my second article on "Modern Warfare" (The Outlook, October 7, 1914) I described the unsuccessful experiments of the Japanese with wire-cutters, mattresses, and sure-death parties. They finally devised the scheme of fastening ropes to the posts of the wire fence at night, and then hauling it into the front parallel. The Allies in France have recently adopted this method, but with a substantial improvement. Instead of having men crawl forward in the darkness to fasten ropes to the posts, they attach grapnels to the ropes and, by means of short-range mortars, throw them over the entanglement. Then they haul it into the trench, just as the Japanese did. The Russians at Port Arthur tried the experiment of sending through one of the wires of the entanglement a high-tension electric current from a dynamo, but, for some reason, it did not succeed. Perhaps the power was insufficient or the insulation defective. Japanese officers with whom I talked told me that they had used the electrically charged wire fence with some success in their war with the wild Formosan aborigines, but that none of their soldiers at Port Arthur had been electrically killed, so far as they knew. High voltage currents are said to have been used in this way by both sides in France, but without noteworthy success. Electricity does not protect a wire fence from attack with ropes and grapnels, and as an agent of destruction it must necessarily be less effective than shrapnel, rifle bullets, and machine guns.

The sapping and mining operations of the combatants in Europe do not differ essentially from those of the Russians and Japanese in Manchuria, except that more subterranean work is done from the front trenches. Each side now attacks the other below the surface of the ground, as well as above it, and in a recent case reported by Colonel Swinton the French drove a tunnel 164 feet long in order to undermine and blow up a German machine gun which could not otherwise be reached. As the opposed trenches in many places are less than 164 feet apart, soldiers who go to sleep at night in the "Hotel Cecil" or the "Billet-Doux Hotel" can never feel sure that they will not be blown into the air before morning by a German tunnel mine.

The strain upon, the nerves in modern trench fighting is probably more severe than it ever has been before in the history of warfare. The modern trench fighter is exposed to attack from the front, from above, and from beneath. "Black Marias" from the big German howitzers tear walls and traverses to pieces, and stun or deafen all whom they do not kill, aeroplanes and Zeppelins drop high explosive bombs from the skies; showers of "murderous" hand grenades are hurled into the trenches by storming parties in night attacks; and a volcanic outburst at the end of a tunnel is liable at any moment to disrupt the ground on which the trench fighter stands or sleeps. In the words of General Kuropatkin, "Only a strong military character has nerves tough enough to endure for days the strain of almost continuous battle under such conditions."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —

THE HEADLONG FURY

A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury
448 FASCINATING PAGES
PURCHASE NOW