The Western Front

The war was fought on three different fronts: the Western Front (France), the Eastern Front (Russia, Poland and East Prussia) and the Southern Front (Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East). Germany’s battle plan—The Schleiffin Plan—called for a surprise strike against France from the north through Belgium and Luxembourg instead of a direct assault across the common Germany-France border—the Rhine River. (Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 21, et. seq.) Germany’s opening offensive that was meant to capture Paris and drive France out of the war was halted less than a 100 miles from the city, and the Western Front, generally in northern France between Paris and the Belgian border, settled into a battle of attrition. The trench line there changed little between 1914 and 1917.

Each side built a complex system of defensive trenches facing each other for 500 miles from the Switzerland-France border to the North Sea (Hakim, Freedom: A History of US, p.251), often with as little as a hundred yards separating the armies. The territory between the trenches was known as “no man’s land.” Trench warfare is best characterized as a defensive, static stalemate with the combatants fighting over the same narrow pieces of land that separated the opposing trenches. The combatants “spen[t] literally millions of lives at Verdun and The Somme for gains or losses measured in yards.” (Tuchman, The March of Folly, p. 26.)

The trench system consisted of a maze of interlocking fortified ditches that served to protect the soldiers from small arms fire and, to some extent, from artillery barrages. Secondary trench systems and supply trenches at the rear supported the front lines. At various places along the trench lines dugouts were built to house the front line troops. The dugouts were sizeable rooms reinforced with sandbags and timber where the soldiers theoretically could try to escape the elements and get some rest. But the reality of the trench system was dead bodies, bloody mud and vermin everywhere. The conditions were miserable, especially during the winters. (A dramatic first-hand description of the miserable life of soldiers who fought in the trenches can be found in Poilu, The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker 1914-1918, Yale University Press, London and New Haven, English translation from the French, 2014.)

One army would attack the other, after devastating artillery bombardments directed toward the enemy, by “going over the top; climbing up the bank of the trench and running across “no man’s land,” trying to avoid the barbed wire strung in front of the other trenches, and, facing machine gun and rifle fire from the opposing side. For those who made it to the other trench line, if the enemy had not retreated to its secondary trenches, it was hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, sharpened spades and fists. Later in the war, chemical weapons, tanks and air raids were introduced into the battles.

Essentially, trench warfare on the Western Front was a stalemate. From the fall of 1914 to the spring of 1918, the line on the Western Front moved less than ten miles in either direction. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 61.) The same ground was fought over, month after month after month. After a while, due to the intensive and continuous bombardments, none of the landscape that had existed before the war remained. Trees were gone. Villages were blasted away. The land was as desolate as a moonscape, with the ever-present mud. It was only until the very last months of the war that the Allied troops were able to break through the German trenches.

One of the places on the Western Front where trench warfare was the most intense and the casualty count was greatest was Ypres, October-November 1914, where there were 155,000 British and French casualties and 134,000 German casualties.

Verdun, an old medieval town in eastern France, 137 miles from Paris, of no great strategic significance was another example of trench warfare at its worst. On February 21, 1916, German forces attacked the town. The French military command decided to take a stand there and assembled a very large force “to defend Gallic pride.” When the battle finally ended in December 1916, 700,000 plus soldiers from both sides lay dead (Jennings and Brewster, p.73).

Passchendaele, also called the Third Battle of Ypres, was another very deadly trench warfare encounter. It happened between July and November 1917, when approximately 244,000 English and 400,000 German soldiers were dead or wounded. (Stout, pp. 2-4.)

But, the worst of all was The Somme, an engagement initiated by the British that lasted from July-November 1916. The British expected to be able to overrun the German positions due to a massive, preparatory artillery barrage that was supposed to either kill the opposing forces or to force them to retreat. The British strategy was a complete failure. They lost more than 22,000 troops on the first day of the attack and another 40,000 were wounded. By the end of the battle, five months later, more than one million were killed or wounded from both sides. During the battle, the British and their allies never advanced more than seven miles from the initial line of combat. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 72.)

July 1,1916 was the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme. Two articles about the Battle from the persepctive of 100 years can be found at…/51556a50-3d56-11e6-84e8-15… . and…/a-century-after-the-battle-of-the-somm….I came across a poem the describes the physical conditions encountered by the troops at the Somme. The poem is The Song of the Mud by Mary Boland. The words are so vivid that the reader actually feels the mud on his skin and experiences the sensation of being buried in it. It is set to music and can be found on You Tube at  Here are the words :

This is the song of the mud,
The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the hills like satin;
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys;
The frothing, squirting, spurting, liquid mud that gurgles along the road beds;
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of the horses;
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone.

This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu.
His coat is of mud, his great dragging flapping coat, that is too big for him and too heavy;
His coat that once was blue and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes to it.
This is the mud that clothes him. His trousers and boots are of mud,
And his skin is of mud;
And there is mud in his beard.
His head is crowned with a helmet of mud.
He wears it well.
He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him.
He has set a new style in clothing;
He has introduced the chic of mud.

This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle.
The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome,
The slimy inveterate nuisance,
That fills the trenches,
That mixes in with the food of the soldiers,
That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts,
That spreads itself over the guns,
That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy voluminous lips,
That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting shells;
And slowly, softly, easily,
Soaks up the fire, the noise; soaks up the energy and the courage;
Soaks up the power of armies;
Soaks up the battle.
Just soaks it up and thus stops it.

This is the hymn of mud-the obscene, the filthy, the putrid,
The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men.
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead.
Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing.
Our fine men, our brave, strong, young men;
Our glowing red, shouting, brawny men.
Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it,
Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence.
Slowly, irresistibly, it drew them down, sucked them down,
And they were drowned in thick, bitter, heaving mud.
Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them!
Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly.
There is not a trace of them.
There is no mark where they went down.
The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.

This is the song of the mud,
The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin;
The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys.
Mud, the disguise of the war zone;
Mud, the mantle of battles;
Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers:
This is the song of the mud.

Evocative musical descriptions of the conditions endured by the soldiers in the trenches can be found in the following songs. Many of these songs can be found on YouTube with slide shows that depict the realities of the war.

“The Bloody Road to the Somme” is sung by At First Light. This is a song about the formation of the Ulster (Northern Irish) Volunteer Force in 1912, the subsequent formation of the 36th Ulster Division and their participation in the Battle of the Somme. (

Hear the measured beat of Ulstermen marching,
Through the green fields and streets of the towns,
Called up to arms by bold Edward Carson,
To stand for the Red Hand and Crown.

These were the seed of mighty CuChulainn,
These were the sons of Congal Claen,
Determined that Gaels and Rome should not rule them,
And England if need be withstand.

Those were the days of Ulster’s defiance,
Those were the days of passion and strife,
Those were the days when England denied us,
And Ulster stood for her life.

The call came for war and the volunteers answered,
The 36th was formed in 1914,
To fight the German Kaiser instead of faithless England,
And maintain their birthright and King.

They marched into hell nearly two years onward,
The first day of July on a bright summer morn,
Aloft against blue skies they bore the Ulster Standard,
Down the Bloody Road to the Somme.

These were the men of Tyrone, Londonderry,
Monaghan and Cavan, Down and Donegal,
The men of Armagh, of Antrim and Fermanagh,
Who walked the Bloody Road to the Somme.

They faced the deadly hail from canons and machine guns,
Through the bursting shells and hell of no-mans-land,
Triumphantly they yelled the cry of “No Surrender,”
And fought the Kaisers troops hand to hand.

Three miles they struck through enemy defenses,
In the greatest charge of that European war,
Like a mighty wave they swarmed the German trenches,
Over fallen dead and barbed wire.

Then they were cut off with no one to support them,
They were mowed down by fire from three sides,
Bravely they fell like leaves in the autumn,
Death reaped the bitter harvest of their lives.

When the battle ceased a young man was heard crying,
Bleeding from a wound were the bullet creased his head,
There amid the maimed the pleading and the dying,
He held the broken body of his friend.

As the red sun set, smoke drifted o’er the trenches,
These bewildered men trudged back along the way,
The carnage it was great, the slaughter it was senseless,
Five thousand Ulster Sons fell that day.

Here was a time of mourning and of sorrow,
All along the line they gathered up their dead,
Here was a time of yearning for the morrow,
Here was a time when Ulster bled.

The land was filled with grief when news broke of the slaughter,
Thick like black heavy clouds, it hung o’er Crough nays brow,
The telegrams they came to mothers, wives, and daughters,
And like warm falling rain the tears poured down.

We count the bloody cost they paid for Ulster’s freedom,
We cherish memories of those who died so young,
With passing of the years we will not forget them,
Who walked the Bloody Road to the Somme.

As long as earth revolves upon its axis turning,
And day sleeps in the dark and wakens with the dawn,
As long as sun goes down and rises in the morning,
We will remember the Somme.
We will remember the Somme.
Yes, we will remember the Somme.

“Hanging in the Old Barbed Wire” is sung by Chumbawamba, written by Nigel Hunter and Bruce Dunstan; it is a cynical, satirical comment on the role of the common soldier who had to go “over the top.” (

If you want to find the general
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the general
I know where he is
He’s pinning another medal on his chest
I saw him, I saw him
Pinning another medal on his chest
Pinning another medal on his chest
If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
He’s sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
I saw him, I saw him
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
He’s drinking all the company rum
I saw him, I saw him
Drinking all the company rum
Drinking all the company rum
If you want to find the private
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the private
I know where he is
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire
I saw him, I saw him
Hanging on the old barbed wire
Hanging on the old barbed wire

“Trench Blues” was written and sung by John (“Big Nig”) Bray. “Trench Blues” is an unusually detailed and coherent tale of overseas service by a Black man in World War I. It could well be semi-autobiographical, as John Bray served in France during the war. The Army was segregated then. Blacks were not permitted to serve in the front lines. They only provided support services. Bray said, “They didn’t give me a gun. All the weapons I ever had was my guitar, a shovel, and a mop.”

I went a sailin’, cross the deep blue sea
Lord I was worryin’ with those submarines
Worryin’ with those submarines
Hey, hey hey hey

My home in the trenches, livin’ in a big dugout
Lord my home in the trenches livin’ in a big dugout
Home in the trenches livin’ in a big dugout
Hey, hey hey hey

We went a hikin’, to the firin’ line
Lord I was standin’ hearin’ mens a cryin’
Standin’ hearin’ mens a cryin’
Hey, hey hey hey

We went a hikin’, to old [Montsac ?] Hill
Lord forty thousand soldiers called out to drill
Forty thousand soldiers called out to drill
Hey, hey hey hey

I went to Belgium, blowed my bugle horn
Lord, time I blowed, motherless Germans is gone
Time I blowed, motherless Germans is gone
Hey, hey hey hey

We went to Berlin, went with all our will
Lord if the whites don’t get him the niggers certainly will
White ‘uns don’t get him the niggers certainly will
Hey, hey hey hey

Last old word, heard old Kaiser say
Lord he was callin’ those Germans long way long away
Callin’ those Germans long way long away
Hey, hey hey hey

Here she come, with her hair let down
Lord here she come with her hair let down
Here she come with her hair let down
Hey, hey hey hey

The Belgian women: “No, I no comprend”
Lord women in France hollerin’ “No comprend”
Women in France hollerin’ “No comprend”
Hey, hey hey hey

Rainin’ here, stormin’ on the sea
Lord rainin’ here stormin’ on the sea
Rainin’ here stormin’ on the sea
Hey, hey hey hey

Whistle’s blowin’, big bell sadly tones
Lord many a soldier, Lord, is dead and gone
Many a soldier, Lord, is dead and gone
Hey, hey hey hey

Called him in the mornin’, chased him in the night
Lord hit ‘im in the head, make him treat the Americans right
Hit ‘im in the head make him treat the Americans right
Hey, hey hey hey

“Passchendaele, sung by Iron Maiden, written by Stephen Percy Harris and Adrian Frederick Smith (2003), graphically tells the story of the battle referenced above. (

In a foreign field he lay
Lonely soldier, unknown grave
On his dying words he prays
Tell the world of Passchendaele

Relive all that he’s been through
Last communion of his soul
Rust your bullets with his tears
Let me tell you ’bout his years

Laying low in a blood filled trench
Kill Tim ’til my very own death
On my face I can feel the falling rain
Never see my friends again

In the smoke, in the mud and lead
Smell the fear and the feeling of dread
Soon be time to go over the wall
Rapid fire and the end of us all

Whistles, shouts and more gun fire
Lifeless bodies hang on barbed wire
Battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb
Be reunited with my dead friends soon

Many soldiers eighteen years
Drown in mud, no more tears
Surely a war no one can win
Killing time about to begin

Home, far away
From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away
But the war, no chance to live again

The bodies of ours and our foes
The sea of death it overflows
In no man’s land, God only knows
Into jaws of death we go

Crucified as if on a cross
Allied troops they mourn their loss
German war propaganda machine
Such before has never been seen

Swear I heard the angels cry
Pray to god no more may die
So that people know the truth
Tell the tale of Passchendaele

Cruelty has a human heart
Every man does play his part
Terror of the men we kill
The human heart is hungry still

I stand my ground for the very last time
Gun is ready as I stand in line
Nervous wait for the whistle to blow
Rush of blood and over we go

Blood is falling like the rain
Its crimson cloak unveils again
The sound of guns can’t hide their shame
And so we die on Passchendaele

Dodging shrapnel and barbed wire
Running straight at the cannon fire
Running blind as I hold my breath
Say a prayer symphony of death

As we charge the enemy lines
A burst of fire and we go down
I choke a cry but no-one hears
Fell the blood go down my throat

Home, far away
From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away
But the war, no chance to live again

See my spirit on the wind
Across the lines, beyond the hill
Friend and foe will meet again
Those who died at Passchendaele

“On The Road to Passchendaele,sung by Alan G. Brydon and Major RTD Gavin Stoddart MBE BEM, written by Alan G. Brydon, mourns the loss of life that occurred at Passchendaele. (

There’s a light that shines in Flanders
As a beacon for the brave
From the distant past it wanders
To recall the lives they gave
And it tells each generation
To be wise and never fail
On the road to Passchendaele

On the road to Passchendaele
On the road to Passchendaele
Where the brave will live forever
On the road to Passchendaele

Come with me and I will show you
Why all wars should ever cease
Take a walk among the gravestones
And your tears will cry for peace
For their spirits walk in Flanders
You can hear the grieving wail
For the brave who laid their lives down
On the road to Passchendaele

On the road to Passchendaele
On the road to Passchendaele
Where the brave will live forever
On the road to Passchendaele

“No Man’s Land (The Green Fields of France),was written and sung by Eric Bogle (1976). As reflected in the first verse, Bogle was motivated to write this song when he visited a World War I graveyard in Europe. The reference to red poppies comes from John McCrae’s famous World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields”, which is quoted below. The red poppy has become a national symbol in England representing the dead of the war. (

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.

And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?


Did they beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fir o’er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you always 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?


The sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.


And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.


“All Quiet on the Western Front, sung by Elton John; written by Elton John/Bernie Taupin (1982). Note that All Quiet on the Western Front is also the title of a novel written about World War I by Erich Maria Remarque. “All Quiet on the Western Front” the book is a realistic depiction of trench warfare from the perspective of young soldiers who have been induced to go to war by patriotic propaganda. It is “one of the most widely read and well known novels to emerge from the First World War….” (

All quiet on the western front, nobody saw
A youth asleep in the foreign soil, planted by the war
Feel the pulse of human blood pouring forth
See the stems of Europe bend under force

All quiet
All quiet
All quiet on the western front

So tired of this garden’s grief, nobody cares
Old kin kiss the small white cross, their only souvenir
See the Prussian offense fly, weren’t we grand
To place the feel of cold sharp steel in their hands

It’s gone all quiet on the western front, male angels sigh
Ghosts float in a flooded trench as Germany dies
Fever reaps the flowers of France, fair-haired boys
String the harps to victory’s voice, joyous noise

The Butcher’s Tale – Western Front 1914,” sung by The Zombies; written by Chris White (1968). This song contrasts the emotions of a soldier on the front with the patriotic enthusiasm of those at home who are not forced to experience the horrors of actual combat. (

A butcher, yes that was my trade
But a king’s schilling is now my fee
But a butcher I guess I should have stayed
For the slaughter that I see

And the preacher in his pulpit
Says “go and fight, do what is right”
But the preacher doesn’t hear these guns
So I guess he sleeps at night

And aye, my mind keeps on shaking
My eye keeps on shaking
My heart keeps on shaking
My hand keeps on shaking
My arms keep on shaking
I want to go home
Please let me go home
Go home

I have seen a friend of mine
hang on a wire like some rag doll
And in the heat the flies come down
and cover up the boy

And the heat comes down in Dunpresskeep
in Richburgdon and Governor’s Bluff
If the priest he could go and see the flies
Wouldn’t pray for the sound of guns

And aye, my mind can’t stop shaking
My hands can’t stop shaking
My eye can’t stop shaking
My heart can’t stop shaking
I want to go home
Please let me go home
Go home.