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The First World War in the West was for 4 years restricted to trench warfare. Gaining enemy territory cost many human lives for both sides. The main (or maybe most spectacular) battles were Verdun and Somme (both 1916) which led (sources vary) to a combined loss of 2 million men.

The war was won by the Entente because of many factors, but the most important seem to be the USA joining on her side and the bad economic conditions of Central Powers. New weapons should also not be forgotten: planes and tanks.

The national catastrophe made France to adopt a defensive strategy (Maginot Line, "phoney war"). Although tanks had been first used in a battle in 1917, they did not play the main role in Entente's victory; they however did in 1940 during the German conquest of France, and later they became the main land force on flat terrain.

World War 2 battles lacked trench warfare (some exceptions are given on Wikipedia page). It was present in fortified islands on the Pacific (where terrain prevented mass use of tanks). In later conflicts it was also infrequent.

I think that the development of air forces is another form of artillery, the only reason I can think of are the tanks. A tank is a major step in a firepower-armour race, and also provides mobility to attacking forces (Blitzkrieg as the top example).

Were tanks the only reason for the ending of trench warfare or are there any other factors?

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    The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) involved lots of trench warfare. The 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war also involved lots of trench warfare. Iraq tried to use trench warfare in 1991 to defend its 1990 conquest of Kuwait, and failed spectacularly. – Jasper May 9 '15 at 17:05
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    Hm. What makes you think that "trench" warfare was abandoned at all? IIRC, there were quite many trenches dug and fortifications built during WWII -- in addition to what that WP page cited, let's just add Moscow, El Alamein, Tobruk. Prepared defenses still bolster your chances at holding a position. It just ceased to be that effective. – DevSolar May 11 '15 at 10:06
  • @DevSolar nothing makes me think it was abandoned, it makes me think why it didn't happen again on such scale as 1914-18. I know tanks are one reason, and I'm looking for other reasons. – Voitcus May 11 '15 at 11:04

10 Answers 10

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Yet another concurring (tanks were important, but not the only reason), but different, answer.

  1. Already at the end of WWI, the tactics for trench assault had improved. Instead of just swarming enemy trenches with infantry, weak points were exploited and strongholds bypassed.

    The role and nature of artillery support also changed. The barrages that lasted days caused many enemy casualties, but were only relatively effective against the enemy defenses, gave time for the enemy to bring in reinforcements to prevent a breakthrough, and destroyed the terrain to a point that made movement quite difficult.

    Instead of that, closer coordination was attempted, with shorter creeping barrages that only attempted to suppress enemy defenses (by keeping the troops in the shelter) while the infantry was crossing no man's land.

    Additionally, platoons were introduced. The development of light MGs gave them additional firepower, and allowed for better flexibility (which was needed since battles no longer were lines of regiments shooting at each other, and officers had difficulty knowing what was happening to their units).

    All of the above does not mean that trenches were just obsolete. Despite those tactics, an assault was still a risky and costly operation. The difference was that it was more likely that a successful assault could progress far enough to become an strategically victory (forcing the enemy to leave the rest of his positions because the risks of envelopment).

  2. Aviation is not only another form of artillery. Not for the reconaissance factor, but because of its speed of deployment. Usually at WWI, before an offensive you would spend days or weeks creating gun emplacements, and moving heavy artillery pieces and its ammunition to the selected locations. While that happened, the enemy would be improving his fortifications, and there was a high risk of him detecting the deployment. And after that, when your armies would begin advancing, the artillery would remain behind, leaving your infantry without support or counter-battery fire.

    By contrast, by WWII the Germans were already using combined arms. Luftwaffe observers would be embedded in army formations; when an obstacle that could not be directly assaulted Stuka's would be directed at the moment against it. You could use the bulk of your aviation at one location at the morning, and in another point a couple of hundreds of kilometers at the afternoon.

    Also, a bomber plane can move 100 or 200 km deep in enemy territory, blow away a bridge or a marshalling yard, and stop (or at least delay considerably) reinforcements and supplies going to the battlefield. No artillery piece could do that at the time of WWII (V-1s and V-2s were initially attempts at that, but were not precise enough).

    Of course, better tractors for towed artillery were also available, and self propelled artillery was also developed (although, IIRC, at the initial stages of WWII it was not very common).

And finally, I would like to remember that even the blitzkrieg did not mean the end of trenches. Troops kept dugging in manholes and pits to lay inside, and, when the front was stable enough, positions were fortified. There was still a deffensive advantage in doing that, because it still meant more casualties and delays to the assaulting troops. They went from being an almost unpassable obstacle to be just another factor in the planning of the battle.

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    Radio communications enabled much better co-ordination. – pugsville May 11 '15 at 4:33
  • I've decided to accept your answer, as the best one, but others also made a good job, thank you all. The initial success of the Spring Offensive (1918) which was mentioned by you only, seems to be the best support for your words. – Voitcus May 12 '15 at 10:16
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No, tanks are not, evolving strategy for using new technology was.

A quick look at the Principles of War as espoused in many military doctrines over time and across the globe (and usually posited as timeless) shows a focus on how to achieve a goal. A few key points among these lists are maneuver and initiative.

In other words, warfare is about getting something you couldn't get using other means (to paraphrase Clausewitz). You must take offensive action to do so. No one wanted trench warfare or even imagined it in WW I. It just kind of evolved as an organic response to the incredible destructiveness of industrial warfare combined with the slow (foot and horse drawn) means of maneuver available to armies. It was not planned and was defensive in nature. Simply put, it wasn't going to accomplish any goals. No one has been stalemated into surrendering that I know of.

As military leaders wrapped their minds around the complexities of industrial warfare they were able to develop methods of maintaining the initiative and ensuring they could maneuver.

Mechanization, improved use of artillery, better communications, ground attack aircraft and improved battlefield intelligence all contributed but it was the way they were used, not the individual pieces of equipment that made trench warfare, an inherently non-agile defensive technique, less useful. The Allied fight through the hedgerows after D-Day which was close to maneuver vs. trench warfare showed that even with excellent equipment and good troops, a deliberate defense can slow but not stop formations configured for maneuver warfare.

Its the strategy not the technology that drives change is what I guess Im trying to say.

  • Hi, welcome to the site! I like your answer. – Voitcus May 8 '15 at 20:15
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Tanks were an important factor but not the only one. Among other factors are:

Increased mobility (automobile transport, self-propelled artillery). This made possible large encirclement operations which were so common in WWII. The front can be broken in weak points and entrenched troops can be cut off.

Second. Aviation is not just "another kind of artillery", as you say. It is a new extremely powerful tool of reconnaissance. You see everything from an airplane, and can hit much more accurately, from an airplane or with artillery. In the modern times we have also reconnaissance drones which can aim artillery very accurately.

Third. Artillery became much more powerful. New types came into use. I mean the unguided rocket systems which did not exist in WWI. They were used in WWII on a mass scale by all sides. These systems permit to destroy everything on a substantial area. To achieve such goal with ordinary artillery you need too many guns. For example, with Soviet BM-13 system, 4 trucks could deliver 4 tons of high explosives in 10 seconds. A 152 mm howitzer has a shell weighting 40 kg and the rate of fire 3-4 rounds/min. According to Wikipedia, 4 trucks of BM-13 are equivalent to 72 guns. Analogous systems were used by the US in the Pacific, and they achieved goals which is impossible to achieve with ordinary artillery.

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    Thank you for your answer, but I can't agree all. Stronger artillery is not a matter - on Somme bombardment lasted 2 days and 1 million shells were fired. It did not help much, as Germans were in trenches. Also, your example about reconnaissance role of planes to guide artillery is confirming that this is "a kind of artillery"... (although I was thinking about something like dive bombers). WW2 didn't use much heavier artillery. I think rockets (like in Katyushas) were not decisive. Also, increased mobility is not a reason, but an effect, in my opinion. – Voitcus May 8 '15 at 6:12
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    @Voitcus: Increasing mobility is a result of saturation of the troops with trucks, personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery. On the multiple rocket launchers I added a little to my answer. They played very important role in most offensives against entrenched troops in WWII. The weight of delivered explosives per dollar for them is incomparable with ordinary artillery. – Alex May 8 '15 at 12:25
  • @Alex: "Saturation"? Somehow I doubt that summons the correct picture in people's minds. Less than half of the German forces were motorized. Only Panzergrenadier divisions had personnel carriers. Germany didn't produce self-propelled artillery until 1942. Assault guns (the infamous "StuG III" and its descendents) didn't go into mass production until after the Battle of France. So yes, they were a factor, but the armies were far from "saturated" with them. – DevSolar May 11 '15 at 11:28
  • @DevSolar: yes "saturation" does not apply to the German forces in WWII (but applies to American forces, I guess). Still there was a qualitative difference in comparison with WWI – Alex May 11 '15 at 18:40
  • @Alex: Agreed. It's just that I have come across so much hearsay-gone-canon especially with regards to WWII that it's not even funny anymore, so I thought I'd pipe up. ;-) – DevSolar May 12 '15 at 7:15
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I agree with Alex, I would add up a big point, I wanted to comment it, but it became bigger.

Appearance of mass parachute also made trech warfare useless. In the time when the enemy could cross only through the sea and trenches they didn't expect double front battle from trenches, but when it was possible to parachute troops beyond the trenches there were two effects:

  • support lines were in constant danger, imagine if you have to fight in the trenches, knowing if you get injured the hospital and medical sights are in the hands of enemy, also they can catch and rob convoys with ammunition, food, and all sorts of supplementary products.
  • constant danger to get attacked from the back, which at first doesn't sound that bad, but consider all the defense systems were designed to repel attack from the front, not the back, also when you would need to retreat and re-fortify, you have no place to go.

Altogether with increased precision of artillery and bombing the dynamic fronts got favoured, and I would point out that France tried to reproduce the WW1 situation and prepare with heavily fortified trenches and defense line namely Maginot line, we all know what happened to it in the WW2. The Germans had two plans to go around and use Blitzkrieg tactics to break through the less defended territories.

The answer to the question: Tanks were very important factor to abandon the trench warfare, but there were more factors, they all sum up.

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    It is not so simple with parachutes. Germans stopped using them after invasion of Crete, because of the high losses. The Soviets had the largest airborne troops in the world in 1941 (larger than all the rest combined!). And they never used them as airborne troops. They converted them to infantry. – Alex May 8 '15 at 12:32
  • @Alex Russian paratroopers were used a few times as such (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…). Anyway they soon learned the general leson: they worked in well prepared plans against very specific targets (Overlord for the Allies, Norway and Netherland for Germany) but were not to be rushed without careful planning because, if things did not go as planned, they were too lightly equiped to resist the enemy (Crete, Market Garden). They were good for the breakthrough phase of the blitzkrieg but not for explotation. – SJuan76 May 8 '15 at 19:44
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Re. Blitzkrieg: this is History Channel nonsense. Read the German Army's own analysis, "Legend Of Blitzkrieg" - http://www.usni.org/store/books/history/blitzkrieg-legend - which would probably have been called MYTH of Blitzkrieg, but the title was already taken. The rapid fall of France was due not to firepower concentration and mobility but to several low probability accidents (and failures of French command) that made rapid advances possible. Without these the German campaign would have been a disaster; none of these mistakes were the products of German actions; and the key German successes - notably those of securing vital river crossings - were simply the product of putting first rate troops who had practiced for the operation against third raters who had not.

In fact, all of the answers above are wrong. (Especially the one citing parachutists..)

The real reason for lack of prolonged stalemate in WW2 was radio. In WW1 troops repeatedly broke through the first layer of enemy defenses but were then subjected to accurate enemy artillery while being unable to reply - field telephone wires for fire control were available but hard to deploy and very unreliable. Artillery does most of the killing, so breakthroughs were easy to contain - you shelled and machine gunned the breakthrough point and the men trying to get supplies to it, and there was little they could do in reply.

When you get field radios, this changes. The side that has prepared to go on the offensive and concentrated its artillery can continue to possess the artillery advantage and push on through the next layer of defenses. This stuff doesn't make for interesting TV, so it gets neglected, but artillery is the main killer in modern war.

In short, making a breakthrough is about concentrating firepower until you are through enemy defenses, and in WW1 the lack of radio meant that defenses could be deeper than the effective reach of artillery. Because effective artillery fire requires fire control.

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Toward the end of the war, both sides (but more to the German side) were finding that defense in depth gave them the best option to reserve man power. Rather than a static line of defense, it used a mixture of strong points and pretargeted artillery killing fields. Let the other side attack, defense takes losses and pulls back to the next defensive strong points being covered and allow the attacking side to exhaust its offensive man power. Defense counter attacks and regains its losses.

I think the single largest deterrent was the blood bath of trench warfare was still fresh in the minds of most of the more senior officers on both sides. Germany knew it would not win a war of attrition so kept its troops moving. Britain and France were not keen on the idea of another war of attrition.

When all is said and done though, with the advent of accurate and more deadly weapons across the war fighting spectrum, movement was the key to survival.

  • I generally agree, but in 1914 Germans also wished to keep moving, but they failed. But I can see a good point here: they did not use tanks in spring 1918, but were able to advance quite a lot. – Voitcus May 8 '15 at 20:13
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Germany Invented the "Storm Trooper" This is the reason that trench warfare ended in 1918. They were desperate for a new tactic and left the trenches behind. Storm Troopers were poised on critical offensive goals that would have detrimental effect on enemy positions. Therefore abandoning the defensive trench strategy. It had nothing directly related to tanks. At least not the beginning of the end to trench warfare.

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Germany Invented the "Storm Trooper" This is the reason that trench warfare ended in 1918.

This is complete nonsense. The Stormtroopers were not effective (hint: the Germans LOST the war!) What happened was that (see my previous answer) the Germans stopped trying to make holes in the enemy lines through which logistics could pass and instead had the breakthrough troops push on.

The problem with this is obvious: without decent logistics, the troops wondered around behind enemy lines unable to do much. Long before they reached their target, Amiens, the troops were eating the horses that were supposed to be hauling the few supplies they had. And when they entered Albert the starving troops lost all discipline, abandoned the mission, and looted food stores. As a result the Germans threw away almost a quarter of million of their very best troops and Ludendorf at least wobbled on the edge of a nervous breakdown:

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/german_spring_offensive_of_1918.htm

...Some "success"!

..To make advances, you have to have to makes holes in enemy lines which apply you to push LOGISTICS on to support advancing forces. Like artillery, logistics are boring and don't get much time on TV, so armchair generals neglect them. But they're something like 80% of success in conventional war.

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    These should be comments and not posted as answers. You will be able to comment once you gain a rep of 50. – Rajib May 10 '15 at 18:59
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This definition of "Blitzkrieg" explains the reason for the abandonment of trench warfare.

"Blitzkrieg is a German term describing a method of warfare whereby an attacking force spearheaded by a dense concentration of armoured and motorized or mechanized infantry formations, and heavily backed up by close air support, forces a breakthrough into the enemy's line of defense through a series of short, fast, powerful attacks; and once in the enemy's territory, proceeds to dislocate them using speed and surprise, and then encircle them. Through the employment of combined arms in maneuver warfare, the blitzkrieg attempts to unbalance the enemy by making it difficult for them to respond effectively to the continuously changing front, and defeat them through a decisive Vernichtungsschlacht (battle of annihilation)".

Then the use of "Blitzkrieg" tactic with a large number of fast tanks, sign the start of the end of the trench warfare.

The introduction of "Blitzkrieg" does not mean only the use of tanks and airplanes. This means the use of detailed information of enemy territory, so the precise knowledge of the objectives. This has made it useless to defend a border with a trench.

In a nutshell, it was introduced as a new system of war, which involved the use of tanks, airplanes and intelligence, but also the use of fewer human lives, the use of fewer resources more efficiently.

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    so is your answer yes or no? – CsBalazsHungary May 8 '15 at 7:30
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    Thank you, but this answer confirms the role of tanks, which I know, but this does not explain whether tanks are the only reason to abandon trenches on such scale as in ww1. – Voitcus May 8 '15 at 7:45
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    sorry for awful english – FlakBB May 8 '15 at 11:22
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    Why "Blitzkrieg is an anglicised term"? This is German word. – Alex May 8 '15 at 12:36
  • Wrong copy and paste, sorry ;) – FlakBB May 8 '15 at 12:53
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When all is said and done though, with the advent of accurate and more deadly weapons across the war fighting spectrum, movement was the key to survival.

Also completely wrong. Throughout WW2 well dug-in defending troops had a large advantage over mobile ones - something like a 3 to 1 firepower advantage was required for attacks to succeed. Fixed defenses remained vastly robust against attack. Its notable that one of Guderian's fiercest criticisms of Hitler was for his failure to build fixed defenses in the East - and Guderian was Mr Attack.

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    These should be comments and not posted as answers. You will be able to comment once you gain a rep of 50. – Rajib May 10 '15 at 18:58

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